When I reach as far back into my memory as I can possibly go (and mind you, the trail goes cold somewhere in 1986, when I was just four years old), Godzilla’s one of the earliest things I can remember. Like a cherished old friend, he’s always been there throughout my entire life. The first Godzilla film I ever saw was Godzilla 1985, which they used to show all the time on a channel called Philly 57 during the late 1980s. I must have driven my poor mother crazy by insisting that we watch our copy of the movie on VHS every single day, without fail. Maybe that’s what led my parents to track down every Godzilla movie they could possibly find, just so we could have some variety around the house. (Lucky for them, there were at least 15 other flicks in the franchise for them to choose from at the time.) I absolutely cherished these films, including the classier ones like Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964) and the crappier ones like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). They had a very powerful effect on me at that very young age, and a great deal of my personality is still affected by them today. Gods damn, I love Godzilla!
The original 1954 Japanese poster art for Godzilla
But Godzilla isn’t “just for kids”; in fact, the very first Godzilla movie is anything but. You might be wondering why I consider this movie to be a “horror film.” Keep in mind that my definition of a “horror film” is any movie that’s intentionally designed to trigger the “fight or flight” response in its viewers (and that uses elements of shock, splatter and/or suspense to do so). The original Godzilla (known as Gojira in Japan) does this in spades. Even in its re-edited American form (with Raymond Burr inserted into the film’s events), Godzilla is one of the darkest and most emotionally disturbing science fiction films ever made. It’s not intended for little children, and it’s even been known to make adult viewers feel extremely uncomfortable. Godzilla might not give you nightmares or make you nervous to walk home in the dark, but it will force you to consider some truly horrific moral dilemmas…
Prior to the 1950s, horror films were dominated by gothic monsters like vampires, werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster. That all changed after the Manhattan Project and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the height of the Cold War, Count Dracula and the Wolf Man just didn’t seem that frightening anymore. Now people were worried about the effects of atomic radiation; would it cause terrible mutations to plague the Earth (e.g., 1954’s Them)? Would it awaken prehistoric monsters and drive them to seek revenge (e.g., 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms)? Would it attract the attention of aliens who could easily conquer or even destroy us (e.g., 1951’s The Thing From Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still)? This was the age of the “atomic horrors,” when people wrestled with the dark side of science. In most of these films, the horrific things that happen are the result of unethical scientists who’ve overstepped the boundary between mortals and Gods. By upsetting Ma’at, the cosmic balance, they open the door for
Apophis and the qliphoth to wreak havoc upon the Earth. They are, in fact, the direct progeny of Dr. Frankenstein, who had a much easier time adapting to the times than his decidedly paranormal colleagues.
Japan committed some truly ghoulish atrocities during World War II: Kamikaze suicide flights; the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong; the systematic extermination of 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese; the Nanking, Manila and Kalagong massacres of civilians; the use of chemical weapons, biological warfare, and human experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war; the list goes on and on. The atrocities of Imperial Japan rival those of Nazi Germany, and what I’ve mentioned here is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s been debated as to whether or not it was truly “necessary” for the U.S. to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and Red Lord knows I don’t wish to debate the matter here – but this effectively brought the era of Imperial Japan to a definitive close. Under occupation by the United States, Emperor Hirohito was kicked off his throne and a new parliamentary government was put into place. Japan has been a peaceful ally of the United States ever since.
But now that the atomic genie was out of the bottle, the U.S. started testing hydrogen bombs on the Marshall Islands. We detonated 23 nuclear weapons in that area from 1946 to 1958, and one of these tests – the one on Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954 – had a direct influence on Godzilla. During this particular test, a Japanese fishing boat called The Lucky Dragon 5 was accidentally exposed to fallout from the exploded bomb. The entire crew was contaminated and suffered nausea, headaches and bleeding gums. One of them – Aikichi Kuboyama, the chief radio operator – died in terrible pain, saying, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.” This incident plunged Japan into panic, and it was in this cultural climate that a film producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka came up with the idea of making a film based on the event. Having been influenced by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Tanaka wanted the film to depict nuclear chaos as a living thing. Yet it was the creative team of director Ishiro Honda and special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya that actually developed this monster into the Godzilla we all know and love today.
