In Ishiro Honda’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), one of our interchangeable human characters watches a game show in which two young boys can meet any celebrity they choose. The boys want to meet Mothra, a benevolent and giant larval moth kaiju revered by a small society of native islanders, introduced in Honda’s Mothra (1961) and again in Mothra vs. Godzilla, released earlier the same year as Ghidorah. Living up to their side of the bargain, the game show hosts call upon the assistance of the Peanuts—fairy-like tiny twin women whose choral songs wake Mothra from her hibernation—to sing for the monster’s presence at the studio. Mothra shows up, somehow. All of this is captured on prime time television.
Waving away the image of grinning pre-pubescents nervously approaching a gargantuan centipedal demigod, the aforementioned character scoffs, “Not my cup of tea.” A man witnesses miracles on his television, and gets bored. After four films set in Toho Studios’ Godzilla MonsterVerse—in which Eastern Asia must cope with the catastrophic likes of not only two previous Godzilla attacks, but the carnage associated with King Kong (Honda’s 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla) and spiky-shelled Anguirus (introduced in the first Godzilla sequel, Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 Godzilla Raids Again) making it to the Japanese mainland—Honda seems to think that people can get used to anything.
Go back to Godzilla, Ishiro Honda’s first film in the franchise from 1954, before the monster is even glimpsed off the shore of the island of Odo. A local fisherman tells reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai) about the play they’re watching, describing it as the last remaining vestige of the ancient “exorcism” his people once practiced, sacrificing a young girl to the calamitous sea creature to satiate its hunger and cajole it into leaving some fish for the people to enjoy, at least until the next sacrifice. Honda’s smash hit—the first of its kind in Japan, the most expensive movie ever made in the country at the time, not even a decade after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is, 30-something sequels over three times as many years, a surprisingly elegiac exorcism of its own. As J Hoberman describes in his essay for the film’s first Criterion release, much of Honda’s disaster imagery is “coded in naturalism,” a verite-like glimpse of the harrowing destruction wrought by the beast but indistinguishable from the aftermath of the Americans’ attacks in 1945, especially when the U.S. and Russia, among other powers, were still testing H-bombs in the Pacific in the early 1950s, bathing the Japanese in even more radiation than that in which they’d already been saturated.
And yet, Godzilla is a sci-fi flick, replete with a “mad” scientist in an eye patch and a human in a rubber dinosaur suit flipping over model bridges. That Honda handles such goofiness with an unrelentingly poetic hand, purging his nation’s psychological grief in broadly intimate volleys, is nothing short of astounding. Shots of Godzilla trudging through thick smoke, spotlights highlighting his gaping maw as the Japanese military’s weapons do nothing but shock the dark with beautiful chiaroscuro, have been rarely matched in films of its ilk (and in the director’s own legion of sequels); Honda saw gods and monsters and, with the world entering a new age of technological doom, found no difference between the two.
Ironic, perhaps, considering that Toho was such an influential studio during World War II, churning out heroic potboilers and adventure stories with overt through lines of imperialist propaganda. But Honda, who’d up to that point worked on post-war elegies with Akira Kurosawa and various war movie epics with special effects icon Eiji Tsuburaya (who’d go on to solidify the kaiju aesthetic of practical effects and small-scale city models), doesn’t seem to inveigh against the nationalism which dragged his country into a conflict that ultimately left them under foreign control, devastated by atomic weapons. Instead, he and co-writer Takeo Murata attempt a fantastical glimpse of a nation united by tragedy and used to trauma, abandoned by other countries to fight a giant monster—conjured, if not created, by the world-shaking weapons of all these outsiders—completely alone. The 15 Godzilla films released by Toho during the Showa Era (1926-1989) all similarly present the Japanese in a vacuum of self-determination: The fate of the world is on them, and only them, against an unending cosmos of Lovecraftian organisms, invading space aliens and vast ecological death.
In seemingly no time—though in reality almost a decade—the Godzilla franchise began to more explicitly target young audiences, especially care of Jun Fukuda’s lighter touch and zippier human drama, but the symbolism with which Honda first wrestled sustained. His King Kong vs. Godzilla transmogrified the tone of the first two Japanese Godzillas into technicolor popcorn entertainment, leaning a bit more into the B-movie expectations international audiences had saddled on the franchise while never abandoning Honda’s concerns about industrialization, how Japan’s emergence from its post-war slump coincided with a much more constant and undeniable environmental threat. Even as Godzilla gradually evolved into a force of good, a warrior for Mother Earth as Hollywood’s latest string of Godzilla movies establishes, the franchise never lost hold of the theme at its heart, the promise that human beings are the architects of our own destruction.
