Gojira, the original kaiju


At the end of most Godzilla films, the audience is led to believe the giant reptile has finally been killed off. Blown up, defeated by another monster, killed by technology, sunk to the bottom of the ocean or suffered some similar fate. And yet there he*** is, hale and hearty in the next film, rampaging through Japan once again, and facing yet another kaiju (giant monster) – or often several. After 32 films, Godzilla still comes back. And so do I.*

I was thinking about Godzilla this week, today in particular. This is the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. My grandfather was there, and was injured in the blast. Seeing images of the city after the event made me think of images of Hiroshima, and that in turn made me think about Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo. I imagined Godzilla stomping through the low-rise Halifax, a century ago. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

director Ishirô Honda on the set of 1954's GodzillaIt began in 1954 with Gojira, the original black-and-white Godzilla movie and still one of the (if not the) best. Film number 32, the animated Godzilla Monster Planet, was released in November, 2017, making this the longest-running film franchise in history.

Gojira was an early tokukatsu film – special effects – that features suitmation (also called suitamation) or actors wearing suits, rather than stop motion, claymation, puppets or CGI. It’s not unique to Japan, but certainly mastered there.

Gojira – the creation of Tomoyuki Tanaka with writers Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, director Ishiro Honda, and special-effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya – was originally produced as a metaphor for Japanese fears about an uncertain, post-Hiroshima future and where science might lead us without moral restraint. Honda had been a soldier in the war and seen Hiroshima after the bomb, first hand, in 1946.

The film itself was an allegory about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation: the monster himself represented both the bomb and its effects. It was, like Kurosawa’s later 1955 film, I Live in Fear, about Japan’s national “atomophobia,” although not always directly. Godzilla is more than a film monster; he (it) becomes the symbol of Japan’s fate, raising the philosophical question whether Japan deserves his wrath because of its wartime aggression.

As Tim Martin wrote in The Telegraph, it was, “…a sober allegory of a film with ambitions as large as its thrice-normal budget, designed to shock and horrify an adult audience.” The original film still has some of that power.

The original 90-minute film was dark, tightly scripted and fast-paced. It was released less than a year after the Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryu Maru, accidentally sailed into the danger zone for the American secret hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll, in March. This poisoned the crew, eventually killing one of them. More than 400,000 people attended his funeral that fall. This event was still vivid in the film audience’s memories. As the HuffPost noted in Godzilla’s Secret History:

The final piece of the creature’s origin story is an all-too familiar tale in the modern age. It’s the story of human progress. Nature vs. Technology. What happens when man, through its incessant meddling, makes that long-awaited mistake that ultimately brings the Earth to its knees? Bringing our own species to the brink of extinction has long been a favorite subject of science fiction stories, and Godzilla is a prime example.

The 1954 Japanese film was shown in Japan, but in the US only in Japanese community theatres. It was “discovered” by Edmund Goldman in 1955 a cinema in Los Angeles. He bought the international rights for $25,000, then sold them to Jewell Enterprises Inc. It was heavily edited for American audiences: its allegorical and political content sanitized, many references to atom bombs and radiation scrubbed out. It was dubbed, and new scenes were inserted featuring American/Canadian actor Raymond Burr. His presence gave North American audiences a touchstone character in an otherwise foreign film.

It was released in North America in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, but critics perceived it as a kitschy B-film and it got mostly poor reviews. An Italian colourized version of the 1956 edit was released in Europe in 1977.

I don’t recall exactly how old I was when I saw that 1956 version, but I was young, under the age of 12. I’ve only seen that version twice since, that I remember. The original 1954 release is, I and many viewers believe, much better. I didn’t see that version until much later – possibly in the mid-1980s, but it may have been later. It radically changed the way I saw Godzilla – all Godzilla films – afterwards.

Godzilla on the setA similar bastardization would be applied to The Return of Godzilla (aka Godzilla 1984), released in North America as Godzilla 1985, with an aged Burr reprising his role. Both remakes have had poor reception from fans, and fared ill in reviews against their originals.

While fans were thankful that this treatment was not applied to the rest of the series, the 1998 American remake of Godzilla – the first Hollywood adaptation – similarly failed to please audiences, particularly the kaiju purists, but also American audiences not previously exposed to the Godzilla universe (yet it was still profitable).

