Godzilla returns

It's been almost 60 years since the celluloid monster, awoken and empowered by radiation, first ravaged Tokyo. With a U.S. reboot scheduled to be released worldwide this summer, we examine the shifting views of the savage beast over time.

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Despite being an expert on contemporary literature as well as 20th-century Russian literary criticism, Waseda University professor Toshio Takahashi also teaches a course on the symbolism of monsters, or — more specifically — the ways in which monsters are cognitive figures that reflect the real world.

“The course starts with a lecture that defines what monsters are,” Takahashi said.

“There are two principal elements,” he continued, explaining that monsters in early Western works of literature were first and foremost creatures created by humans that often revolted against their masters. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” or H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” stand out as obvious examples of such themes at work.

In addition, Takahashi said, tales that were set around a monster usually carry an implicit warning against humans and their actions. Monsters were typically misunderstood creatures that were persecuted and hunted down simply because they were different, the 61-year-old professor said.

Does Godzilla fit the profile of a monster? Most definitely, said Takahashi, who published a book titled “Godzilla no Nazo” (“The Mysteries of Godzilla”) in 1998.

Monster or not, the giant creature has certainly been keeping a low profile in Japan, with Toho Studios declaring in 2004 it would put its “Godzilla” series on hiatus after it released “Godzilla: Final Wars” to mark the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

However, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from preparing to launch a reboot of the franchise this coming spring. Released ahead of the 60th anniversary of “Godzilla” later this year, the jury’s still out on whether fans of the original series will be satisfied.

“Godzilla is the quintessential symbol of human weakness,” Takahashi said, adding that he would have preferred to see a new installment of the Japanese “Godzilla” series released this year — especially since the timing seems appropriate.

“Godzilla” first appeared in cinemas across the country in November 1954 but its story line was heavily influenced by an incident eight months earlier at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

On March 1, 1954, a fishing crew on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) was exposed to radiation following a hydrogen bomb test that was conducted by the U.S. Army in the Pacific. The boat’s chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died upon return to Tokyo, and the events sparked a fierce anti-nuclear movement across the country, as citizens expressed concern about the unpredictable nature of nuclear weapons and contaminated fish in the food supply.

Over at Toho Studios, meanwhile, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was in desperate need of an idea for a film after another project fell through at the last minute.

Upon reading about the nuclear incident in the Pacific and noting the box-office success of Warner Bros.’ 1953 film “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” he came up with a story line that centered on a prehistoric monster that is awakened from a centuries-long sleep in the aftermath of a nuclear test.

The production team worked on the project from scratch, led by film director Ishiro Honda and special-effects mastermind Eiji Tsuburaya. Due to budget and time restrictions, the movie was filmed using a stuntman in a costume rampaging around a scale-model of Tokyo instead of the popular stop-motion animation method that had been used in the 1933 U.S. film “King Kong.” The stuntman who dressed in the Godzilla suit visited several zoos in order to get inspiration on how to move as a 50-meter-tall beast.

Many considered the project to be an oddball B-grade movie, but “Godzilla” was completed just eight months after the Bikini Atoll incident.

Movies were the favorite form of entertainment during the ’50s and ’60s in Japan, and “Godzilla” ruled over them all. More than 9.6 million people flocked to cinemas to see the film — box-office success that encouraged Toho to approve a sequel that was released six months later. The studio also exported the film to the United States, a move that eventually helped Godzilla to become closely associated with Japan’s pop culture.

The film’s initial success also came in spite of the fact it carried a strong, underlying anti-nuclear message. This was something Tanaka and his team had hoped to achieve from the outset — shoot an entertaining science-fiction movie that also included a message that warned of the consequences we face as we develop as a civilization.

In a book titled “Tokusatsu wo Meguru Hitobito” (“People who Create Special Effects”) that was published in 2011, Honda said one of the movie’s underlying themes focused on the clash between humanity and nature. Monsters are essentially representations of nature in a mutated form, he wrote.