Yoshimitsu Banno’s only Godzilla entry, the wonderfully weird Godzilla vs. Hedorah from 1971, not only splits the Showa Era into two halves—between Honda’s work and a string of much more comedic Jun Fukuda joints—but manifests Honda’s existential anxiety into a literal Pollution Monster. The chunky blob (sometimes bipedal, sometimes a kind of exhaust-fueled flying arthropod) feeds off of smog and devours people whole with its sludge, able to break apart and reconfigure, a shapeless, viral force of destruction. Juxtaposing psychedelic music and cartoons with grim tableaux of corpses and (real shots of) toxic waste, Hedorah is at odds with its own franchise as much as it’s of a piece of the franchise’s pervasive distress at the way in which we treat our world.
Honda’s final Godzilla film before a substantial hiatus from the monster’s many travails, 1969’s All Monsters Attack, may be the first truly kids-centered Godzilla film, but in telling the story of a bullied boy named Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki), Honda is patient with context: The boys parents are barely around because they’re working all the time—exigencies of Japan’s industrialization—while Ichiro wanders through scrap metal wastelands, dreaming of Godzilla and all his kaiju friends (movie characters in Ichiro’s universe as well) dealing with the same problems he must endure. Ichiro literally goes to sleep to materialize on Monster Island (the haven set aside for the world’s growing cadre of kaiju in Honda’s Destroy All Monsters, a battle royale Toho attempted in 1968 to inject some box office energy into the flagging franchise) where he befriends Godzilla’s son Minilla—titular star of Jun Fukuda’s Son of Godzilla (1964)—who can talk and knows a thing or two about absentee parents. While Ichiro navigates an IRL kidnapping plot, Minilla must overcome his own meanie, Gabara, a furry orc behemoth thing.
With shrinking budgets—and the expectation to crank out one of these puppies per year—came compromises that’d become part of the fabric of the franchise itself: recycled footage from previous entries, stock scores and rubber monster suits literally falling apart on camera. Honda pulled liberally from Son of Godzilla for All Monsters Attack; Fukuda from Banno (and from his own Godzilla vs. Gigan) for Godzilla vs. Megalon; Honda again from Fukuda for Terror of Mechagodzilla, his final film as director and the definitive end to Godzilla’s Showa Era in 1975. With Terror, Honda hoped to reorient the franchise back towards adults, though Fukuda seemed to not balk at Banno’s grotesqueries by helming the first Godzilla movie (1972’s Gigan) to inflict blood-spurting battle wounds on our monsters. Maybe it was the buzzsaw protruding from chicken kaiju Gigan’s chest; maybe it was a puerile appeal to an audience of increasingly jaded children expecting something meatier with the easily available glut of kaiju-adjacent content. Like most pop culture aimed at kids, many of the Showa-Era Godzilla films balance complex themes with unencumbered plot, both under- and overestimating its demographic’s intelligence.
Still, in Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and Honda’s direct sequel, aliens are drawn to Earth by the promise of humans’ lack of environmental stewardship, their invasion justified by the intent to “save” the Earth from its inhabitants, who have otherwise shat the bed when it comes to taking care of their home. Godzilla, then, is our protector—it’s not too distant a leap to see why the monster of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is birthed by the Earth’s chthonic desire to protect itself from us. If we’re going to teach kids about binaries, we might as well encourage them to take the right side of history.
And yet, throughout the first 15 films of Godzilla’s Showa Era career, the people who must survive all these monsters attacking grow more and more unsurprised by the leviathans stalking their world. In Terror, a bureaucrat lets a crisis room in Tokyo know that he’ll take care of the “evacuations” as the looming threat of Titanosaurus seems ever-imminent; why he waits until the monster’s on land, joined by a revitalized Mechagodzilla leveling city blocks with rainbow laser rays, to evacuate the populace feels like a gross miscalculation. That bureaucrat should know better; this has happened at least 14 times before, and it will happen again. It always does.
In 2019, the world is on fire. We should know better. We move on because this is what we do: We get used to the flames, the poison, the death and destruction. We constantly erect new normals, and once those are surpassed, we craft newer normals, and pretend those have always been. When we see signs of that which we cannot escape, we change the channel because it isn’t our cup of tea. We shrug at the monsters, huge and black and opposing silhouettes on the horizon. We get used to the apocalypse because we can get used to anything.
Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975 is available right now.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.