Radiation-breathing Godzilla destroyed so many cities and fought so many monsters, the original Japanese film series outgrew its budget and audience.
Shinji Higuchi, the director and special-effects whiz chosen by Toho Co. for the made-in-Japan revival of the series, plans to go back to the basics for the new installment, while still looking to surprise.
Higuchi is hoping to one-up last year’s Hollywood version, with not only the biggest Godzilla yet, but one that takes up challenges previous ones haven’t attempted.
“I’m confident I am among the top-50 lovers of Godzilla in the world. That’s how much I love Godzilla,” he says during an interview at a Tokyo office. “Maybe I’m not in the top 10, but definitely in the top 50.”
Higuchi, 49, a burly unpretentious man with curly hair, swears he loves all the Godzilla movies — even the bad ones.
“Godzilla had to deliver more and more, responding to calls from the audience, as well as creators,” Higuchi says of the series’ trappings.
“Godzilla went through these stages, resetting itself, developing and then succumbing to exhaustion, until it just got so big it had to stop.”
Higuchi plans to keep his Godzilla, in a sense, simple, stripped to the essentials, but isn’t interested in presenting more of the same on the silver screen. He built his career on kaijū (Japanese monster) movies, such as the 1990s “Gamera” series, and worked as a special effects assistant on the 1984 “Gojira” (released internationally as “Godzilla 1985”). He also directed the more somber 2006 film “Nihon Chinbotsu” (“Japan Sinks”), based on a sci-fi novel by Sakyo Komatsu, which used special effects to show temples and hills immersing into the sea.
Higuchi acknowledged he is under strict orders not to disclose details of “Godzilla,” set for release next year. But he is promising the most terrifying version of the monster that Japan’s cutting-edge special-effects movie-making can muster.
Shooting begins next month, much of it at Toho studios in Tokyo. Animation master Hideaki Anno just finished the script and will also co-direct the film.
Higuchi’s special-effects techniques were amply demonstrated in the recently released live-action version of “Attack on Titan.” For the film he combined computer graphics with a towering doll of rippling red muscles that resembles a giant biological anatomy chart, as well as using actors moving through miniatures, to depict grotesquely enlarged humans.
Applying that kind of “hybrid” technology, as Higuchi calls it, to Godzilla has never been attempted in Japan. Higuchi is promising just that.
Toho made 28 “Godzilla” films but ended the series when the budget spiraled out of control, despite a dwindling audience.
It took the popularity of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla,” which Higuchi praises as a masterpiece, to get the Japanese film industry back on board and renew the series. Hollywood is planning its own sequel, to be released in 2018.
The story of the reptilian mutation began with the 1954 classic, in which an actor wearing a monster outfit stomped through a carefully crafted miniature of Tokyo’s cityscape, to a memorably ominous score — its signature screech was based on the sound of a cello.
The fire-spitting gojira — as it is pronounced in Japanese, a portmanteau combining “gorilla” and kujira, the Japanese word for whale — emerged from nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, making the dinosaur-like creature resonate with a universal pacifist message.
The man-in-a-rubber-suit monster continued to crash through cities and fight various cartoonish monsters until the last Japanese “Godzilla” film was released in 2004.
Higuchi insists his new Godzilla won’t be the cuddly, kitsch kaijū his generation grew up on.
The world has lost too much of its innocence with the arrival of “the real monsters of the world,” he says, referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and the 3/11 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture.
The happy-go-lucky monsters in the old kaijū films encapsulate a long-lost era when the world enjoyed relative peace in the decades after World War II — especially in insular Japan.
“That’s why I want to make a new Godzilla,” Higuchi says quietly.
In movie after movie, people merely run away from the stampeding monster, and no one tries to face up to the issue of accountability, he says.
Film critic Yuichi Maeda said fans have high hopes for Higuchi’s “Godzilla,” because of the director’s reputation for special effects, as well as for his love of the monster.
But Higuchi will need to deliver wonders, given the limitations. Hollywood movies can count on million-dollar budgets, but even the most expensive Japanese films get only about a third of a million dollars, said Maeda.
” ‘Godzilla’ is Toho’s top content. To be the director of ‘Godzilla’ is a great honor. And he is under pressure to live up to huge expectations,” added Maeda.
Higuchi acknowledged he almost caved into the Godzilla-size pressure and declined the offer to direct.
“It’s an imaginary thing taking a very primitive form — just a giant lizard. But it’s shouldering so much,” Higuchi says of Godzilla’s awe-evoking powers.
“Perhaps we are all waiting for that horrible thing that’s within us that we fear.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5