How 'Godzilla: King Of The Monsters' Draws From The Tradition Of Toho's Creature Features

At 8:55 a.m. on a Friday in the Tokyo suburbs, I sat down at my local Toho Cinemas multiplex to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It was a fitting location to be in: first, because Godzilla destroyed landmarks from this very city in his first movie appearance back in 1954, and second, because the Toho chain of theaters is a subsidiary of the company behind Godzilla. Its theater in Shinjuku — the last stop on the train line where I live — is even situated in a building that is topped with a life-size Godzilla head. A couple of days later, I would commune with the spirit of Godzilla at an 8th-floor terrace cafe with a direct view of the head, before going downstairs to rewatch the movie and takes some notes.

In November of this year, Godzilla will celebrate his 65th birthday. Right now, he's still averaging one new movie every two years here on his original stomping grounds. Toho's homegrown series of Japanese Godzilla films boasts thirty-two entries alone. There was a record break of twelve years between Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Shin Godzilla (2016). However, with the latter film, plus Netflix's anime Godzilla trilogy and two recent Legendary Pictures productions, the King of Monsters has been enjoying a global resurgence as of late.

Now, in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Hollywood has assembled its very own all-star kaiju flick, which draws from Toho tradition to present what USA Today called "the Avengers of giant creature features." For the first time in an American movie, the gang's all here: not just Godzilla, but also King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. Their appearance in King of the Monsters is informed by past appearances in Toho films, so if you've seen the movie and are curious to dive deeper into its ocean of references, then prepare to embark on a spoilery submarine expedition through Toho history.

Go, Go, Godzilla

Toho's film series has, within the same movie even sometimes, portrayed Godzilla as both an antagonistic force of nature and a defender of Earth against other kaiju. King of the Monsters is the sequel to a film that combined both character aspects into its story but leaned toward the latter M.O., pitting Godzilla against the MUTOs and having survivors on the ground cheer for him, with the San Francisco TV news hailing him as, "Savior of Our City."

In King of the Monsters, he's back to defending Earth again—if not its people, then at least, as characters in the Toho series have noted, the planet as his territory. This doesn't stop picketers, however, from protesting against him and his kind. In the movie, one of them can be seen holding a sign that reads, "Destroy All Monsters," a reference to the Toho title of the same name.

Like any good pro wrestlers, the kaiju in King of the Monsters get their own entrance songs to put us in the fight mood. Godzilla's comes when he resurfaces in the ocean, towering over a group of puny Monarch scientists on the deck of a submarine. It's a rousing scene that sees the monster return to fighting form after a bit of undersea recovery. As they say in the Blue Oyster Cult song, "Go, go, Godzilla."

Composer Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead) adapted Akira Ikufube's music theme from the original Toho classic, Gojira (1954), into his "Godzilla Main Title." The most recent film in the Toho series, Shin Godzilla (2016), did a similar thing, incorporating numerous Ikufube monster motifs into a score that commanded moments of majesty amid the maddening bureaucracy of ineffectual government officials onscreen.

Gojira's director, Ishiro Honda, lends his first name to Ken Watanabe's character in King of the Monsters. The character's last name, Serizawa, also comes from the eyepatch-wearing scientist in the first Toho film. The original Dr. Serizawa destroyed all his notes and sacrificed his life, taking the secret to a device called the Oxygen Destroyer with him.

In Gojira, his invention of this device and decision to use it once and only once against Godzilla was more of a vital plot point. In King of the Monsters, the device shows up out of nowhere and if you're not familiar with it as a piece of franchise history, you might be left thinking its name is just an inelegant turn of phrase on the part of the screenwriters.

It's worth noting that King of the Monsters takes its very title from the 1956 American re-edit of Gojira. That version inserted Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr into the film, making him the new main character even though he had nothing to do most of the time besides sit there on the sidelines and be a relatable Western face, nodding along with events from the superior Japanese cut.

All Hail King Ghidorah

Godzilla: King of the Monsters may be the title of the movie but there are two monster kings in it and they aren't exactly friends. Neither is it Godzilla that Charles Dance's character, Col. Jonah, is talking about when he deadpans the line, "Long live the king."

Although he's never explicitly referred to as "King Ghidorah" in the movie (except in the closing credits, where he's listed as playing "Himself" along with the other three main monsters), Ghidorah is classified as a second apex predator among the Titans. This makes him a contender for the throne of the earth ... until we learn that he's a "false king," not of this world at all.

That's right: Ghidorah, Godzilla's old Toho arch-enemy, is an oversized extraterrestrial in this film, just as he was 55 years ago when he made his first appearance in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964). As recently as the Netflix trilogy ender Godzilla: The Planet Eater, we saw Ghidorah flying in from outer space via a wormhole.

Of course, it takes a while before Dr. Illene Chen, played by Zhang Ziyi, introduces the name Ghidorah into the mix. Until then, he goes by the designation "Monster Zero."

