An important aspect of the special effects for Godzilla films has always been the use of puppets, sometimes for close ups, sometimes for longshots, even back in the original Godzilla (1954). While these puppet shots have been the object of derision (as particularly in the Showa films, the appearance of the monsters often differed from the suits, and the movements tended to be janky), they were an integral part in bringing kaiju action to life—and some kaiju were achieved on film solely through clever puppetry, such as Kumonga and the Kamacuras (from Son of Godzilla [1967]), and the giant condor (from Ebirah, Terror of the Deep [1966]). It’s fitting, then, that Godzilla’s first official web series, Monster Puppet Show Godziban (generally shortened to just Godziban), achieves its monster effects through delightful handmade puppets. The program, created by a long-running puppet theater group named Studio Koganemushi, has been running for three seasons, to great success. A recent book has been published on the series, and a variety of Godziban-branded goods are also available—from soft vinyl action figures, to t-shirts, to stickers, and more. The program itself skews for younger viewers using absurd humor filled with references to the films, utilizing a style not so far removed from educational kid’s programming like Sesame Street in the West or Pythagoras Switch in the East (minus anything remotely educational). As with preschool morning kid TV, several recurring segments are edited together to create ongoing, sketch-comedy programming. Today I want to take a look at the first season particularly, which laid the groundwork for far greater creative strides taken in the later seasons.

Studio Koganemushi (“koganemushi” is the Japanese word for those metallic-green scarabaeid beetles—I have seen tons of them around my city this summer), the masterminds behind the program, have been around for decades. The studio was originally formed in 1991 in Tokyo under the auspices of Hideyuki Kobayashi, who would go on to become the director and writer behind Godziban. Studio Koganemushi of course has worked on numerous other projects before Godziban came to fruition, some of which dealt with kaiju and tokusatsu properties—including an Ultraman puppet program broadcast by TV Tokyo called M730 Ultramanland (1996), which started as a live performance called Ultra P in 1993 and was performed at an Ultraman Festival in 1994. Also in 1996, at the “History’s Greatest Fight Hero Festival,” Koganemushi gave some kind of puppet performance featuring Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Gamera, and several Godzilla kaiju together in one show—you can see a picture on the Koganemushi website. In fact, if you dig around, you can dig up images of various interesting-looking shows and performances, such as a live recording of an insect-themed show, an image of a man wearing a Daimajin costume, and a program about the adventures of a Triceratops named Tops.

Godziban proper started in 2019, nearly thirty years after the founding of the studio, as a response to a contest put on by Gemstone Creative Label, a Toho subsidiary which (according to its website) is meant to challenge and create new media and formats and discover new creators. A more recent project of theirs was the short film “Change” released in 2022 on YouTube. The contest that birthed Godziban was open to anyone to create YouTube movies and videos related to Godzilla, and many other worthy contenders arose as a result (another contender, a one-minute CGI clash between Godzilla and an army of airborne Gigans, would later birth the official Godzilla vs. Gigan Rex short). The first iteration of Godziban itself an anthology that featured proto versions of several later full episodes of the serialized Godziban program, which would also reuse music, titles, and puppets. The original program runs around nine minutes and comes fully formed, with the central characters, sense of humor, and side projects (“Attention! Godzilla” and “Grandpa Hedo”, etc) already complete, with their characterizations and sense of humor intact. If anything, I like the original version of “Attention! Godzilla” more than some of the later bits in that surreal series, as the child must struggle to overcome her revulsion at the disgusting Kamachi. Even the “Go! Jet Jaguar” animated series has its roots in the original Gemstone contest short.

TV Review: Godziban (Season 1)

The first season of Godziban ran from August 9th, 2019, to December 31st of the same year, plus a special additional short episode released on February 14th, 2020—though the latter has yet to receive English subs (if you click for subtitles, you will get Korean instead!). Upon original release, the episodes were in Japanese with no English support, though most episodes have English subtitles now, and episode 13 is an English dubbed version of episode 3—“Smack it, Godzilla Brother!” The original actors who played the parts of the Godzilla brothers in the series reprised their roles in English (despite not speaking the language), and the results are extremely cute if not always perfectly understandable for the average Western English speaker, so it may be good to use the optional subtitles to follow even when they are speaking in English.

