Godzilla: A Growing and Changing Monster with a Message
Jonathan M. Lebruto
Introduction to Japanese Culture
December 12, 1999
Jonathan M. Lebruto
December 16, 1999
Godzilla: A Growing and Changing Monster with a Message
At the end of World War II, the Japanese film industry was booming. New ideas and interesting movies were being created that would also be a great success in the United States. Among the most popular films that made this transition from Japan to America were the Godzilla film series. The Godzilla dynasty had many different facets that were exposed throughout the many films. As we follow the Godzilla movies throughout their lifetimes, we can see Godzilla change. The personality, physical appearance, and the message that Godzilla contained evolved as the film series continued to grow. Many of the reviews of the Godzilla movies were less than stellar. But, these reviews did not prevent Godzilla from infiltrating other films and teaming up with other science fiction monsters. The Godzilla films had a large effect on both American and Japanese film viewers and makers since the mid 1950’s.
The myth that is the legend of Gojira was born in the year 1954. In the United States Gojira is known by the name Godzilla. Godzilla’s father was a Japanese producer at the Toho Motion Picture Co. His name was Tomoyuki Tanaka. Tanaka’s original idea for Godzilla was formulated when he was trying to come up with a new idea for a movie to replace one of Toho’s failing movies. He was on his way back to Tokyo from Jakarta when the idea came to him. Basing much of his idea on the 1953 American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Tanaka created a monster that preyed on peoples’ fears of the nuclear age. Tanaka said "The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb" (qtd. Ryfle 20). As of 1998 there was a total 22 Godzilla films available on videocassette. When the original idea for the Godzilla films was conceived, Tanaka sought the novelistic ability of Shigeru Kayama to help create a written work that would act as the original basis for the story of Gojira. The name Gojira was derived from the word "gorilla" and the Japanese word whale "kujira". It has been speculated that Tanaka’s original idea for the physical demeanor of Godzilla was to be a cross between a whale and a gorilla. Godzilla’s physical appearance was a scary sight. It was to stand over 400 feet tall, have radioactive breath that had the power to melt anything in Godzilla’s path.
The original film Gojira was produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka and directed by Ishiro Honda. This Japanese film cost about 100,000,000 yen to create. This fee contrasted greatly with the average cost of Japanese films, which was about 240,000 yen. In 1956 Godzilla made its debut in the United States with Terry Morse as the director and Raymond Burr as the leading actor. This transition to the United States was not without a significant amount of cuts and additions to the original script. "Included in the cuts were direct references to Hiroshima and songs about peace" (Noriega 63). The new American version was renamed Godzilla: King of the Monsters to link up the title of Godzilla to the great American monster King Kong. Throughout the Godzilla film series Godzilla changes in both physical and emotional ways in attempts to have the maximum amount of interest from both the Japanese and American societies.
The original Godzilla film acts as a metaphor that played on people’s fears of the nuclear age. When discussing the Godzilla film series Susan J. Napier states "it demonizes American nuclear science in an obvious reference to the atomic tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (Napier 331-332). Although, when the film is brought over to America, all the verbal references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are cut out, the Americanized Godzilla still has strong ties to those disasters. In several other Godzilla movies, the nuclear image is also present. For example, in Godzilla vs. Mothra, Mothra is a symbol of Christianity and Godzilla is a symbol of the destructive force of the hydrogen bomb (Noriega 70). This good versus evil context, with Godzilla being the evil nuclear threat, eventually changes in Godzilla’s later films. While relating the Godzilla films to the bomb, Nancy Anisfield says "Humans made the bombs. The bombs created the monsters. The monsters punish the humans. After enough punishment, the humans triumph and are left in peace" (Anisfield 56). But, this statement does not always relate to Godzilla. In the film Godzilla versus the Sea Monster, Godzilla and Mothra (both created by mans nuclear carelessness) team up to battle Ebirah the evil sea monster. This is one of several examples that proves that the nuclear image of Godzilla does not always represent a punishment of man.
During the initial brainstorming of the Godzilla films, there was nuclear testing going on all around Japan. On one side of Japan, Russia was testing its bombs, while on the other America was testing theirs. This created extreme fear amongst the people of Japan. The chance of nuclear fallout and radioactive rain was a very real threat. The Godzilla films were made as a powerful metaphor that helped to reinforce that threat. As the fear of nuclear annilation was slowly phased out, the Godzilla films had to take different approaches. In Godzilla versus the Smog Monster "radiation was no longer the big fear of people everywhere. Pollution was now the No. 1 bad guy…" (Schilling 1047). In Godzilla’s Revenge, a young latchkey kid is kidnapped by bank robbers and recalls a daydream where he imagined Godzilla teaching another monster how to defend himself. The young boy then escapes from his captors and later defends himself against a group of bullies who were terrorizing him. This is yet another example of how the creators of Godzilla did their best to create new interesting story lines after the threat of nuclear war had passed. The Godzilla film series has evolved from containing a strong underlying message about the horrors of the nuclear age, to feel-good movies geared toward children.
Although the Godzilla movies were largely popular in both America and Japan, the critics in the United States received the movies with less than stellar reviews. In Newsweek in 1956 Godzilla was given an especially harsh review. The author said "‘Godzilla’ features what looks like a 400-foot-high plucked chicken, which emerges from the Sea of Japan and, understandably, terrorizes Tokyo. The movie could very easily pass for an old American one" (Newsweek 1956). This review of the original Godzilla creates a sense that the American audiences feel that the United States is by far superior in film making when compared to the Japanese. Aside from the poor reviews that Godzilla received, it has still created a huge mechandizing and advertising empire.
