A radioactive mutant monster with a bone-rattling roar first stomped into the world's collective conscious in the Japanese classic "Godzilla," which was produced by Toho Co., Ltd. in 1954. This week, Godzilla comes out of a decade-long hibernation to star in a new American version directed by Gareth Edwards.
After 60 years in the movie business, it looks like the megastar Godzilla really is unstoppable. Toho produced 28 Godzilla films, and a 1998 American version preceded the new one. He's been fired on and frozen, thrown into lava pits and suffered nuclear meltdown, but he keeps coming back. The source of his longevity isn't just in his regenerative cells, and it's not just that he made a lot of money for the studio. Everyone projects something different onto him: He can be a destructive force of nature, a world-saving hero, a tragic or comic figure, a happy childhood memory of Saturday matinees or a goofy father figure who proudly teaches a next-gen Godzilla how to shoot atomic fire out of his mouth.
Even more amazing is the character's ability to stomp on both sides of the line between good and bad. He evolves from mindless destructor in the original to protector of Earth, saving the world in sequel after sequel from monsters more terrifying than he is, scheming space aliens and from human folly.
The original "Godzilla" -- or "Gojira," the Japanese spelling -- was a stark and bleak film that still stands among the most powerful anti-nuclear statements in cinematic history. Atomic bomb testing causes a dinosaur that somehow avoided extinction to absorb nuclear energy and mutate into the fire-breathing Godzilla, who goes on a rampage and levels Tokyo.
Interwoven is a human drama. Dr. Yamane is a paleontologist who believes that Godzilla should be studied, not destroyed. There's a love triangle involving his daughter, Emiko, her boyfriend and the scientist Dr. Serizawa, to whom she is engaged through an arranged marriage. Serizawa has invented the Oxygen Destroyer, which removes oxygen from water and kills anything living in it. It's deployed to kill Godzilla, and Serizawa commits suicide to ensure that the toxic weapon he created dies with him.
For postwar Japan, Godzilla embodied something much more terrifying than a lumbering giant monster. In the '40s and '50s, the U.S. conducted hydrogen bomb testing at Bikini Atoll, and in 1954, the crew of a Japanese fishing boat that sailed into the test site suffered radiation sickness after being hit with radioactive ash. For Japanese audiences haunted by of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the Bikini Atoll event, "Godzilla" was a powerful experience. "Godzilla" director Ishiro Honda, who was a prisoner of war during World War II, traveled through the devastated Hiroshima on his way back to civilian life. The original film has horrific footage of the radiation-poisoned and dying following Godzilla's rampage.
The special effects might look primitive to today's CGI-bombarded audiences. Godzilla, after all, was a guy in a monster suit. But for its time, the effects were impressive: the film's use of mattes, in which two or more images are layered on top of each other, meticulously designed miniatures to simulate the destruction of Tokyo and Akira Ifukube's evocative music combined to create what is considered a Japanese film classic.
An Americanized version was released in 1956. "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" added Raymond Burr as a reporter in Tokyo. To make room for the new material, they restructured and trimmed the film, leaving only 60 of the original 98 minutes. Some of the excised material was the film's references to the bomb and its effects, rendering the anti-nuclear allegory toothless compared to the original.
With Godzilla's skeleton at the bottom of the ocean at the end of the original, it looked like curtains for the monster. But at the end of the film, Dr. Yamane warns that this may not be the last the world sees of Godzilla. "If nuclear testing continues, then someday somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear."
And he did. In "Godzilla Raids Again," aka "Gigantis the Fire Monster" (1955), a new Godzilla battles a prehistoric monster, leveling Osaka in the process and starting the tradition of many creature smackdowns to come. The military stops him by causing an avalanche and burying him in what looks like a giant vat of ice cubes.
He remained on ice until the '60s, when the real mutations started. In 1962, he took on another kiddie matinee idol in "King Kong vs. Godzilla." The film introduced comedy -- and professional wrestling moves -- to the series.
