Monster of the Month: Godzilla
Who doesn’t like Godzilla? Proclaimed “The King of the Monsters” beginning with his first American appearance in 1956, the atomic-age Japanese giant monster (daikaiju) has starred in a long-lasting and still-continuing string of movies shown all over the world. Join TCM throughout October as we feature Godzilla as this year’s Monster of the Month—we are especially proud that all of the films we’re showing from this initial phase of Godzilla’s career (the Showa-Era, 1954-1975) are the original Japanese-language versions (with a bonus of the familiar American edit of the first film, starring Raymond Burr).
The original Godzilla (aka Gojira, 1954), directed by Ishiro Honda, is a dark and somber film which casts the giant monster as a thinly disguised stand-in for the then-current fears of nuclear contamination posed by American H-Bomb tests being conducted near Japanese shores. It featured a prehistoric creature, awakened by atomic testing, that attacks Japan and wreaks havoc and destruction on a terrifying scale. While the story may have been reminiscent of previous monster-on-the-loose movies such as King Kong (1933, and reissued to great success in 1952), the presentation was unlike anything seen before.
Godzilla originated when producer Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios flew over the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing site where the United States had recently exploded the first H-bomb, exposing many to deadly fallout, including the crew of a fishing boat that unknowingly found itself just 60 miles from the blast. Another story has Tanaka reading a synopsis of the American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) in a trade magazine, but either way he was inspired to create a homegrown monster-on-the-loose. Tanaka and director Honda did not utilize the time-consuming stop-motion special effects process, so Gojira was brought to life as a man-in-a-suit by effects expert and longtime Kong fan Eiji Tsuburaya. The costume brought to mind kabuki theater traditions, and the movement of Godzilla often mimicked the waddle of sumo wrestlers.
The name "Gojira" is a combination of two Japanese words: gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale) and immediately evokes the image of a creature of great size and power. According to Godzilla lore, the word was already being used at Toho Studios as a friendly nickname for a burly crew member who worked on the lot, so its application to a major new movie was something of an "in-joke" for the studio. The name "Godzilla" was the proper transliteration of the Japanese title into Roman letters under the most common transliteration schemes of the 1950s, and it was already on Toho's paperwork when they licensed the film to the American distributors.
Godzilla was a hit in Japan, but the American producers who acquired the distribution rights (Jewel Enterprises, Inc.) felt that it would not work with American audiences if it were simply dubbed in English and released as-is. Many of the sub-plots of Gojira were edited out (and along with them most of the topical and political scenes of atomic radiation fears) and new footage was inserted. The new footage (directed by Terry O. Morse and filmed a full 18 months after the original movie) featured actor Raymond Burr as an American reporter who narrates the film as he observes the action. He is even inserted into many scenes as a "friend" of the original Japanese characters; these scenes were accomplished by matching original footage and using stand-ins for the Japanese actors. The movie was an enormous box-office hit in the U.S. (grossing over $2 Million) and led directly to an entire industry: the sub-genre of Japanese daikaiju eiga (giant monster movies) and accompanying spin-offs, remakes and imitations that continue worldwide to the present day.
Interestingly, the original Godzilla was created and destroyed in the first film. In 1955 Toho filmed an immediate sequel: Godzilla Raids Again (known in the U.S. as Gigantis, the Fire Monster) and this featured another creature of the same species. It was THIS Godzilla who was featured in other Toho films through 1975. This initial group of films (15 in number) has been dubbed by fans the "Showa" series. Many other monsters were created during the time period of these films, and two of them--Rodan and Mothra--were featured in solo films of their own.
There was an eight-year gap in Godzilla films following Godzilla Raids Again. During that time in America, a “monster craze” erupted in popular culture, following the release of 1930s & ‘40s Universal horror films to TV syndication beginning in 1958. Magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland published stills of Godzilla alongside the classic monsters and in a sure sign that Godzilla had been accepted by “Monster Kids” into the pantheon of monster greats, 1963 saw the crossover with an American monster, licensed from RKO Pictures: King Kong vs. Godzilla. It was a smash at the box-office in both Japan and the U.S. and was the film that inspired Toho to proceed with a genuine series of films. (It’s also worth noting that in 1964 kids in America saw Godzilla immortalized in plastic as an Aurora model kit, along with Kong, joining the line of Universal Monsters already available) The next offering was a meet-up between Toho’s most benevolent “monster” and the most destructive, in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964, known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. The Thing). Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) presented a fearsome new menace from outer space and marked a distinct shift in the series as Godzilla became a protector of Earth, joining with Rodan and Mothra to defeat Ghidorah (who was known as Ghidrah in the U.S.)
The Godzilla on view in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965, known in the U.S. as Monster Zero and not released until 1970) is the hero-of-mankind persona that first appeared in the earlier Ghidorah film. To make him even more appealing to the kid audience, the Godzilla suit was softened, with less pointy dorsal fins and larger, more expressive eyes. A controversial shot in the film occurs when Ghidorah is trounced on Planet X--Godzilla indulges in a victory jig, forever dividing fans of the series between those who prefer the menacing and malevolent monster of the earlier titles in the series and those who enjoyed the friendlier, goofy nature of the later entries. The dance seen in the film was called the "Jumping Shie," taken from a then-popular manga (comic book) and was (according to Godzilla lore) suggested by actor Yoshio Tsuchiya to special effects maestro Tsuburaya, on the assumption that it would humanize the Godzilla character and increase his audience appeal.
Now that Toho was producing a new Godzilla film every year, the variations in tone and subject matter accelerated. New directors like Jun Fukuda and Yoshimitsu Banno alternated helming chores with Honda. The Godzilla-as-Protector-of-Earth persona continued in such films as Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) and Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971, known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster). Fukuda’s Son of Godzilla (1967) amped-up the humor factor by introducing Godzilla’s hatchling mini-me, Minilla, which in turn allowed Honda to tug at the heartstrings by appealing directly to children with the low-key All Monsters Attack (1969). Here Godzilla becomes a Friend-to-Kids, proving that—15 years after his first fearsome and somber onscreen appearance—there was now truly a Godzilla for everyone!
Honda’s Destroy All Monsters from 1968 was perhaps the biggest Monster Rally of the series, as it features eleven monsters and almost non-stop action. Science Fiction elements and colorful, cartoon-like antics mark the 1970s films Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), although many fans acknowledge they are weakened by low budgets and a reliance on stock footage. The final two Showa-Era films feature Godzilla’s evil twin Mechagodzilla in Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and Honda’s Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). These films steer the series back to the more serious tone of the 1960s Toho triumphs.
Godzilla would return in the 1980s in the Heisei-Era films from Toho, and again in the 2000s in the Millennium series. The American film Godzilla (1998) is best forgotten but the current American franchise (from Legendary Pictures and kicked off by Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla) has delivered on the spectacle and moody menace of the “Big G” of the Showa-Era but perhaps misses the audience sympathy that was engendered during the series. As film critic Tadao Sato remarked in 2011 about the Japanese point of view, “The fact you felt more sympathy for monsters in these films was a pleasant surprise, something that I think kept audiences coming back for a long time. I wonder if that isn’t a reflection of the fact Japan lost the war. For a time, we were the monster. When that monster gets cornered by human beings, it’s not surprising that it meets its downfall. People watched that quite sympathetically.”
By John M. Miller