Godzilla Rides Again (Again!)

| Alex Kies |

Catch Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla films all May at the Trylon Cinema. For more information and tickets, visit trylon.org.

[T]he living horror of last night was over. The only thought left was the paralyzing fear that it could happen today or tomorrow.

–Raymond Burr, from Godzilla, King of the Monsters[1]

On September 2, 1945, in the wake of years of costly island warfare abroad and an aggressive campaign of urban firebombing and the two atomic bombings at home, Japan surrendered to the Allies. A once proud empire had been brought low at an incredible cost.

At the time of the imperial surrender, filmmaker turned soldier Ishirô Honda was a prisoner of war, captured by the Allies while stationed in central China on the Yangtze River six month previously. Liberated and allowed to return home, Honda and his compatriots were paraded through the still-smoldering ruins of the city of Hiroshima. Honda later told film critic and historian Stuart Galbraith IV, “When I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere–a fear the Earth was already coming to an end.”[2]

This fear pervaded the Japanese public, despite only dim public awareness at the time of the full extent of the dangers of radiation. Steve Ryfle, one of America’s foremost experts on Godzilla, notes in his commentary on the 2002 DVD release of the original Japanese film Gojira, that the average Japanese citizen, particularly rural ones who did not live near either Nagasaki or Hirshomia, did not fully appreciate the difference between the atomic bombings and General Curtis LeMay’s firebombing campaign of Tokyo that preceded them. The average person only understood the Atomic bombs as larger bombs, and was mostly ignorant of the unique horrors of nuclear weapons.

            According to Ryfle, domestic Japanese misgivings about nuclear weapons only became acute in 1954, eight months before Gojira’s original release, when a 15-megaton Hydrogen Bomb was tested over Bikini Atoll. Aside from the indigenous loss of life, the occupants of the ill-fated Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (translated as Lucky Dragon #5), which drew inadvertently close to the blast zone, all fell ill with radiation poisoning, and one died.

            This led to a nation-wide crisis, accompanied by a total recall of all Tuna products and a popular campaign to disinvest from the American military and industrial aid that had lifted Japan from a humbled empire to the world’s third-largest economy, trailing only their erstwhile American adversaries and the Soviet Union. This aid was not, of course, entirely humanitarian, as Japan was regarded by Western leaders as an important staging area for the then-raging Korean conflict and any subsequent Eastern proxy confrontations with the Soviets.

            The Lucky Dragon #5 incident was only one of a host of events shaping the larger cultural context for the production of Gojira. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had wanted to make the first Japanese giant monster movie in the wake of a hugely successful theatrical re-release of King Kong two years before, and the box office success of American import The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms. Tanaka brought on board Ishirô Honda, who had worked as the chief assistant director on his friend Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) (Honda would go on to be Kurosawa’s lead assistant on Kagemusha and Ran, in addition to directing “The Tunnel” segment of Kurosawa’s final film, Dreams). Honda was selected because of his wartime experience, documentary work, and his 1943 hit war film Eagle of the Pacific (filmed and released prior to Honda’s own military service). The special effects were assigned to Eiji Tsubaraya, often referred to as the father of Japanese special effects (he later created Ultraman), who had done previous miniature work for wartime propaganda films including (allegedly) Eagle of the Pacific. Tsubaraya’s work was celebrated nationwide for its realism, illustrated by a possibly apocryphal anecdote about Toho executives destroying prints of some films featuring Tsubaraya effects in the wake of the surrender for fear the Allies would mistake his footage for the real thing.

            It is ironic that Godzilla would become synonymous with cheap, unbelievable effects due to its conception as a realistic monster movie. In addition to clever uses of puppetry, “suitmation,” miniatures, and actual wartime footage, alongside ingenious editing and Toho-scope framing, the scale of Gojira was massive. Honda thought a flaw of the American antecedents to Gojira was that the creatures were vulnerable to human weaponry. He thought that incorporating radiation into Godzilla’s backstory would make him seem invincible to conventional weaponry. Contrary to popular interpretations that Godzilla is more or less a direct metaphor for the bomb, Ryfle contends that “the Honda Godzilla is not so much a metaphor for the bomb, but actually a physical manifestation of it.”[3] Honda himself told Galbraith that “the basis of the film [was to make] radiation visual.”[4]

            The early parts of Gojira are intended to mirror the Lucky Dragon #5 incident, where fishermen are irradiated and traumatized by a seafaring glimpse of Godzilla. That said, Honda maintained, “We skirted the issue, frankly speaking, because we felt putting a real-life accident into a fictional story with a monster appearing in the midst of it wouldn’t sit well in the world.”[5]

            Journalists follow the story of the fishing boat to rural Udo Island, an intentional reference to Skull Island in King Kong, where the locals tell them their people have always maintained an uneasy peace with the giant lizard. The film depicts a semi-Shinto ritual to appease the angry monster. The island sequence complicates, for instance, Roger Ebert’s interpretation of Godzilla as a walking nuclear weapon, created by America. The aforementioned incomplete understanding of radioactive fallout is on display in the Udo Island sequences as well, with characters handling and examining explicitly radioactive material, such as the famous giant footprints on the beach, without much compunction. In his commentary, Ryfle contends that a Japanese moviegoer in 1954, perhaps due to American aid, viewed atomic weapons as not a uniquely American threat, but the logical consequence of scientific advancement in warfare. As a result, they would have interpreted Godzilla as a natural force corrupted by modernization, as opposed to some sort of foreign menace. In fact, archeologist Dr. Yamane at one point tells the audience that Godzilla seems to have originated contemporaneously with humankind.

