Most people think of Godzilla as an amusing piece of camp culture, a big rubber monster that comically tromps through a model set of downtown Tokyo. But Godzilla, who roared onto the Japanese scene in 1954, emerged from real-life horror—the nightmarish death and devastation that followed the U.S.’s 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Those who survived the attacks—and in fact, most of the island nation of Japan—spent the following years grappling with the uneasy feeling that the chain of destruction from the radioactive fallout wasn’t finished, that the full effect of the bombings had not been seen, that perhaps something more terrible than they could even imagine was on its way.
In 1954, Japanese director Ishiro Honda gave these fears a physical form—a 16-story radioactive lizard monster named Gojira. In “Gojira,” produced by Toho Company Ltd., the monster—named after the Japanese words for gorilla and whale—was borne from a secret undersea nuclear test. However, Gojira looked more like a combination of fearsome dinosaurs than a marine mammal: It had the head and body of a Tyrannosaurus rex, the dorsal plates of a Stegosaurus, and the neck and arms of an Iguanodon.
Movie audiences had never seen a monster quite like Gojira before. This dragon breathed radioactive fire, and all regular weapons were useless against its thick, scaly skin. In the end, the beast is killed by Dr. Daisuke Serizawa’s “oxygen destroyer,” an invention not unlike a nuclear weapon, that is powerful enough to annihilate all marine life in Tokyo Bay.
The film was released in the U.S. in 1956 as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” Additional scenes of Raymond Burr playing an American reporter investigating the phenomena were spliced into the original for American audiences, and any direct allusions to the H-bomb were cut. Hugely popular in Japan, “Godzilla” was a tremendous hit in the U.S., too.
In 1955’s “Godzilla’s Counterattack” (“Gojira no gyakushû”), another Godzilla-type monster surfaces, but he’s not alone. He’s fighting another irradiated dinosaur, Anguirus, also known as Angilas, who has risen from its prehistoric grave. This spike-covered beast resembles an Ankylosaurus. Because the American distributor had little confidence in the Godzilla franchise, this film was called “Gigantis, the Fire Monster” when it was released in the U.S. in 1959—later, the English title was changed to “Godzilla Raids Again.”
“Godzilla’s Counterattack” was the first in a long line of films where giant monsters battled other giant monsters, including Mothra, a giant moth; Gamera, a jet-propelled flying...
By 1965, Godzilla became the monster-hero everyone was rooting for in these beastly smackdowns, as he defended Tokyo from yet another creature’s path of destruction. Later that decade, Godzilla became even more sympathetic, when he had a son named Minya, who had to fight giant insects with dad. In many of the films, Godzilla and the other beasts fall under the control of evil aliens bent on destroying earth. The most epic of the films was “Destroy All Monsters,” featuring a dozen of these battling behemoths.
Giant robots called “mecha,” with their ability to live through almost anything, had become another staple of postwar Japan culture, so naturally Godzilla eventually has to fight his evil-alien-controlled robot clone in 1974’s “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla.”
The “Godzilla” film empire seemed to die down in the mid-’70s, ending what is known as the 15-movie Showa-era, or first generation of Godzilla films. However, the franchise came roaring back in the 1980s, for the second-generation or Heisei-era.
This time, Godzilla was a big Tokyo-burning meanie again. His first new monster foe was Biollante, a mutated rose bush turned into a giant vine-tentacle-wielding lizard. In the ’90s, new plot twists led to an even more gigantic, more destructive Godzilla, and a cyborg or “mecha” version of Ghidrah (called “Mecha King Ghidorah”), as well as Godzilla teaming up with a Toho robot from the ’50s, called Moguera, to fight his new black-hole-generated enemy, Space Godzilla.
At the end of the Heisei period, Godzilla officially died in the 1995 film “Godzilla vs. Destroyah,” in which a Godzilla, weakened by his own radioactivity, faces a crustacean beast created by the oxygen destroyer that killed the first Godzilla. However, at the end of the film, Godzilla’s son absorbs all his dad’s radioactivity to grow bigger and stronger and possibly become the next “King of the Monsters.”
Of course, Godzilla’s reign was not nearly over. In 1998, an American remake of “Godzilla” starring Matthew Broderick re-imagined the 1954 original. Even though film critics panned the movie and its computer-generated beast, while Godzilla fans harrumphed at the changes to the plot and mythology, the movie was a smash success. Not long after that, the Japanese Godzilla franchise came back to life again as the third-generation or Millennium series films.
While Godzilla was a big hit in the 1950s, only one licensed product came out in that decade, a toy rifle that was produced in Japan for the 1955 sequel, “Godzilla’s Counterattack.” It wasn’t until 1963 that American toy manufacturers started to exploit the pop-culture craze. In the wake of the success of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” Ideal Toy Corporation published a board game, which Aurora followed with a Godzilla model kit.
A Japanese company named Marusan then developed a Godzilla figurine made out of vinyl, first sold in 1964. While Americans seemed to have little interest in Godzilla toys, the company sold vinyl monsters, model kits, and Godzilla tin toys in Japan until the end of the decade, when it went bankrupt. Marusan’s vintage Godzilla toys are very collectible, and Godzilla’s enemy monsters, being more rare, are highly sought by contemporary collectors.
In 1970, another Japanese company, Bullmark, acquired Marusan’s molds and promptly churned out more tin and vinyl monsters. Bullmark developed new toys of its own, too, including some die-cast metal toys between 1976 and 1977 that are quite prized today. The rarest, Angilas, came out around the same time Bullmark went bankrupt in 1978.
Bandai was the next would-be monster-manufacturer. It made Godzilla toys under the Popy brand until 1983, after which the toys were marked with the Bandai brand. Unfortunately for collectors, if a toy is labeled “Bandai 1983,” that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily from that first Bandai year. In the late ’80s, Bandai also released some motorized and radio-controlled monster figures that could walk, talk, roar, and glow.
Even though Toho resisted exporting its Godzilla merchandise, Toho’s toys from 1995’s “Godzilla vs. Destroyah” were a hit in the U.S. as well as Japan. Particularly collectible is a limited-edition figure known as “Meltdown Godzilla,” which shows the beast in his final moments. Only 5,000 of these figures, cast in red and orange plastic and made from the mold of the more-available “Burning Godzilla” toy, were sold at Japanese theaters during the first run of the movie—only around 1,000 are thought to have made it to the U.S.
In America, Imperial held a license for “Godzilla” toys between 1985 and 1994, which it used to crank out a small run of cheap plastic monster figures in different sizes. When Trendmasters took over the license around 1994, it approached Godzilla-making with much more enthusiasm, even acquiring the rights to toys based on the 1998 American “Godzilla.” The company released multiple lines, including “King of the Monsters” and “Godzilla Wars,” before it shuttered in 2002.
Trendmasters also made “bendees,” key chains, jump-up figures, and banks based on the Godzilla brand. Collectors are interested in the company’s rare six-inch Biollante figure, as well as its protoype “Doom Island” line, only released in the U.S. for a website contest.
Today, Bandai continues to make Godzilla toys in Japan. Another Japanese company, Billiken Shokai, which specializes in high-end models, artfully detailed character toys, and retro tin toys, also produces Godzilla products.
Another style of Godzilla figures popular with collectors are known as “Superdeformed” in Japan. Inspired by the distorted proportions of anime style, these monsters are cute and not at all ferocious, with big heads, short, chubby bodies, and stubby arms. A subset of these figures are known in Japan as “candy toys,” so named because they are small, disposable, and sold in candy packages. Another group of “Superdeformed” Godzillas are available as stuffed animals, which seem much more likely to cuddle Tokyo to death than destroy it.