In the crazy '60s, he would be teamed up for the first time with several of his popular Toho colleagues: Mothra, a giant benevolent moth with two tiny priestesses for sidekicks, and the supersized pterodactyl Rodan. In '64, he rumbles with Ghidorah, a three-headed monster from outer space who enjoyed a good run as a guest villain in the Godzilla series.
Godzilla develops parenting skills in "Son of Godzilla" (1967). More bad science experiments gone wrong have spawned giant insects that Godzilla has to save baby Godzilla from. In "Godzilla's Revenge" (1969), Junior befriends a latchkey kid who is having bully problems at school. The boy watches the Godzilla family fend off a menagerie of ridiculous opponents, including a giant lobster that Godzilla boils in the ocean, and learns how to deal with bullies from the pros.
The 1970s ushered in a new era of environmental consciousness, and Godzilla's newest sparring partner is the poison gas-spewing Hedrah in "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" (1971). He meets his robotic doppelganger in "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" (1974) and "The Terror of Mechagodzilla" (1975).
Godzilla took a much needed nap until "Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn" (1984), where he's lured into a volcanic fissure and trapped. Raymond Burr is back, too, reprising his role as reporter Steve Martin from the American original.
What do you get when you cross Godzilla with a rose bush? You get "Godzilla vs. Biollante" (1989). When a scientist's daughter is killed, he mixes some of her DNA with that of a rose bush so that she can live forever. He adds a pinch of Godzilla's DNA to the recipe because ... well, who wouldn't? The rose grows large and aggressive, and Godzilla has to deal with it.
In "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" (1993), Baby Godzilla bonds with the woman who's present when his egg hatches, resulting in an emotional subplot where she finally has to let him go and he follows big G. into the ocean at the end.
The Oxygen Destroyer makes a return in "Godzilla vs. Destroyer" (1995), and Godzilla is matched against the nasty Destroyer monster. But Godzilla has bigger problems. His levels of radioactivity are going critical, and he has glowing red patches on his skin. His fins melt and he dies after the military's deep freeze technique is applied to save the world yet again. Godzilla Jr. absorbs the big one's nuclear energy and lives on. Momoko Kochi reprises her role as Emiko from the 1954 original. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice a small framed photograph of Oxygen Destroyer inventor Dr. Serizawa on a bookshelf.
Godzilla faces one of his worst opponents ever -- in the form of worldwide embarrassment -- in the widely reviled American-made "Godzilla" (1998), which starred a monster taking on Manhattan and laying eggs in Madison Square Garden. Toho disowned the made-in-U.S.A. Godzilla. It was a mean and ugly critter, but for too many fans, it just wasn't Godzilla.
Toho fired back with "Godzilla 2000" (1999). The big green guy is bigger and badder and has perfected his awe-inspiring fire-breathing technique. Special effects technology had evolved to the point where the film could achieve some spectacular results. In this one, he attracts the interest of scientists because of his cells' amazing regenerative powers and fights an alien monster. The final battle is apocalyptic and weird, even by Godzilla standards.
In the 21st century, Godzilla is reunited with many of his old opponents -- Mothra, Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla. "Godzilla: Final Wars" (2004) marked the 50th anniversary of the Godzilla series.
Fast forward to 2014. The latest "Godzilla" is a fearsome creature. He's revealed slowly, and much of the action is veiled in thick smoke and fog, letting the imagination fill in the blanks. When he finally shows up, it's worth the wait He stands at 355 feet, about twice that of the original -- with 60 teeth -- and looks like he's been eating steroids. Some Japanese viewers who have seen the trailer for the new film have been poking fun at the new Godzilla for being "too fat."
For audiences who have lived through the horrific terrorist and natural events of the 21st century, the new film raises the same specters the original did. Some scenes have TV screens with the destruction playing out on endless breaking news feeds: in one, casino guests play on obliviously while Las Vegas crumbles.
Like the original, there's a strong human story, in which heroic people make painful personal choices for the greater good. One interesting reference to the original: Ken Watanabe plays a scientist named Serizawa.
The new "Godzilla" takes the movie monster back to his roots, and back to the dark fantasy vision of Ishiro Honda and a team of wildly creative film artists who started something big back in 1954.