Godzilla mon amour

Godzilla is dead. Long live Godzilla. The history of the monster, from our July 1998 issue.

27 March 2024

By Ken Hollings

Godzilla (1954)
Sight and Sound

On a recent tour of Toho Studios’ sound stages in the suburbs of Tokyo, where filming was already under way for Mothra, the first in a new series of monster movies aimed at pre-teens, an American visitor enquired whether Godzilla was around.

“No,” the studio guide replied simply. “He’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“He died in his last movie. He’s gone.”

Which happens to be true. After a career lasting more than four decades in which he starred in over 20 films, the king of the monsters perished on screen at the end of Toho’s 1995 release Godzilla vs. Destroyah. No longer able to control the increasing levels of atomic radiation that had been steadily banking up inside him, Godzilla went into a critical meltdown and burned himself up from within, finally succumbing to the very force that had given him life. It was a deeply moving moment, a tribute to all that is monstrous and unpredictable in our world. The flesh literally melted from Godzilla’s bones, inundating Tokyo with a poisonous radioactive fall-out.

Though Toho reaffirmed its commitment to the kaiju genre by running a trailer for Mothra after the final credits, everyone feared the worst. It was over. And as if to seal the giant creature’s fate, in April 1997 the death was announced of Tomoyuki Tanaka, the man responsible for dreaming up Godzilla and seeing him through all 22 of his productions for Toho.

Born in Osaka in 1910, Tanaka joined Toho while still a young man and stayed with the company for over 50 years, eventually becoming chairman of the board of directors and chief executive producer. Though essentially retired by 1991, he was still credited as Godzilla’s main producer to the end, prompting the rumour that he had actually died of a broken heart as a result of the monster’s demise. Toho’s 1997 release Mothra II was dedicated to his memory.

But this was not the end. In March 1993 TriStar placed a huge advertisement in Variety. “Godzilla 1994” was all it said. Ball-park figures were kicked around, budgets discussed and names mentioned. Sony subsidiary TriStar had reputedly paid Toho $1,000,000 for the rights. The movie was happening. Godzilla was go.

TriStar’s film is finally set to devastate the nation’s multiplexes this summer. The media rampage has already begun in the west, with two expensive trailers making a lot of threatening noises but revealing very little. So will it really be Godzilla we see on our screens this summer or some new incarnation come to destroy our world and demand our respect? Will visitors to his shrine still ask if Godzilla is around, or is he gone for ever? These are questions to be asked only with a certain amount of caution. And a feeling a lot like love.

Godzilla (1954)

A roaring in the darkness

Godzilla has always aroused a great deal of strong emotion, frequently of a contradictory nature. Like many horror stars before him, his character is composed of broad, mythic strokes, allowing him to reflect the dreams and fears of his audience. But he owes nothing to the dark European romanticism that spawned some of the genre’s traditional figures. Godzilla is the product of a far more recent epoque, caught between the public’s concern over big science and the demands of the modern studio system.

The 1952 re-release of RKO’s 1933 classic King Kong had shown that a giant-monster movie could make money, both at home and abroad. Racking up even bigger ticket sales than it had first time around, Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion ape led a first wave of gargantuan creatures out of Hollywood on to the Japanese market. When The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea managed to spin similar preoccupations with rampaging sea beasts, runaway technology and nuclear explosions into big box office, Tomoyuki Tanaka took notice. Early in 1954 he started a new project, whose provisional title The Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea made no secret of its origins. In collaboration with screenwriter Takeo Murata and special-effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, Tanaka developed a story about an amphibious dinosaur mutated into a powerful monster through exposure to atomic radiation. Also contributing to the script was director !shiro Honda.

Tsuburaya was a great admirer of King Kong and had long wished to make a giant-monster movie of his own. Honda had visited Hiroshima in 1946 and was still searching for a way to capture on film some of the horrifying devastation he had witnessed. Tanaka wanted a successful big-budget production that could stand up to the American blockbusters entering Japan in the wake of the Occupation. The creature who made all these things possible was called Gojira – a name constructed from the western word gorilla and kujira, the Japanese word for a whale. It is also said to have been the nickname of a heavy-set Toho employee – a detail which, true or not, helps illustrate just how much this act of monstrous creation was firmly set in the studio system. Toho sank over $900,000 into what was to become the first Godzilla film at a time when the average Japanese feature cost one-tenth that amount. The result was Gojira, a dark and disturbing film that still packs a punch four decades on.

