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Godzilla Through the Ages: The Reiwa Era

In 2004, Toho officially retired Godzilla after fifty years of destruction. A decade later, the MonsterVerse revived the characters in a new American cinematic universe. In the ten years since, interest in the King of the Monsters skyrocketed. Toho kicked off the “Reiwa” era with the release of Shin Godzilla in 2016, igniting a possible new golden age for Godzilla on both sides of the pond in film and television.

A few years ago, in a build up to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, we reviewed every major Godzilla film across the decades. As the franchise reaches its 70th anniversary in 2024, it feels fitting to cover the ongoing era, and review a few other odds and ends we missed. As of this writing, the MonsterVerse’s newest entries, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire are either ongoing or unreleased.

Godzillaland (1992-1996)

Godzilla’s history in animated series and specials has had its up and downs. The first major entry was the 1978 Hanna-Barbera series, perhaps best remembered today for introducing Godzilla’s cowardly relative Godzooky. The awful TriStar film managed to spawn a more well-received animated sequel series, which was more honour-bound to its Japanese origins.

Japan’s first go at animating Godzilla was the hilarious Godzillaland brand, in which our favourite kaiju were given child friendly, chibi designs in educational shorts. Yes, really!

This wacky, highly successful marketing ploy was formulated in the 1980s when Toho and Bandai turned Godzilla into a huge merchandising brand. Godzillaland was part of this effort, selling toys and merchandise for the new chibified characters. They were later used to promote Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993).

The first incarnation was featured in two comical variety shows called Adventure! Godzillaland, in which actors in the Toho rubber suits would present the news and lead musical aerobic exercises called “Godzilla So-Fa-Mi-Re-Do”. The song was popular enough to be included on Godzilla vs. Mothra’s official soundtrack.

Of course, it was the chibi characters that were the highlight, being revived in four OVAs called Get Going! Godzillaland. The shorts taught children basic language and maths, and lessons about friendship and sharing. Godzilla and his friends lived on Godzillaland, trying to win the affection of newcomer Gojirin, an all-pink female counterpart for the male kaiju to swoon over. The other characters include Anguirus, Rodan, Baragan, Gigan, Megalon, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla as the designated bully, and Mothra as the monsters’ caregiver. The shorts also had live action segments where a talking Godzilla, voiced by Naoki Bandō, lived in a house with a human sister played by Kyoko Watanabe, where he learnt to bake desserts.

Godzilla Island (1997-1998)

Godzilla has appeared in few live action television serials, with Monarch: Legacy of Monsters being the first in the west. In Japan, there was Godzilla Island, a show that served as a promotion for Bandai’s toyline at the time. Clocking it with a whopping 256 episodes, this could be listed as one of the longest running shows in history, if not for the fact that each episode was three minutes long. Done on a barebones budget, Godzilla Island cleverly used a comical mix of stock footage and Bandai’s action figures to convey a surprisingly compelling plot.

A comedy-action melodrama, Godzilla Island is set in 2097, where all the kaiju live peacefully under the watchful eye of the G-Guard. Everything changes when a spaceship approaches, piloted by the evil alien flirt Zagreth (Naoko Aizawa), who wants to conquer the world on behalf of the Giant Dark Emperor. Opposing her is the hot-blooded G-Guard Commander (Jirō Dan), his robot sidekick Lucas (Kenichiro Shimamura), and the good alien Torema (Maimi Okuwa), whom the Commander tries to relegate to janitorial duty.

There are several distinct arcs throughout the series, including the usual alien invasions and monster threats, but more unusual stories, such as when Godzilla gets put on trial. Gigan, usually depicted as a sadistic monster, is reimagined as a more honourable warrior. There is a lot of silliness in the show, such as one monster getting sent to heaven as an iron punishment for being evil, or SpaceGodzilla haunting Godzilla as a force ghost. Then, there is the Kaiju Vending Machine, a spacefaring device which would thrill Rita Repulsa. Though made on a tiny budget and relying on toys and stock footage, there is a charm to Godzilla Island, particularly in its creative choices and sense of adventure.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Shin Godzilla was Toho’s revival of Godzilla following the start of the MonsterVerse in 2014. The film was directed by Hideki Anno, creator of the superb mind-melter Neon Genesis Evangelion, and special effects master Shinji Higuchi. Anno was reluctant to direct, suffering from another bout of depression following the production of the Rebuild of Evangelion film tetralogy. What Anno and Higuchi made would become the most terrifying incarnation of Godzilla.

The plot revolves around the sudden appearance of Godzilla, who emerges from Tokyo Bay, going through a painful, high speed evolution process against his will. He is created using motion capture provided by Mansai Nomura, who wore a Godzilla mask whilst filming, paying homage to his predecessors.

The film visually, politically, and thematically takes inspiration from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese government were criticized at the time for their delayed and inadequate response to the disaster. This is reflected in the movie, where the government are so utterly bound in bureaucratic procedure and hierarchy that even the most basic decisions require consultations. Even the self-defence and evacuation forces are delayed by red tape.

