On July 15, 1995, Toho producer Shogo Tomiyama made an announcement to the Reuters news service that went around the world: the second run of Japanese Godzilla movies—which had started in 1984 and encompassed six entries—was going to end later that year. The studio line-up for the franchise included one more picture, slated for release that December, to climax with a scene described by the filmmakers as “unforgettable.” As CNN correspondent May Lee reported to American audiences who wouldn’t see the picture for several years: “Godzilla will die.” Despite not achieving international distribution, the finished movie, Takao Okawara’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), drew in a domestic attendance of about four million and to this day remains one of the better known and more widely discussed entries in the series.
The story behind Toho’s decision to put their iconic franchise on hiatus is more complex and fascinating than the problematic film which ended up being made. Tomiyama’s announcement to Reuters came with the explanation that his staff had simply run out of ideas. “That’s why we’ve decided to put an end to the series. We wanted to finish with Godzilla while he is still a star.”1 Elsewhere, the producer made vague remarks that “some constraints came to be imposed on the character and the background story.”2 And when speaking to Cult Movies journalist David Milner in December 1995—when the film was in theaters—Tomiyama again cited his desire to stick with Godzilla so long as the monster had an audience.3 Special effects director Koichi Kawakita backed up this latter statement in a separate interview: “[I]f we had continued producing the same kind of film over and over again, people eventually would have lost interest.”4
In his 1998 book Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G,” genre historian Steve Ryfle dismissed Tomiyama’s initial statement to Reuters as not entirely truthful: “The real reasons for Godzilla’s demise undoubtedly extended from economics.”5 In the 1990s, Toho reigned over the other major Japanese studios, operating the nation’s largest theater chain, regularly exceeding its annual distribution revenue goal of ¥10 billion—less dependent on the block booking and advanced ticket strategies employed by its competitors to turn a profit.6 Naturally, the second wave of Godzilla movies, with their large budgets and premieres during the New Years’ holiday season (not to mention tie-in merchandising for each entry), played a role in this system; but by the mid-’90s, attendance for the studio’s flagship property started waning. Just two years after Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) topped domestic box office charts, attendance for the movies had fallen from 4.2 million to 3.4 million. What’s more, the studio continually struggled to find international distributors for the series: a factor which contributed to budgetary cuts on Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.7
Ryfle wasn’t alone in speculating that Godzilla was already losing favor with the public. In July 1995, the New York Times commented: “If there is no more Godzilla, it is because Japan is now an assertive economic superpower, sure of its ability to shape world events, rather than a powerless country struggling, through fantasy, to overcome the threats it perceives. […] [A]t a time when Japan confronts the world with sharp auto salesmen and trade negotiators, it no longer needs an ambiguous, amphibious monster to stand up for its interests.”
The Times report contained quotes from Japanese author Kenji Sato, who had predicted the series’ forthcoming end—prior to Tomiyama’s declaration—and boasted: “This [announcement] is a complete vindication of my theory. Godzilla is outdated.”8 And speaking to Toho Kingdom about his memories of Godzilla in Japan in the 1990s, Norman England—who covered a number of Japanese film sets for Fangoria as well as directed the documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size—recalled: “Even back then, Godzilla was on its last leg, culturally speaking. When I went to film events, all the kids were over at the goods counter for Ultraman. Hardly anyone was looking at the Godzilla stuff.”
As it happens, certain members of the Toho staff agreed that Godzilla had run its course. Suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma, who’d played the monster in all of the Heisei appearances, recalled the following behind-the-scenes conversation with Koichi Kawakita on Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994): “I said to him, ‘I think it would be good for us to stop soon,’ and he agreed with me.”9 There was also the fact that another production starring the King of the Monsters was in development—on the other side of the Pacific.