Ishiro Honda, the son of a Buddhist priest, had fallen in love with the art of film as a child. He actually witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and this horrifying experience inspired him to give Godzilla a powerful anti-nuclear message. Eiji Tsuburaya, in turn, came up with the idea of making Godzilla look like a combination of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Iguanadon and a Stegosaurus. He wanted to use stop-motion effects to create the monster, but time and budgetary constraints forced him to use the “man in a rubber suit approach” instead. People like Roger Ebert have complained that this makes Godzilla look “fake,” but I’ve always thought the opposite. While I enjoy stop-motion photography as much as anyone else, it’s never seemed that “real” to me. Tsuburaya’s approach to Godzilla, however, gives the monster a more realistic kind of movement. This is further enhanced by (1) the quality of Tsuburaya’s model Tokyo, which looks like an actual city, and (2) the fact that the film was made in black and white, which helps to hide some of the less impressive visual effects. These elements make Godzilla completely believable to me; I know it’s a man in a rubber suit, but even as an adult, my inner child can’t help but see a real live atomic dinosaur walking around and crushing an actual city.
But Ishiro Honda knew that Godzilla needed a great story as well as a great monster, and while it took several rewrites to get there, the finished product is truly riveting. The film begins with a re-creation of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, when the crew of a Japanese fishing boat suddenly notice that the ocean is glowing around them. Something roars from beneath the surface of the water, and the boat burns and sinks. A few of the men survive, but by the time the Japanese coast guard rescues them, they’re suffering from radiation sickness. Not long after that, a fishing village on Odo Island is suddenly destroyed during a storm. A scientist named Kyohei Yamane then leads an investigation of the island, only to learn that it’s experiencing nuclear fallout. All the wells are poisoned and the place is riddled with giant radioactive footprints. Not long after that, Godzilla shows up and everyone gets a real good look at him. Luckily for them, he’s just going for a walk, not seeking to cause any trouble, and he returns to the sea after scaring the hell out of everybody. Dr. Yamane and his investigative team then return to Japan and report what they’ve found to the government, which is promptly divided between those who think the story should be kept under wraps (and who are mostly men) and those who think they should warn everybody in the country about what’s really happening (and who are mostly women).
Akihiko Hirata as “Dr. Daisuke Serizawa”
Meanwhile, Yamane’s daughter Emiko is caught in a really bizarre love triangle. She’s engaged to marry a scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, who’s my favorite character in the film (aside from Godzilla, of course). Dr. Serizawa is a World War II veteran who was injured, who now wears an eyepatch, and who seems to be alienated from everyone else around him. Unfortunately for him, Emiko has fallen in love with another guy named Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain who’s involved in the investigation of Godzilla. She decides to break off her engagement to Serizawa, but before she can do so, Serizawa shows her why he’s so alienated from everybody. He takes her to the basement of his house and shows her a new invention he’s been working on, and we can’t really see what it does just yet, but it makes Emiko scream and nearly faint. When she leaves Serizawa’s house, it’s like she’s been labotomized; her brain just can’t process what she’s seen. As a child, this scene always scared me really badly – it still does, in fact – and it gets even scarier when we find out what Serizawa has invented.
The government begs Dr. Yamane for a way to kill Godzilla, but Yamane points out that Godzilla was not only awakened by the hydrogen bomb tests that have been taking place out by the Marshall Islands; he’s also been absorbing the fallout from those tests and feeding on it somehow. In other words, the monster eats, pisses and shits atomic energy; just what the hell can anyone do to kill him? Furthermore, Yamane doesn’t want Godzilla to die; he believes the creature should be contained somehow and studied. Godzilla offers both a fascinating look into prehistoric life on Earth as well as many interesting implications about how to survive an atomic blast. But the government doesn’t listen – honestly, we can’t really blame them – and they make a series of attempts to neutralize Godzilla before he becomes too much of a problem. This only pisses the monster off, however, and he eventually hits the city of Tokyo for a night on the town.
