“Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now?”
It was a horrifying monster, rising up out of the sea, much larger than expected, and leaving death, destruction and sickness in its wake. This was Castle Bravo, the largest thermonuclear weapons test ever conducted by the United States. The detonation, at Bikini Atol, ‘went big’ – resulting in an explosion 2.5 times the size expected. The fireball alone was nearly 4.5 miles across and the mushroom cloud nearly 25 miles high. The fallout contaminated over 7,000 square miles, including several nearby islands and the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon #5”).
It also created Godzilla.
What Godzilla Means to Us
The original and still one of the best of the massive creature films ever. Godzilla (or Gojira if you’re nasty) is an interesting post-war commentary as the King of Monsters represents the fallout of nuclear holocaust in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly a decade earlier. Created as a consequence of the bombs and radiation, Godzilla rises to wreak havoc upon mankind. The dark side of the Atomic Age, Godzilla is a large, destructive, and irradiated dinosaur that appears out of nowhere with the sole purpose of destroying mankind with his radioactive breath and big ass feet. Unlike the sequels that turned him into a world-saving superhero, the Godzilla in this is destruction incarnate. Much like Fatman and Little Boy, he came without warning and destroyed everything he saw. He’s one of the world’s most recognizable characters, the ultimate anti-nuke PSA and the legacy he built off of this film is so strong, it would go on to spawn one of the longest-running movie series in history for a total of 33 films. All hail the king (lizard).
After almost 30 years as a self-proclaimed movie fan, I figured it was finally time to check a major bucket list film off the list and watch Godzilla (1954). Up to that point my only familiarity with the king of the monsters was the 1998 Roland Emmerich version and countless references across pop culture. To say that I was blown away while watching would be quite an understatement. I couldn’t help but to be in awe of witnessing cinematic history that still resonates up to and through this day. Not only did the film revolutionize the use of miniature sets, but it birthed one of the greatest film franchises in movie history. On top of all this, it offers one of the most honest reactions to/reckonings with the fallout from World War 2 (less than 10 years after the wars end, mind you).
In the same evening as my Godzilla viewing, I also decided to throw on Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974). Where the original serves as a profound reflection on the evils of world, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is an absurd romp with little to no substance beyond pure cinematic fun. My deep appreciation for the character of Godzilla didn’t fully set in until the second part of double feature. The beauty of Godzilla is that it can exist in both of these movies and each experience, while completely different, is immensely enjoyable. Few intellectual properties possess this versatility. That is what makes Godzilla the true and undisputed king.
Origins of Godzilla
Saying Godzilla was created by Castle Bravo is perhaps too much of a stretch. Better to say the giant monster has multiple origins, from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the films King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It’s true that the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon #5 and her crew (and their catch of fish) sparked the imagination of producer Tomojuki Tanaka, however, and combining it with the nascent “giant monster” genre must have seemed like a great idea. Particularly as King Kong had only recently been re-released in Japan, grossing more than all of its original releases put together.
As with many films that enter the popular consciousness, the alchemy that led to Godzilla’s popularity is apparent only in hindsight. The script went through multiple versions – including one with a love interest for a more dinosaur-like monster(!). The creature effects were originally intended to be in stop-motion, before budgetary concerns led to the more familiar “suitmation” effects (designed by Teizō Toshimitsu, Akira Watanabe and Eiji Tsuburaya). Even the iconic Godzilla roar was a late addition, after composer Akira Ifukube decided to get involved in the sound effects as well as music.
Anxiety and fear about radiation had endured in Japan since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon incident was sometimes referred to as “the latest atomic bombing of Japan.” Discussion of nuclear weapons and their fallout (sorry) was restricted by US censors during the occupation of Japan after World War II. This extended to newspapers, radio and other avenues of popular culture. Even after Japan regained its autonomy in 1951 the subject remained all but taboo. Godzilla, with its anti-war subtext and overt references to nuclear war, radiation and atomic weapons touched a nerve with Japanese audiences and was a spectacular success, breaking opening-day records for the Toho studio.
Big in Japan
Executive Producer Iwao Mori did his part to make sure Godzilla was successful, including authorizing the production of a radio play – Monster Godzilla – that was released in serialized form in the weeks leading up to the film’s release. None of his admittedly effective marketing plans could explain just how popular this movie about a giant reptile would become.
Some of that popularity has to do with that undercurrent of anxiety and self-reflection that permeated Japan in the aftermath of World War II. At the time of Godzilla’s release it had only been 9 years since the end of the war, a war in which Japan had been both a perpetrator and – at Hiroshima and Nagasaki particularly – a victim of horrific violence. This dichotomy of identity overshadowed everything in Japanese life. Everyone knew someone who had done something terrible in the war. Everyone knew someone who had been affected by the atomic bombs. That extended to the filmmakers themselves. Director Ishirō Honda had been in the Imperial Army and famously kept an unexploded shell on his desk. It had landed in front of him and miraculously failed to go off.
