?One of the rights of passage for children who grew up watching Japanese monster movies on weekend afternoons in the 1970s and 1980s was having to sit through an hour of boring human drama before getting to the monster fights. So much time wasted watching dubbed Japanese scientists blather interminably through press conferences, or so-called spies bumble through convoluted James Bond-style plots, before Godzilla finally stomped onto the screen and reminded us what real sound and fury is.
But while the monster scenes are always the big draw for any Godzilla film, the best of them also featured a compelling human story, with real characters (though they were usually more compelling when one was old enough to understand them; few six-year-old boys are going to understand the nuclear weapon allegory behind Gojira). Here are ten characters who managed to make those monster-free minutes just a little more bearable.
10) Yasuaki Shindo
Yasuaki Shindo (played by Yoshio Tsuchiya) was a military officer who, while facing from American forces in 1944, encountered a dinosaur on a deserted island near Japan. The dinosaur defeated the Americans and the Japanese troops escaped unharmed. Ten years later, a nuclear bomb mutated the dinosaur into Godzilla.
Decades later, one of those Japanese soldiers, Yasuaki Shindo, has become an immensely successful businessman in Japan’s postwar economy. But in a twist of fate, Godzilla, who rescued him so long ago, destroys the city he helped build and modernize, facing down Shindo himself in his skyscraper in a poignant scene from 1991’s Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah.
9) Princess Salno
1964’s Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster is often remembered as the movie where Godzilla finally becomes a good guy, but it also has a pretty interesting human story. It centers around Salno (Akiko Wakabayashi), a princess of a country whose rival is trying to assassinate her so they can absorb her into the Communist bloc. Somehow, she escapes an exploding plane.
She then becomes a prophet, dressing like a hobo and wandering around making dire predictions that repeatedly come true. It turns out she’s the descendant of ancient Martians (Venusians in the Japanese version). Her ancestral powers saved her from an exploding airplane, but wiped her memories of her human existence.
Side note: There’s a James Bond theme running through much of this list, so it’s worth noting Wakabayashi later appeared alongside Mr. Bond himself as Aki in You Only Live Twice.
Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero (1965, and also known as Invasion of the Astro Monster) was a co-production between Toho Studios and United Productions of America, an American film distribution company. In the spirit of this business collaboration, the resulting film featured a semi-famous American star, Nick Adams. Adams had recently been passed over for an Oscar and gone abroad for better roles.
While best known today for his friendships with James Dean and Elvis Presley, Godzilla fans know Adams as the wisecracking American astronaut Glenn from Monster Zero. While other Americans appeared before and after Adams in Japanese Godzilla films, they were usually amateurs at best. Adams was a trained actor and turns in a fun, if campy, performance as Glenn. He even gets a pretty steamy romance with alien babe Miss Namikawa (see #5 below).
Terror of Mechagodzilla was the last Godzilla film, made in ’75, before the franchise was rebooted with 1984’s Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985 in the U.S.). Toho held a company-wide contest to come up with the film’s story and the winner was Yukiko Takayama, the series’ first female writer.
This female perspective may be what gave the otherwise mediocre Terror of Mechagodzilla its most intriguing character: a young woman named Katsura (Tomoko Ai), whose mad scientist father offered his services to the evil alien bad guys in exchange for saving her life. Though she’s a cyborg slave to the aliens as well as the controller of MechaGodzilla, Katsura falls in love with the Interpol cop who’s been investigating her and ultimately sacrifices herself to save the world.
Oh, and in the Japanese cut of the movie, you see her boobs. She’s in the middle of being operated on and the boobs are rubbery-looking prosthetics, not the actress’s actual boobs, so…yeah, it’s all really weird.
Akira Takarada is one of the actors most associated with the Godzilla series. His six roles (all different characters) spanned over fifty years, and he appeared in both the first and (to date) last Godzilla film.
While he was compelling as Ogata in the original Gojira, Takarada probably never enjoyed a role as much as the dashing thief Yashi in the 1967 romp Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Originally conceived as a King Kong vehicle, Godzilla was swapped in when the rights to Kong fell through, while the human plot was borrowed from a James Bond film: Yashi and a group of hapless allies are shipwrecked on an island run by an evil military group bent on world domination (or something, I don’t know). Yashi (who remains nameless in the American dub, which was featured on MST3K) takes charge of his ragtag group and uses his thieving skills — and a little help from Godzilla and Mothra–to defeat the bad guys (and their fifty-foot lobster).
