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Thursday, May 8, 2014
A Godzilla Binge-Watching Continuity Guide
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The Internet's buzz engines are fully engaged with the upcoming release of Godzilla 2014, and to guide you through the morass of blog posts and listicles, I have created a chart that shows the continuity of all Godzilla movies ever made, as well as some other kaiju flicks whose continuity significantly overlaps with the Godzilla series.
If you're looking to binge watch some classic Godzilla prior to the new movie's release, this should help you keep the stories and the ordering straight. Start at the top and follow the arrows down to get a continuous story passing through multiple sequels.
Movies (like Mothra and Rodan) that are not directly or indirectly sequels to Godzilla 1954 feature other monsters that make appearances in the Godzilla movies they are linked to.
You can generally get by skipping around this list, or skipping some movies within any of the lines of continuity, as long as you keep them roughly in order. Godzilla isn't Keyser Soze -- you don't have to keep track of all the details to have a good time.
You can also use it if you're planning some wonky nerdsploitation post about Godzilla's size changes, in order to avoid making wrong assumptions (such as that Godzilla changes size in a continuous series starting in 1954) that invalidate your thesis.
People are generally aware that there are a lot of Godzilla movies. In fact, there are 28 in total, starting with the 1954 original, and not counting the 1998 American abomination, as well as a 1973 live television series called Zone Fighter, which is one of the craziest things you are ever likely to see. There are also a couple of animated series hardly worth mentioning.
A handful of other monsters have also starred in their own movies, which made notable contributions to the Godzilla canon by virtue of crossing over from their own realms into Godzilla's history. The most important of these is Mothra, who is a major player in the Godzilla franchise throughout the years, in addition to headlining her own move and a 1990s movie trilogy.
Godzilla 1954 is a remarkably serious movie, when you put the special effects in context of the time and budget, and it is the wellspring from which all other Godzilla movies spring. In it, Gojira (the monster's Japanese name, which transliterates reasonably closely to Godzilla) is revealed to be a monster created by the radiation fall-out of a nuclear explosion. He wreaks havoc against Japan and is defeated by an even more terrible weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer, which itself has the potential to unleash even more horrifying environmental consequences.
That said, the plot of this movie is essentially Godzilla trashes Japan, and Japan kills him. Even if you haven't already seen it, the original will feel awfully familiar. You will be forgiven for skipping ahead to the more bizarre and colorful entries on the list.
From 1955 through 1975, the original film inspired a series of sequels which are all considered to be more or less in the same continuity, even if it is occasionally hard to reconcile them. This is known as the Showa period for Godzilla, and it is highlighted in blue in the chart above. Although Godzilla dies at the end of the original film, a second Godzilla emerges and continues as the antagonist/protagonist through the Showa movies.
Godzilla is initially a force of pure devastation, but as the series goes along, he becomes more of an antihero, defending Earth or Japan against other, worse threats, frequently of alien origin. His impact was initially softened by the often silly plots and production values of the Showa series.
In 1964's Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla completed what is known in the world of professional wrestling as a "face turn," agreeing to help save humanity against the alien monster Ghidorah after a sitdown and good talk with giant pterodactyl Rodan and the noble monster, Mothra. No, seriously, they sit down and talk it out.
After this, Godzilla spends more and more time defending Japan against worse monsters, who are usually serving some kind of alien agenda. Although he still causes a lot of collateral damage, he is essentially the hero of the series from this point forward. The Showa series blazed through a lot of pretty insane stories before petering out in the mid-1970s. If you're looking to refresh your memory of the cheesy Godzilla from your childhood, you should Netflix or Hulu one of the blue movies.
Godzilla went into hibernation for 10 years, before 1984's The Return of Godzilla rebooted the franchise (and here you thought reboots were a 21st century invention). The movie was a direct sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla, and it discarded all the movies that followed it. This was the start of the Heisei era of Godzilla, highlighted in red in the chart above. Godzilla returns sporting an ever sleeker look, and the Heisei series as it progresses arguably delivers the best-designed monster suits of the entire run. In the third film of the series, racist time traveling aliens try to erase Godzilla from history (because Godzilla inadvertently leads to Japan's global hegemony), but due to the butterfly effect, they succeed only in causing Godzilla to be born somewhat later in time and in a much larger size.
Time travel aside, the Heisei movies followed a tight continuity and featured the only character to recur through multiple movies, Miki Saegusa, a psychic with a mental link to Godzilla (one or two characters come back for a second run, but no one appears in nearly as many movies as Miki). Through most of the Heisei period, Godzilla is best understood as the enemy of my enemy who is also pretty much my enemy, even though he does end up driving off the usual assortment of alien menaces and whatnot. Despite this, and mainly through the character of Miki, we do develop a certain affection for the big guy, even as he levels increasingly large swathes of Japan.
The Heisei series ended with 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, in which a monster born from the Oxygen Destroyer of the original film battles the King of the Monsters until Godzilla's radioactive heart melts down (don't ask), although his mantle is taken up at the end of the film by Godzilla Jr. (just don't even ask). This brings things nicely full circle, and the story arc of the Heisei series (while punctuated by some weird shit) is generally pretty coherent and rewarding. If you're looking for a cool Godzilla and can tolerate the occasionally ridiculous element, pick one of the red movies.
In 1998, the Americans released a movie under the name Godzilla, of which we do not speak.
Toho, the film company responsible for all this madness, again rebooted Godzilla in 1999, with Godzilla 2000, which is the start of the misnamed Millennium series and the return of the fearful, destructive Godzilla. The misnomer is in the word "series," not Millennium, as the group of movies are largely a series of reboots with the occasional weird continuity going back to the Showa series. For various reasons having to do with box office and creative fatigue, Toho never quite settled on the approach it wanted to take, and most of these movies are standalone sequels to the original. Despite this, there are some interesting and entertaining installments, although the special effects were very uneven.
The Millennium series still used miniatures and men in suits, but it mashed them up, often unsuccessfully, with computer-generated graphics, and neither side of the equation represented particularly strong examples of the genre. Nevertheless, most of these flicks are pretty serviceable and some are quite strong. If you're looking for the most recent and modern Godzilla, pick from one of the black movies in the middle of the chart, but keep in mind that they're up and down.
All of this came to a crescendo in the "final" Japanese Godzilla movie (for now), Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. There is very little plot here. Godzilla is a force of destruction, but aliens take control of all the other giant monsters of the world, and set them against the only monster pure and strong enough to defeat their plan of conquest. What ensues is two hours of Godzilla crushing nearly every monster that ever appeared in a Toho movie, before crushing the aliens as well. It's pretty awesome if you know the monsters from watching previous movies in the series. So if you're just interested in monster carnage, final wars is the movie for you.
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