Godzilla, too, is both victim and aggressor – a powerful symbol of the destruction caused by atomic weapons and a scarred survivor of the same. Special effects team Toshimitsu, Watanabe and Tsuburaya specifically designed Godzilla to have skin that resembled the keloid scars of radiation burn victims. Despite his terrifying and destructive presence people wept openly at Godzilla’s death. That may partly be due to a cathartic release of pent-up emotion. Seeing cities on fire and hospitals filled with the dead and dying was something within the living memory of everyone who saw the film, but it was something the Japanese were unable to process or talk about openly. There’s also the possibility that they were recognizing a reflection of themselves in Godzilla. How do you deal with shame and rage at the same time? When there’s nothing you are allowed to do, maybe seeing a giant monster act out those feelings is enough.
King of the Monsters
I just wanted to touch briefly on the 1956 American release of Godzilla, titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (the exclamation point a part of the title). This is probably the version of the film most American audiences are familiar with as it was widely available. (The original wasn’t even officially released in US theaters until 2004!) A dubbed version of the film, heavily edited and with inserts of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as American journalist Steve Martin, this version has received mixed reviews over the years, but it was spectacularly successful and responsible for introducing Godzilla films specifically – and Japanase films in general – to a wider American audience.
Part of the criticism has been due to the wholesale re-editing of the film to accommodate both the dubbing and the addition of Burr as a protagonist. Although dubbing in animation has been widely accepted for some time, dubbing of foreign films came to be seen as a sign of dubious quality. If a foreign film had any merit it would be released with subtitles, probably only in art houses. The dubbing of Godzilla, however, was actually a sign of a belief in the quality of the original film. Executive producer Joseph Levine thought that Godzilla deserved to be seen by a wider audience and was willing to invest money and time into a version he thought would appeal to American moviegoers. He was right.
Though the resulting film drops much of the anti-war subtext and removes any negative mention of US atomic testing, it still manages to be an effective film. The narrative structure is modified as well, so that events proceed in a more linear fashion, building more directly to Godzilla’s attacks. Raymond Burr always praised the film and even reprised the role of Steve Martin for Godzilla 1985.
One big drawback for Japanese audiences, however – Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was also released in Japan, but the producers hadn’t bothered to redub any of the sections that were still in the original Japanese! As these had been cut and re-ordered to more effectively fit with the English version – without concern for actual meaning, as they (probably correctly) assumed US audiences wouldn’t know the difference – it must have been a pretty confusing experience!
The Legacy of Godzilla
Somehow, this serious film about tragic choices, terrible consequences, the aftermath of horrible atomic destruction and – just a little bit – about a giant monster, went on to become a cultural phenomenon. As Sailor mentions above there are no less than 33 Godzilla films (38 if you count American versions), one of – if not THE – longest running film franchises in history. It popularized the kaiju, or giant monster, film and led to other series (many Japanese) like Gamera, Daimajin, and even tokusatsu films like Ultraman. (As well as films that straddle that line, like Pacific Rim.)
Godzilla himself almost immediately became a beloved figure of national pride and identity in Japan. Subsequent films – at least in the Showa era (1925-1989) – downplayed the destruction and aftermath, preferring instead to become something more innocent and fun. Godzilla became a defender of Japan, rather than an unexplainable force of nature, a result of man’s darker side. He roars from cereal boxes and toy store shelves and afternoon cable channels. Godzilla has became a safe monster, a mascot. His origins in the dawn of the Atomic Age mostly forgotten.
Toho and American filmmakers have toyed with returning to the Big G’s darker roots, but Americans still steadfastly refuse to face their responsibility for using atomic weapons against another nation, and so their “darker” takes focus on causes and consequences that are more universal. The Japan that birthed Godzilla has moved on as well, and the scenes of destruction and fear and a mother clutching her children while saying “we’ll be with daddy soon” don’t have the same resonance for modern audiences. The Godzilla of 1954 can’t exist anymore, because the fires that birthed him have been banked.
Not to say that the monster doesn’t have any more to say – Godzilla is large, he contains multitudes. Shin Godzilla, for instance, uses the “force of nature” version of Godzilla to comment on modern Japanese society and specifically entrenched bureaucracy in the face of national disasters (like the Fukijima nuclear plant disaster).
Godzilla remains a draw to audiences around the world. I don’t see that changing any time soon. I look forward to where he might pop up next. As long as it’s not off the coast of Maine!
What about you? Have you seen the original Godzilla? What did you think? And what’s your favorite Godzilla film, anyway?