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On March 1, 1954--eight months to the day before Gojira (1954) roared onto movie screens in Japan--the United States set off the world's first Hydrogen bomb.
This took place in the Marshall Islands. Before we continue, let's clarify this point: the Marshall Islands had been taken forcibly from the Japanese by American forces during WWII, and the land was already scarred by relentless bombing. After the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US military began using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear proving ground. All told, 67 nuclear devices were detonated there, including the first H-bomb ever built. By 1956--the year that Gojira was exported to American movie screens--the Atomic Energy Commission had declared the place "by far the most contaminated place in the world." And it was practically at Japan's back door.
The world's first H-bomb was at the time called the "Super," and the folks who made it weren't 100% certain it would explode correctly. Best case scenario: it would explode with a force a thousand times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Worst case scenario: nothing at all. Setting aside the ironic aspect of what constituted "best case" and "worst case" in this situation, the upshot was that the Japanese public was told to stay away from the island in question, but weren't given an explanation why. For that matter, the whole "stay away" notice was about as prominent as the notice given to Arthur Dent that his house was scheduled for demolition in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--"on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"
The crew of the Daigo Fukuryo Maru (that's "The Lucky Dragon #5" to you) figured they were being extra-clever by heading out to trawl for tuna in the forbidden zone. There's no competition, they congratulated each other. Then, there was a flash in the sky, like a second sun. The light was so bright, it could be seen as far away as Okinawa. The Lucky Dragon was so far from the blast, they didn't hear its accompanying thunder for another 8 minutes. It was clear to them they'd made a mistake, but the consequences were now impossible to outrun. They pulled in their nets, stowed their catch, and returned to the mainland as quickly as possible.
They were sick. Horribly irradiated by the fallout, the radio operator would be the first to die from radiation sickness. The Japanese press noted that as the first human being killed by the H-bomb, he was Japanese, just like the only humans killed by A-bombs. It had been a period of contentious relations between the Japanese and their American conquerors--the prolonged and agonizing death of the Lucky Dragon #5's radioman became a rallying point for anti-American protests. As horrific as that death was, it was merely a convenient symbol for a larger problem: the Lucky Dragon had sold their tuna before anyone knew what had happened. The irradiated fish was now circulating through the marketplace, delivering second-hand radiation poisoning to anyone who ate it. Health officials took to the markets with their Geiger counters to try and find the contaminated tuna, only to discover to their mounting horror that the entire country was already bathed in radioactive fallout from Russian nuclear tests!
Put bluntly: the Japanese had been minding their own business and suddenly something monstrous was stalking them, systematically attacking them in their homes.
Slightly over a month after the radio operator finally died, a movie opened in Japanese theaters that begins like this: a fishing boat at sea, identified as "#5," afflicted by a mysterious and unexpected flash of light. The ship goes down--its radio operator is the first to die.
For Japanese audiences sitting in the dark that November 1, watching Ishiro Honda's Gojira unfold on the screen, the message was clear: this isn't science fiction, it isn't even fiction. These are recent events, recapitulated as a modern fairy tale, a contemporary folk myth for the nuclear age.
Because the movie seeded a franchise of increasing silliness that has been a drive-in mainstay for over fifty years, there is a certain tendency to dismiss Honda's original Gojira as "just another monster movie." Such casual contempt misses the mark several times over: Gojira is a work of earnest sincerity by a team of extraordinary filmmakers. Honda himself was friend, neighbor, and recurring collaborator of Akira Kurosawa's. When Toshiro Mifune goes staggering through the criminal underworld in search of his missing gun in Stray Dog (1949), he does so in a scene that Kurosawa sub-contracted out to Honda to direct. Gojira's cast is made up of a mix of highly esteemed thespians best known for their work with Kurosawa and up-and-coming young stars who would dominate the Japanese marquee for decades. It was an unprecedentedly lavish production that spared no expense, pioneered production techniques, and made previously unimaginable inroads into the mainstream international movie marketplace. Disregard these achievements at your own risk.
Most significantly, though, the idea of "just another monster movie" presupposes some pre-existing genre of monster movies, to which this could claim lineage. In 1954, monster movies were yet too sporadically made and too inconsistent in content to be considered such a genre on their own. The progenitor of the form was 1933's King Kong, which had sired a few Japanese imitations in the 1930s, both sadly now lost to posterity. Even in the US, though, sons of Kong were limited to the things Kong's own makers churned out--like, ahem, The Son of Kong (1933). The first genuine attempt to make a monster movie that could bear comparison to Kong on its own terms was 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Ray Harryhausen, the inventive animator responsible for creating the monster effects in that film, has since nurtured a lifelong animosity towards Gojira for stealing his idea. Which is fair enough--it happens to be true.