This is pulled from his second appearance in Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965). In that movie, a group of humanoid aliens called the Xiliens controlled Ghidorah, whereas in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), he did the bidding of a group of 23rd-century humans called the Futurians.

There's a somewhat funny xenophobic streak to Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (funny if only because of how brazen it is). The film went direct-to-video in the U.S. years after its release in Japan and you can very much see how it was made for the market of an ethnically homogenous country where foreigners were not to be trusted. The Futurians and their killer robots are mostly Caucasian males, who slowly reveal themselves to be evil time travelers, bent on rewriting the past to prevent Japan's economic ascendancy.

Blowing these guys up is one thing, but when the camera lingers on American soldiers lying dead on the beach, and when it then cuts to the U.S. Navy cheerily abandoning those soldiers after one missed radio call, it's not hard to see why Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was accused of anti-Americanism. It just goes to show that the ethnocentrism cuts both ways.

In its own way, King of the Monsters — this American Godzilla movie — upholds that same spirit of ethnocentrism. It adopts a Caucasian male (Kyle Chandler) as its lead, letting his character command the center of attention in every situation as he channels his Type-A personality into aggressive dialogue. Meanwhile, the movie dispatches its one Japanese character, the aforementioned Dr. Serizawa, by way of a plot device that I have taken to calling "the nuke biscuit."

In its post-credits scene, King of the Monsters shows us Col. Jonah retrieving one of Ghidorah's severed heads. This may be setting up the wacky cyborg dragon Mecha-King Ghidorah (who also appeared in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah) for a future installment in the MonsterVerse. Godzilla vs. Kong vs. Mecha-King Ghidorah?

Make Room for Mothra and Rodan

Like Godzilla, Mothra is a creature that the Toho series has often depicted in a heroic light. In King of the Monsters, the only reason she starts lashing out at humans in her larval form is because Monarch's security personnel provoked her by shooting her.

Titanus Mosura is the designation that one Monarch scientist gives Mothra. It may sound Latin but the second part of that name, Mosura, corresponds to the Japanese version of Mothra's name.

Sure, Ghidorah gets his own boss theme with booming drums and chanting, but "Mothra's Song" is the real musical highlight of King of the Monsters. This song is famous in Japan, even among non-fans of Godzilla. The film utilizes an instrumental version of it but if you close your eyes and imagine, you might be able to hear twin fairy voices, carried along the breeze of movie memory, singing, "Mahara Mothra."

The Shobijin, which translates literally as "small beauties," were indeed twin fairies who acted as priestesses for Mothra in several Toho films. They spoke on behalf of the winged kaiju and could summon her by way of song.

The Super X set a precedent for airborne, Godzilla-fighting labs in the Toho series; in King of the Monsters, this vehicle is reimagined as the sleek Argo, Monarch's mobile command center. If you were confused by Dr. Chen being in two places at once (she's shown at an outpost and on the Argo in back-to-back scenes), it's because she's a third-generation Monarch twin.

The way it's edited, it almost seems like there might have been a deleted subplot involving Chen's sister and an older version of the character Houston Brooks, played here by Joe Morton and in Kong: Skull Island by Corey Hawkins. As it is, we see pictures of Chen's grandmother, who also has a twin, on an island in 1961.

This was the year of Mothra's first movie. She and her son have headlined their own films and it's a safe bet that the second Mothra egg teased in a closing-credits headline is setting up his birth or that of a possible Mothra daughter.

In addition, the outpost where we first meet Mothra in King of the Monsters is also numbered 61, and Castle Bravo, Monarch's flagship ocean facility, is numbered 54, the year of Godzilla's first movie. Outpost 61 is stationed inside the Temple of the Moth, where it's clear from the bas relief on the wall that Mothra was once an object of worship among humans.

In terms of real-world fan base, she's second only to Godzilla among Toho's creations. Having a female kaiju definitely broadens the franchise appeal ... in Japan, her 1992 appearance in Godzilla vs. Mothra (not to be confused with Mothra vs. Godzilla, which is a different entry) helped drive ticket sales for the Toho series to a place they had not been since back in the 1960s.

Director Michael Dougherty talked last year about how Rodan, as depicted in the series, has "been kind of a sidekick character." This is borne out by Rodan's behavior in King of the Monsters. First, Ghidorah subjugates him, making him his kaiju henchman. Then, Rodan is shown bowing to Godzilla at the end.

King of the Sidekicks? In Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Rodan emerged from volcano mines near Mount Aso in Kyushu, Japan. King of the Monsters transplants the location to a place on the other side of the earth called Isla de Mara, where Rodan awakens from his "pyrostasis" to take ownership of the skies.

You're probably wondering, "Donde esta la Isla de Mara?" Well, it's a fictional city in the Mexico of the MonsterVerse, so no need to worry about it being devastated by the sonic thunderclaps of Rodan flying overhead.

