Godzilla’s New Stomping Ground

Looking hardly a day over 60 million years old, Godzilla turned 60 this year, brought back to life as Hollywood resuscitated the slumbering giant monster and turned what had been and is a Japanese icon into an American smash hit of global proportions.

The new Godzilla franchise reboot set a record, earning $196 million in its first weekend when it opened in May, putting it on track to becoming one of the highest grossing movies of the summer if not all time.

The new movie was produced by Legendary Pictures in partnership with Warner Brothers and on license from Toho Productions, the Japanese studio that invented Godzilla in 1954 and produced another 27 movies featuring the stomping giant until retiring from active production in 2004.

Toho’s 50-year production history makes Godzilla the longest running franchise in film history, and, given the success of the American sequel in rejuvenating a tired brand, it may be on track for another 50-year run.

Yet it is not the first American version. Tri-Star State Pictures produced its own Godzilla in 1998, but it failed to catch on. It was so poorly received that it may have damaged the brand, as no other follow up was attempted until this year’s version, 16 years later.

While the Big Lizard circa 2014 has a storyline of its own, it is faithful to many of the familiar Godzilla tropes. It (Godzilla is neither male or female) is born out of and sustained by nuclear radiation, in this case a Japanese nuclear power plant; it stomps through cities smashing buildings right and left (Las Vegas) and culminates in a battle with another monster, Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).

When Toho Productions released its first Godzilla in 1954 (the name is an English version of the Japanese Gojira linking the words for gorilla and whale), it did not know it would be producing one of the most instantly and universally recognized icons of Japanese culture. Nor did they know that they would be making a long-standing series.

“We had no plans for a sequel in 1954,”recalled the late Ishiro Honda, Godzilla’s initial director in an interview before he died. Indeed, the monster is killed off in the first movie. (never an obstacle to reviving the him in subsequent productions). Toho Productions soon changed its mind, and the second film, Godzilla the Fire Monster was made and released the next year.

Initial reviews of Godzilla were cool. Some dismissed it as “junk.” Yet, the original has now come to be ranked as one of the 20 best Japanese movies of all time, up there with Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, coincidentally, was released the same year. In 2004 Godzilla achieved the ultimate accolade when his name was placed on a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

The plot of the original Godzilla was inspired by a headline event in the spring of 1954. A Japanese fisherman whose boat, the Lucky Dragon 5, was hit by radioactive fallout from an American H-bomb test over the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, died of leukemia. By autumn Gojira was trading on the audiences’ twin fears of prehistoric carnivores and modern nuclear arms, it being only nine years removed from the Hiroshima bombings.

Ever since, nuclear radiation has played some role in subsequent movies. Indeed, it was one condition of Toho’s granting a license that it somehow involve nuclear radiation, which is why the revived Godzilla is born in a Japanese nuclear power plant.

Though never a “message” movie, per se, the Godzilla series has been attuned to the pulse of the Japanese. In Godzilla versus King Ghidora (1991) the rampaging reptile turned his attention to ostentatious displays of wealth in the Bubble Economy era by obliterating the new 60-story Tokyo city hall, usually accompanied by cheers from the audience,

The monster has actually grown in height as Tokyo’s skyline has risen. In the first movie, he was about 50 meters tall. That was roughly the height of the highest Ginza building at the time the film was made. He has gradually grown to nearly 100 meters in height as more high-rise buildings dotted Tokyo’s skyline, and the new American version makes him, at a little over 100 meters, the tallest in the series.

Although many people assume that Godzilla, the name and figure, are in the public domain, the fact is that Toho is just as aggressive in defending its copyright and trademarks as Disney is in protecting Mickey Mouse. Anyone thinking to add the suffix “zilla” to a product name can expect to receive a cease and desist letter from Toho’s Los Angeles-based law firm, Greenberg Gluskar,

Just this week a New Orleans brewery agreed to change the name of one of its new beers from Mechahopzilla by the end of the year after it was sued by these same attorneys acting for Toho. The studio had sued the New Orleans-based Lager & Ale Brewing Company, claiming the name and logo were copycats of Godzilla’s monster opponent of that name. Mechahopzilla figures in some Godzilla movies.

The litigation has kept Godzilla’s brand thriving and has helped pave the way for extremely lucrative commercial and merchandising tie-ins that accompany the monster’s return to the big screen. Japan itself is dotted with numerous Godzilla-themed products from jigsaw puzzles to T-shirts. Godzilla’s image is for sale, but you have to pay for it.

Godzilla has been released in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. But curiously, Japanese will have to wait more than a month to see their favorite monster in the theater, as it isn’t scheduled to hit the big screens in Japan until July 25.