            The relationship between the forces of traditional Japanese life and their rapid post-war industrialization serves as a rich subtext for the film throughout. It is seen in the conception of Godzilla as an ancient part of Japanese fauna, and in the contrast between the life on Udo Island and the urban destruction of Tokyo in the movie’s second half. Another prime example of this dynamic is the film’s love triangle plot between the protagonists: salvage ship captain Hideto Ogata, his lover Emiko Yamane, and her fiancé, mad scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. Emiko breaking off her arranged betrothal to Serizawa in favor of true love with the less prestigious Ogata serves as a sign of the changing times in Japan.

            Another troubling human embodiment of the changing times is the presence of Shinkichi, a child orphaned in Nagasaki and subsequently adopted by the Yamane family. Even as the main characters experience the benefits of Japan’s post-war boom, there are lingering reminders of the horrors of war.

            A contemporary Japanese audience would have recognized the painstakingly recreated miniature Tokyo landmarks Godzilla destroys, including the Toho studios. Although Tsubaraya had intended to create Godzilla through stop motion, time and budget constraints led him to opt for the miniatures and a man in a suit (except Godzilla’s first appearance over the Udo Island hilltop, which is a puppet shot in rear-projection). Although everyone from John Belushi to Mystery Science Theater 3000 have since derided Tsubaraya’s then-cutting-edge “suitmation,” Galbraith IV insists the original effects in Gojira were world-class, and would only be topped years later by Douglas Turnbull’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

            Dr. Serizawa does not believe killing Godzilla is a morally acceptable course of action, as he is only a creature obeying his instincts, and has to be petitioned to employ his fearsome device “The Oxygen Destroyer” by Ogata and Emiko. In a moving climactic argument scene, Serizawa and Ogata come to blows over the safety of Japan, and Honda’s camera glides away from the action, over to Serizawa’s aquarium, the swimming fish a natural counterpoint to the sound of human struggle. This fight ends with Serizawa besting Ogata, but Emiko running to tend to Ogata’s injuries serves as an indication to Serizawa that humanity must be preserved. He uses the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla and then kills himself as penance for his crimes against nature.

            At the time, Gojira became the most expensive Japanese film to date. For comparison, the shooting budget was about 100 million yen, whereas the contemporaneously-produced Seven Samurai cost a third of that and took almost a year longer to shoot. Gojira was not a critical success. Honda said Japanese critics called Gojira “grotesque junk… like something you would spit up.”[6] Critics felt it tastelessly capitalized upon very real human tragedies and ongoing national anxieties. Audiences disagreed. Gojira became the third film to break the Japanese box office record that year, the first two being Musashi Miyamoto and Honda’s mentor Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.[7]

            At the premiere, Akira Takarada, who portrayed Ogata (who only died two months ago), was brought to tears by Godzilla’s death and Serizawa’s sacrifice. He recalled to Galbraith IV: “Godzilla was killed… but Godzilla himself wasn’t evil. Why did they punish Godzilla? Why? He was a warning to mankind. I was mad at mankind and felt sympathy for Godzilla, even if he did destroy Tokyo… Mankind woke Godzilla, and today we have similar issues: air pollution, the ozone layer. That is also Godzilla. They’re the same in that they were all brought on by mankind.”[8]

            Despite its unassailable financial success, Honda remained ambivalent about the final product. Famously hard on himself, Honda opined, “As strange as it may sound, I think the film probably succeeded because I didn’t completely succeed as a director. The film represents only about 65% of what I wanted to achieve… Since we fell short, however, audiences could see that it wasn’t a real story, that it wasn’t like the real war.”[9] This being said, in his later years, Honda maintained Gojira was his favorite and best movie.[10]

            What was truly surprising is that Gojira, a film deeply ambivalent about technology and Western influence, was successfully exported from its original context into an American one. An American distributor agreed to pick up Gojira from Toho with the provision that it would be heavily re-edited for Western release. Honda’s use of journalists as expository devices proved to be a boon to the Western filmmakers, led by director Terry Morse, who inserted Raymond Burr, fresh off his villainous turn in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, into the journalism scenes as a foreign correspondent and old college friend of Dr Serizawa, Steve Martin, who is accompanied throughout his stay by a helpful interpreter.