When ships start to vanish in the vicinity of Odo Island, scientists discover traces of a huge reptilian creature which the local fishermen refer to as Gojira after a legendary sea serpent that was once venerated as a god and propitiated with human sacrifices. The Japanese parliament wants to keep Gojira’s existence a secret, but this quickly becomes impractical when the giant monster comes wading out of Tokyo Bay, smashing everything in his path. Not only is Gojira indestructible and unstoppable, but he can set whole buildings alight with his radioactive breath. Moved by the suffering the monster causes, an embittered, reclusive scientist Dr Serizawa grudgingly agrees to use his latest discovery upon Gojira. Referred to as an “oxygen destroyer” in the Japanese script, this transforms the sea into a violent, churning cauldron that eventually claims the lives of both Gojira and Dr Serizawa, who chooses to perish rather than reveal his formula to the world.

A large part of Gojira’s power lies in the fact that people get to hear the monster long before they see him. A radio adaptation of the story ran from July to September 1954, preparing the public for the film’s release in November. Once the lights went down in the cinema, however, the assault on the audience’s ears continued. The heavy pounding of Gojira’s footsteps is heard over the opening credits, followed by his angry roaring. To help convey the impression that Gojira is about to smash his way into the auditorium, the monster’s roars blend in with the film’s title theme: a relentless march composed by Akira Ifukube, another name that became closely linked with Godzilla. Throughout the film, the stark modernism of lfukube’s score complements Honda’s spare black-and-white imagery, amplifying the emotional resonances of a drama whose central protagonist remains a threatening but virtually unseen figure.

King Kong (1933)

The monster is presented first as a series of destructive forces: a blinding atomic flash, a wrathful deity, a nocturnal storm. He gradually takes shape and becomes visible as the film’s action moves away from Odo Island and towards Tokyo. Outlined against the flames of a hundred burning buildings, Gojira’s presence is at its strongest, and it is only when he disappears back into the ocean, before his destruction at the hands of Dr Serizawa, that it becomes indistinct again. Prehistoric beast and space-age mutant, created out of a nuclear explosion then dissolving into the sea, Gojira is human evolution run backwards. In this sense, he is quite literally what he appears to be on the screen: a man in a rubber suit.

Monster of the century

Gojira was an instant hit, seen by over 10 million people in Japan alone. American rights were picked up by Joseph E. Levine, who refashioned the movie to suit mainstream audiences in the United States. The result was released in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, a title that carried echoes not only of King Kong but of the poster copy for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which billed Ray Harryhausen’s animated Rhedosaurus as “The King of Prehistoric Sea-Giants”.

Levine’s Godzilla remained the vast engine of destruction that he was in the Japanese version, but, his relationship with the rest of the world was strangely altered. Many of the references to Nagasaki, radioactive rain, contaminated food and bomb shelters were deleted, as was a children’s hymn calling for nuclear disarmament, which became a prayer for those killed by the monster. Also played down was any specific connection between Gojira’s first appearance and the series of H-bomb detonations being carried out by the Americans in the Marshall Islands.

And what did US audiences get instead of this missing material? Raymond Burr as an American journalist carried along by events, acting opposite body doubles and apologising for his Japanese. Burr gives a strong and creditable performance, but his presence greatly alters the film’s central relationships, particularly that between Gojira and Dr Serizawa. It is no accident that the two are destined to die together in a foaming, lifeless ocean: both are isolated and lonely figures, aloof from the collective sufferings of humanity. At the same time, both bear the burdens of mass trauma: Gojira has been “baptised by the H-bomb” while Serizawa lost an eye during World War Two.

“If there hadn’t been a war, he wouldn’t be the way he is,” someone remarks in a scene that was dropped from the US version. Audiences took to Godzilla in a big way, however, making him a star in both Japan and the United States. A rushed sequel, featuring a slimmed-down version of the monster in combat with a four-legged saurian called Angilas, unfortunately went the way of most rushed sequels. Released in Japan in 1955, Gojira Raids Again was quickly surpassed by other Toho kaiju and science-fantasy productions, while a confusion over copyright meant that when the film finally appeared in the US it was as Gigantis, the Fire Monster.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

It would be another seven years before Toho decided to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary by having Godzilla duke it out with King Kong in his best-known film. Released in 1962, King Kong vs. Godzilla was a box-office smash, transforming Godzilla into a celebrity big enough to demand his own film series. It had a similar effect in America when it came out the following year, ensuring a market for dubbed versions of each successive release. Coming at a time when the Japanese film industry had gone into overdrive, its five major studios turning out 547 films in 1961 compared with Hollywood’s 154, Godzilla’s return would continue well into the next decade.

