Andrew Osmond on the origins of the Big G
In the middle of an apocalypse, a man sat in a bomb shelter, telling fairy tales to comfort his frightened children. Outside, the city of Tokyo was an inferno past imagining, as waves of American bomber planes pounded the Japanese capital. It was March 10, 1945, during the savage last days of the Pacific War. Around a hundred thousand men, women and children died in the flames, perhaps even more. There were similar bombardments on Japan’s other major cities, reaching a crescendo in August, when man-made suns over Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded a dreadful new world.
The teller of fairy tales was Eiji Tsuburaya, who was blessed; he and his family survived the inferno. Less than a decade later, Tsuburaya would destroy Tokyo again, this time in miniature, in a blockbuster monster film called Godzilla. Yes, Godzilla was a blockbuster; for all the Big G’s later cheap and cheery image, the first Godzilla film was the most expensive Japanese film ever made to that date, with A-list actors and a director who was a close friend of Akira Kurosawa. Sixty years later, its legacy roars on. The upcoming Hollywood remake is one of the most anticipated pictures of 2014, with December’s trailer and poster proficiently whetting the monster appetites of filmgoers.
The title character in the new film will, inevitably, be CGI. Back in 1954, Godzilla was a man in a monster suit, but that wasn’t Eiji Tsuburaya’s choice. An effects veteran with two decades of experience, Tsuburaya would have loved to have animated Godzilla in the way pioneered by King Kong’s maestro Willis O’Brien, but there simply wasn’t time on the Toho studio’s schedule. In any case, Godzilla wasn’t a personality in the way Kong had been. Rather, Godzilla was a fire-breathing, city-stomping metaphor for the post-Bomb world: the fear, the stupendous destruction, the slow deaths from radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and not just there.
In 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, the American military blasted Bikini Atoll with an H-bomb test. One civilian vessel was too close – a Japanese fishing boat called, with horrid irony, Lucky Dragon. The crew was showered with fall-out, and the radio operator died of leukemia months later. The scandal is openly referenced in Godzilla’s first scene, showing a fishing boat on a seemingly peaceful sea; there’s a glaring light, a massive explosion, and the boat bursts into flame. Apart from the suggestion of a roar, there’s nothing in this opening scene to suggest a monster. Rather, this was real life.
After all, a Japanese monster film was an odd idea in 1954, much like an Italian Western. True, there had been a couple of Japanese monster films made in the 1930s, both on the back of Kong. Japanese King Kong (1933) was a half-hour parody, with Kong played by one Isamu Yamaguchi in a simian suit. King Kong Appears in Edo (1938) had the ape attacking samurai-era Tokyo. Sadly, both of these unauthorised bits of monkeying are now lost. Neither involved Tsuburaya, who was fascinated by the “real” Kong, and developed a range of effects: miniature backgrounds, superimpositions and models. His most famed pre-Godzilla work was on a propaganda film celebrating Pearl Harbor; its hefty name was The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942). Fifty years before CGI, Tsbuyara recreated the attack in such convincing detail that American officials thought he was a spy.
Godzilla’s director, though, wasn’t simulating images of war, but filming them for real. Ishiro Honda was a documentarian and later assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on the 1949 film, Stray Dog, a contemporary thriller in bombed-out Tokyo. “Every day I told (Honda) what I wanted and he would go out into the ruins of post-war Tokyo to film it,” Kurosawa remembered. “I’m often told that I captured the atmosphere of post-war Japan very well, and if so, I owe a great deal of that success to Honda.” In Godzilla, Honda takes his subject overwhelmingly seriously, using scenes of spectacular destruction to tell a gripping story without ever revelling in the carnage. As Steven Spielberg put it, Godzilla “was the most masterful of all the dinosaur movies, because it made you believe it was really happening.”
Godzilla was planned extensively in storyboards, involving artists working in the manga industry burgeoning after the war. One of them was Sanpei Shirato, later famous for his ninja strip, The Legend of Kamui. The “giant monster suit” approach, though, was untested. After much trial and error, Godzilla’s design combined elements of T-Rex and the Iguanadon, three rows of backplates from a Stegosaurus, and alligator-like gray skin. The inside of the latex rubber suit was horribly rough, giving the two sweaty actors alternating as Godzilla cuts and scars. The G’s marvellously unscientific roar (a lizard roaring?) was created by musician Akira Ifukube, who also wrote Godzilla’s relentless trumpeting leitmotif that entangles with the roar in the title credits. Ifukube made the roar by acquiring a double bass, opening it up, rubbing the strings with a coarse leather glove, and playing the result at reduced speed.