TriStar Pictures’ venture to make a Godzilla movie of their own shot to international attention in October 1992, when Variety revealed a Hollywood project was “on fast-track development with best-case-scenario production anticipated in late 1993.”10 Toho prepared Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993) to serve as the Japanese series’ finale, only to resume production when the American film encountered delay after delay. “Every year we waited to see if TriStar would produce its Godzilla film before deciding to produce another one of our own,” Shogo Tomiyama recalled.11 Although director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin would not officially sign on until 1996, Hollywood’s Godzilla presented a necessity to bring the Japanese series to a temporary halt. In promoting the monster’s eventual return in Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), Masaharu Ina, general manager of Toho’s Los Angeles branch, confirmed the hiatus has been enacted to “make room” for the TriStar film.12
Toho’s reasons for ending the series in 1995 were many—and the fact that the decision to kill off Godzilla was made prior to declaring Destoroyah his last movie indicates the front office was simply looking for a promotion-worthy gimmick to increase ticket sales. What’s more, the film was made and its infamous slogan—“Godzilla Dies”—brandished by personnel completely aware that the hiatus was temporary. “All of the members of the staff knew that Toho was planning to resume production on the Godzilla series at the beginning of the next century,” said Koichi Kawakita, “so the mood [on set] was not especially serious or somber.”13
All of these factors taken into account, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah fittingly comes across as a massive publicity stunt with flourishes of a thoughtful movie contained within. In its first thirty minutes, the film strives to latch onto the events of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla: with stock footage, homages (an opening shot traveling over water as Godzilla’s footsteps thunder on the soundtrack; vistas of the King of the Monsters looming behind the Diet Building), and continuation of moral dilemmas explored in the original movie. All of this gets the film off to an efficient start, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah must be given credit for tying itself more explicitly to Honda’s original than any other entry in the series. Alas, because those first thirty minutes strive so hard to open a new chapter in the original Godzilla story, it is rather frustrating that, by Act Two, the picture devolves into the same sort of mechanical, slipshod filmmaking characteristic of the era in which it was made.
Film critic Mark Schilling wrote in his 1995 review in The Japan Times: “Despite these harkings back [to the original film, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah] is very much a Godzilla movie of the 1990s, trying to overawe with big effects, heavy-duty technobabble, and a wackily overblown storyline.”14 All of this is true, and I would add that what also connects the film to its late Heisei brethren is hesitancy to commit to ideas. Very little of Act One’s interesting content develops into full-on plot lines: Emiko Yamane vanishes without a proper sendoff; the moral dilemma of recreating the Oxygen Destroyer is dropped once the Destoroyah monster appears; the Yamane siblings never address the consequences of reopening Pandora’s Box; not to mention the film doesn’t bother continuing its own canonical threads—such as Miki Saegusa (apparently) losing her powers or the once-peaceful Godzilla Junior (apparently) turning into a bloodthirsty killer. (Someone ought to have reminded scenarist Kazuki Omori of Anton Chekhov’s time-tested storytelling principle: ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.’ In other words: don’t tease the audience with sequences you have no intention of delivering.)
Of course, the film has its share of impressive individual sequences, including its denouement—which Toho and others converted into a brilliant marketing synergy. Originally, the finale of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah was to take place at the Tokyo World City Expo: a $2.35-billion project decried by governor Yukio Aoshima as something to “squander taxpayer money.”15 Even after Aoshima effectively axed the project, the monster action remained at the waterfront development where the Expo would’ve taken place. A Toho spokesman told the press: “The waterfront area may turn out to have a special meaning for Godzilla fans, since the monster meets his fate there.”16
Toho and Tokyo’s metropolitan government staged an exhibition at Ariake Coliseum, with Teruyoshi Nakano’s still-functional Cybot from The Return of Godzilla (1984) operating outside the entrance. Genre historian Ed Godziszewski visited the Coliseum in January 1996 and described it to Toho Kingdom as “by far the best exhibition of its kind that I had been to at the time. They made an effort to create an experience rather than just throw stuff in plain display booths. Pretty much all the monsters from the previous three films were on display, plus a lot of crude statues that were made of other 90s creatures, and some of the mecha as well. Moguera was displayed in a mock hangar, statues of Biollante and Godzilla were set up in a forest setting, etc. It was definitely set up as a Heisei Godzilla exhibit, as there wasn’t much about the original series films of consequence—and that felt fair since they were saying goodbye to this Godzilla with the current film.”