For all its expensive production, the 1998 version lacked the essential human-ness that even the early Godzilla films had. The monster was all CGI, compared to the latex-suited humans of the Japanese originals, which made it more menacing: a more reptilian, a less anthropomorphic Godzilla. Yet the monster, for all its massive size and destructiveness, sometimes felt predictable in a Hollywood monsters-are-bad way. Perhaps not as cartoonish as Minilla, but still predictable. **

Godzilla originally proved successful not because of its message but because it was entertaining. It was fun to see a big monster wreak havoc on a model , miniature city. The more carefully crafted and the larger that city, the more the fun in watching it get stomped (haven’t you always wanted to do that? Come on, think of your kids’ Lego models…).

People wanted to be entertained, not lectured, and they developed affection for the improbable, comical monsters. So sequels and spinoffs played to that desire. And in doing so, the films built and maintained a fan base for more than 60 years. In that sense it assuaged Japanese atomic fears by lulling them with fun. How can anyone be afraid of a guy in a latex suit?

Besides, monsters have a long and rich history in world literature, myth and film – think of the monster in Frankenstein, the Golem in 16th century Prague, the whale in Moby Dick, the Minotaur, the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Medusa, Fenris, Grendel, the Balrog, Kraken, Lovecraft’s Shoggoth, even Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock. Godzilla was introduced as a respectable member of a large peer group that was as old and varied as human storytelling. What’s not to love about a giant reptile with atomic breath?

As The Telegraph noted:

What the public wanted, it seemed, was not grim nuclear allegory but more monster movies, and Toho Studios was there to oblige. In the years that followed, Tanaka found himself presiding over the development of the most famous creature in a new genre of so-called kaiju (monster) movies, battling a cast of bizarre foes in films that soon became a cultish pleasure for children of all ages. In the adventures of Mechagodzilla, Mothra, Son of Godzilla and a host of city-stomping animal freaks, the political philosophising and existential terror of the first film soon became little more than a black-and-white footnote.

As the series progressed after Gojira, it left its political and allegorical roots and meandered into a sort of wacky fantasy of monsters and guys in latex suits comically swatting each other while clumsily stomping through elaborate, miniature sets. Funny, entertaining, but ultimately it became silly with such films as Son of Godzilla. Plus the franchise spun off numerous buddy-monster films that shared common production values and techniques, like Gamera, Mothra, Rodan, and many others.

There are three distinct periods of Godzilla filmmaking. The first is the Showa series, 1954-75, during which, Wikipedia notes, ” Godzilla began evolving into a friendlier, more playful antihero (this transition was complete by Son of Godzilla, where it is shown as a good character), and as years went by, it evolved into an anthropomorphic superhero. By the last films, the original storyline had submerged completely.

Then, after a decade-long hiatus, comes the Heisei period, 1984-95. This was a “re-boot” period that ignored the films and storylines post-Gojira and returned instead to the original to begin a new storyline. While production values improved, the stories and plots didn’t, and it too meandered from the original after a few films.

The third was the Millennium period, 1999-2004, which was a second re-boot that hearkened back to the original Gojira then moved forward with a new storyline. The series was supposed to peak with the multi-monster, 50th anniversary film, Godzilla Final Wars, but reviews of the 29th film in the franchise were lukewarm at best, and both box office receipts and audiences were lower than anticipated.

The post-Millennium period has only seen two completed Japanese films, the recently-released anime production, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters and Shin Godzilla, a 2016 release (see my next post: the latter is the latest in my collection). Three additional films are scheduled for release in 2018, 19, and 20.

And, of course, there is the American-made 2014, blockbuster production simply titled, Godzilla although it is often referred to as Godzilla 2014 to separate it from the original. That American Godzilla was, oddly, much truer to the original story than the 1998 version and even than many of the Japanese sequels, but without the cultural and military/wartime subtexts of the Japanese original it has less depth (plus it’s set in America). It’s a good action-monster film in its own right, but to really appreciate it, you should have watched the original Gojira. I think of it as a passionate homage to Gojira, not a replacement.

As I’ve written in the past, one constant during the franchise has been Godzilla’s growth. From an original height of around 50 metres, by 2014 Godzilla was around 150. In part this evolution paralleled the growth in height of urban buildings: as more and taller skyscrapers were erected, Godzilla grew to be able to destroy them. However, it wasn’t always linear: the apparent height varied from film to film, and even shrank somewhat in some (although not nearly as radically as King Kong in the recent Kong: Skull Island).

(Sidebar 1: In most Japanese kaiju films, the military is brave but generally unable to stop Godzilla or other monsters without help from scientists, a social commentary on war and power in itself. Sometimes they can’t even accomplish that and need help from equally powerful-but-friendly monsters like Mothra. In the two American films, the US military triumphs in a suitably patriotic, flag-waving, all-guns-blazing manner.)