The director Honda downplayed Godzilla’s Japanese history and politics, instead stressing its debts to American monster cinema (he even said, “The basic film is American.”) King Kong was an obvious root; another was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), where a giant reptilian dinosaur, animated by Ray Harryhausen, is woken by nukes and barges into New York. Indeed, Godzilla’s working title was The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Honda also pointed out that some of Godzilla’s younger viewers would have only dim memories of the war (though you could equally point out that other cinemagoers in 1954 would remember not just the war but the previous annihilation of Tokyo in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake — see pic below).
In any case, Godzilla is about far more than just the war. After the ship-sinking overture, the film’s early scenes are set on a “primitive” island – not some alien Skull Island, but rather a backwater of Japanese heritage where the loinclothed fishermen remember their nation’s legends and speak fearfully of Godzilla. When the Skull Islanders worshipped King Kong, it was because they were savages. Godzilla, though, might really be a god. He (or, some G-fans argue) she, wields nuclear power, but the script makes clear he’s millions of years old. His scaly hide is first glimpsed when he comes to land during an island typhoon, an elemental part of angry nature. In one shot that feels especially pointed, we see the storm destroying a helicopter, representing modern technology. In such ways, Godzilla pits prehistory against modernity, much like Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy epic Princess Mononoke, which features a ghostly Godzilla-like giant.
The island scenes in Godzilla climax with the star showing his ugly head; he pokes up from behind a hill (as a matted-in hand-puppet), and the islanders run like the clappers. The action switches to the Japanese mainland, with a welter of politically-loaded details. A woman commuter on a train reads about Godzilla and exclaims, “Not after what I went through in Nagaskai!” Meanwhile, a woman MP slams down her male rival who wants Godzilla kept secret (women had only recently been admitted to Japan’s Parliament). Then there’s the fact that Godzilla’s plot revolves around a tormented young scientist, a kind of Japanese answer to Oppenheimer, who has accidentally discovered a new kind of weapon that could destroy Godzilla… or humanity.
Unlike most monster movies, Godzilla is as much about the humans as the monster. The script sets up a love triangle between the stricken scientist, Serizawa (played by Akihiko Hirata in an eyepatch), his fiancée Emiko (Momoko Koichi) and her increasingly close male friend Ogata (Akira Takarada). One of the film’s most effective scenes doesn’t involve Godzilla at all; rather, it has Serizawa giving Emiko a demonstration of his deadly invention in a Frankenstein laboratory. The shrieking violin strings anticipate Psycho. We see Emiko scream in horror but we don’t see what the invention does until a flashback much later on in the film.
The fourth major human character is an older scientist, Yamane (Emiko’s father), who’s played by the nationally famed actor Takashi Shimura. Shimura had recently appeared as the grizzled samurai leader in the same year’s Seven Samurai; he also appeared in many other Kurosawa films. The Yamane character is a passionate advocate of learning from Godzilla, rather than destroying him. As Yamane says in yet another of the film’s politically charged moments, Godzilla is a creature which has actually survived an atomic blast. Whereas contemporary American monster films featured silly boffins who got too close to the monsters and were killed, Yamane is treated with total respect. As a figure of moral authority, he’s rather like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who, circa 1970 – even if, like Pertwee’s Doctor, he drops the odd scientific clanger, such as his claim that dinosaurs walked the Earth a mere two million years ago!
As with most fifty-year old films, Godzilla’s drama occasionally creaks. Ogata and Emiko are somewhat one-dimensional, and even the far more resonant Serizawa has the odd fit of melodramatics. But the sequence that does hold up spectacularly on the big screen, which is where it really needs to be experienced, is Godzilla’s all-out assault on Tokyo. ‘50s American monsters usually cause small-scale urban mayhem, but Godzilla beats up a whole city. Even here, the monster itself is almost secondary. The intensity of the destruction comes from the fire (so much fire), the melting pylons, the explosions, the falling rubble. A foolish news-crew reports the destruction from the top of the Tokyo tower, and is dashed to the ground. In its cumulative power, the carnage elevates even the most wonky effects (Godzilla has dated far more than the miniatures) to tragic grandeur.