The section of the show and meat of the program is “Go! Go! Godzilla-Kun!” This comedy-skit show centers on the adventures of the three Godzilla brothers, Godzilla-Kun (who appears largely patterned after the Showa Mothra vs. Godzilla suit design—he is voiced by Yumiko Takahashi), Minilla (an even more comedic version of Godzilla’s first live-action son from Son of Godzilla [1967]—voiced by Junko Kubota), and Little (based off Little Godzilla from Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla [1994]—voiced by creator Hideyuki Kobayashi). Godzilla-Kun here, though, is explicitly NOT the adult Godzilla from the Showa series, and he refuses to be called simply Godzilla, stubbornly appending “kun” onto the end of his name. I wonder if perhaps inspired by the Yukio Sawada manga of the same name from the mid-90s, which also took a comedic spin on the Godzilla mythos and features many iterations of the Monster King. He takes charge of his two siblings, who may take their names from the films, but who sport unique personalities apart from their previous cinematic iterations. Little, despite being the youngest in appearance, often proves more competent than Minilla in the trio’s adventures, as Minilla is consistently depicted as the klutz and the butt of much of the humor.

TV Review: Godziban (Season 1)

These skits are the best part of the show and feature a wide variety of monsters and callbacks. The episodes tend to feature Godzilla-Kun teaching Minilla and Little a new skill through special training sessions—skills such as smacking boulders with their tails, running, or snatching a banana from the top of a rocky incline (much like with the educational Godziland OAVs, the kaiju appear to be human-sized). The gags are repetitive and rely heavily on physical humor and slapstick combined with prolific references to Godzilla and tokusatsu properties. Generally, Godzilla-Kun ends up getting banged up or humiliated somehow, Little shows himself to be cute but capable, and Minilla fails utterly at the most basic of monster tasks. The twin Mothra larvae also make appearances (here they are named Moshu-Moshu and Moshuu-Moshuu), and they are ludicrously overpowered—something like a modern take on how Tweety Bird appeared deceptively innocent and weak, but could actually humiliate nearly anyone in the Warner Looney Tunes canon. Eventually, over the course of the show, other kaiju begin making appearances, with burrowing Baragon and a particularly roly-poly Anguirus playfully joining the training early on, and then later outside threats like the Dorats and Gigan making appearances. The monsters generally take their cues from the original source material to an extent, with Anguirus speaking in cartoon balloons and functioning as Godzilla-Kun’s pal for example, but generally each feature some offbeat variations. The Dorats are particularly memorable as a set of time-shifting egg-hunters who can combine at will into King Ghidorah for a climactic showdown inspired by Destroy All Monsters (1968). By the end of the first cycle of tales, we also manage some emotional resonance with Minilla adopting a baby Rodan and managing to grow beyond his initial dopey failures. The jokes can grow somewhat stale, but the puppet designs and manipulations never fail to charm, and fans should enjoy the constant Easter eggs referencing the classics.

Generally, “Go! Go! Godzilla-Kun!” comes with a “Grandpa Hedo” short stuck on the end. “Grandpa Hedo” follows a very strict formula with rare divergences—an elderly Hedorah with a cane leads a child Hedorah (Hedochi) through a vaguely dark landscape (or through a part of Japan). Hedochi asks Grandpa Hedo a question (usually taken from suggestions in the comments), and Gramps gives a pithy answer. Then Hedochi jumps while belting out this kind of pun. In Japanese, he says “Naruhedoro”—a combination of “naruhodo” (I got it) and “hedoro” (sludge). I personally don’t find this section all that interesting. Grandpa Hedo’s wise sayings are usually pretty obvious and sometimes don’t really answer the question, and given that nothing really happens, and the “joke” generally has no real payoff, I just don’t find them funny.