Godziszewski also recalled the tremendous ad campaign put into the film and how lush it was even in January, a month after the film’s premiere. “Most of the billboards were still up, and those words [“Godzilla Dies”] were big as life wherever you looked. Since Toho had known that they would not be making any more films for a few years due to the TriStar contract, it seemed like the public might actually buy this idea because the (temporary) end of Japanese production was reality.” While not believing that Toho would never make another Godzilla movie, Norman England fondly remembered the enormous PR campaign put behind Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. “The gas station ads, the TV commercials with Godzilla in it, going to a suit display at Banpaku Memorial Park in Osaka, actress Momoko Kochi appearing on the morning shows. For me, it was less about the movie and more about enjoying the culture of Godzilla.”
The campaign paid off, as Destoroyah’s domestic intake fell just shy of the mark set by Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992). In terms of fan response, Toho allegedly received more than 100,000 protest letters within three days of the film’s release, and coins were placed in the mouth and claws of a recently unveiled memorial statue of Godzilla in the Tokyo neighborhood Hibiya—offerings for the monster in the afterlife.17 All the while, though, Toho’s spokesmen assured audiences the monster’s Hollywood counterpart was still in the works and that Toho’s Godzilla would return soon enough. This point was not lost on mainstream journalists. Mark Schilling’s Japan Times review concluded: “Can this really be the end—or is Godzilla just going into hibernation until his American cousin dies at the box office? Somehow I think we have yet to hear the big guy’s last roar.”18
Sure enough, after the eventual release of Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA (1998), Toho launched into production on a new movie. “Actually, we had no plans for another Godzilla film until 2005,” Shogo Tomiyama stated. “[The change of heart] came about, I will admit, because now TriStar’s ‘Godzilla’ is Godzilla. We had a feeling that after seeing TriStar’s film we couldn’t keep silent until 2005.”19 Toho’s attitude toward the TriStar picture, initially, wasn’t all hostile. Although the film had performed lower than expected both domestically and abroad (¥3 billion in rentals versus the ¥8 billion hoped for by Toho), studio publicist Shigehisa Kamikawa stated it had been considered “a success in Japan.” He further added that Toho’s new movie, Godzilla 2000: Millennium, wasn’t made solely as a response to the Emmerich picture. Speculating that a sequel from Hollywood wouldn’t happen until the end of 2000, the Japanese company had decided to “fill the slot in our line-up for the 1999 New Year’s holiday season with our own Godzilla film.”20
Thus, despite the international marketing buzz enveloping his 1995 sendoff, the King of the Monsters made his return—as had been the plan all along.
- Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1998, p. 306
- Schilling, Mark. Contemporary Japanese Film. Boston: Weatherhill, 1999, p. 21
- Milner, David. Translated by Yoshihiko Shibata. “Shogo Tomiyama Interview.” Accessed 17 May, 2021.
- Milner, David. Translated by Yoshihiko Shibata. “Koichi Kawakita Interview II.” Accessed 17 May, 2021.
- Ryfle, p. 306
- Schilling, p. 20
- Kawakita Interview.
- Sterngold, James. “The World; Does Japan Still Need Its Scary Monster?” The New York Times, 23 July 1995
- Milner, David. Translated by Yoshihiko Shibata. “Kenpachiro Satsuma Interview III.” Accessed 17 May, 2021.
- Frook, John Evant. “TriStar Lands Monster of Deal with ‘Godzilla.’” Variety, 29 October 1992
- Tomiyama Interview.
- Cheng, Scarlet. “Godzilla Returns to His Japanese Stamping Ground.” Los Angeles Times, 18 August 2000
- Kawakita Interview.
- Schilling, p. 189
- ‘Reuters.’ “Tokyo Governor Kills ‘World City’ Project.” Los Angeles Times, 1 June 1995
- Ryfle, p. 313
- Schilling, p. 189
- Cheng. “Godzilla Returns to His Japanese Stamping Ground.”
- Schilling, p. 21