Contrariwise, our hero is Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), a mid-tier government official, who thinks outside the box, relying on an assembled team of misfits to solve issues and make suggestions. He is supported by his career-climbing superior Hideki Akasaka (Yutaka Takenouchi), and Kayoco Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), an American liaison, who tries to deter the US from nuking Tokyo in response. Free of bureaucracy, the team’s efforts are much more effective when it comes to problem solving and counteracting Godzilla.

Godzilla evolves to the point he can fire an uncontrolled and aimless atomic breath, leading to a devastating scene where Tokyo is reduced to a fiery crater, killing the cabinet in the process. The incredible score by Shirō Sagisu only adds to the tension. Yaguchi and surviving officials band together to contain Godzilla in an imaginative way by freezing him, but the ending leads to a very disturbing image of human-like organisms growing from Godzilla’s tail. This references to a cut idea from the film, where Godzilla would continue to evolve to the point of becoming an Evangelion-esque god, serving an avatar for the Earth to punish and exterminate mankind.

Shin Godzilla was met with critical acclaim worldwide, earning the Best Picture award from the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars. This is one of the best films in Godzilla’s filmography, carrying on the allegorical reflection that the character has served as all these years.

Godzilla Anime Trilogy (2017-2018)

Godzilla’s inaugural animated feature film debut was in the Netflix trilogy, Planet of the Monsters, City on the Edge of Battle, and The Planet Eater. The films were directed by yet another legend of anime, Gen Urobuchi, writer of Fate/Zero, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Psycho-Pass. His noted darker themes and exploration of characters giving up their humanity for bigger ideals are present within the trilogy. The films were animated by Polygon Pictures, who specialise in 3D animated projects, including Transformers Prime, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the second Ghost in the Shell film. The score was composed by Godzilla veteran Takayuki Hattori. For such a great gathering of artists, the end result is rather muddled.

In the 20th century, Godzilla and a horde of other kaiju attack mankind, forcing them to ultimately abandon Earth in space arks. The survivors are aided by two alien species – the highly religious Exif, and the pro-technology Bilusaludo, who built Mechagodzilla to fight Godzilla, but had to leave it inoperable. It is obvious the aliens have ulterior motives, but they work alongside mankind to survive and find a new home. Our protagonist is Haruo Sakaki, an angry young man who hates Godzilla, and wishes to reclaim the Earth for humanity. He is very similar to Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan, driven by revenge and rage, though Haruo’s choices are often at the expense of other characters.

Haruo’s ship makes the choices to return to Earth after a recon mission to an exoplanet goes wrong. However, they find 20,000 years have passed by, and a much larger Godzilla remains the dominant threat on the planet. Amongst Haruo’s supporters are Metphies, a peace-seeking Exif, mech pilot Yuko Tani who crushes hard to Haruo, and scientist Martin Lazzari, who is most at home in Earth’s new ecosystem.

Other notable characters from Godzilla’s rogues gallery appear in new ways. Mothra is worshipped by a surviving human tribe called the Houtua, complete with psychic twins who Haruo develops romances with; Mechagodzilla is revealed to be a sentient nanometal that is empowered by assimilating its pilots Venom-style; and the Exif are revealed to be King Ghidorah-worshipping death cultists. The anticipated kaiju fights are rather lacking, often due to the computer-generated beasts being so slow in movement. By the time Godzilla and Ghidorah meet, the latter merely pins Godzilla in place, leaving it to the humans to have a battle of wills to decide Earth’s fate. There is also a rather sour ending that both vindicates and damns Haruo as a character when it comes to deciding mankind’s fate.

The second and third films are more enjoyable than the first, particularly in the inventive ways to include Godzilla lore and characters in a post-apocalyptic environment. Despite the trilogy’s well-intended ambitions, the movies fall flat in telling them convicingly.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

The third entry in the MonsterVerse, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a cinematic spectacle that was a love letter to the franchise. The 2014 film directed by Gareth Edwards was a good, atmospheric disaster film, but lacked interesting characters, and repeatedly cut away from the anticipated monster fights. The sequel, directed by Michael Dougherty, hits it out of the park. To merely describe it as being “amazing” would not be enough, for Dougherty’s clear passion for the film and franchise shines from start to finish. The movie has striking visuals and cinematography, and a breathtaking score by Bear McCreary.

The film is very heavy in its environmental messages, using the gathered kaiju (or Titans) as metaphors for natural disasters and global warming. Our ensemble cast that make up Monarch are vast, but we don’t have a lot of time to get to know them, beyond the Russell family and the return of Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa. Of course, the highlights are Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, each fantastic in their own ways, given modern updates without betraying what made the kaiju so iconic.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

The original King Kong vs. Godzilla was a goofy and highly delightful clash of the titans. The new take is equally a fun ride, even if the titular conflict between Kong and Godzilla is a part of a very cluttered movie. Despite the billing order, Kong is the protagonist of the film, whilst Godzilla is stomping around in the background as an anti-hero until needed. Monarch use Kong to explore the Hollow Earth ecosystem to find an energy source needed by an obviously evil corporation to power an anti-Godzilla weapon. That is pretty much the gist of the plot to get Kong and Godzilla to cross paths and hit each other.

