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Toho's Godzilla hits Comic-Con with its first booth, part of the Japanese studio's master plan

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Jul 19, 2019, 7:30 PM EDT

Godzilla won't officially turn 65 years old until late October, but that didn't stop the iconic radioactive monster from getting the party started early at this year's San Diego Comic-Con.

Though the king kaiju has long been featured in film festivals in Japan (as well as the fan-run G-Fest convention in Chicago), Toho Studios, the company that has produced dozens of Godzilla movies since 1954, had never paid all that much attention to the massive geek convention in San Diego. For years, Godzilla's presence was limited to fan booths, largely in the form of toy sellers hawking imported, high-price merch from Japan. That finally changed on Thursday with the debut of Toho's first-ever SDCC Godzilla booth, a sizable attraction that represents one piece of a long-term, multi-step marketing plan laid out by a special task force convened by the Japanese studio.

Five years ago, Toho selected around 20 employees from different divisions of the company to participate in the Godzilla Strategic Conference, a group devoted to plotting the public future of the studio's crown jewel. At the time, Toho hadn't released a Godzilla movie of its own since 2004's monster royal rumble pic Godzilla: Final Wars, which meant that the public impression of the kaiju was largely limited the new licensed American movie released that year. As Legendary Pictures and Gareth Edwards's Hollywoodized Godzilla movie was raking in half a billion dollars at the box office, GSC was planning to also reassert Toho's version of its monster into the international public consciousness.

Akito Takahashi, a Toho employee who serves as the GSC's Project Manager, gave an overview of the studio's plans in a conversation with SYFY WIRE, via a translator, at the company's booth on Thursday. The initial question they needed to answer, he says, was how to better tap into the devotion of the existing fan base.

"We know that [Godzilla] is a great character, we know that [he's] loved by people around the world, so how can we really serve our fans and even go bigger and greater and create the Godzilla universe? And what does that look like?" Takahashi says.

Godzilla booth

Credit: Jordan Zakarin/SYFY WIRE

The first step was the release of Shin Godzilla, a political satire delivered in the form of a Godzilla flick, directed by Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno. Released in 2016, it was a massive local hit and won several Japanese Academy Awards, which made the GSC's task a fair bit easier. With that success, domestic interest soared, leading to the next step: a big public celebration.

While people in cities have historically tended to run away from Godzilla, now they were being drawn toward him in an event sponsored by the movie studio.

"About three years ago, we started to do this Godzilla Festival, which basically is a free event in Japan where all the Godzilla fans come and unite, they have a place to converse, talk about what their favorite Godzilla is and what they really love," Takahashi says.

About 18,000 fans showed up for the event in Tokyo, which was held on November 3rd, the day considered to be Godzilla's birthday. It coincided with the opening of the first official Godzilla store, in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo; the store is hard to miss because it sits nearby the Shinjuku Toho Building, which hosts both a movie theater and the Hotel Gracery, better known as "the Godzilla hotel" thanks to the massive kaiju head resting on its 8th floor roof.

Two years later, Toho has entered the international phase of its plan.

"Comic-Con is very famous in Japan as well, so we thought with the 50th anniversary of Comic-Con and then 65th for Godzilla, why not come here and really start making that footprint into introducing (or reintroducing) Godzilla's universe to the world."

The San Diego booth is stocked with props from old monster films (including monster rival King Ghidorah's three heads) and an interactive photo opportunity with a full Godzilla suit worn in the movie Godzilla 2000. Several of the booth's walls are lined with facts about the nearly 30 Toho-produced movies and displays of licensed toys from throughout the years, while live art is produced on another wall. The impression is of a company looking to assert ownership over its own legacy, on an interesting timeline.

Legendary's second Americanized Godzilla movie came out at the end of May, and a third, Godzilla vs. Kong, will hit theaters next spring. Legendary is holding a panel on the future of their Monsterverse on Friday, while Toho puts on its own show here, as well. That shouldn't be mistaken for any rivalry, though; Takahashi says the company, which licenses its characters and consults on the Legendary films, is happy with the westernized blockbusters. That said, Toho's future plans for its most famous monster are a little different from Legendary's route.

"We love the Hollywood Godzilla, we think it's really an honor that they wanted to sort of remake their Hollywood version," Takahashi says. "It's so different. We're going to continue that branding and that type of Godzilla universe to expand even more. However, the Japanese Godzilla has 29 movies that have already come out. It's a very specific type of Godzilla universe, so we're probably going to see both of them sort of evolving as we go. We just love that there's two sides of Godzilla."

For the most part, Godzilla has been a tool used to tell politically and culturally relevant stories, reflecting the shifts in post-war Japanese society. Historically, the movies have either been loosely connected or full reboots, with a multitude of different origin stories for Godzilla and his fellow monsters. There have been several sequels in the Toho canon, but in an era of cinematic universes, with some far more successful than others, Takahashi says Toho isn't going to force any multi-movie throughline.

"To be honest, it's probably going to be up to the creators and the directors," he says. "If they want to bring back something that they think is relevant to the fans and the time and the relevance of whatever we can put out there that's going to make it very interesting."

Godzilla SDCC

Credit: Getty Images

The lack of overall continuity in Godzilla movies has never really bothered fans, and probably allowed new ones to discover the franchise and jump on board over the last half-century. There was no shortage of fans clamoring for the merchandise on sale at the booth, including an exclusive Comic-Con figure of the kaiju. It was a rare moment for fans to get their hands on something exclusive, as the store in Shinjuku doesn't yet ship to the United States.

Takahashi was non-committal about that changing, but noted that Toho is working to bring more merchandise stateside. Godzilla's new internet presence, including a refreshed official site and first official English social media accounts, offer a limited number of products, while a partnership with the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya has already resulted in a number of pop-up shops in its dozen locations in the US.

According to Takahashi, this is only the beginning.

"One of the things that really works with Godzilla is [his] relevance in our times right now and there's so many different angles to use Godzilla, in such different ways, whether it's visually or with new stories," he says. "Godzilla just has a lot of width in general as a character, so we're just really excited to see what will come next."