What Is a Kaiju? Atomic Breath, Huh? An A-Z Glossary of the Godzilla Franchise

Photo: Toho Company; Universal Pictures; Tristar; Hanna-Barbera

In today’s age of easily disposable — and easily forgotten — pop-culture ephemera, Godzilla represents something rare: stability. Since 1954, there have been 31 films about Godzilla. Gareth Edwards’s new movie is the 32nd. The monster has also found time to conquer multiple TV programs, toy lines, video games, comic books, and commercials. Though not every one of these properties has found success, they’ve helped keep the fictional monster’s popularity intact, continuously feeding its hungry fan base while also exposing it to a new group of viewers.

As the newest incarnation of Godzilla opens, we wanted to give you an overview of the entire franchise — at least without having to sift through hundreds of hours of programming. Below, Vulture presents some of the most important terms from Godzilla’s 60-year existence.

Anguirus: Godzilla’s first official rival. This 30,000-ton spiked monster popped up in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, the sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla movie. Though Godzilla defeated Anguirus, the two kaiju would become allies in subsequent movies.

Atomic Breath: Godzilla’s signature weapon. The atomic breath is a ray of white-hot radiation that the monster kaiju can direct at his enemies or, on occasion, use to fly.

Big Five, the: Also referred to as “Toho’s Big Five” (Toho is the company that created Godzilla), this group of monsters includes Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, and Rodan. They were given the title due to their numerous appearances in the Godzilla franchise.

Biollante: A monster from the film Godzilla vs. Biollante. Quite possibly the ugliest of Godzilla’s enemies, Biollante is the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong.

Comics: Godzilla has appeared in dozens of comic books in both Japan and America. In the U.S., he has been published under Marvel, Dark Horse, and IDW.

Destoroyah: Another Godzilla rival. Destoroyah’s first appearance was in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. However, his origins can be traced back to the original movie. When Japanese military used the Oxygen Destroyer (a weapon of mass destruction) to take down Godzilla, it ended up birthing this 393-foot crablike organism with bat wings.

Emmerich, Roland: Director of 1998’s disastrous Godzilla. Though Emmerich’s film found moderate success at the box office, it was lampooned by critics and has since been relegated to the discount DVD bin at Walmart. In a 2014 interview with HuffPost Entertainment, Emmerich himself admitted some of the mistakes he made going into production. “It was … probably, a situation that I was a little bit talked into it,” he said. “Also, I’m not really a fanboy. So, I was changing Godzilla. The original, how Godzilla looked, didn’t make sense to me.”

Godzilla (1954): The first film of the Godzilla franchise, released in 1954 to critical and commercial acclaim. The film would be “Americanized” (read: dubbed in English and with an American star, Raymond Burr, inserted) two years later and re-titled as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Also worth noting: The name Godzilla came from the Japanese word gojira, a combination of the words gorira, which means gorilla, and kujira, which means whale.

Godzilla (1978–79): This Saturday morning cartoon, a co-production of Hanna-Barbera and Toho, depicted the animated adventures of a team of frequently-imperiled scientists who, at least once an episode, summoned their pal Godzilla to get them out of marine-based jams. At various points during its run, NBC paired the half-hour cartoon with other lesser ’70s franchises — the Super Globetrotters, Dynomutt, Hong Kong Phooey — for a “power hour,” a questionable potency, given the inclusion of Godzilla’s spunky, bumbling young cousin Godzooky (see entry).

Godzilla Island: A TV spinoff of the Godzilla franchise, Godzilla Island was set in the year 2097 and ran a total of 256 three-minute episodes in the late ’90s.

Godzilla, height of: Godzilla’s height has varied over the years, from 164 feet to 350 feet.

Godzilla, nicknames of: Big G, Gojira, King of Monsters, Gigantis

Godzilla: The Series: An animated television series and sequel to the 1998 Roland Emmerich film, which ran from 1998-2000 on Fox. The program followed Zilla Junior and Dr. Nick Tatopoulos as they looked to battle monsters in New York City.

Godzooky: Godzilla’s bumbling yet plucky young cousin — who so gracefully descends onto the protagonists’ research vessel in the opening credits of the 1978-79 Saturday morning cartoon Godzilla before blowing the on-deck landing — was ostensibly on hand to provide comic relief and cutesiness, but instead generally grated viewer nerves in the manner of his animated brethren Scrappy-Doo, Uni, and Orko.

Hawaii: One of several locations in the new movie that feels the brunt of Godzilla’s destructive wrath.

Heisei era: The Godzilla films are usually split into three separate timelines: the Showa era, the Heisei era, and the Millennium era. The Heisei era generally refers to the films and monsters that debuted between 1984 and 1995, and does not take into account the story lines of the earlier Showa era.

Honda, Ishiro: Directed the first Godzilla movie in 1954. Prior to that, Honda had served in the Imperial Japanese Army for eight years. As he noted in the book Toho SF Special Effects Movie Series Vol. 3 (via Japan’s Favorite Mon-STAR), his military experience would shape the way he made the groundbreaking monster movie. “Most of the visual images I got were from my war experience. After the war, all of Japan, as well as Tokyo, was left in ashes.”

Japan: Godzilla’s favorite target. Both Godzilla the movie and Godzilla the monster were metaphors for nuclear fallout, due to the attacks on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One reason Godzilla became such a cultural touchstone in Japan was due to its proximity to World War II and the familiar images of devastation and destruction.

Kaiju: Means “strange creature” in Japanese. Used as shorthand for monsters. Godzilla is technically a daikaiju, which is a “giant strange creature.”

King Ghidorah: A three-headed, two-tailed golden dragon that pops up throughout the Godzilla franchise.