When Godzilla attacks Tokyo for the very first time in cinematic history, there’s absolutely nothing humorous or even remotely “cheesy” about it. We’re treated to some truly horrific scenes of men being set on fire and screaming at the top of their lungs; of a mother holding her children and saying, “We’ll be with your Daddy in heaven very soon, now”; of news reporters boldly offering their lives to keep reporting on Godzilla’s activities for the sake of any listeners who are still trying to escape; of hospital doctors waving Geiger counters over newly orphaned children (while the kids scream for their dead parents); of schoolchildren singing a prayer to the heavens, begging the Gods and the ancestors to have mercy on those who’ve survived. The truly disturbing thing about these scenes is that they weren’t just “thought up” by someone with a twisted imagination; they’re based on actual events that Ishiro Honda witnessed after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In other words, Godzilla isn’t all make-believe; in some ways, it’s a goddamn documentary.
Now some of you are probably thinking that since Godzilla is clearly a metaphor for the atomic bomb, this film is a work of anti-American propaganda. (Surely the fact that Godzilla’s puking radioactive shit all over Tokyo is really America’s fault, right?) Surprisingly, none of the characters ever blame anything on the United States throughout the course of the entire movie. If anything, the film seems to suggest that Godzilla was really caused by Japan’s actions during World War II, and that Japan has brought this terrible misfortune down upon itself. It’s almost as if Ishiro Honda believed his motherland deserved to be wiped off the face of the planet by an atomic fire-breathing dinosaur. Godzilla isn’t an “anti-American” symbol but a self-critical symbol of Japanese ultraviolence turned against itself. To make it all the more disturbing, the film actually convinces us that its monster will soon annihilate all life in Japan…until Yamane’s daughter Emiko finally reveals what Dr. Serizawa’s been hiding in his basement all this time.
Serizawa fought on the wrong side of an immoral war, and his physical disfigurement is a testament to the ugliness of that war. He has directly experienced true evil more than any other character in the entire film. Horrified by what he saw (and did) during the war, he is now a devout pacifist. And yet Serizawa just can’t seem to prevent himself from developing another weapon of mass destruction. Purely by accident, he’s invented something he calls “the Oxygen Destroyer,” which somehow removes all oxygen from the body (instantly skeletonizing its victims). After witnessing the holocaust in Tokyo, Emiko and Ogata try to convince Serizawa to use this weapon against the beast. But Serizawa refuses; he’s terrified that if his Oxygen Destroyer is ever discovered, corrupt political forces from around the world will conspire to use it as a new weapon of war. What if they somehow coerce or trick him into creating more of these hellish devices? And if nuclear weapons have given us Godzilla, what terrible thing will the Oxygen Destroyer bring in its wake? That’s when Ogata says the most chilling line in the entire movie; he admits that Serizawa’s fear might become a reality…and then he points out that Godzilla is reality.
Serizawa agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer, but he insists that this must be the only time it’s ever used. He destroys all of his research to prevent anyone from ever building another one, and then he’s joined by Emiko, Ogata, Yamane and the entire Japanese navy out at sea. They find the spot where Godzilla is currently located, and Ogata and Serizawa descend together to the ocean floor. There they find Godzilla resting, at peace with himself and his surroundings. This is the most disturbing part of the film for me personally – it still haunts me today – for to see Godzilla content in his natural state only makes what happens next more tragic and horrific. This is the point where it’s solidified in our minds that Godzilla isn’t “evil”; he’s really just another victim of the war. After Ogata returns to the surface, Serizawa activates the Oxygen Destroyer…and then he decides to stay with Godzilla. He gives his life to prevent himself from ever revealing the secrets of his deadly invention to anyone, but somehow, I sense that he also does it so Godzilla won’t have to die alone. It’s a testament to Ishiro Honda’s merit as an artist that he treats every single death in this film as a heart-wrenching tragedy, including that of Godzilla himself.
Normally in this kind of movie, it’s a “good” thing when someone figures out a way to defeat the monster. But in Godzilla, it’s absolutely tragic. Even as a grown man, I can’t help but cry for both Godzilla and Serizawa. They’re kindred spirits, and in a way, they’re both avatars of Seth-Typhon. Godzilla is similar to Seth as the slayer of Osiris, a frightening force of destruction that’s gone completely berserk. Like the Red Lord, he just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world and he lashes out with apocalyptic menace. Serizawa is like Seth as the protector of Ra, a destructive force that works for the common good. Just as Seth eventually calmed down and became Ra’s most qualified defender against
Apophis, so does Serizawa’s dark past give him a unique position to restore the natural balance in Japan. It’s fitting that Serizawa should be the one to slay Godzilla, that they should both die together, and that this should happen during the first and only time that they meet. We can tell that Serizawa sees a part of himself reflected in the beast, and it’s tempting to think that perhaps Godzilla might recognize something of himself in Serizawa too.