But despite his corporate origins Godzilla was still haunted by the lonely ghost of Dr Serizawa. His character unchanged, he remained a vicious renegade. Defeated by King Kong, he went on to be humiliated by Mothra, a giant moth, in 1964’s Godzilla vs. the Thing. More than a mere force of nature or a technological threat, Godzilla was in danger of becoming the ultimate Japanese nightmare: a team player gone on the rampage. He was turning into a mean and savage loser. Something would have to change.

Godzilla on the beach

In 1965, less than a year after Godzilla’s fight with Mothra, a stray meteor hits the earth, unleashing space monster King Ghidorah in a spectacular ball of flames. A winged, three-headed golden dragon, King Ghidorah has already destroyed all life on Mars and is soon flying over Japan, blasting everything in sight with lightning-like bolts of electricity from his three mouths. This crowned beast of the apocalypse became Godzilla’s saviour as well as his most frequent opponent. The most evidently impassive and ‘eastern’ of all the Toho monsters, King Ghidorah allowed Godzilla to develop more recognisably human characteristics by displaying none of his own. He was the galactic terror who permitted Godzilla to become the earth’s heroic defender. Their first encounter, released in the US as Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster, saw the continuing partnership of Tanaka, Honda, Tsuburaya and Ifukube complemented by the on-screen collaboration between Godzilla, Mothra and the 1956 kaiju star Rodan, joining forces for the first time to defeat King Ghidorah.

Godzilla was finally on board. Later the same year Rodan helped him rescue the earth from King Ghidorah again in Monster Zero, while in 1966 he was seen beating the living daylights out of a giant man-eating lobster as Mothra saved a Polynesian fishing community from a ruthless paramilitary organisation in Ebirah – Horror of the Deep. Godzilla’s appearance was altered radically to fit the more lightweight fantasies in which he starred in the mid 60s. Rubber being perishable, the Godzilla costume had to be remade before each new film, offering the chance to give, him a subtle but thorough make-over: his head was gradually made to look less flat and reptilian while his eyes were enlarged to give them greater human appeal.

A new creative team was also introduced. Ebirah – Horror of the Deep was the first film to be directed by Jun Fukuda and scored by Masaru Sato. Special effects were still handled by Tsuburaya, but the budget was appreciably lower and the emphasis now was on fun rather than horror. With the action focusing on a gang of teenagers stranded on a Pacific island, Ebirah was less about urban demolition than about making Godzilla the centre of an extended beach party.

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Keeping Godzilla away from the world’s major population centres was still company policy in 1967, when Fukuda and Sato collaborated again on Son of Godzilla. This time a group of UN scientists gets rescued from Solgell Island while Godzilla defends his new-born son Minya from a gang of giant preying mantises and a monstrous web-spinning spider called Spiga. With eyes even larger than his dad’s and an ingratiating leer, Minya is a walking nightmare of cuteness whose sole function seems to lie in establishing Godzilla as a responsible parent. With a child to support and a tropical island time-share, Godzilla had come a long way in a short time. No longer the angry outsider, he was now a committed salaryman destined for bigger things.

This is certainly how he is presented at the beginning of Toho’s 1968 kaiju classic Destroy All Monsters. Seen wandering with his son along the shoreline of Ogasawara Island in the Pacific Ocean, where the world’s monsters are kept confined in an area known as Monsterland, Godzilla seems strangely at peace. It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when primitive fishermen made human sacrifices in his name. By the end of the movie he is leading Mothra, Rodan, Angilas, Spiga and Minya in an all-out assault on a group of aliens who have established their invasion headquarters at the base of Mount Fuji. Also taking part are such lesser-known Toho stars as Manda, Gorosaurus, Varan and Baragon. King Ghidorah makes his appearance, attempting to defend the invaders and earning himself a righteous stomping in the process. Directed once more by Honda and with a stirring score by Ifukube, this oddly named movie (no monsters are destroyed, not even King Ghidorah) ends with world peace being restored as Godzilla and the gang go back to their island.