(Sidebar 2: There is a religious element in Godzilla, as there is in many monster films. Godzilla represents, to me at least, how many humans imagine their deity: powerful, destructive, intolerant of dissent, and bad-tempered. An old testament-style wrathful god.  Overcoming the monster is overcoming our primitive faiths, our fears, our subservience, and growing into a secular society independent of deities. We defeat the inventions of faith to emerge as empowered individuals free of their power and control, like Beowulf defeating Grendel. God(zilla) is dead: very Nietzschean. And it’s hard not to see in films where Godzilla battles other monsters echoes of age-old religious stories and myths about gods battling one another. Or maybe I’m just channelling my inner Joseph Campbell. Or is that Christopher Hitchens?)

Of the 32 films in the 63 years since Gojira, only a handful really stand out, but of course which ones they are depends on both your loyalty to the franchise, your affection for B-films (and especially to these kaiju films), and your personal views about film arts, effects and production. Me, I’d collect them all, although Susan can’t stomach watching most of the older ones (however, she did watch Gojira with me, last night, and agreed it was pretty good)

I have yet to see a Godzilla film that didn’t entertain me, but that doesn’t mean I thought it was actually a good film in an artistic or intellectual sense. But even if you think most B-films are just schlocky trash, you cannot argue that Gojira isn’t a landmark film or that the character has not become a fixture in pop culture and pop imagination.****

Godzilla remains one of my favourite films and favourite monsters of all time, up there with the original King Kong and the early monster movies like Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Like all of them, Godzilla is as much about ourselves as about the monsters and their impact on our lives. But unlike them, Godzilla in all its forms and variations is a small window into another world, another culture, a wholly different set of fears and perspectives. And besides, Gojira aside, it’s a lot of fun.

Next post, I’ll look at the 2016 Shin Godzilla release: see here for my thoughts on it.

Criterion Collection Godzilla* As much of a B-film and monster movie aficionado as I am, my collection only has 16 of the 32 Godzilla films (and while I have six of the Gamera films, I have none of the stand-alone Mothra or Rodan flicks… yet). I have none of the toys, figures, models, etc. I recently received the remastered Criterion Collection DVDs with both Gojira (1954) and Godzilla (1956), but the rest in my collection are generally either Showa era or Millennium era, with a paucity of films from the Heisei period. For collectors in Canada, most of these films are difficult to find in stores, and ordering online often proves expensive. Any recommendations for a source of the remainder of films would be appreciated. I note that Criterion has recently acquired rights to the entire Showa-series Godzilla line, but it remains to be seen if they will remaster and release them all. Plus, the Showa-series films are being streamed on the on-demand Starz network, although I am not sure if this network is available in Canada. Sadly, the only Godzilla film on Netflix is the 1998 American one.
UPDATE, April 2023: I have every Godzilla film now from 1954 to 2021, on Blu-ray or DVD, except Godzilla vs Biollante. See my later posts for updates.

** The 1998 American Godzilla was nowhere near as bad as the purists decry. True it had almost-comically stereotypical and predictable characters, but it was still fun and action-packed. If it had had a different title and presented as inspired by or a homage to Godzilla, it would have received a better reception (call it, say, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms instead). Despite the critics, I enjoyed it in my two viewings and consider its production much superior to many of the middle-period Japanese films, although its plot and dialogue weren’t necessarily better. The biggest complaint has, it seems, been that the monster was re-imagined to look more reptilian. To which I reply, “Meh!” But I still wish others were available on Netflix.

*** As for Godzilla’s gender, although the kaiju is commonly referred to as “he” in reviews and comments, as Vox notes:

Godzilla’s gender is undetermined. In Japanese films, Godzilla has traditionally been depicted as an “it” and the English subtitles of those films have skewed toward male pronouns.

The 1998 version had Godzilla lay eggs, which suggests a female, or it might be asexual reproduction or parthenogenesis.

**** After reading hundreds of online reviews of Godzilla films — this film and many others, including the two American flicks — I am baffled by how many people simply overlook the fact that they are not meant to provide a deep intellectual message or even the apex of good acting. Same thing with King Kong movies. Sure, sometimes the plots are full of holes and the characters may seem like cardboard cutouts, but so what? The premise of a giant monster is itself not a sustainable or logical concept, so why even start watching if you’re going to nitpick through the film? Just sit back, stop over-analyzing, stop whining and enjoy the ride. It’s meant to be entertaining and fun, not some puzzle for you to solve. If that’s too difficult for you to do, watch something else.

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