TV Review: Godziban (Season 1)

The Mothra twin larva Moshu Moshu and Moshuu Moshuu have their own shorts, too—“Moshi Moth.” They only have one episode in the  first season, and it’s just a Japanese pun that goes on way too long. The idea is that each larva is talking into one end of a cup telephone—two paper cups connected by string. Each larva “speaks” by saying “moshu moshu” (the larvae are Godzilla-type Pokemon, basically), and the sound travels successfully through the string, and when the larva on the other side hears the voice, both larvae start squealing like pigs. Over and over again. Why is this funny? Well, “moshi-moshi” is a set phrase for answering the phone in Japan, and it sounds a bit like “moshu-moshu,” which is a cute name taken from the first two syllables from “Mothra” (Mosura) and made more childlike through the “sh” sound. It’s not really clever to be honest, but the puppet work is fun to watch—and we get a Battra larva showing up, too.

“Attention! Godzilla” is the most surreal section of the show and features a mix of live-action and puppetry. The title, which in Japanese is called “Kamatte Gojira,” comes from a nickname given to the waddling 2nd form of Godzilla in Shin Godzilla (2016). This hideous blood-spouting fishzilla is often called Kamata-Kun because we first see the creature when it rampages in the Kamata district of Tokyo. Thus, we get “kamatte”—the command form of the verb “kamau,” which has several meanings, but here refers to wanting attention. Most of these shorts feature girls and young women (real actors, not puppets) dealing with some difficulty in life (such as a tough ballet move or the rigors of office culture), and then finding a grotesque 2nd form Godzilla (renamed Kamachi) hissing and burbling like a rabid chihuahua. Instead of calling the exterminator, the girls and women inevitably take the nasty monster in as a pet and are inspired to work harder or overcome their suffering. Again, each episode tends to iterate on the same joke (ie, the repulsion of seeing these ladies hugging and adoring the horror-show 2nd form puppet)… but the joke wasn’t even funny to begin with. It’s largely just an exercise in the surreal, with little payoff except in the last episode of the first season. The last episode features a young woman bringing her boyfriend home to meet her father in order to receive his blessing on their marriage—but it turns out she has been dating a man with the head of Kamachi! The episode seems to be inspired by the play Godzilla by Yasuhiko Ohashi, which is an extended version of this same scenario in which another young woman is in love with Godzilla and is introducing the monster to her family, with profound ludicrousness as a result. The “Attention! Godzilla” short takes this premise and crystallizes it into a brief comedy exchange with a pretty hilarious payoff.

Finally, “Go! Jet Jaguar” is a sparsely animated short series—something like a partially animated comic book. In my opinion, as much as I love Jet Jaguar, this might be the weakest section of the entire first season. The general idea is that Jet Jaguar is at a conference being interviewed. Jet claims it’s important for robots to be able to grow giant, and then he has to embiggen himself to fight Megalon and help Godzilla. There are a series of gags about Jet downloading and installing fight software, and his method of growth. Now… the jokes about software are fine. They are funny, at least for a chuckle. But instead of telling the joke once, generally each episode includes the initial animation and joke from a previous episode, plus a slight continuation. If in one episode he grows to fight Megalon and stops to download a “fighting app,” in the next he does the same all over again, but this time also has to install the app, too. That’s the joke, that it takes Jet even longer to prepare to fight, and the other monsters are tired of waiting. There are some miniscule variations (with Jet’s gigantification being a joke in itself), but it’s a bit frustrating because it’s just the same thing again and again.

TV Review: Godziban (Season 1)

While my review above may sound very negative, in some ways, I am really enthusiastic about Godziban. I was inspired to purchase a Godziban t-shirt and several action figures, and I adore the very cute designs. Whenever I find some of the Godziban props at Godzilla-related events in Japan I get excited, and I even printed some Godziban sticker labels from the Tokyo Godzilla Store. The first season may have some problems with overly dry and samey jokes, but it nevertheless possesses outsized charm with the hugely entertaining voicework of the stars and appreciation for Godzilla fandom, plus integration of fan suggestions into the programming. While the show is not as clever and fun as I initially hoped from the premise, there is still a lot to enjoy here, especially if you like the simple and dorky humor that can be found in some of the Godzilla gag manga like Godzilla World and Godzilla-Kun. The ensuing seasons look to be levels of caliber more ambitious, with the addition of new characters and shorts, and I am looking forward to enjoying them, too.

3 and a Half Stars