            While Burr takes the source material very seriously (and reportedly even more so when he reprised the role decades later in the disastrous Godzilla 1985), American audiences did not experience the full realism intended by Honda and Tsubaraya. This was due to the dubbing performed by Jewell Enterprises, the American production company, who decided a straight subtitling and release of the original Japanese film would not be palatable to American audiences. The film was dubbed entirely in an afternoon, often with dialogue that in no way resembled the Japanese it was replacing, without the voice actors having seen the film much less the full script, according to legendary character actor and Minnesota native James Hong, who provided the voices for both Serizawa and Ogata, despite not being of Japanese origin.[11]

            Jewell Enterprises slashed many scenes from Gojira as well as adding their own footage (notably, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! begins with western Red Cross aid workers rescuing people from the ruins of a Godzilla attack), ultimately reducing the runtime by 16 minutes. The excisions and changes have been elucidated at great length elsewhere, but conspicuously absent are several explicit references to the bombings in Nagasaki, and a scene where journalists theorize Godzilla could have been created by rogue German scientists. Honda’s tragic ending is played under an added monologue from Burr’s character about humanity banding together in hope for the future.

            The producers insisted to their dying days that the intention behind these edits was not political, but merely an attempt to make the story easier for Western viewers to identify with. Despite these edits and the corny dialogue, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was a larger financial success in America than its Japanese predecessor had been at home, bringing in over $2 million in box office receipts. In fact, it was so successful that the American version was released with Japanese subtitles in Japan in 1956.

            It was not until that release, titled Godzilla Monster King, that Honda learned of the existence of the American version. Always hard on himself, he felt if this edit could be more successful in this version than his own, it was therefore superior. “I felt that if Godzilla was going to be shown overseas,” he said, “then the American version was probably better, since it was so easy to understand.”[12]

            The darker, more complicated Gojira was not widely seen outside of Japan until a theatrical release of the original in 2004. Despite efforts to contextualize it, it was still widely seen as immature entertainment, with Roger Ebert infamously giving the original Gojira a one-and-a-half-star review in 2004. “Regaled for 50 years by the stupendous idiocy of the American version of Godzilla audiences can now see the original Japanese version, which is equally idiotic, but, properly decoded, was the Fahrenheit 9/11 of its time.”[13] This dismissiveness is characteristic of Ebert, of course, despite his work in the 70s with Russ Meyer.

            When I re-read this simplistic pan from Ebert, the arbiter of middle-brow American taste, I cannot help but feel a little sad as I recall the following quotes from the Honda as an old man, after having garnered a reputation as a maker of schlocky monster movies and not a socially conscious and technically adventurous artist. (One American collaborator even told Galbraith IV that Honda was “the hack of all hacks”[14]). The first is about his life, and it comes from Galbraith’s definitive, 1998, oral history of Japanese monster movies, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: “My nightmares are almost always about war–wandering the streets, searching for something that’s lost forever,” Honda said, “For me the most wonderful fragrance in the world is new film. You can open the canister for the first time and breathe deeply. That night, the same wonderful fragrance fills your dreams.”[15]

The second and more wide-ranging––but no less tragic––quote comes from Ryfle’s equally important Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of  The Big G.” There, Honda states:

It is sad that the number of atomic bombs hasn’t been reduced even by one since [1954]…. We’d really like to demand abolition of nuclear weapons to both America and Russia. That is where Godzilla’s origin is. No matter how many Godzilla films are produced, it is never enough to explain the theme of Godzilla.[16]

But now, Toho, generally quite protective of their big star––which is why Ryfle couldn’t use the word “Godzilla” in the title of his book––has released several of the original Godzilla films in American theaters in anticipation of the 2022 release of the thirtieth Japanese installment: Godzilla: The Kaiju Invasion. And you can see them at the Trylon this month.

Alex Kies is a writer in the Twin Cities. In addition to being a lifelong Godzilla fan, he has been going to the Trylon since it opened its doors.


[1] Godzilla, King of the Monsters, directed by Terry O. Morse and Ishirō Honda (Transworld Releasing Corporation, 1956).

[2] Stuart IV Galbraith, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films (London: Feral House, 1998), 23.

[3] The Godzilla Collection, DVD (commentary), directed by Ishirô Honda, Downer’s Grove, IL: Classic Media, 2002.

[4] Galbraith, 23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Steve Ryfle, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of The Big G” (Toronto, CA: ECW Press, 1998).

[8] Galbraith, 50–52.

[9] Galbraith, 52.

[10] Ryfle, The Godzilla Collection, DVD (commentary).

[11] Ryfle, 54–5.

[12] Galbraith, 64.

[13] Roger Ebert, “Idiotic? Yes, but Godzilla represents its nuclear times,” RogerEbert.com, July 2, 2004, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/godzilla-2004.

[14] Galbraith, 76.

[15] Galbraith, 119.

[16] Ryfle, 44.

Edited by Brad Stiffler

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