Read: Part One, Read: Part Two.

The late 1990s marked a significant turning point for the Godzilla series. Following the release of the 1998 American adaptation directed by Roland Emmerich, which received mixed reviews and was seen by many as too far a departure from the essence of the originals, Toho Studios once again decided to bring the character back to his roots. This decision led to what could be seen, at least thematically, as a Heisei Era (1984 – 1995) sub-series, but has since come to be viewed as its own reboot, with each entry treated as a kind of anthology feature, with only the original 1954 film as a point of reference.

Godzilla himself was positioned familiarly as an awe-inspiring and uncontrollable presence that humanity could not fully understand or dominate.

The Millennium Era (1999 – 2004) aimed to revitalize the franchise in the wake of Emmerich’s film and the declining returns of the Heisei Era. The filmmaker tasked with renewing the property’s value was Takao Okawara, an industry veteran who had worked with the legendary Akira Kurosawa and original Godzilla director Ishirō Honda on the film Kagemusha (1980). Okawara had also been an assistant director on The Return of Godzilla (1984) before helming three of the later Heisei Era features in the 1990s. His 1992 entry, Godzilla vs. Mothra, was Japan’s highest-grossing film that year. However, his approach to movie-making was decidedly different from the likes of Honda, who was known to take the material with a fair amount of seriousness. According to Godzilla historian Patrick Galvan, Okawara believed that the filmmakers working on The Return of Godzilla “took it way too seriously” and should have “concentrated on making it a more entertaining movie” instead.

In 1999, Toho released Godzilla 2000: Millennium, the first film of the Millennium Era and apparently the death knell for Okawara’s career as a director, as he has not been credited with making another film since. It would be the last film of the series to receive a wide North American theatrical release until 2023’s Oscar-winning Godzilla Minus One, and was met with tepid box office returns on both domestic and international fronts. The critical consensus was also middling, with the general conclusion being that the film was competently made with some nifty special effects, but not much else to its name.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film was Shinichi Wakasa’s radical redesign of the titular character, thanks in no small part to the influence of Yuji Sakai (whose ultimately unused prototype for the 1999 film remains my favorite of the Japanese film designs). The “MireGoji” design would last for two films. It greatly enlarged and sharply angulated the dorsal plates along Godzilla’s back, giving them a mystical purple tint. The new design also amplified the character’s primal, reptilian features by making the scales more detailed and prominent.

Thematically, Godzilla 2000: Millennium maintained the Heisei Era’s fixation on the tension between human technological advancement and the natural world. The plot dealt with an ancient UFO discovered in the Japan Trench that sought to harness Godzilla’s regenerative powers to restore its alien occupants. Godzilla himself was positioned familiarly as an awe-inspiring and uncontrollable presence that humanity could not fully understand or dominate.

This new incarnation carried into 2000 with the release of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, which introduced the Dimension Tide, a weapon designed to create miniature black holes as a means to dispose of the kaiju. Both Godzilla 2000: Millennium and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus continued the Heisei Era trend of raising contemporary concerns about genetic engineering and the ethical implications of manipulating life at a fundamental level, reinforcing the franchise’s dominant motif of humanity’s quest for that which lies beyond the limits of human knowledge leading to unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences.

A significant turning point for the series came in 2001, with the release of Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (known usually as GMK). Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who had helmed the critically acclaimed Gamera trilogy (1995 – 1999), the film returned Godzilla to a more familiar design, while offering up what is, perhaps, the most thorough reinvention of the character’s origins to date.

[T]rue reconciliation between past traumas and present attempts at social and ethical renewal requires more than just powerful tools…

GMK reimagined Godzilla as a vengeful spirit embodying the collective souls of those lost during the Pacific Theater of World War II, bringing the supernatural to the fore of a series most commonly at home in the science fiction genre. This spiritual element developed a whole new dimension to the character, literalizing the metaphor of Godzilla as an agent of divine retribution. Depicting Godzilla as the transcendent embodiment of wartime suffering underscored the theme of judgment laced throughout the series since its origins, positioning the kaiju as a spectral and otherworldly force exacting vengeance on a nation that had yet to fully reconcile with the sins of its past.

