In a week, Toho's long awaited return to a Godzilla production will hit American theaters and fans will undoubtedly spend the better part of the next year debating its merits. (Not unlike a certain Hollywood production from two years ago.) As we dive head first into that mayhem, it seems appropriate to revisit Toho's last era of Godzilla films.
The six chapter Millennium Series ended twelve years ago and since then Toho remained fairly hands-off with the franchise until Legendary Pictures took a crack at it. The third series' inception and subsequent box office disappointments aren't particularly a mystery, but its middling reputation begs for another look.
“There was no understanding of the property and what it was all about. The Sony executive team that took over Godzilla was one of the worst cases of executive incompetence I have observed in my twenty year career. One of the golden assets of our time, which was hand-delivered to them, was managed as poorly and ineptly as anybody can manage an asset. They took a jewel and turned it into dust.” - Co-Executive Producer Robert N. Fried, Godzilla (1998) (1)
Toho employees and crew members, who had worked on the Godzilla series, echoed fan disappointment with Tristar's Godzilla. One spokesperson lamented, “The shape of the American version of Godzilla was so different from the Japanese version that there was a clamor among fans and company officials to create a Godzilla unique to Japan.” Toho answered that clamor on December 14th, 1998, when they announced that Godzilla: Millennium would be entering pre-production. (1) Originally, Toho had no interest in reviving Godzilla until 2005. “We had a feeling that after seeing Tristar's film, we couldn't keep silent until 2005,” explained Heisei Godzilla Series Producer Shogo Tomiyama, confirming Toho's new production was a response to the American film. (2)
Eventually known as Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), Tomiyama set out to rectify what the 1998 movie failed to do. “When we decided to remake the Godzilla film, I wanted to bring back the mystery and invincibility that the monster had initially. I want people to leave the theater totally mystified and overwhelmed by Godzilla's force.” (1) It wasn't two months after the disappointing Japanese release of Godzilla '98 that Tomiyama had regrouped talent from the recent Toho entries. Takao Okawara, director of the highest grossing Heisei films (Godzilla vs. Mothra , Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II  and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah ) was tapped to reboot the character he was all too familiar with. (2)
Critical of the Tristar movie, Okawara found it hard to call the 1998 iteration “Godzilla” and complained the creature was too synthetic. Instead his vision aligned with Tomiyama's, “The essence of Godzilla's character is indestructibility. So since we are starting a new series, we decided to show the proper Godzilla.” (1) It would, however, be Okawara's last foray in the series.
Tomiyama's initial plan for the Millennium Series was a tightly knit trilogy, free of the Heisei continuity. So it comes with a touch of irony that he elected the previous era's B and C string screenwriters to tackle the reboot. Wataru Mimura (Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II) and Hiroshi Kashiwabara (Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla ) were quick to fall back on ideas that had been explored over the last decade: An anti-hero Godzilla facing off against a beast born of his own genes. (2)(3)
Although the new film had recruited previously used talent, the visual effects department received a major personnel change. Heisei Series special effects wizard Koichi Kawakita had retired after 1997's Mothra 2. Taking over for Mothra 3 (1998) was his protege and chief assistant director, Kenji Suzuki. (2) Suzuki was a breath of fresh air after nearly a decade of his mentor's style—Although the end result of Mothra 3 left much to be desired, his experimental compositing and use of digital effects had promise. Thus, he was entrusted to bring the “millennium” Godzilla to life.
Heisei Godzilla suit designer Tomomi Kobayashi was also replaced by Shinichi Wakasa. Known for building the 1993 Rodan, SpaceGodzilla and Destoroyah, Wakasa had never tackled the King of the Monsters until now. (2)(3) He created the new Godzilla based on Yuji Sakai's concept and input from Okawara, Tomiyama and Suzuki. “Listening to those three was very difficult,” Wakasa admitted, “They all had different opinions, 'make the head smaller, make the fins larger, make the tail longer,' that kind of thing.” (2)
Wakasa's Godzilla was the first in the series to be green, as opposed to charcoal grey, and sported metallic silver fins with purple tips. This iteration was also the first to have an orange ray for its standard atomic blast. (The Heisei Godzilla would occasionally fire a red “Spiral Ray”, but it was usually reserved for special occasions.)
