As writers, we can only dream about the sort of success the Godzilla series has seen. I mean, the first film came out 60 years ago. There are thirty movies, tons of merchandize, videogames, comics, and novels, too! Godzilla has been through a lot of ups and downs over the years, but the creation has staying power.
Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the big guy...
1) Don’t be afraid to evolve to meet the audience’s demands—In the 1954 original, Godzilla was depicted as the walking embodiment of the nuclear bomb. What the beast brought to Tokyo was a glimpse not only of horrors past, but of a potential apocalyptic future. Less than a decade later, Godzilla movies were full of humor, wonder, and escapism. The message of nuclear holocaust was sidelined in favor of monster fights, likable heroes, and a softer Godzilla. The dark origins of the monster were touched on here and there, but for a while there Godzilla became a giant superhero, thus satisfying the demands of children (of all ages) who wanted to root for the monster instead of fear him. There’s a lesson here. I love the original film – it’s a grim masterpiece and one of the best sci-fi/horror movies of all time. I would not have minded if more Godzilla films were made in a similar tone. However, I have no doubt that the shift in tone is what allowed the series to go on as long as it has. Get an idea of what your audience wants and do your best to deliver.
2) Monsters and metaphors—Science fiction and horror give us the chance to tackle the problems of the day in an indirect way, allowing us to have our message without being pretentious about it. This is important. If you talk to someone for an hour about what you feel is wrong with the world, then chances are they will only hear some annoying buzzing in their ear. However, if you disguise your message as a monster, an alien invader, an invention, fictional political unrest, or whatever, then you’ll sneak your message in there without people getting bored by it. With any luck, it’ll take hold. This is especially good for young readers, as they’re more willing to learn a lesson from a monster.
3) Crank that shit out—The film industry of Japan was a well-oiled machine in the 1960s. There was one year where Japan’s output outmatched even Hollywood’s (right now, the Japanese film industry is in the dumps, but that’s a lesson for another day). You could pretty much count on a new Godzilla film every year – sometimes two new films! – not to mention other similar kaiju epics. Toho found something that audiences loved and the studio supplied the demand. Only when the money started to run out did you notice a dip in quality. Otherwise these were some damn fine films that people still watch today. If your audience wants your next book/movie/sequel/work, give it to them. Don’t sit on it forever. No dillydallying. Give us more and give it to us NOW. Stephen King understands. John Grisham gets it. Marvel knows what I’m talking about. Takashi Miike does his thing. George RR Martin? Well…
4) Don’t recycle—Toho’s money started to run out in the 1970s. The Japanese film industry was getting killed off by TV. Film studios were shut down. Toho marched on, though I don’t think it will ever return to the greatness it once was in the 50s and 60s. Godzilla continued, also, but on a smaller budget than before. Listen: Recycling will save the world. Maybe. I mean, right? Well, yes, recycling is good for Mother Earth – but it has no place in your fiction. Godzilla films from the 70s period were fond of reusing footage from earlier films as a way of cutting costs. The problem was, we came to these movies for monster action, and we’ve seen those shots before. It’s the literary equivalent of copying cool stuff from an earlier book and pasting it into the new one. DON’T DO THAT. Even if your ‘recycling’ is not as severe as a copy-and-paste job, you should know that your audience remembers stuff. Other Godzilla films that did not recycle footage still managed to recycle ideas. We noticed. And though not as unforgivable as using stock footage, the use of ‘stock ideas’ is kind of lame. Throw your aluminum in the properly marked can, but don’t recycle your ideas.
5) The shift from villain to anti-hero—Godzilla used to want to kill everybody. Then he started saving the world. This wasn’t overnight. And, in my opinion, it didn’t feel forced. Godzilla, at his best, is one of the better examples of an anti-hero in all of filmdom. You’ve got this behemoth that sets cities ablaze but still manages to save the day in the end, almost as if his heroics were accidental. And I like that. People dig the rogue. If you and your audience love your villain and he’s something that you feel you can turn into a heroic figure, I say go for it. Just be mindful that you don’t change him so much that you destroy what we liked about him in the first place. Like, you can change a tiger’s stripes but don’t remove his claws. Hmm. Yes, something like that.
6) Recognize when the hero can step back—Godzilla is not the star of all of his films. Actually, a great deal of them feature other monsters more than Big G. Sometimes a supporting character takes off in a way you’d never expect. Don’t smother them, let them share the spotlight with the central lead. Sometimes one likable hero is not enough to keep people coming back. Recognize the talent of your roster and give ‘em time to shine.
7) The Shinichi Sekizawa approach—The common monster story formula goes something like this: Monsters mess shit up and people gotta fix it. Screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa came up with a new formula: People mess shit up and monsters gotta fix it. Sekizawa managed to save an increasingly tired genre by turning it on its head. Look for a way to do the same.
8) Crossovers—A couple of the most profitable Godzilla films of all time are Godzilla vs. Mothra and King Kong vs. Godzilla. What do they have in common? Both Mothra and Kong started out with their own movies before meeting up with Godzilla. Consider this: you’ve written multiple works and have noticed different people are gravitating towards two different series/characters. Why not write something where those characters either team up or are pitted against one another? You may succeed in bringing fans from either series together, thus doubling your audience.
9) Let’s all get along—I like dark, brooding works of fiction, but it need not always be that way. Director Ishiro Honda believed in the best of humanity, despite having seen some of the worst of it in WWII. In his films, he was fond of depicting the world coming together to solve its problems. Angst is popular (look at Batman) but aren’t we a little tired of everybody trying to do the same thing with the ‘dark and gritty’ approach? Think about this simple truth: It is a good thing to stand out from the pack.
10) Have some fun—There’s this thing about Godzilla films that I love but do not fully understand, this sort of childlike innocence on display. It cancels out my inner critic. I just sit back and smile. I’m a cynical guy by nature so this is no easy task. These films tapped into something that I cannot define, but I have learned something from the experience anyway: simply, have some fun. Smile a little. Enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. And whenever possible, try to tap into your child at heart. It’s important. If you’re not having fun with your creative endeavors, then you gotta fix that.
And that's that.
(image from 1954 film Godzilla AKA Gojira AKA Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Godzilla is owned by Toho Co., Ltd. Please don't sue me, lawyers of Toho. Okay? Thank you)
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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