In June I finally took a trip I’d been thinking about since I was a teenager. After a seemingly endless journey getting there, I found myself gripping the handrail, swaying from side to side watching the sprawling city of Tokyo pass me by through the window of my train. Over two weeks I travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto and back again, trying to see as much as I could.
Tokyo is an amazing place. It consistently tops lists as the largest urban area in the world, and with the country predominantly covered by forests and mountains (about 73% of Japan is mountainous), space is at a premium. In such dense living and working environments, every empty surface is an opportunity to advertise a plethora of products and services. Imagine if every street in your city looked like Times Square, and you’ll start to imagine the sensory overload that is parts of Tokyo. As you make your way across Japan, it’s difficult to not be assaulted by advertising.
As a fan of manga and anime, I saw plenty of characters I was familiar with from my childhood appearing in modern advertising. You can regularly see classic franchises like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon being used to sell products. Hello Kitty, the jewel in product company Sanrio’s crown, is turning 45 this year! Similarly, Doraemon, a blue cartoon robot cat from the future, has been a staple of children’s tv since 1969 and was even adapted into a live-action ad campaign for Toyota featuring Jean Reno (star of Luc Besson’s Léon the Professional).
All of this got me thinking about brand longevity and the perseverance of brands in Japan. Why do so many brands and IPs seem to come and go in the west (with some obvious exceptions) yet there are so many in Japan that are old enough to have grandchildren?
A prime example of this occurred to me while walking through Shinjuku. At the Toho Cinema there’s a permanent, giant Godzilla peeking over the roof to peer at pedestrians as they make their way through the busy shopping area. At the time, it was surrounded by advertisements promoting the latest Hollywood version of the character in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This is the third film in a short space of time after Hollywood’s Godzilla (2014, Dir. Gareth Edwards) and Japan’s Shin Godzilla (2016), directed by Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame.
Godzilla (ゴジラ Gojira in Japanese), for those who somehow don’t know, is a Kaiju (怪獣, directly translated as “strange beast”) usually depicted as an enormous, destructive, prehistoric sea monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation. I wondered, how did a movie with a man in a reptilian rubber suit captivate a nation and spawn a 65-year franchise that shows no sign of stopping? To understand why Godzilla is still stomping cities today, we need to understand where he came from, and what the world looked like.
In 1945 the United States began an occupation of Japan after atomic bombs decimated parts of the country, leading to the end of World War II. During this time, according to Charlotte Eubanks, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Japanese at The Pennsylvania State University, there was a moratorium on any press coverage dealing with the atomic aftermath in any in-depth way: “The thinking was that too much attention to the atomic bombings would derail democratization efforts and would undermine U.S. authority, particularly since the U.S. had already begun using Japanese territory as a base from which to launch bombing raids on Vietnam. With the end of the occupation, some activists and journalists started to deal directly with the atomic bombings, but they were not getting much traction. People were more interested in trying to rebuild.”
However in 1954, after the US nuclear test over Bikini Atoll, a Japanese fishing ship, the Lucky Dragon, was exposed to radiation. Eubanks explains that “when this hit the newspapers, it ignited an enormous scare, as people throughout the country feared that they had been exposed to nuclear radiation through consuming tainted fish.”
With the spectre of nuclear destruction haunting the country’s zeitgeist, Gojira (Dir. Ishirō Honda) opened in Japanese cinemas later that year. In the opening scene, a fishing crew is exposed to a blinding flash of light, evoking the Lucky Dragon incident and setting the stage for the King of the Monsters himself: a walking metaphor for nuclear holocaust. Director Ishirō Honda specifically mirrored the destruction of Tokyo in the movie to the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He stated “if Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
The film was incredibly popular, touching a nerve and speaking to the Japanese people’s collective fear of the runaway, unstoppable force of destruction that was the atomic bomb. Tim Martin from The Daily Telegraph described it as a sobre allegory of a film. “Its roster of frightening images — cities in flames, overstuffed hospitals, irradiated children — would have been all too familiar to cinemagoers for whom memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still less than a decade old, while its script posed deliberately inflammatory questions about the balance of postwar power and the development of nuclear energy.”
Building on the popularity of the movie, the first appearance of one of Japan’s most famous characters in the west came just 2 years later in 1956, titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Unsurprisingly, the movie was sanitised for American audiences with much of the horror and nuance ultimately removed through edits, voice dubbing and the insertion of new scenes featuring American TV actor Raymond Burr, designed to provide the audience with a viewpoint character and vital exposition in English.
The success of the original film in Japan spawned sequels, which were brought over to western audiences too. To date there are 32 Japanese language films and three American. Over time, like all longstanding brands or IPs, Godzilla has reinvented himself, which I believe is the key to his success. The first American vision of Godzilla in 1956 was oddly prophetic, bearing more similarities in tone to the later incarnations of the monster than the original. Godzilla slowly transitioned from a sombre reminder of nuclear destruction into an anti-hero, or lesser evil, a lumbering defender of the earth, fighting rubber-suited aliens and other silly creatures in miniature cities.