When the newest Godzilla was released on May 20,1998, it was also received with less than excellent reviews. This newest edition to the Godzilla filmography, received one and one half stars. TriStar was the production company responsible for the creation of this new edition to the Godzilla family. Along with this new truly American version of Godzilla, came the American way of advertising. Godzilla was now supporting such companies as Taco Bell and large signs were placed throughout New York that helped to create an advertising hype based on Godzilla’s enormous size. Even though the movie did not reach the level that anyone though it would in the theaters, the massive amount of money poured into advertising occurred anyway. Toho studios hoped that although this was to be a new high-tech Godzilla film, the personality of Godzilla would not change drastically from the more recent Godzilla movies released by Toho studios. Unfortunately, while in a screening for TriStar’s new Godzilla a Toho studio executive got up and left in the middle of the film because he felt that it did not accurately portray the essence of Godzilla.
After the original Godzilla film was released, Godzilla underwent several personality changes throughout the monster’s newer films. The last film in which Godzilla was portrayed as an evil destructive monster was in Godzilla vs. The Thing, better known as Godzilla vs. Mothra. In this film Godzilla once again goes on a rampage. He is only stopped when a giant moth (Mothra) is persuaded by two small fairies to defeat Godzilla. Then, in 1965 a new Godzilla film was released in which Godzilla had to team up with Mothra and another giant monster, named Rodan, to protect the Earth from Ghidrah (the three headed monster). This film was the first of many in which Godzilla was the savior of the world. Godzilla was no longer a nuclear threat, but a force that helped to better the world and save the people of Japan from evil monsters. In Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, Godzilla helps to destroy a terrorist camp, and defeat a giant crustacean, Ebirah, to save a large group of people. It is not only the personality and interactions with others that changes in Godzilla, it is his physical appearance as well. Slowly throughout it’s films Godzilla’s eyes had become larger and created a sense of understanding about them. This enabled the audience to gain a sense that Godzilla was good and not just looking to destroy things. Another aspect of the monster that changed throughout the film series was the powers that Godzilla possessed. The new powers that were created gave Godzilla new abilities that made the films even more interesting to the audiences. The continual renovation of Godzilla helped to keep its legacy alive, and provide new and interesting additions to the future plots of Godzilla movies.
The Godzilla films were also a catalyst to a large amount of spin-offs and other films related to the terrors of giant monsters. "In the history of Japanese monster movies, 1967 is known as the first ‘monster boom,’…the genre reached its productive pinnacle, if not its creative zenith" (Ryfle 139). Daiei Co. Ltd., a competitor with the Toho Co. released a movie around this time called Gamera vs. Gyaos a.k.a. Return of the Giant Monsters. This film was the third in a series that began in 1965, and starred a giant turtle as the giant destructive monster. A British monster film was also created. This film was called Gorgo. It was about a baby monster who was taken from his parents which causes his parents destroy Tokyo trying to get their baby back. Another Japanese film studio, Shochiku, came out with a movie called The X from Outer Space. This film dealt with radioactive blobs that attached themselves to the hulls of spaceships and grew into a Godzilla-like monster called Guilala. All of these films attempted to cash in on the popularity of the Godzilla films by mimicking their style and genre.
Godzilla and Toho studios were also able to link themselves forever to American monster films when the film King Kong vs. Godzilla was released in the United states in 1963. This movie not only bridged the gap between American and Japanese monsters, but it also contained all new sound and filming techniques. This movie was filmed in wide-screen format, in Eastmancolor, and in stereophonic sound. King Kong vs. Godzilla "was the first Godzilla movie to be produced in cooperation with an American company, a practice Toho would engage in often during the 1960’s to make the film more salable abroad" (Ryfle 80).
In 1967, baby monsters had become increasingly popular and in an attempt to cash in on this new interest of young people, Toho studios released the Son of Godzilla. With this new Godzilla film, Toho studios had a new audience. They now had the attention of the younger members of society.
The legacy of the Godzilla film series has effected and continues to effect society in many ways. The numerous films that directly starred Godzilla and even films that were based on the Godzilla series covered a variety of topics from serious issues that effect the entire world to smaller issues that relate to how a person feels about him or herself. Originally the Godzilla films acted as a warning against the horrors of nuclear warfare. This warning reflected the real fears that Japan faced as the United States and Russia both tested atomic bombs near the waters of Japan. But, as the series evolved Godzilla began to represent other issues that were of concern to the world, such as pollution and family problems. The Godzilla films also bridged the gap that had existed between Japanese films and American films. Also, many other films that seemed strangely related to the Godzilla films began to emerge. The Godzilla legacy has survived even though it has faced hostile and sometimes even cruel reviews. The Toho corporation has expanded the Godzilla films to reach people of all ages. Godzilla’s son allowed small children to relate to the monster while capitalizing on the huge popularity that "baby monsters" were creating amongst the masses. In conclusion, the huge empire that Godzilla created began from one man, Tomoyuki Tanaka, and expanded to cross over borders and cultures to make Godzilla one of the most famous monsters, or movie star for that matter, in the history of film making.
A list of Godzilla Films
Godzilla (1954) a.k.a. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956 US version)
Godzilla Raids Again (1955) a.k.a. Gigantis: The Fire Monster (1959 US version)
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Godzilla vs. The Thing a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964)
Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Monster Zero a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)
Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)
Son of Godzilla (1967)
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Godzilla’s Revenge (1969)
Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Godzilla on Monster Island a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Terror of Mechagodzilla a.k.a. The Terror of Godzilla (1975)
Godzilla (1984 Japanese version) a.k.a. Godzilla 1985 (1985 US version)
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Godzilla vs. Mothra a.k.a. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)
Godzilla vs. Destroyah a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Destroyer (1995)
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