But as there have been more than 30 movies over the past 65 years, the history and film continuity of the world's favorite nuclear-powered dinosaur has naturally become pretty complicated, if not downright convoluted. Luckily for anyone reading this, I've taken the burden of research upon myself (you're welcome ), and what better way to sort it all out than with a forum post?
Artwork by ULTRA-TAF, who has generously granted me permission to use their work. ありがとう!
The most basic thing to understand is that Toho Co., Ltd.'s first 28 kaiju (monster) movies are divided into several distinct eras, which are referred to as the Showa period (1954-1975), the Heisei period (1984-1995), the Millennium period (1999-2004), and now, the Reiwa period (2016-). Each period is more or less a single and separate continuity, but they all claim the original 1954 Gojira as their starting point. In addition, the 1998 Roland Emmerich film, Polygon's recent anime trilogy, and Legendary Pictures' current and ongoing "MonsterVerse" franchise are each a separate and self-contained continuity.
It's also worth noting that Toho was running with the concept of all their films sharing a single continuity over half a century before the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Gojira and the Showa Period: 1954-1975
The Showa era, and Godzilla's story, began in 1954 with Ishiro Honda's grim and somber original movie, which is by far the darkest and most serious film in the entire franchise. But as the character of Godzilla became more and more popular, particularly with children, the tone of the movies quickly became much more light-hearted and whimsical. Thus, what began as a bleak commentary on nuclear proliferation turned into an excuse for men in rubber dinosaur costumes to beat the crap out of each other and destroy miniature cities, because...well, let's be honest with ourselves: why wouldn't you do that? These are the movies I remember from my early childhood, and with the exception of the very first film, nearly all of them, particularly from 1962 forward, were aimed at a young audience. And make no mistake...I may be a Goji fan, but some of these movies are laughably awful, with All Monsters Attack, Hedorah, and Megalon being the most cringe-inducing, in my opinion. And while the rest are still campy as hell, most of them are at least entertaining, often in their own tongue-in-cheek way.
- Gojira, AKA Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954)
- Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
- Rodan (1957)
- Mothra (1961)
- King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
- Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
- Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
- Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
- Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, AKA Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
- Son of Godzilla (1967)
- Destroy All Monsters (1968)
- All Monsters Attack (1969)
- Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
- Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
- Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
- Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
- Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
After a nine year hiatus, the Heisei era began with 1984's Return of Godzilla, also known as Godzilla 1985. This series is much more serious and has a much tighter continuity than the Showa films, with recurring characters throughout and the plot of each movie picking up directly from where the previous one left off. To say nothing of having much higher production values across the board than the Showa films, thanks to advances in technology and special effects. That's not to say that there aren't still moments of extreme cheese (the American cyborg from the future in King Ghidorah...), especially looking back on them from 2019. Still, I think the Heisei series is arguably the best of Toho's live-action kaiju movies.
- The Return of Godzilla, AKA Godzilla 1985 (1984)
- Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
- Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
- Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)
- Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
- Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)
- Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
In 1998, following his success with Independence Day, director Roland Emmerich and TriStar Pictures attempted to launch a Hollywood franchise with a heavily redesigned, CGI version of Godzilla. And, well...they failed. Very, very badly. In fact, the movie was such a ridiculous farce that Toho employees reportedly walked out of screenings. Although it was ultimately a financial success worldwide, the box office numbers and critical reception were far below TriStar's expectations, and plans for future sequels were abandoned. Interestingly, however, Toho still owns the likeness of this version of Godzilla, and has, in fact, subsequently used it in other movies and media. But they refer to it, rather derisively, as simply "Zilla". The implication of that is exactly what it looks like.