Kong’s friendship with Jia, a deaf girl from Skull Island, is the heart of the movie. Elsewhere, Millie Bobby Brown returns from the previous film, in a subplot that feels rather detached from the rest of the film. Teaming up with Brian Tyree Henry as a conspiracy theorist, Millie seeks to uncover the evil corporation’s secret agenda. No, it’s not a Demogorgon. This turns out to be Mechagodzilla, empowered with King Ghidorah’s surviving head, whilst mind-controlled by Dr. Serizawa’s son Ren, who was not even mentioned or hinted at in the last movie. Kong, meanwhile, discovers his heritage and gains a fancy axe to boot. The highlight is the last half an hour, especially with Godzilla and Kong’s brawl in Hong Kong before Mechagodzilla shows up for their inevitable team up against the robotic doombringer.

Godzilla Singular Point (2021)

The third go at adapting Godzilla to animation, Godzilla Singular Point is an ambitious but flawed experience. It was written by author Toh EnJoe, who has had an impressive career in mathematical physics and computer software before becoming a speculative writer. This is his first stance writing an entire series, where the commitment to detailing the science behind the story takes priority over characters and plot. The kaiju, particularly Godzilla, are reimagined as reality-breaking entities, who slowly invade Earth in 2030 via a mysterious red mist. There is a lot going on in the series, but our main protagonists are a postgraduate student searching for connections between myths and the kaiju; and a crew of engineers who build an evolving Jet Jaguar to fight the kaiju.

The show is not without highlights, primarily whenever old favourites appear like Anguirus, whilst “new” characters are basically reimaginings of Gabara and Titanosaurus. The series is packed to the gills with references and call backs to Godzilla’s long history. This version of Godzilla takes inspiration from Shin Godzilla, evolving through different phases over time. On the down side, the focus on dialogue full of scientific jargon and long-winded exposition dumps take the wind of the sails. It is well animated, courtesy of Studio Bones, and is worth the watch, though only if your engagement throughout all thirteen episodes stays strong.

Godzilla Minus One (2023)

The latest entry in Toho’s film series, Godzilla Minus One, may in fact be the greatest entry within Godzilla’s near seventy year filmography. Beautifully crafted and movingly directed, written, and acted, Minus One tells a story of trauma, survivor’s guilt, and ultimately hope and friendship rejuvenating a broken country. It has pro-nationalistic themes, told through the eyes of those who lost everything for no reason.

The movie was directed and written by Takashi Yamazaki, who has a history with Godzilla, depicting the character via dream sequence in his film Always: Sunset on Third Street, and then again in a simulator ride at the Seibu-en theme park. Godzilla appears as a force of nature much like his appearances in the 1954 film, Shin Godzilla, and Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack; the latter of which he appeared as a monster born from the angry dead of World War II. You often tend to cheer for Godzilla, but in this film his presence and destruction are terrifying, personifying the postwar fear of nuclear holocaust and further devastation.

Kōichi Shikishima, played brilliantly by Ryunosuke Kamiki, is a kamikaze pilot who aborted his mission. He lands on Odo Island, where he and the men stationed there are attacked by Godzilla. Kōichi is paralyzed by fear when manning his plane’s gun, leading to all the men dying save one, who brands Kōichi a coward by giving him photographs of the dead soldiers’ families. Kōichi returns to his ruined hometown, finding his parents are dead, and his neighbours resent him for coming home alive. Kōichi takes in the homeless Noriko and an orphaned baby, living in what becomes a happy home.

He joins a sea mine-disposing crew in the hinted hopes of dying, but soon Godzilla arrives to stomp across the recovering Japan. Although no longer a fighter pilot, Kōichi tries to make amends by killing Godzilla, which he views as the personification of his own failures and shame. Godzilla is able to carve through warships easily and levels an entire city in a haunting re-enactment of an atomic bombing.

Afterward, Kōichi, his crew, and a large number of former soldiers and citizens rally together to capture and destroy Godzilla, in what might be one of the most intense finales in a kaiju film. The movie makes it clear that both the Japanese and American governments are incompetent and cannot be relied on. It is up to the people to save their country from both Godzilla and itself. Kōichi, a deeply traumatised character in need of redemption and care. Any chance at hope or peace are snatched away, either by Godzilla, or his own shame. Kōichi wonders repeatedly if he is actually dead, and his new life with Noriko is actually just a tormenting dream. He refuses to marry her, or let their adoptive daughter refer to him as her father, because he believes he is unworthy of happiness.

Godzilla Minus One is an impressive and heartfelt film, able to balance its small budget well, when compared to Hollywood’s recent bloated flops. Takashi Yamazaki’s writing and directing is superb, making every human character very sympathetic and likeable; a rare feat when the human cast take a backseat to the kaiju. The film serves as a period piece through which the Japanese rebuild their identities as a people, coming to regard themselves as worthy of living as they choose.

Which of these Godzilla films and TV shows are amongst your favourites? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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