Although the suit is generally favored by fans today, it was initially met with division—Some fans dubbed it “Frogzilla” and others claimed it was another GINO (Godzilla In Name Only, as the 1998 creature was christened by Richard Pusateri). (1) The reaction could be attributed to succumbing to a stereotype. Most fans understand that Godzilla is not green nor does he breathe fire, but westerners tend to think otherwise. (7)(3) Changing the color of his skin to green and his ray to a fiery orange enhanced the western perception of a green, fire breathing lizard, instead of a radioactive, prehistoric creature.
This sort of western pandering runs rampant throughout the film. Okawara has long been guilty of inserting scenes in his films that aped stronger, Hollywood films: In Godzilla vs. Mothra Takuya Fujita steals a precious artifact from a collapsing temple while sporting a jacket and hat likely bought from Indiana Jones' favorite shop. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah shamelessly “borrows” from Aliens (1986), as an armed squad attempts to weed out Aggregate Destoroyahs in an industrial complex. “Any footage featuring a battle between a military force and a monster like Destroyer would be reminiscent of Aliens,” Okawara explained, “I generally am hesitant to include footage in a film if it will remind the members of the audience of some other film, but in the case of the Metropolitan Police vs. Destroyer sequence, I said, 'Why not?'” (9)
Okawara's 'why not?' mentality was in full force for much of Godzilla 2000: Millennium. This time the movie being pulled for reference was none other than Tristar's Godzilla. “A shot of a scientist standing in a footprint, Godzilla's landfall announced by a bulge in the water as his dorsal fins begin to break the surface tension, a sequence in which Godzilla chases a car through a tunnel,” are all poached from the 1998 movie. (2) Even Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Independence Day (1996) gets sourced when a UFO casts a shadow over dumbfounded bystanders.
There's a couple of ways to look at this cribbing; David Kalat asserts it's, “self-consciously a reply to that film, [Tristar's Godzilla, and] an exercise in prideful one-upmanship.” (2) Indeed the film runs like a backhand to Hollywood's maligned attempt, but those same visual cues wouldn't have been chosen had there not been an undercurrent of admiration for them. Okawara gets specific with his Hollywood inspiration, straight down to Silence of the Lambs' (1991) influence on Fujita's imprisonment in Godzilla vs. Mothra. (10) His visual eye seems to be great at catching what others have done well, but he's short on those ideas himself. It's hard to think of a world where Godzilla 2000: Millennium might exist without the 1998 movie's influence. Had such a version been made would it include sequences (admittedly well executed) like Godzilla's spines emerging through the water at high speed?
Regardless of how or why these reminiscent sequences were included, they at least inhabit a film that is undoubtedly Godzilla—To a fault. Other Heisei Series tropes, such as characters becoming useless in the third act while watching a climactic battle from a roof (ala, Godzilla vs. Mothra) and creatures tied to Godzilla's cells/regenerative abilities highlight the film as if Mimura and Kashiwabara had run out of ideas. To their credit, it's still probably one of their more mature efforts as the writers take a new spin on the alien invasion trope. Instead of humanoid extraterrestrials controlling monsters for world domination, the alien organism is the monster. While other franchises, such as Ultraman, have plundered this idea before, Godzilla 2000: Millennium features a creative shift for how aliens engage Godzilla. What if alien organisms aren't anthropomorphic? And what if they regard Godzilla as the ultimate life form?
The issue regarding Godzilla's relationship with the extraterrestrial is tackled by three perspectives working in the same field: Yuji Shinoda (Takehiro Murata), Mistuo Katagiri (Hiroshi Abe) and Shiro Miyasaka (played by cult actor Shiro Sano). Shinoda feels Godzilla is a wealth of knowledge that should be studied, while Katagiri feels he's best left for dead. Miyasaka falls somewhere in between. The conflict largely works, even with the odd juxtaposition of Murata's sincere performance against Abe's over-the-top antagonism.