Tomoyuki Tanaka was a producer at Toho Studios with a modest resume of war films and dramas to his name--his best days were decidedly ahead of him. Tanaka planned to shoot a film in Indonesia. In the Shadow of Glory it was to be called, a film designed to try to heal the bitterness between the Indonesians and the Japanese, but seeing as how that bitterness was due to Japanese atrocities, the Indonesians weren't entirely behind the idea. At the last minute, the Indonesian government yanked crucial visas and effectively canceled the project. Tanaka needed a replacement film--and had just read about The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in a trade journal. Although Tanaka always told the story with more dignity and self-importance, when it comes down to it, he basically decided to rip Beast off.
The story that the popular mystery novelist Shigeru Kayama came up with was a pedestrian clone of Beast, and early sketches for the project even duplicated certain scenes from the American picture. But once director Ishiro Honda was attached to the film, it began to take a different direction. Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata kept the broad outlines of Kayama's story but fleshed out its human dimensions, turned the monster into a walking allegory of recent horrors, and imbued the entire production with a grim seriousness of purpose.
Eiji Tsuburaya was the special effects guru who gave the monster life. He had been enervated by seeing King Kong in the 1930s and was inspired to pursue a career in special effects as a result--this, at a time when the Japanese film industry had no such career track. In fact, in his early days, Tsuburaya had to battle against an attitude that special effects were dishonest trickery. In the war years, his skill at making convincing miniatures led to some difficult questions: Allied troops mistook his films for actual footage of Zero planes in action. Such attention to detail made him invaluable for makers of war films, but he still longed to make a monster movie. When Tanaka asked him to join the crew of Gojira, he jumped at the chance--and handed Tanaka a copy of his own screenplay treatment for a monster movie about a giant octopus.
Tanaka and Toho president Iwao Mori preferred to have the star of Gojira be an irradiated dinosaur, which Tsuburaya originally wanted to realize using the same stop-motion techniques used in King Kong. The budget would not support such an approach, so Tsuburaya scaled up the size of his model miniatures, and commissioned a monster suit to be worn by an actor. Two actors, in fact--Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka, who each make cameos in mufti as newspaper reporters. Iwao Mori wanted the dinosaur's skin to show explicit scars from H-bomb exposure--so the suit designers crafted it with a distinctive skin modeled after the keloid scars of Hiroshima's survivors.
This would be but one of the direct connections to Japan's atomic history. At various points characters talk about surviving the atomic bombings and describe the monster as a child of the H-bomb. And then there's that opening sequence. This isn't "just another monster movie," it's a form of social catharsis. From 1945 through 1952, the American occupying forces enforced official censorship on Japanese films, explicitly forbidding open discussion of A-bomb matters. The thing about censorship is, "open discussion" isn't the only kind of discussion. Japanese artists had to deflect their ideas into forms sufficiently transformed to escape censorship. Gojira arrived two years after the American Occupation ended, and did not face direct censorship on this count--it was free to speak its mind openly, but found the use of metaphor and allegory a more powerful way to address such raw nerves.
Audiences waited for hours to get tickets. The opening day sales were the highest in Japanese movie history; it was just the start of the film's blockbuster success. Gojira finished as the 12th highest grossing film of the year--which is even more impressive when you realize it faced competition from 348 Japanese-made films that year, and a slate of foreign (Hollywood) imports. Tsuburaya was awarded the Japanese Film Technique award for his work--the first of many such honors. Years later, the esteemed critical journal Kinema Junpo decided Gojira was one of the twenty best films ever made in Japan. Dozens of sequels followed; they continue to this day.
The distributors of the American release in 1956 re-edited the film, deleted subplots, and added footage of Raymond Burr as a journalist. Amidst these changes, there was also a question about whether they changed the title. The American recut was titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Godzilla was the preferred transliteration of the Japanese title into Roman letters under the most common transliteration schemes of the 1950s (and the American distributors signed a contract with Toho on which the Japanese title was already rendered in English as "Godzilla"). Since then, a different transliteration method has become preferred, which renders the same Japanese characters as Gojira. The difference is one of English spelling alone--both are equally legitimate renderings of the Japanese text, and ideally either spelling should lead to the same pronunciation. If you care about one spelling over the other, you're not pronouncing it right. Think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing, "Gojira, Godzilla, let's call the whole thing off."
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Director: Ishirô Honda
Screenplay: Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata (writers); Shigeru Kayama (story)
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Art Direction: Satoru Chûko, Takeo Kita
Music: Akira Ifukube
Film Editing: Yasunobu Taira
Cast: Akira Takarada (Hideto Ogata), Momoko Kôchi (Emiko Yamane), Akihiko Hirata (Daisuke Serizawa-hakase), Takashi Shimura (Kyohei Yamane-hakase), Fuyuki Murakami (Professor Tanabe), Sachio Sakai (Newspaper Reporter Hagiwara), Toranosuke Ogawa (Nankai Shipping Company Manager), Ren Yamamoto (Masaji Sieji), Kan Hayashi (Chairman of Diet Committee), Takeo Oikawa (Chief of Emergency Headquarters).
by David Kalat
David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series.
August Ragone, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters.
Steve Ryfle, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G".
Guy Mariner Tucker, Age of the Gods: A History of the Japanese Fantasy Film.