One of the fun things about research is that one usually ends up with more material than can reasonably be used in a single run—and rather than pad out an essay to tedious length, findings can be spread across multiple projects. When preparing for my recent Toho Kingdom article Godzilla vs. Destoroyah: The Legacy of Godzilla’s Demise, I reached out to genre historian Ed Godziszewski and Norman England, the latter of whom directed the documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size and covered a number of Japanese special effects sets for Fangoria magazine. Both saw Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) during its domestic theatrical run, and so I wanted their first-hand recollections about the marketing and circumstances surrounding Godzilla’s death. Between the two interviews, I got more than enough material and decided to repurpose some of it for this new essay—along with additional comments that couldn’t fit into the first.
My earlier piece focused on historical context: recounting how Godzilla vs. Destoroyah was made at a time when Toho’s flagship property was losing steam at the box office; how the monster was failing to acquire international distribution; how the series was put on hiatus to “make room” for TriStar’s GODZILLA (1998); and how, for all its pretensions, the ’95 Godzilla film comes across more like a publicity stunt than a truly thoughtful sendoff for the monster. It is this last point that I would like to emphasize in this follow-up article—along with anecdotes regarding another series of 1990s kaiju pictures that surpassed anything Toho had done with their monster in quite a spell.
When Toho producer Shogo Tomiyama announced in July 1995 that Godzilla would die in his next movie, the news went around the world, even being reported to American audiences who would not see the picture for a number of years. In Japan, the slogan “Godzilla Dies” was brandished on billboards, posters, and twenty-foot-high signs as part of the pre-release hype.1 The publicity ultimately worked, as the film garnered an attendance of about four million—a step up from the 3.4 million for the previous year’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) and not far beneath the whopping 4.2 million of 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. In terms of response from Japanese fans, the studio allegedly received more than 100,000 protest letters demanding the monster’s resurrection2—despite assurance from studio spokesmen that the hiatus was only temporary.
For some, Godzilla’s death came across as little more than sensationalism: an attempt to get back the numbers on Godzilla vs. Mothra and make the monster ‘relevant’ one more time before the arrival of his Hollywood counterpart. “None of my friends believed this was going to be the last Godzilla movie,” Norman England recalled. “It was obviously PR talk. But a lot of us felt, ‘Well, let’s just get into the spirit of the thing.’ And there was a great deal of publicity for Destoroyah: gas station ads; TV commercials with Godzilla in them; Momoko Kochi, from the first Godzilla (1954), was appearing on the morning shows. I was living in Osaka at the time and went to a suit display at Banpaku Memorial Park, where Expo ’70 had been held. All of that was really fun.” England further stated that the experience of seeing the late Heisei films in Japan was always “more than just the movies. The movies were a little anticlimactic compared to what went on around them.”
The marketing was still in force when Ed Godziszewski visited Japan in January 1996. “Most of the billboards were still up, and those words [“Godzilla Dies”] were as big as life wherever you looked.” The historian also recalled attending an Ariake Coliseum exhibition put together by Toho and the Tokyo metropolitan government. “They had the Cybot from The Return of Godzilla (1984) outside the main entrance, operating ever so clunkily—and this was the first time that I had seen a pretty comprehensive display of props and suits.” Despite the curious absence of Godzilla Junior, the exhibition featured monster costumes from the new movie, plus suits and statues representing creatures from previous ‘90s entries. “It was definitely set up as a Heisei Godzilla exhibit, as there wasn’t much about the original series of consequence—and that felt fair since they were saying goodbye to this Godzilla with the current film.”
Godziszewski, however, was similarly unconvinced that the monster’s death would be permanent. “Toho’s #1 rule was always that Godzilla can never die, and given that (as I always say) no one is ever really dead in science fiction, it just seemed like misdirection. But this misdirection bought Toho more publicity than they could ever have garnered with just another ‘versus’ film.”