Abe's Katagiri has hints of obsession that are never fully explored, but interesting to watch. His hatred for Godzilla is never explained, but he's written like a samurai given a “simple” mission to stop the monster. This throwback to the samurai code comes full circle when Katagiri realizes he can not accomplish his mission. Coming to terms with his failure, Katagiri lights up a cigarette and watches Godzilla approach him. The other characters look on as Shinoda tries to save him, but Katagiri notably doesn't want to be saved. His apparent suicide plays out like an execution by Godzilla—A subtle nod to seppuku (or “harakiri” to most westerners) following the dishonor of a samurai.
Coming off a generous $12 million budget, the most expensive Toho Godzilla production at the time, Godzilla 2000: Millennium opened in Japan, December 11th, 1999 to a meager audience of 2 million. (3)(4)(5)(6) The film didn't flop, but Toho expected more—And they got more. Tristar Pictures was still trying to figure out what to do with their slowly deteriorating sequel to the 1998 movie. One option they considered was going for a full reboot. Sony executive Jeff Blake, felt that putting Godzilla 2000: Millennium in North American theaters would buy them time to decide what to do with their Godzilla rights. “It struck me as a very marketable idea,” said Blake. (1)
Sony vice-president of Repertory Sales and Acquisitions, Michael Schlesinger would spearhead the “Americanization” of what would be retitled simply, Godzilla 2000. Opting not to use Toho's international dub, Schlesinger re-dubbed the film from scratch, beefed up the sound design and snipped some minor shots. “It was absolutely not our intention to spoof or degrade Godzilla in any way,” Schlesinger confirmed, “[we wanted to] improve the film and do so with honorable intent.” (11) In addition to the minor cuts, some new music by J. Peter Robinson were included to punch up the action sequences, particularly the final battle. His work includes his own rendition of Akira Ifukube's Godzilla Theme with cues from his 1998 television film, Gargantua. (12)(13) Okawara and Toho were so thrilled with Schlesinger's re-version, that they used it in territories where it had yet to open and even screened it in Tokyo the week before Godzilla x Megaguirus: The G Annihilation Strategy (2000). (2)(14)(16)
Pulling in just over $10 million in the United States, Godzilla 2000 was considered a modest success for Sony/Tristar, but a major win for Toho. (2)(15) For the first time in fifteen years they had breached the overseas theatrical market with their own film. However, something wasn't right. Godzilla 2000: Millennium failed to draw in numbers of the late Heisei Series and there was no guarantee Sony/Tristar would be there to maximize the profits of a sequel—The American theatrical release of Godzilla 2000 was an anomaly. With Okawara officially done with the Godzilla series, changes needed to be made. Tomiyama would abandon his idea for a trilogy, but move forward with the latest cycle while hunting down new talent. Enter Masaaki Tezuka. (2)
You can review Godzilla 2000 on Scified by clicking here.
1) Godzilla Unmade: The History of Jan de Bont's Unproduced Tristar Film - Part 4 of 4 - Kieth Aiken
2) A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, 2nd Edition - David Kalat
3) Japan's Favorite Mon-Star, The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G" - Steve Ryfle
4) Who Needs High-tech Gadgetry? We have... 'Godzilla 2000'! - Philly.com
5) World of KJ, Japanese Box Office, from member Corpse, sourced from Kogyutsushin
6) Toho Kingdom - Godzilla 2000
7) Dinosaurs: The Textbook - Spencer G. Lucas
8) Hanna Barbara Godzilla
9) Takao Okawara Interview III - David Milner
10) Takao Okawara Interview I - David Milner
11) Monster Zero, Talkback #23: Godzilla 2000, from member Mike S. (Michael Schlesinger)
12) Gargantua (59m,34sec)
13) Robinson's Godzilla theme (1m, 38sec)
14) Godzilla 2000 DVD Audio Commentary
15) Box Office Mojo - Godzilla 2000
16) The Godzilla Sequel That Wasn't - Steve Ryfle
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