As Spielberg says, you believe it’s really happening, as it had effectively happened in Tokyo nine years earlier. Honda goes still further, showing the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage, with a hospital overflowing with dying people while children wail for their parents or cause Geiger counters to crackle (Godzilla’s affinity with the A-bomb extends to irradiating land and people). The sight traumatises Emiko, making her betray Serizawa’s secret weapon and leading the film towards its inevitable end. But irrespective of the outcome, Yamane notes, in this age there will always be more Godzillas.
Twenty-seven more Godzillas, in fact, from the hasty sequel Godzilla Raids Again a year later, to the fiftieth-anniversary Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. Then there’s the whole genre of Japanese kaiju (“monster”) movies, Godzilla’s spawn, from Mothra to Rodan to the non-Toho Gamera. Not forgetting these films’ TV competitors, which were dominated by Tsuburaya’s own Ultraman franchise from the 1960s. Some of these follow-ups were good, some were fun, some were frightful. None of them, though, had the same shell-shock force as their founder. The first Godzilla was no mere monster flick; it was created by people who’d lived through Japan’s worst time and made it into a dark and resonant fairy tale to shield their children from the fire.
Today, the Japanese Godzilla is available subtitled on DVD, while the Americanised edition (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) has slid into obscurity. Ironically, for many decades the US version was the only way to see Godzilla in English. The distributor sliced out much of the original footage, filming new scenes with Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Rear Window) as an American reporter witnessing Godzilla’s attacks. Some Japanese scenes were dubbed, while others were inaccurately “interpreted” for Burr and the audience. Author/film-maker Donald F. Glut saw the film as a child. “I was really confused. Why were all the people Japanese and why were their mouths moving so weirdly?”
Before anyone mentions the Roland Emmerich Godzilla from 1998, Xander made the definitive statement in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Emmerich’s monster was “a big dumb lizard that was not the real Godzilla.” The new American Godzilla, soon heading this way, was developed by Legendary Productions and Warners. The director is Britain Gareth Edwards, who created one of the most intriguing twenty-first century additions to the monster cycle.
Edwards’ debut was an indy film with the blunt-seeming but deceptive name Monsters. It was a hugely inventive production, mixing CGI effects with off-the-street actors in an improvised shoot, mostly filmed in Mexico (a “destroyed town” sequence was filmed in Texas after Hurricane Ike). Edwards cites docudrama maverick Peter Watkins (The War Game, Punishment Park) as an inspiration, and gave Monsters political substance in the Godzilla tradition.
Monsters imagined a monster “invasion” along the lines of the Afghanistan conflict, literally walled off from the first world. (The wall, incidentally, was modelled on the Three Gorges Dam in China). “If Godzilla is a September 11th kind of event, then how about an event that’s more like Afghanistan?” Edwards said at the time. “An event that started six years ago, but no-one (in the outside world) gives a crap about it now?”
Edwards’ comments on Monsters’ outlook may give clues to the new Godzilla. “Monsters is a love-letter to America. It’s about these two (American) characters who you fall in love with, and their desire to get back to America. But the film could be interpreted as anti-military force, I’m happy with that. Not that I’m anti-military, because I think soldiers do good jobs, but I’m anti the abuse of force, when it makes the problem worse. If the film is against anything, it’s against the attitude of not understanding what you’re attacking, but just attacking because it seems the best solution.”
More recently, Edwards said in a Comic-Con interview that he visited the Toho studio personally, in order to get its blessing for his take on Godzilla . “It was important to me that this felt like a Toho Godzilla… There’s always this fear when you’re working on something with a legacy… But they feel we’ve stayed true to their roots.” Edwards also commented on Godzilla himself.“The theme is man versus nature and Godzilla is certainly the nature side of it. You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about. He’s an anti-hero. I wouldn’t describe him as a good guy, but he’s not evil personified. He’s the punishment we deserve, you know?”
Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, will be released in the US on 11th May 2014. The original 1954 film is out now from the British Film Institute.
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