Production still of either Haruo Nakajima or Katsumi Tezuka portraying Godzilla via suitmation in Godzilla (1954). (Still by Toho Company Ltd., Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

All Hail The King of Monsters

Godzilla turns 70 in 2024

The Godzilla film franchise is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running in history, with its most recent iteration being Godzilla Minus One, which at the time of this writing is still in theaters. It invented an entire method of special effects, inspired generations of fans, and brought Japanese pop culture to America. Throughout its long history, the creature itself has been the hero, the villain, and even the avatar of nature against humanity. 

Gojira, the monster’s name in Japanese, comes from a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale”. Originally imagined as an octopus monster, the film makers settled on a dinosaur creature. For those who don’t know, he lives as a remnant species on Odo island, a remote fictional island off Japan, until he is disturbed by underwater nuclear bomb testing and is exposed to radiation.  This causes him to grow, gain special powers, and become very angry.

I remember my first Godzilla movie vividly. I am sad to say, it was not Godzilla (1954), which was released in Japan 70 years ago this year. It was Godzilla vs. Mothra. TBS used to run Kaiju films frequently for their weekend matinees; I have read that a Godzilla movie ran every week somewhere in the United States from 1960 to the mid-1990s. I have strong memories of Mothra’s vibrant wings, the twin interpreters, and Godzilla’s blank-eyed stare. It was my first introduction to a foreign film. I remain a steadfast Mothra fan, but as I’ve grown older I have gained an appreciation for all that Godzilla did for cinema and pop-culture in general. 

My brother Josh, who is my own personal Godzilla expert, has a completely different origin story for his fandom. He acknowledged Godzilla as a ubiquitous presence in our time growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the TBS matinées and the Marvel comic series. But he cites a specific encounter at the corner store with our dad as his catalyst. There was a tiny VHS rental section at this store and one of the videos for rent was Godzilla Vs. Megalon. “I saw that there and asked him (our dad) if I could rent it. And I think specifically because it was Dad, he said yes. I think it was a Saturday where dad and I were hanging out, and I’m pretty sure he watched it with me. I feel like he did. So that was the first one that I watched, Godzilla vs Megalon, which to this day is still my favorite,” Josh told me in a phone interview. 

Godzilla (1954) pioneered the “suitmation” technique, where an actor would wear a handcrafted monster suit in a meticulous miniature set, with shots of live actors added in post-production. Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed Godzilla from 1954 to 1972, said the materials used to make the 1954 suit (rubber, plastic, cotton, and latex) were hard to find after World War II. The first suit, weighing more than 220 lb, consisted of a body cavity made of thin wires and bamboo wrapped in chicken wire for support and covered in fabric and cushions, which were then coated in latex. It was held together by small hooks on the back, though subsequent Godzilla suits incorporated a zipper. Prior to 1984, most Godzilla suits were made from scratch, thus resulting in slight design changes in each film appearance. 

These special effects details helped my brother and I connect with our Dad. He isn’t as big a fan, but something he does love is special effects. We often talked about stop motion, makeup, miniatures, and camera techniques.  

My immediate family members aren’t the only ones who were enamored with the innovations Godzilla brought to film. The localized version of the original film, released in the United States as Godzilla: King of Monsters!, came out in 1956 starring the actor Raymond Burr. Steven Spielberg cited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), as an inspiration for Jurassic Park (1993). During that film’s production, Spielberg described Godzilla as “the most masterful of all the dinosaur movies because it made you believe it was really happening.” The movie has also been noted as an inspiration for Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese. There is a metal band from France called Gojira, the Japanese name for Godzilla, and our own Blue Oyster Cult has an iconic song titled “Godzilla.” 

Godzilla became, in a strange way, the gateway drug for Americans to begin finding Japanese cultural imports acceptable. The movie was released in the United States within a decade of the end of World War II, with both Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombs still fresh in minds on both sides. Astroboy and Speed Racer and the birth of Anime were still a decade away. The localized version of the film, made more palatable for American audiences, allowed them to begin to see the Japanese as other people and not just a faceless enemy.  This has progressed to a point where we have an American studio adapting the character for a whole new generation of fans.

Godzilla (1954) is one of the few Godzilla movies that takes itself absolutely seriously. It was partially conceived in response to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, where a boat full of Japanese fishermen were exposed to radiation from the American “Castle Bravo” nuclear test off Bikini Atoll.  It was always a metaphor for nuclear weapons. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka has stated, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Because of what the people of Japan had gone through, they both feared and sympathized with Godzilla. Yes, it was a rage-filled monster destroying what they had just begun to rebuild, but it was also a victim of this force humanity had unleashed without fully understanding it. He is the avatar of nature wronged by man.

In that way, Godzilla’s most enduring legacy may be its mutability. The character can be a hero, as in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, where he protects the earth from the titular extraterrestrial three-headed dragon kaiju. He can be a villain, as he often is in the early days, taking revenge on Japan for being made radioactive and for being disturbed from his resting place. He can be nature itself, wreaking havoc in the name of bringing balance back to the ecosystem, as we saw in the Legendary films and others. 

In the course of discussing our shared history with this character, my brother had this to say about Godzilla’s ever-changing persona: “I think that’s one of the most endearing and enduring things about the character is that it keeps being reinvented and fading away and coming back, which gives it a kind of longevity… American studios are making Godzilla movies. You see people like Hideki Anno make his own Godzilla because he loved it when he was a kid. And then these new films come out and influence kids who are young now. And when they get older, they’re going to talk about how they discovered Godzilla…People are viewing this character and interpreting it in their own ways. And it becomes a part of their own cultural fabric. And then the next generation makes it their own. So Godzilla, in that way, it’s kind of a modern myth. It’s a worldwide myth that originated from Japan, and we don’t really see a lot of those.”

My oldest son is now also a true Godzilla fan. He got his start watching these films on visits to my brother’s apartment. Long live the king.

—Additional information
 from Wikipedia

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