- Godzilla (1998)
If it accomplished nothing else, the TriStar debacle spurred Toho to end their post-Heisei hiatus and begin the Millennium series, if for no other reason than to restore the Big G's dignity. The Millennium era is somewhat odd as it really is not a series in terms of plot or continuity, but rather is largely a group of standalone and unconnected movies. The exceptions to this being Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Tokyo S.O.S., which are directly linked to each other, but the rest...not so much. There isn't really a consistent tone or theme to them, either, other than having much better special effects than their predecessors. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah particularly sticks out in this respect, and from all of Toho's other movies for that matter, as it drastically rewrites the origins, histories and fundamental nature of all three characters. The two Mechagodzilla movies, on the other hand, heavily reference a number of Showa-period movies, but in terms of their overall tone, they feel more like they'd fit in with the Heisei era. Lastly, Final Wars, which was released almost exactly 50 years after the original Gojira and was the last "rubber suit" Godzilla movie Toho would ever make, is as gleefully and unapologetically campy as any of the Showa films, only with a much bigger budget.
- Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)
- Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
- Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
- Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
- Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
- Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
In 2014, 10 years after Toho's last movie and just in time for the 60th anniversary of the original 1954 film, Legendary Pictures and Monsters director Gareth Edwards made another attempt at bringing Godzilla to Hollywood...and this time, they got it right. Like the '98 TriStar version, this Godzilla is rendered entirely in CGI, but his overall design was deliberately kept much closer to Toho's original, iconic rubber-suit creation. More importantly, unlike TriStar, Legendary Pictures has treated Godzilla with a level of awe and respect that borders on reverence, as the character truly deserves. The success of the films have allowed them to craft an ongoing shared continuity (nicknamed the "MonsterVerse") for these and future movies, in the vein of the MCU...or, for that matter, in the model of the original Toho movies, before them. As you're probably aware, I've been a huge fan of these movies thus far, in spite of their questionable inclusion of a certain giant ape. And while I've had a lot of difficulty determining exactly what their reception has been like among Japanese audiences, I do know that Toho themselves are extremely happy with Legendary's take on Godzilla.
- Godzilla (2014)
- Kong: Skull Island (2017)
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
- Godzilla vs. Kong (2020)
I wasn't aware of this until recently, but apparently we've now entered the Reiwa era, by Japanese reckoning. However, it really isn't accurate to call this a "series" because all of the recent movies have their own continuities which are completely separate from the others. So, that's how I'm going to list them, at least for now. This may change when Toho starts churning out kaiju movies again, as they're planning to do starting in 2021.
Shin Godzilla: 2016
Inspired by Legendary Godzilla's 2014 debut, in 2016 Toho released a new movie of their own, their first since Final Wars, 12 years earlier. Originally called Godzilla: Resurgence, the international title was ultimately shortened to Shin Godzilla (literally, "New Godzilla"), a somewhat baffling decision since it has no meaning in English. Of much greater significance than the movie's title, however, was the fact that it was written and directed by Hideaki Anno...that's right, the same Hideaki Anno who created, wrote and directed Evangelion. (And boy, does it show, which can make for a pretty surreal viewing experience if you're a big enough EVA fan.) Even though it's a complete top-to-bottom reboot in every way, it's probably closer in tone and feel to the original Gojira than any other subsequent Godzilla movie, but updated for the Digital Age. The design of Godzilla himself was quite an extreme departure from all other previous iterations, however, as he actively mutated through three different bizarre and increasingly horrific CG-rendered forms over the course of the film. For the record, this was actually a really good movie. It met with near-universal acclaim among Japanese audiences and critics, received no fewer than ten nominations in the Japanese Academy Awards, and actually won both Picture of the Year and Director of the Year for 2016, which was a first for the entire franchise. However, Anno's "Shin-Goji" design proved to be a bit too radical, and Toho has stated that they have no further plans for this particular version of him.
- Shin Godzilla (2016)
Next, Toho and Polygon Pictures released three feature-length, animated theatrical movies over the following two years. Set in a distant future timeline, the story followed a desperate population of human refugees who return to a devastated Earth which has been ruled by Godzilla for 20,000 years. Although another extreme departure from the series' past, in many ways, this proved to be an outstanding trilogy of films in their own right, and were frankly much more compelling and memorable than I had expected them to be. I must also confess to having originally been somewhat wary of these movies due to Godzilla's design, which makes him look very plant-like, but this is actually not the case; he's simply covered in 20,000 years' worth of overgrowth and vegetation.
- Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)
- Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)
- Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018)