The History of Godzilla and the Kaiju Genre
Recently, Godzilla vs. Kong (dir. Adam Wingard) was released into theaters and for streaming, continuing the tradition of giant monster, or Kaiju, films in the international film industry. While America and Japan primarily dominate the Kaiju genre, it’s a genre that is recognized worldwide and has over 120 movies according to an IMDB list created by user azuraring-84989. This is a brief history of the Kaiju genre’s early years, which has almost a century of history under its belt, especially in respect to the original Godzilla credited with the birth of the genre.
While Godzilla, released in 1954 and directed by Ishirô Honda, is considered the first official Japanese Kaiju film, several films predated it that laid out the groundwork for the genre, even if they may not be official films or actual Kaiju movies, to begin with.
The first proto-Kaiju film to be released was The Lost World (dir. Harry O. Hoyt), released in 1925. It was based on a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and featured a dinosaur rampaging through London. From there, several movies featuring King Kong, the first of which debuted in 1933. Three of these films are from Japan, and the other two are from America, with all of the Japanese films being considered lost media. Still, King Kong Appears in Edo: The Episode of the Monster and King Kong Appears in Edo: The Episode of Gold, both directed by Sôya Kumagai and released in 1938, are two parts of what was considered to be the first official Giant Kaiju film on this list.
The movie that kickstarted the genre as we know it was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (dir. Eugène Lourie), released in 1953. It would be the first American Kaiju film in about 20 years, leading to a trend of giant monster films. One should also note that this is the first film in the genre to feature a monster awakened or created by atomic weaponry. However, it did not take the same approach as Godzilla did.
Godzilla, according to Business Insider, was not meant to be a fantasy film. It was meant to be a horror movie, especially in the eyes of the Japanese audience it was released to. Gojira, as he was known in Japan, was meant to represent the nation’s fear of nuclear fallout, radiation, and testing, especially after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, as well as the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident. The Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident was a tragedy in which 23 fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon No. 5 were killed from acute radiation poisoning from the Castle Bravo when America detonated it at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954.
Gojira was meant to be a symbol of thermonuclear weapons as well as the victims of the bombings. The monster’s model was textured to have skin that resembled keloid scars of Hiroshima bombing survivors. Its primary attack method, the atomic heat beam, laid waste to Japanese cities in a brutal, senseless manner that was just not seen in cinema in the past. Honda took care to bring a sense of realism to the destruction, referencing real photos of the bombings in post-war Japan, as well as his own experience walking through Hiroshima after the bombing as a soldier during WWII.
However, this is not what Western audiences may remember when they saw the film about a decade and a half later. Sixteen years later, when an American studio bought distribution rights, they more or less bastardized the film. They edited out 16 minutes of “unnecessary” film, brought in Raymond Burr to play an American Journalist, and re-filmed some scenes to include his character seamlessly, and changed the title from Gojira to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! This Americanized version of the film was how the monster Godzilla was introduced to the world, and it was the only version of the film that was available to scholars and critics until 2004. While this is a troubling history of the genre, people interested in this genre and its history should not ignore it because of its significance in Japanese culture and media at the time of release. It should also be noted how the Americanized version, while problematic for reducing the original film’s message, ended up shaping the genre into what it is today: both of these versions seem to have needed to exist to get to where we are today.
From there, several more now-popular Kaijus, such as King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, and Mothra, would be introduced as the decades continued. Many of these films included any combination of the Kaijus fighting each other in giant monster fights. These films have become a staple of the genre, such as the 2021 Godzilla vs. Kong film. Reboots and remakes also seem to be expected in the genre, even before the popular “remake everything that is about 40 years old trend of the mid-to-late 2010s and through to the 2020s. However, even if it’s the fifth remake of the same movie (as has happened with Godzilla by now), the movies generally receive neutral reviews. The kaiju and giant monster franchise still thrives and probably won’t be going away for a very long time, so buckle up and get insurance that will cover giant lizards destroying your car.