The 1956 American poster art for Godzilla
Godzilla was so incredibly successful in Japan that an American film company called Jewell Enterprises bought the international rights for the film in 1956. Then they adapted the film for an English-speaking audience, and this went far beyond just dubbing the film with American voice actors. Due to the sizable rift between the American and Japanese styles of storytelling, Jewell decided to totally restructure Godzilla to make it more easily accessible to the average American moviegoer. They filmed entirely new scenes with Raymond Burr, who played a new character named Steve Martin (not to be confused with the comedian). This character was then inserted into the film through the magic of editing and the use of Japanese-American actor doubles. Martin was also made a news reporter so he would have a good excuse for asking so many questions of the Japanese characters. This would give U.S. audiences a character with whom they could identify and to whom important plot elements could be explained.
The American film distributors also decided to restructure the timeline of the film, having it begin immediately after Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo. Everything prior to that event is revisited by Steve Martin in flashbacks while he’s being treated for his injuries in a Tokyo hospital. The end result is that in some ways, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (as the American version came to be called) is an almost completely different film. However, despite all the purists who claim that the American version is an “insult” to the Japanese version, I’d like to point out a few things. First of all, it seems very obvious to us today that Raymond Burr was simply edited into the film; we can clearly tell when he isn’t in the same room as the other actors, for example. However, we have the benefit of being able to watch this film over and over again on TV, VHS and DVD; this was not the case in 1956. Most people back then didn’t even realize that Burr wasn’t in the original version of the film (or that there even was another version to begin with). In fact, I didn’t even find out about this until the original Japanese version was finally released on DVD in 2004.
And while it seems criminal that the American distributors downplayed and even cut some of Ishiro Honda’s more obvious anti-nuclear messages from the film, most Americans probably wouldn’t have watched it if they hadn’t. In 1956, World War II was still fresh on everyone’s minds and Americans were still biased against Japanese people in general. While the original film isn’t against the U.S. at all, the distributors worried that it might be interpreted that way. They wanted their audience to identify with the Japanese characters as much as possible, not react to them with hostility. To their credit, the distributors didn’t eliminate Godzilla’s subversiveness toward the nuclear question by any means. Everyone who’s ever watched the American version has always gotten the message loud and clear, and the scenes of Godzilla destroying Tokyo are still darker and more disturbing than anything seen in most American-made atomic horror films.
One other reason why Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn’t all bad is because it opened the door for Asian cinema in the global market. It raked in a huge amount of money for its time, making film distributors around the world hungry for more Asian films. I also like to think that the success of the American version helped make Americans identify more easily with Japanese people in real life. (It certainly made me feel sympathetic toward Japanese people, especially when it came to Emiko, Dr. Yamane and Dr. Serizawa.) If it hadn’t been for the version of Godzilla with Raymond Burr, nobody outside of Japan would even know about Godzilla today. It’s definitely not above criticism, and it’s certainly inferior to the original Japanese cut, but it still deserves a certain amount of respect for what it’s given us. In fact, I have to own copies of both versions to be happy, because I feel like you’re missing out on the full Godzilla experience if you only watch one.
At the end of Godzilla, Dr. Yamane predicts that if people don’t put an end to the nuclear arms race, another Godzilla might eventually appear to punish the world again. He was proven correct less than a year later when the much less impressive Godzilla Raids Again was released (and this is a complicated story of its own.) The original Godzilla’s success led to the release of 27 Japanese sequels and remakes, as well as an American remake in 1998 and another American remake that will be released in May of this year. (This brings the grand total number of Godzilla films to 30…and I’m sure there will be more.) Ostensibly, every film following the original is about a second Godzilla that’s really pissed off about the first one’s death. (Later films appear to suggest that this second Godzilla is female, considering that it somehow produces offspring in 1967’s Son of Godzilla and 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II; yet the English-dubbed versions of these films still describe the big reptile as a “he.”) Godzilla Raids Again started the tradition of having Godzilla battle other giant monsters, which eventually led to a very interesting development. By the time Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster was released in 1964, the atomic dinosaur that almost destroyed the world in 1954 was now protecting the Earth from evil alien threats.