5) Miss Namikawa
As mentioned above, many of the 1960s Godzilla films borrowed quite a bit from another long-lived film franchise then in its infancy, the James Bond series. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero not only got a tough-talking protagonist in Nick Adams’s astronaut Glenn, but it also got a classic femme fatale in Miss Namikawa.
A double agent for the alien bad guys from Planet X (actually referred to as “Xians”) and an emotionless cyborg, Miss Namikawa is nonetheless unable to resist the charms of the American Glenn. Beautiful and memorable in her distinctive alien jumpsuit, Miss Namikawa became a fan favorite and is one of the few human characters from the Godzilla series to get her own toys.
4) Steve Martin
In truth, the character of Steve Martin isn’t very interesting; it’s why he exists at all that’s the story. Played by Raymond Burr, the character of Steve Martin was invented and inserted by an American production company into the original American release of Godzilla in 1955 in order to make the original Gojira more palatable for American audiences. Clever editing allows Martin to witness scenes between Japanese characters as if he were standing there (he refers to Dr. Serizawa as an “old college friend”), and later he reports on the destruction of Japan with Herbert Morrison-like awe.
Steve Martin was brought back thirty years later for Godzilla 1985. Once again, the character was inserted into the American version of the film, with Burr reprising the role. But instead of the clever editing of the 1955 version, Martin’s scenes take place entirely at an American military base, where he watches the destruction and makes a few cryptic comments to the incredibly irritating American characters. (He’s referred to only as “Mr. Martin,” since calling him “Steve Martin” in 1985 would have brought to mind arrow-through-the-head gags and The Jerk.) The sole thing that makes his appearance worthwhile is the sight of his grandson playing with the awesome Gojulas from the Zoids toyline, as Gojulas was a rip-off of Godzilla.
3) Miki Saegusa
While the original Gojira was a somber disaster film, later Godzilla movies incorporated a lot of fantasy and science fiction elements such as spaceships, aliens, bioengineering, and even psychic abilities. One of the most famous Godzilla film characters is Miki Saegusa, a teenaged psychic who appeared in all but one of the Heisei-era Godzilla films of the 1990s. She also represents the most frequently-appearing human character in Godzilla or any other kaiju series.
Throughout the movies Saegusa has an ambiguous psychic connection with Godzilla. She’s generally able to get a sense of where he is and what he’s doing. On at least one occasion, she commands him to leave an area, though doing so nearly puts her in a coma. Later in the series, she begins to have sympathy for the monster and become something of a friend to him.
2) The Shobijin
The Shobijin (referred to as the Cosmos in the Heisei Godzilla series and the Elias in the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy) are fairies who accompany and serve Mothra. Usually portrayed as twins, the Shobijin have been played by a number of different actresses over the years, but the best known are the singing duo known as the Peanuts who originated the roles in Mothra in 1961.
The Shobijin usually serve as liaisons or interpreters for Mothra and some of the other monsters (most notably during the “monster conference” in Ghidrah). They also sing songs in worship of Mothra and, more broadly, serve as an environmental and moral conscience to the human race in many of the films. Like Mothra, they bring a distinctly Japanese touch to their films among all the rampaging monsters and exploding buildings. To date, they’ve starred in Mothra, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, Godzilla: Tokyo SOS, and Godzilla: Final Wars.
1) Dr. Serizawa
Gojira is the first and arguably the best of all the Godzilla films. It’s a stark allegory on the horrors of nuclear war. Godzilla is neither the playful hero nor the complicated animal of the Showa and Heisei eras; he’s a force of nature, a mindless destructive presence who leaves the dead and dying behind in a miasma of lethal radiation.
And yet, according to Dr. Serizawa, the noble, haunted scientist of Gojira, the greatest threat to mankind is not Godzilla but, of course, itself. Godzilla is a product of man’s own hubris, a creation of the atomic age. Serizawa has created another weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer, which eliminates all oxygen (and evidently organic matter) in all water within its range. Serizawa agrees to use the weapon to defeat Godzilla, but before doing so he destroys all his notes and, in his final act, ends his own life so that no one can recreate the Oxygen Destroyer and use it as a weapon against humanity.
In both Gojira and the American re-release Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Akihiko Hirata’s performance is astounding. He portrays Dr. Serizawa as a conflicted man, haunted by the horrors he witnessed during the war (he even lost his eye in combat). His sacrifice is arguably the most famous and dramatic moment in any kaiju film.