Most kaiju fans organise the 32 Japanese-produced movies into distinct eras: the original Shōwa era (1954-1975), the rebooted and darker Heisei era (1984-1995), the anthology-style Millennium era (1999-2004) and the recent new Reiwa era (2016-present).
Stephen D. Sullivan, author of Daikaiju Attack says “it almost seems inevitable, though, that bad guys we love become good guys. I think that maybe, as fans, we tire of rooting for ‘bad,’ and, sensing that, the storytellers tend to drift toward making their creations more likeable.” This began in Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster (1965 Dir. Ishirō Honda), which saw Godzilla begin to evolve into a friendlier, intentionally comical and slapstick anti-hero. By 1976’s Son of Godzilla, the famous kaiju adopted a son and tried to teach him how to be a monster.
Yeah, that happened.
Each era has been a reboot of what came before, reinventing and redefining the character for contemporary audiences, allowing the franchise to grow and connect with new fans. The slapstick Shōwa incarnation of Godzilla continued until 1984’s reboot The Return of Godzilla (Dir. Koji Hashimoto), which saw the kaiju return as a more destructive force, tapping into fears surrounding the Cold War and an increased emphasis on the morality of genetics, a hot-button topic during the late 1980s / early 1990s.
The character’s huge following around the world, particularly in the US, lead to Sony Pictures securing the rights to produce an American version of the character in the early 1990’s. Sony offered Toho a generous deal, and even felt confident enough with the film’s potential box office success to pay $5 million for sequel rights.
Eventually, however, the movie was released in 1998 to negative reviews and fan backlash. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 16% approval rating, the critical consensus reading: “Without compelling characters or heart, Godzilla stomps on everything that made the original (or any monster movie worth it’s salt) a classic”. This killed the American dream of a localised Godzilla for years until Legendary Pictures announced in 2010 they would be rebooting Godzilla with Warner Brothers co-producing and co-financing.
In 2016 Legendary released Godzilla to commercial and critical success, receiving generally positive reviews with a 75% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. The success lead to the birth of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which includes Kong: Skull Island (2017 Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019 Dir. Michael Dougherty) and the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong (2020 Dir. Adam Wingard), after which Legendary’s rights to the character will expire.
Legendary’s version of the character focuses less on ideas of Nuclear destruction like the original 1954 version and instead serves as a metaphor for fighting against nature, a more relevant idea of the character for modern audiences where concerns about climate change and the irreversible effects humans have had on the planet are prevalent.
Director Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Monsters) discussed the themes incorporated into the film, stating “Godzilla is definitely a representation of the wrath of nature. We’ve taken it very seriously and the theme is man versus nature and Godzilla is certainly the nature side of it. You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about. He’s the punishment we deserve.”
After decades of varying incarnations on both sides of the Atlantic, the first movie of the Reiwa era, 2016’s Shin Godzilla, brought the character back to his roots again. Like Gojira before it, scenes in the film directly take inspiration from recent disasters fresh in the minds of the Japanese people, specifically, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Roland Kelts, the author of Japanamerica, felt that the “mobilizing blue-suited civil servants and piles of broken planks and debris quite nakedly echo scenes of the aftermath of the great Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.”
Shin Godzilla was a huge success, earning ￥625 million (US$6.1 million) on its opening weekend and earning critical acclaim, reviving the franchise in a big way in Japan, which had taken a ten-year break after the franchise’s 50th anniversary and the movie Godzilla: Final Wars.
According to the Japanese publication Nikkei Style, Toho have big plans, and are looking to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for inspiration. Studio executive Keiji Ota stated that the studio will be releasing a new Godzilla movie every 1-2 years and that “the future of the series and its forwarding developments are very conscious of the method of “shared universe”. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, etc. could all share a single world view much like a Marvel movie where Iron Man and the Hulk can crossover with each other. It is said that each movie can be a possible film production where any one of them could lead a film of their own as the titular character.”
It seems to me that Godzilla’s continued success is thanks to his ability to adapt to the current thoughts and feelings of contemporary audiences, avoiding becoming stale through reinvention, whilst staying true to what makes Godzilla unique. Godzilla is a malleable figure able to reflect collective fears in natural disasters and untold destruction or become an icon of national pride, a force of strength defending Japan from outsiders. In the coming years he will be reinventing himself yet again, reaching a whole new generation of kaiju fans as both Toho and Legendary move forward with their respective shared universes of monsters.
This is the staying power of a brand, the ability to adapt without sacrificing goodwill, brand equity or uniqueness. If we want to have a monster brand, maybe we need to be thinking more like Godzilla.