King Kong: The giant gorilla took on Godzilla in a 1962 film titled … King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Lifetime Achievement Award (1996): An award given to Godzilla at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards. The only person who doesn’t look confused here is presenter Patrick Stewart:

Lucky Dragon 5: A fishing boat destroyed by atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. The original Godzilla used the Lucky Dragon 5 incident as inspiration for the film’s opening sequence,

MechaGodzilla: Literally the mechanical version of Godzilla, MechaGodzilla was designed by aliens in an attempt to conquer the world. The robot shows up in 1974’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla and 1975’s Terror of MechaGodzilla.

MechaKing Ghidorah: You guessed it: the futuristic mechanical version of King Ghidorah. Mecha-King Ghidorah showed up in the 1991 film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.

Millennium era: All Godzilla films released between 1999 and 2004, starting with Godzilla 2000: Millennium and ending with Godzilla: Final Wars.

Mothra: A moth kaiju. First a rival, then an ally of Godzilla, Mothra made her film debut in 1961’s Mothra. Three years later, she would be incorporated into Godzilla’s world with Mothra vs. Godzilla, as an enemy of the King of Monsters. Mothra would subsequently team up with Godzilla a few months later in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.

M.U.T.O.: Also known as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, M.U.T.O.s are kaijus Godzilla takes on in the new film. These prehistoric winged creatures have the ability to emit electromagnetic pulses. They also use radiation as their power source.

Nakajima, Haruo: A Japanese suit actor who played Godzilla (yes, prior to the days of CGI, Godzilla was actually portrayed by a man in a suit). Nakajima held the role for almost 20 years, starting with the initial Godzilla film and retiring after his appearance in Godzilla vs. Gigan. According to Criterion, the first Godzilla suit was so massive that Nakajima had to drain a cup of sweat from it at the end of every day.

Nuclear Power: In addition to being a metaphor for nuclear warfare, Godzilla was also awoken via nuclear explosion, shown in the beginning of the first Godzilla movie.

Parodies: When you’ve been a cultural icon for six decades, you’re going to get spoofed. Here are a few of the many Godzilla parodies that have popped up over the years: the Simpsons episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”; this scene in Austin Powers: Goldmember; this Nike commercial featuring Charles Barkley vs. Godzilla; and, perhaps most memorably (at least to me, anyway), the South Park episode “Mecha-Streisand.”

Puff Daddy: Puffy (with help from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page) recorded the massively successful single “Come With Me” for the soundtrack to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. The song sold more than a million copies and drew the ire of most music critics/Zeppelin fans/people with ears.

Pulgasari: An infamous North Korean kaiju movie made under duress by Shin Sang-ok, a director who was kidnapped by the late Kim Jong Il. Shin was forced to direct several films under Kim, one of which was the Godzilla-esque monster flick Pulgasari. Shin ended up using Toho Studios, the creators of Godzilla, to create the film’s special effects, and hired Kenpachiro Satsuma — the actor who portrayed Godzilla during the Heisei era — to play the film’s monster. The entire movie is on YouTube if you’re interested in checking it out.

Roar (Godzilla’s): Godzilla’s most distinctive feature. The roar has been tweaked and perfected over the years, using various household items and random tools to create the noise. For 1954’s Godzilla, the film’s composer, Wolfgang Breyer, loosened the strings of a double bass and then recorded the sound of pulling them with resin-coated leather gloves. In the new film, the sound designers broke the roar into three separate sections — ”a metallic shriek, followed by an earth-shattering wail and a bellowing finish” — then replayed it through 100,000-watt speakers on the Warner Bros. backlot, recording the reverberations from different angles.

Rodan: A giant flying creature that can emit destructive shockwaves from its body. Like Mothra, Rodan had his own film before joining a Godzilla movie.

San Francisco: Where most of the destruction in the new Godzilla film takes place. Finally, the East Coast gets a reprieve from Hollywood destroying its cities.

Showa era: All Godzilla films and monsters released between 1954 and 1975, starting with Godzilla and ending with Terror of Mechagodzilla.

SpaceGodzilla: A Godzilla clone that can fly. He showed up in the 1994 film SpaceGodzilla vs. Godzilla.

Tokusatsu: A genre of live action Japanese films that incorporate special effects (See: Godzilla).

Toho Company, LTD: The Japanese production company that created Godzilla. Toho has overseen every Japanese Godzilla film since the first one.

Tsuburaya, Eiji: The head of Toho’s Visual Effects Studio, from 1939 until his death in 1970. Credited as a co-creator of Godzilla, along with Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and writer Shigeru Kayama. Tsuburaya was behind the idea of using a man in a suit to portray Godzilla instead of the usual stop-motion animation that had been employed on earlier monster movies.

Video games: Like any decades-long franchise, Godzilla has spawned dozens of video games released on multiple consoles, each with their own separate story lines and monsters. A brief list of titles: Super Godzilla for Super Nintendo, Godzilla: Trading Battle for PlayStation, Godzilla: Generations for Dreamcast, and Godzilla: Save the Earth for PS2 and Xbox.

Weta Digital: A New Zealand digital-effects company best known for its work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Weta’s creature designers, along with storyboard illustrators and texture artists from Moving Picture Company, helped create the look of Godzilla in Edwards’s film.

Zilla: The official name of the character in Emmerich’s Godzilla. Toho eventually gave the Zilla character its own separate identity in the 50th anniversary Godzilla movie, Godzilla: Final Wars.

Zone Fighter: A 1973 Japanese television show produced by Toho. The series included guest appearances by Godzilla, King Ghidorah, and Gigan.

An A-Z Glossary of the Godzilla Franchise