The films in which Godzilla becomes a superhero are often just as good and thought-provoking as the original (albeit for entirely different reasons). Earlier, I mentioned that Godzilla resembles Seth in His destructive, counter-Osirian aspect. Seth can be extremely frightening in this form, but after His castration and His reconciliation with the other Gods, He becomes Ra’s personal bodyguard against
Apophis. He’s most qualified to defend Ra from monsters because He was previously a monster Himself. It’s also interesting to note that Apophis is a completely alien monster that comes from outside the natural universe; unlike Seth, it’s not a part of our world and it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. This is neatly echoed in how Godzilla, an innocent freak of nature who goes crazy and almost destroys the world, is eventually “reigned in” to become Earth’s best defense against monsters like Ghidorah (which is basically Apophis with wings, feet, and two extra heads). That he is helped in his battles by other giant monsters who are native to Earth – such as Mothra (a stand-in for Isis?) and Rodan (a stand in for Horus?) – echoes the polytheistic idea of multiple Gods working together to thwart the powers of Uncreation.
“Awww, who’s a good little atomic dinosaur?”
The only Godzilla sequel that really re-captures the original 1954 concept is Godzilla 1985 (known as The Return of Godzilla in Japan), a “reboot” in which all the other sequels are ignored and Godzilla goes back to being an avatar of Seth-Typhon the Destroyer. That’s probably my absolute favorite film in the franchise – and the American cut includes Raymond Burr, who was only too delighted to be in another Godzilla flick – but I’ll discuss it more fully in a future review. Suffice it to say that there isn’t a single Godzilla movie I don’t enjoy for one reason or another. Even the absolute worst installments of the franchise – most of which were produced in the late 1960s or early 1970s – are somehow endearing.
Well, scratch that. There is one “Godzilla” movie I absolutely hate and will not tolerate under any circumstances. In 1998, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (the makers of 1994’s Stargate and 1996’s Independence Day) released an American remake of Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick. I’ve never met a single Godzilla fan who has anything good to say about this turkey whatsoever. For one thing, it claims to be a remake of the original film, but it’s really just a goofy parody that constantly makes fun of itself. I realize they were probably trying to satirize the later Godzilla films (some of which can get pretty silly), but this is completely inappropriate for a remake of the first Godzilla venture. (The fact that it features three different voice actors from The Simpsons is telling.) It also has much more in common with 1993’s Jurassic Park than with any Godzilla film, and the featured monster isn’t even Godzilla; it’s just a giant iguana. The end result is a movie that seems to serve no greater purpose than to blatantly crap all over Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece. I’ll bet Big G’s radioactive shit would leave a much better taste in your mouth than this pile of stinking iguana crap would, so take my advice and stay the hell away from it.
That being said, I’m both excited and anxious about the new American remake, which will be released in theaters this May. My apprehension stems from the fact that Western filmmakers just generally suck at remaking foreign films, but there are several good things going for this one. The director of the film is Gareth Edwards, who made a really great movie called Monsters (2010). Edwards proved with that project that he can make a giant monster film that actually has a deep subtext and some powerful emotional impact. He’s also stated in interviews that he’s tried to bring Godzilla back to his dark, nuclear roots and to make the new film as serious as the original was; ostensibly, it will treat Godzilla as a real-life natural disaster (and not as Dean Devlin or Roland Emmerich’s idea of a joke). The film will also star Bryan Cranston (of Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad), who’s an absolutely phenomenal actor. I have no idea if I’m going to enjoy this new Godzilla or not, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
The classic Godzilla movies made such a huge impression on me when I was a little kid. (Considering the Typhonian implications I mentioned above, is anyone really surprised?) But the very first film of the franchise is both the best and the most difficult to watch. It definitely fits my idea of a horror film (though its sequels don’t); it just invokes a very different kind of “horror” than most other horror films do. Even if the new remake wins several Academy Awards (which it won’t, simply because it’s a Godzilla movie and that’s just not allowed in Hollywood), no other entry in this franchise will ever compare to Ishiro Honda’s original vision. If you want a good giant monster movie that has a powerful historical and sociopolitical message, check out 1954’s Godzilla.