Monster Island, as it was later known, represented some kind of prelapsarian paradise which Godzilla should never have inhabited. Toho’s 1969 release Godzilla’s Revenge, in which Minya teaches moral lessons to a young boy with the aid of footage from Son of Godzilla and Ebirah – Horror of the Deep, appears to take place in a world where atomic science does not exist. Aimed squarely at kiddies, this film also marks the final dissolution of the creative partnership behind the original Gojira. Honda was uncomfortable with an increasingly humanised Godzilla and dropped out of the next few projects, as did Ifukube. More seriously, Tsuburaya died soon afterwards, after suffering from ill health.

Things would never be the same again. Produced in 1971, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, with its dippy anti-pollution message intended for young children and the youth market, is most notable for beginning a period in which the movies came out faster as their budgets grew smaller. In 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan a bunch of aliens plans to destroy Monster Island and replace it with a children’s theme park dominated by a hollow replica of Godzilla containing a monster museum in its head. This probably said more than it intended. Tired ideas and recycled footage were increasingly in evidence. Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster, released in 1973 and 1974 respectively, have all the ritualised predictability of Sumo wrestling while lacking much of its brevity.

One final effort was made for 1975’s The Terror of Machagodzilla, which brought Honda and Ifukube together again for the last time. After defeating a mechanical version of himself and an aquatic dinosaur, Godzilla is seen in the closing shot swimming out to sea, a glassy smile of relief on his face. Even he seemed to know it was time to call it a day.

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)

Planet of Godzilla

Anniversaries gain significance in an uncertain world. In 1984, 30 years after Gojira’s original release, Japan remained as fragile as ever. Acquiescent to the United States, suspicious of Russia and constantly vulnerable to floods, typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the country was ready for Godzilla to return. Toho’s expensive reworking of the first movie saw the US and the USSR trying to violate Japan’s nonnuclear policy and bomb a marauding Godzilla back to an irradiated oblivion. Needless to say, much of this was missing from the US release, Godzilla 1985. And what did American audiences get in its place? Raymond Burr once again, playing the same journalist as before, plus a bunch of Pentagon generals standing around drinking Dr Pepper. It was as if the 50s had never gone away.

Despite his still worryingly large eyes, Godzilla was back on fine, building-toppling form and nobody’s sweetheart. He had come once more to destroy Japan, not to save it. And a new generation of creative talent promised fresh ideas. The 1989 sequel, the nightmarish Godzilla vs. Biollante, paired writer/director Kazuki Omori with special-effects director Koichi Kawakita. Their strong, revisionist ambitions verged on the iconoclastic in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). This darkly complex time-travel fantasy links contemporary Japan with the closing days of World War Two and contains the genuinely disturbing image of King Ghidorah flying over the shattered dome of the Industry Promotion Hall in Hiroshima, thereby breaking a taboo that had been in place since the first Godzilla film.

Times had changed. There was now a waiting list of cities anxious to see themselves being demolished by Godzilla. The national defence forces offered their services free of charge on each new production, grateful for the chance to demonstrate their latest weaponry in the name of protecting Japan. Only one name, aside from Tanaka’s, remained to remind cinemagoers of the past: Ifukube, having returned for Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, was persuaded to stay on and write the scores for two further releases – Godzilla vs. Mothra, which saw Godzilla losing to the giant moth again in 1992, and 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

Godzilla’s appearance continued to alter, his eyes finally growing smaller and darker to reflect the renewed capacity for destruction that lurked behind them. Even so, there was something safe and predictable about Toho releasing a new Godzilla vehicle in December each year. It looked as if he had achieved the ultimate career triumph of becoming a national threat and an institution at the same time. And Toho also took the less than unprecedented step of allowing him to reproduce once again. The results were not quite as alarming as before: Baby Godzilla was cute, but still clearly reptilian. He would later appear as Little Godzilla in 1994’s Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla and be a witness to his father’s death in the final film of the cycle, Godzilla vs. Destroyah. Godzilla Jr’s whereabouts are currently unknown.

Except to note that he absorbed enough of the fallout from his father’s radioactive flesh both to prevent Tokyo from being reduced to an atomic wasteland and to transform himself into a larger, more fiercesome version of his former self. Not a kid any more, Godzilla Jr may well be hanging around a Toho sound stage somewhere. Just in case. Where love and memories are concerned, anything can happen. In December 1996 Dr Yasuyuki Shirota of Hirasaki University announced plans to regenerate the moa, a giant flightless bird extinct for over a century, by using DNA extracts and live chicken embryos. Ultimately, Dr Shirota hopes to recreate a live dinosaur. His inspiration? Watching Godzilla movies as child.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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