According to the movies, Godzilla takes its name from a legendary Japanese sea monster. But according to the man who made those movies, the name's source was more mundane. Tomoyuki Tanaka, producer of the classic Godzilla films, claims that back in the 1950s, there was a fat, hulking press agent at Toho Studios whose co-workers gave him a derogatory nickname: a conflation of gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale) into Gojira. When young Tanaka-san, then a producer working on a sci-fi film about a giant radioactive sea reptile, heard the name, he decided it was perfect for his star.
Tanaka's Gojira, directed by the Kurosawa protege Inoshiro Honda, was released to huge success in Japan in 1954. That ever-shrewd importer Joseph E. Levine acquired the American rights and released the film here two years later, Westernizing it by adding new scenes with Raymond Burr (as the American reporter "Steve Martin"). Levine also added a few consonants to the title character's name: The film was known here as Godzilla, King of the Monsters.
It's not an entirely fatuous claim. Giant monsters have rarely been as scary as humanoid movie monsters, like Dracula or Frankenstein or the Wolfman. Those monsters could sneak into your house and hide in your closet or under your bed. Most giant monsters are impersonal. If they got you, it would be like being the victim of a natural disaster.
1933's King Kong is the obvious exception; a colossal, rampaging rough beast with a soul, he was easily the most complex character in his movie. There really wasn't another giant monster with personality until Godzilla, and there arguably hasn't been one since.
Toho's Godzilla was played by a human actor in an unwieldy monster suit, crafted by special-effects maestro Eiji Tsubaraya (in the first film, it was worn by stuntman Haruo Nakajima, a samurai-film veteran). It may be this suit, with its big butt and the waddling gait it necessitated, which makes Godzilla so endearing. Or maybe it's the sour, galled expression on his face, or maybe it's the roar--that nasal, irritable honk that sounds less like the bellow of a behemoth than like the creaking of the world's biggest rusty hinge. It was scary.
But for whatever reason, Godzilla was lovable, too. Too lovable to remain an enemy of mankind, and in later films, he was unabashedly our champion, defending us against monsters like the three-headed dragon Ghidrah or the giant crab Ebirah. He even adopted a son, a pintsize monster called Minya, who resembles a cross between Dopey the Dwarf and the Grimace from McDonaldland.
According to The Official Godzilla Compendium (Random House), a reverently gushy but useful tome by J.D. Lees and Marc Cerasini, there have been 22 Godzilla films (not counting Roland Emmerich's new svelte, lizardy, computer-generated one). The last five have yet to see American release, but the rest are all available on video. Some of the more notable selections from the Godzilla canon (titles and release dates are all American):
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956): The first Godzilla film, shot in cool, brooding black and white, was by far the most lavishly produced, and probably the best. Godzilla is a product of atomic radiation, so the national terror which is the film's subtext isn't far from the surface--the bombing of Hiroshima was less than 10 years past. This gives the film a genuinely grim tone. Of all the sci-fi movies that blamed their horrors on the Bomb, this was the first (and hopefully the last) that truly knew whereof it spoke.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962): The third Godzilla film pitted him against the former Eighth Wonder of the World--there was no mention of how Kong happened to be alive after that nasty fall he'd taken three decades earlier in Manhattan. This schlocker is chiefly remembered for a curious bit of international diplomacy surrounding its finale: In the Japanese version of the film, Godzilla defeated Kong; we Yanks got an edited version in which Kong wins.
Destroy All Monsters! (1969): In the ninth Godzilla outing, he's the patriarch of Monster Island, a peaceable kingdom of Toho's monster stable. The lot of them--Rodan, Mothra, Minya, Baragon, Varan--are pressed into service against the evil Ghidrah. As in the current film, Godzilla runs amok in New York. This is one of the first films yours truly saw in a theater.
Godzilla's Revenge (1971): Probably the best Godzilla movie for younger kids--the hero is a boy who daydreams of adventures with Godzilla and pals on Monster Island, and who gains courage from these fantasies when he runs afoul of real-life bad guys. Cute stuff, if a bit heavy on the stock footage.
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1972): Very Seventies. Doing his part for what was then called "ecology," Godzilla takes on Hedorah, a giant, animate mass of pollutant crud who threatens Japan. This one has hippies (sort of), an appallingly catchy rock theme titled "Save the Earth!" and a wan attempt at a psychedelic cartoon sequence.
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Godzilla vs. Megalon (1976): Megalon is a silly-looking giant bug of some sort. Godzilla plays second fiddle to an insufferable robot superhero called "Jet Jaguar." For some reason, this lame-o entry got prime-time play on NBC, hosted by John Belushi in a Godzilla suit.
Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster (1976): In this one, the enemy was Mechagodzilla, a giant robot version of our hero. The producers of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman hit the ceiling over the tacky attempt to link the film to their then-hot shows, and the U.S. title was hastily changed to Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster.
Godzilla 1985: A sequel to the first Godzilla film that ignores all the campy films in between, this one brought back Raymond Burr as "Steve Martin." The Big G gets in the middle of the Cold War and puts Japan in the middle of it by destroying a Soviet sub. He also carries giant mutant sea lice. The special effects were fairly state-of-the-art at the time, but now, a mere 13 years later, they're nearly as quaint as those of a '50s film.
For the Godzilla completist, there are other manifestations, haughtily ignored by the authors of the Toho-sanctioned Official Compendium. Godzilla starred in his own NBC cartoon show, The Godzilla Power Hour, from 1978 to 1981, on which he had a fun-loving nephew, Godzooky. A toy Godzilla could be seen on the set of the long-running sitcom Roseanne, and Bobcat Goldthwait spent a good chunk of the underrated John Cusack comedy One Crazy Summer in a Godzilla suit. And of course, there's the gag cartoon short Bambi Meets Godzilla. In this film-festival perennial by Marv Newland, the browsing, innocent young deer meets the sole of the big reptile's foot.