Norman England saw Godzilla vs. Destoroyah on opening day—December 9, 1995. “My friends and I had this tradition where we’d go out for coffee after seeing a new film and talk about it. None of us were really happy with the movie. We felt the opening scenes with Burning Godzilla attacking Hong Kong were visually interesting, and the shot at the end of Godzilla Junior in the smoke looked nice. But the story, the plot, there was nothing to really talk about. My friend Akio had given up on the series after Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). We practically had to beg him to come with us. And, man, the look of annoyance on his face after seeing Destoroyah was just incredible. ‘The movie was crap,’ he said. ‘This is garbage.’ He put us in a position where we had to defend the movie, because he was so down on it.”
Godziszewski’s memories were a tad more positive. “In retrospect,” the historian told Toho Kingdom, “it seems a ‘death’ was the best way to wrap things up. The suspense for me was just how they would do it. I will admit I was thrown off for a moment when they killed Junior. I gave them some points for the way the ending was handled: having Godzilla’s radiation revive and mature Junior into the new Godzilla. I thought that was a clever way to have your cake and eat it, too. Godzilla’s death was well handled and had some emotional impact. The theater, which was still fairly packed even though the film had been out for almost a month by then, was dead silent. Not just politely quiet; the kind of silence where people are holding their breath. I felt the theater audience really was affected. That’s one of my strongest memories of seeing the film.”
Aside from the ending, though, Godziszewski recalled fairly mixed reception to the 1995 extravaganza. “The reaction from my friends was all pretty much the same: it was a nice way to wrap up the series for the time being, but the film itself was so wildly uneven that it wasn’t anyone’s favorite.” And in summarizing Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Norman England described it as “an event film. It was more about what it represented than what it actually was.”
Also working against the film, reception-wise, was a superior product from rival studio Daiei. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and made for a fraction of the cost of the previous few Godzilla movies, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe opened to glowing praise in March 1995. Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote favorably about this “action-packed monster mash that zestily revives the Japanese megabeast tradition,” noting that it “could find a certain niche [in the U.S.] with clever marketing and placement.”3 Sure enough, Kaneko’s film was given limited theatrical distribution and a home video release in North America in 1997—whereas Toho struggled to sell the Heisei movies to international buyers. “I would say up until Gamera,” England commented, “the Heisei Godzillas were thought of as the best Japan could do, and that’s why Guardian of the Universe was so shocking to everybody. ‘Oh, we can do better! It’s not that Japan can’t make good films. It’s just that the people at Toho can’t make a decent kaiju movie.’”
Over the next few years, as Godzilla went into hiatus and Toho turned to Mothra to fill gaps in its New Years’ schedule, Daiei released two more Kaneko-directed Gamera pictures that similarly met acclaim. Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling had written lukewarmly about Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (“This is all rather silly”)4 and unenthusiastically about 1996’s Rebirth of Mothra (“This is less the quoting of a classic and more the mouthing of a tired cliché.”)5 but found much to praise in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999), the finale of Kaneko’s trilogy:
“Those who have lived through a few Japanese natural disasters, including the inevitable earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, can better understand why monster movies have had such a deep and enduring impact here. The bombings of World War II added to the general insecurity—the feeling that one is living under threat from large, inhuman, and horrifically destructive forces—but they certainly didn’t create it. Gamera 3 expresses the psychology of that insecurity, including its mythological underpinnings, with more clarity than the usual genre outing.” Schilling also championed the “awesome battle scenes, edited for maximum impact” and, in comparing Kaneko’s film to the recently released TriStar GODZILLA, wrote: “Gamera […] still has it all over that overgrown iguana from Manhattan.”6
In wrapping up, I would like to close with one final contribution from Ed Godziszewski, who offered this personal anecdote of the impression Gamera made outside the kaiju fandom circle: “My wife always cringes watching even small bits of the ‘90s Godzilla films, because the acting is so incredibly bad. But I will always remember how she ducked into my room when I first got a copy of Guardian of the Universe. At first, she rolled her eyes. ‘Now they’re doing Gamera, too?’ But within a couple of minutes, she was hooked, and before you knew it had watched the whole thing. All she could say afterward was: ‘It’s not that this is a good monster movie. It’s a good movie, period.’”
- Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1998, p. 307
- Ibid., p. 313
- McCarthy, Todd. “Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe.” Variety, 4 September 1995
- Schilling, Mark. Contemporary Japanese Film. Boston: Weatherhill, 1999, p. 189
- Ibid., p. 265
- Ibid., p. 186