“Big in America”

Now that we're done inspecting Easter egg specimens — or Mothra egg specimens, as the case may be — I'd like to return to the scene of 8:55 a.m. on a Friday at Toho Cinemas. As I settled into my seat to watch King of the Monsters on its opening morning in Japan, I had already begun to form a shaky hypothesis that Godzilla is what you might call "big in America."

If you're familiar with the phrase "big in Japan," then you might appreciate that there's a whiff of condescension to it. It's like hearing someone chime in about "first-world problems." Semantically speaking, it reduces the importance of something from American pop culture by consigning it to the far-flung outpost of this foreign country whose tastes are obviously more eccentric than that of the speaker.

As I see it, "big in America" is not quite the same as "small in Japan"—the existing derivative term for a Japanese celebrity who achieves success internationally but is virtually unknown in his or her home country. It's more like being the reverse Cheap Trick, by which I mean, a thing that started out big in America before gaining increased popularity at home.

Outside Toho Studios in Setagaya, Tokyo, there's a huge mural of Godzilla, which is complemented near the guard gate by a Godzilla statue and another huge mural of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. In its obituary for him, The Los Angeles Times noted how Kurosawa was "often described as the 'most western' of Japanese directors." Audiences in his home country held him at somewhat of a distance until he started to gain more international recognition with his 1950 masterpiece Rashomon.

Then the tide turned, eventually making Kurosawa's name a source of national pride ... for film-lovers, at least. It helped inspire Star Wars and the early career of Clint Eastwood, but even today, you might see that name met with a shrug in parts of Tokyo unless you were talking to a true cinephile.

So it goes with Godzilla. My first King of the Monsters screening was in one of the bigger auditoriums at a theater in Fuchu, Tokyo, yet it was less than half-full and I don't think this can be attributed solely to the hour of day. The logic of matinee prices is inverted in Japan. At Toho Cinemas, it's actually the late showings — after 8 p.m. — that are cheaper. Land of the Rising Sun and all that.

I was with the missus at the very first showing of this movie in our (admittedly suburban) corner of the capital and it was a smattering of mostly middle-aged and older Japanese men that surrounded us. A good number of them were sitting alone.

By Monday, Variety would be running articles about how Godzilla now looks to be a fading franchise, even in the states. It would also be reporting that King of the Monsters had earned $8.4 million on its opening weekend in Japan. Most of its money at the international box office came from China, where it drew in $70 million.

Contrast this with its $49 million opening in the U.S. The size of China's population — at 1.4 billion, it's the world's largest — plays a big part in its box office numbers, but Japan's population is about a third of America's and yet King of the Monsters only took in about a sixth of the box office revenue here.

Crunching these numbers, a picture begins to form of a franchise that is more popular abroad than at home—at least when it's in the fumbling hands of American movie studios.

It goes without saying that statistics, coupled with one American expat's anecdotal evidence, aren't enough to negate a beloved pop culture icon in his home country. However, if you went around asking Tokyoites (which I inquisitively did with an air microphone for the rest of the film's opening weekend), you might be surprised how many of them would profess to having never in their lives sat down and watched a single Godzilla movie. They might have caught bits of one on TV but Godzilla isn't necessarily a property that holds the same mass appeal here as Marvel movies do in the states.

As insane as it sounds, people don't always like seeing their city destroyed or watching monsters fight like pro wrestlers. The very idea of Godzilla is as divorced from their everyday reality as the concept of cowboys would be to those of us U.S. citizens who don't listen to country music or watch an abundance of Westerns.

One person I asked told me that he thought Godzilla had been influenced by King Kong (1933), and I suddenly felt like an idiot because I'm supposed to be a movie blogger but it hadn't even occurred to me, in my Japan-centric love of Godzilla, that King Kong pre-dated Gojira and was a major influence, the way the Westerns of John Ford were an influence on Kurosawa's samurai films.

If you dig back into the Godzilla franchise's history, you'll find that Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka deliberately set out to emulate the likes of King Kong and give Japan its own giant monster movie. Thus a new King of the Monsters, Godzilla, was born. As the song lyric goes, "What's a king to a god?"

Don't get me wrong: of the people I spoke to on opening weekend, some of them — mostly retired guys — did have fuzzy memories of growing up with Godzilla movies. They couldn't usually recall which monster they had seen Godzilla fight, because let's face it: he's fought so many over the years. The word "versus," accompanied by an opposing monster's name, has become a regular feature of his film titles.

To the adult Taro Tanaka (the Japanese equivalent of a generic name like John Smith), King of the Monsters might very well seem like something "for Americans." It's a Hollywood movie, after all, and as we've seen with its J-horror remakes and live-action anime adaptations, Hollywood has a way of removing the soul from the thing.

Whether or not you believe that that's what happened with King of the Monsters this weekend, the movie clearly comes from a place of geeky affection. It may not be perfect, but it's too dense with references to other Godzilla films to be written off as anything less than kaiju-literate.

Put that in your nuke biscuit (and feed it to Godzilla).