“The story of the first ‘Godzilla’ movie was 90 percent tied to contemporary nuclear threats of the time, especially if you consider the film opened less than nine years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Waseda University’s Takahashi said.

A number of critics have even suggested that Godzilla’s looks and reptilian skin were a reference to the keloid scars suffered by hibakusha after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although the creators have expressly denied any deliberate link.

And yet Honda has been quoted as saying he filmed Godzilla’s rampage in such a way so that he could draw parallels between the monster’s onslaught and the devastation caused by a nuclear bomb attack.

“Godzilla was created as a nuclear monster,” Takahashi said.

The more “Godzilla” sequels Toho produced, however, the further the franchise moved away from its initial anti-nuclear stance. Instead, the creature found itself being increasingly called on to face other ferocious beasts, including King Kong, Mothra, Biollante, Mechagodzilla and SpaceGodzilla.

By the time the film’s domestic franchise released “Godzilla: Final Wars” in 2004, approximately 100 million people in Japan had seen at least one of the 28 films in the series in a movie theater.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for Toho to branch out into merchandising in order to cash in on Godzilla’s popularity, churning out an ever-evolving line of toys, games, comics and character goods. The evolution of Godzilla both as a film and a character can be traced through such items.

The screenplay of the original “Godzilla” in 1954 “was serious and gloomy, reflecting the anxieties of postwar Japan,” Chikafumi Hodo wrote in The Japan Times in 1992. “(Later) ‘Godzilla’ films became more and more recreational as Japan’s economy grew rapidly.”

The gargantuan creature had ceased being a symbol of nuclear devastation, Takahashi said.

“(Instead), it became an entertainment,” he explained. “No one was asking what Godzilla was any more. No one questioned why it came to exist in the first place.”

As a small child, Takahashi remembers the thrill of watching Godzilla destroy Japan’s cities on the TV screen. Like others in the theater, he inherently enjoyed watching buildings and cities being destroyed. However, he also remembers catching a glimpse of isolation in Godzilla’s eyes as the beast emerged slowly from Tokyo Bay.

“The first few movies of the series were based around a core theme. They questioned the very meaning of Godzilla and asked viewers to think about the meaning behind its inception,” Takahashi said. “Eventually, however, the series focused solely on kaijū (monsters) battling against one another. It was never the same again.”

Godzilla continues to survive in Hollywood remakes for the time being, but such movies typically depict the creature as a dangerous monster that needs to be defeated.

Domestic fans, however, see it differently. Somewhere deep inside, Takahashi said, the Japanese public is generally able to find room to forgive Godzilla for the devastation — however catastrophic it may be. They perhaps see a bit of themselves in the monster, including its association with the nuclear incidents, he explained.

In a book titled “Sayonara Godzilla-tachi” (“Goodbye Godzillas”), Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato took the argument one step further, arguing that the king of the monsters may in fact symbolize the spirits of Japan’s war dead revisiting the country. Hence the initial gloomy tone of the movie was “cleansed, pasteurized and detoxified” as the series — and Japan — evolved from its postwar era to the heyday of its economic prowess, Kato wrote.

However, no sooner than the monster’s transformation from a ruthless destroyer into a cute mascot was complete, Japan found itself facing a new nuclear crisis.

The sight of the crippled nuclear power plant on the coast of Fukushima creates a situation that is eerily similar to the events in the Pacific that spawned the original “Godzilla” movie in 1954.

Takahashi said the ongoing nuclear crisis has essentially killed off any likelihood that a new “Godzilla” movie can be produced and released in Japan for the foreseeable future.

“However, if someone was able to produce a new “Godzilla” movie in Japan under the existing circumstances, it would surely be epoch-making,” Takahashi said. “Such a movie would finally revisit the origins of the monster and take an introspective look at its state of being. What’s more, it would raise some very difficult but important questions to the audience about the state of Japan today.”