The anthology approach of the Millennium Era allowed for such bold reinterpretations, providing filmmakers the creative freedom to explore different aspects of Godzilla’s character without the constraints of continuity. Ultimately, this structure enabled a kind of reflection on Godzilla’s legacy as both a cinematic icon and uniquely Japanese cultural export, alongside a renewal of the franchise’s values by emphasizing different thematic concerns with each film.

And, by this point in the series’ history, the weight of the past had become just as hard to ignore as the progression of the present. In the wake of GMK, there also seemed to be an emphasis on integrating past traumas into the narratives of the movies. This is seen clearly in the duology of films released in the wake of GMK, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), both directed by Masaaki Tezuka. These films, again set in their own timeline wherein only the events of the 1954 original film occurred, introduced Kiryu, a version of Mechagodzilla constructed from the bones of the original Godzilla, which created a tangible link between the past and the present.

This literal embodiment of the past allowed for a more complex narrative rich with implications about memory, legacy, and the dangers of allowing past traumas to influence current actions. Akane Yashiro (Yumiko Shaku), the protagonist of Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, had to navigate her own feelings of guilt and responsibility after inadvertently causing the deaths of a number of her comrades, paralleling the idea introduced in GMK of Japan grappling with its own historical wartime actions. The duology further critiqued the use of technological advancements to solve deeply rooted historical and moral issues, suggesting that true reconciliation between past traumas and present attempts at social and ethical renewal requires more than just powerful tools—a notion that even a large part of Western cinema still struggles to incorporate.

Is Godzilla a symbol for divine retribution against humankind? Yes. Is Godzilla an apocalyptic Christ-figure meant to fight on behalf of humanity against dark invaders? Also, yes.

The Millennium Era culminated with Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, which brought the films from this period to an epic conclusion with a story of apocalyptic proportions that further repositioned Godzilla as the protector of Earth and humanity. The narrative pitted him against an alien race, the Xiliens, who attempted to conquer Earth using an army of monsters. Serving as a celebration of Godzilla’s fiftieth anniversary, the film featured numerous callbacks to past movies and a host of kaiju from previous outings—even including a version of TriStar’s take on the character). Final Wars was a much more traditional spin on the material, shedding the overt supernatural elements that had wormed their way into the series since GMK. The end result was a well-made (if entirely familiar) movie that acknowledged Godzilla’s legacy and concluded a wildly uneven and highly experimental period of the franchise’s history.

Nevertheless, when looking back on the series, one gets the sense that Godzilla: Final Wars was a kind of period at the end of a sentence that had been started way back in 1954. The synthesis of various themes and elements from the franchise in that particular film served as a fitting conclusion to both the Millennium Era and, in a way, the entire Godzilla saga up to that point. The Millennium Era’s reflection on just what Godzilla was meant to represent acted as a kind of kaleidoscope through which all the disparate threads could be viewed, and the film effectively brought things full circle. Is Godzilla a symbol for divine retribution against humankind? Yes. Is Godzilla an apocalyptic Christ-figure meant to fight on behalf of humanity against dark invaders? Also, yes. Both portrayals exist side-by-side in the Millennium Era’s anthology films, and the added supernatural dimension demonstrates Toho’s willingness to revisit and reinterpret the series’ foundational elements.

This willingness to experiment would serve the series well going forward, as the franchise went dormant for nearly a decade following the release of Final Wars. Those ten years allowed Toho to rest the series and reflect on where the character could go next. Yet, had the Millennium Era not set the precedent for risk-taking through its innovative anthology format in an effort to reestablish the character’s identity, it is altogether unlikely Godzilla would have survived the coming of the twenty-first century. The subsequent decade-long hiatus underscores this notion, and highlights the Millennium Era as the definitive end to the first fifty years of Godzilla’s story, while paving the way for his eventual resurgence in the modern Reiwa Era.

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