Godzilla: the monster with multiple personalities

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

“Godzilla” was the first Japanese movie I saw. It was also the first for many other American baby boomers, though we did not view Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, but a version that had been heavily edited and dubbed for the U.S. market, with additional footage featuring Raymond Burr as an intrepid American reporter in Tokyo. This version was released in the U.S. in 1956 as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” and it became a big hit, opening the floodgates for other Japanese films starring various kaijū (giant monsters).

A little over a year later, this Americanized version was then imported back to Japan as “Kaiju o Gojira” (literally, “Monster King Godzilla”) and was received enthusiastically by local fans.

Since 1954, the”King of the Monsters” has appeared in 28 Toho films (and two big-budget Hollywood films, including Gareth Edwards’ new one, which opens in Tokyo on July 25), but has the old thrill gone?

Though crude by today’s CGI standards, the original Godzilla has retained his primitive power — he represents powerful forces, from the natural to the manmade, that humans struggle to control or understand.

In the 1954 film, the only effective weapon against Godzilla is the Oxygen Destroyer — itself so fearsome (it transforms living creatures into lifeless skeletons in seconds) that Dr. Serizawa, its conflicted creator, finally burns his research papers and ends his own life. He tries to put the dangerous genie back into the bottle, something the inventors and users of the atomic bomb knew was impossible.

I saw “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” on television sometime during the late 1950′s and, though its anti-nuclear message flew over my 9-year-old head (as was intended by the U.S. producers, who had excised most of it from the film), it left a huge impression on me. Instead of beating my chest like King Kong, the other influential creature of my childhood, I took to terrorizing the ant colonies around our house with Godzilla-like stomps.

I wanted to be Godzilla, with all that destructive power at my command and the license to use it anyway I wanted, smashing Tokyo for the sheer naughty thrill of it.

Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me then. Seeing the original again recently as a digitally remastered version (that Toho will release locally on June 7), I found a film which was serious and sad — utterly unlike the cheesy, campy reputation the series acquired in its other Toho entries. (The last, Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Godzilla: Final Wars,” was released to a lukewarm box office reception in 2004.)

As has often been noted, “Godzilla” references the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with its stark scenes of destroyed cityscapes and radiated victims, as well as the tragic March 1954 encounter of a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5), with fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. In the film, the radiation that sickens the sailors comes not from a bomb but a nuclear-radiated monster: Godzilla.

Though it’s obvious from the beginning that Godzilla is a stand-in for nuclear destruction, to a Japanese audience in ’54 — with World War II ending less than a decade earlier — his epic tromps through Tokyo, leaving flaming ruins in his path, would have reminded many of the fire-bombings unleashed by allied warplanes on major cities throughout the country. And older viewers may have associated his ground-rattling stomps with the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that leveled much of Japan’s capital and caused an estimated 142,800 deaths.

That is, as a metaphor, Godzilla is somewhat mixed, but not one to be treated lightly, as every note of Akira Ifukube’s famous slashing score makes clear.

What is also apparent from the new, meticulously restored version, is that, far from being a B-grade cheapie, “Godzilla” was intended as a head-to-head challenge by Toho to Hollywood’s science fiction films, then popular with young fans. At the time, Toho was one of Japan’s leading studios in terms of talent (director Ishiro Honda’s mentor and friend Akira Kurosawa was on the payroll) and resources — both financial and technical.

At the same time, Toho effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and his staff did not have the sort of lengthy production schedule accorded to the makers of the 1953 Warner Brothers hit “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which was a “Godzilla” inspiration that featured a stop-motion dinosaur awakened from its 100-million-year sleep by atomic explosions. Their solution — an actor in a Godzilla suit, trashing miniature cityscapes — became a series signature, if one that grew dated over the decades, as CGI technology made its relentless advance. Nonetheless, Toho effects technicians made doing more with less a sophisticated craft.

“The work that went into making Godzilla films astounded me,” comments Norman England, a lifelong Godzilla fan who worked on the six Godzilla films of the so-called Heisei era series, which streched from 1999 to 2004.

“You’d have dozens of people laboring for days on end just to make one brief shot of Godzilla’s foot smashing into a country hotel,” says England.

Also, though big, scaly and fire-breathing, the first Godzilla looks little like his latter incarnations, which have ranged from the grotesquely cute (including Godzilla’s bumpy-headed son, Minilla) to the atomically glowing and ferocious.

“A new suit is built for almost every film, with each somewhat different from the last.” England notes — which makes snarky fan nit-picking over the look of the title monster in Gareth Edwards’ new “Godzilla” seem beside the point. Yes, he’s bigger and bulkier than the original, but so are many latter Toho Godzillas. That is, he’s squarely within the series’ hypertrophied tradition, in contrast to the iguana-like beast in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla film — an aberration rightly derided by Japanese fans.

Despite Dr. Serizawa’s sacrificial suicide in the original 1954 version, Godzilla returns in film after film, sometimes as humankind’s enemy and sometimes, as in the latest Hollywood iteration, its unlikely protector. England says that diversity is the character’s strength: “Godzilla has been everything: nuclear metaphor, the hero of humanity and even a parent.”

Toho is set to release a digitally remastered version of the original, viewable now as close to its pristine 1954 condition as 2014 technology can make it. The Gareth Edwards version may be the franchise’s biggest box-office monster ever — it earned nearly $200 million worldwide in its first weekend — but if you don’t know the first film, you don’t know Godzilla. And not, please, the one with Raymond Burr.