Godzilla, The Small-Scale History of a Big-Scale Monster
Sixty years ago, a sweating young man named Haruo Nakajima put on a 220-pound lizard suit and trounced a miniature version of Tokyo. Today, Legendary Pictures’ irradiated Godzillasaurus, three times the size of the original, is crashing through Hawaii and San Francisco on screens across the country. This is the story of how $1.5 million and a rubber suit launched a billion dollar franchise.
It was 1954 and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s film project had just fallen apart. Toho, the studio signing his paychecks, wanted to move forward on a project, any project. While searching for ideas, Tanaka read about Lucky Dragon 5, the tuna boat that was contaminated by nuclear fallout from the United States’s Castle Bravo thermonuclear test on March 1, 1954. The boat captain died, fallout contaminated the islands of Rongelap and Utirik — and Tanaka had his irradiated monster.
1. While kidnapped in North Korea and forced to produce films for the government, South Korean Director Shin Sang-ok made Pulgasari, a film heavily inspired by the original Gojira
2. Not finding animal noises that matched the monster, composer Akira Ifukube made the famous roar by rubbing a leather glove covered in pine-tar over the strings of his double bass.
3. In Germany, the titles of many Godzilla films were changed to make Frankenstein responsible for sending the monsters who fight Godzilla. (For example, Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster becomes Frankenstein und die Ungeheuer aus dem Meer, or Frankenstein and the Monsters from the Sea.)
4. Gojira was the most expensive movie ever made in Japan when it was released.
5. For his 50th anniversary, Godzilla was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
6. The original received a Japanese Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, losing to Seven Samurai.
7. Mystery Science 3000 heckled Godzilla vs the Sea Monster and Godzilla vs Megalon.
8. On March 17, 1992 someone stole the 13-foot Ghido-Goji suit from Toho’s special effects department. It was found washed up on the shore near Tokyo by a terrified old lady, and was used in two more scenes before its retirement.
9. Comic books write Godzilla’s roar as “Mrawww” or “Skreeonk”.
10. Godzilla isn’t a lizard, he’s a dinosaur. Zilla (Godzilla from the 1998 movie) is a lizard.
Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese, a combination of gorira, meaning gorilla, and kujira, meaning whale) was first storyboarded as a giant octupus, then an ape creature with a mushroom head, before finally becoming a hybrid of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Iguanodon and a Stegosaurus. Radiation acted like steroids, beefing the monster to 150 feet and endowing it with atomic breath and an affinity for screaming Japanese and their easily crumbled infrastructure.
The first 1954 debut was a dark, black-and-white allegory for the horrors of nuclear destruction for the Japanese people, for whom Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still a fresh memory. This is the version that Edmund Goldman watched in a Chinatown theater in California. He promptly bought the international rights to the movie for $25,000 and sold them to an American studio that toned down cultural differences and anti-nuclear dialogue, dubbed the movie in English and added an entire new character, the extremely white Raymond Burr, to narrate the movie as a news reporter and give American audiences an American hero. This movie was released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and launched Godzilla as an international icon, played and replayed on TV sets around the world.
And this is where things get a little hard to follow. There were 14 movies after Gojira premiered, dotting the ’60s and ’70s with campy sci-fi and dozens of additional monsters, including King Kong. Then in 1984, after a nine year hiatus, The Return of Godzilla was released as a direct sequel to the 1954 film, ignoring developments in all the other movies (because, why not?) and marking the end of what is considered the Showa series, which ran from 1954 until 1975.
The Return of Godzilla was a step away from the light-hearted Showa series and marked the first of seven science focused films, comprising the Heisei series. It’s during this time that audiences first learn the story of Godzilla’s birth, in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and meet Godzilla Junior, his adopted son. The series ended with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in 1994 and was followed by the Millennium series, which ran from 1999 until 2004, when Toho declared it would not make another Godzilla movie for 10 years.
Coming to America
Just before the release of Godzilla 2000: Millennium and the start of the new Japanese series, the 1998 American Godzilla (starring Ferris Bueller) happened. Godzilla was back and in Manhattan…and pregnant. Despite making over $300 million, the movie was so universally disliked that planned sequels were abandoned. Toho studios even went as far as officially renaming the lizard as Zilla to create distinction between the Japanese version and the American reimagining. (In the 2004 film Godzilla: Final Wars, Zilla makes a cameo only to be promptly slaughtered by the “real” Godzilla.)
An American studio didn’t produce another Godzilla movie until Brian Cranston and the 2014 version of Godzilla, which has received generally positive reviews from critics. If you go to see it this weekend, remember the strange and sordid path the world’s favorite monster has taken to get to where he is today.