The Extended Gojira Essay…
The Art of Stomping
Nuclear tests in Japanese waters affect a huge reptilian creature’s habitat. It mutates, grows and becomes radio-active. Emerging from the depths of the ocean, it sets off on a rampage, causing mayhem and destruction in modern-day Tokyo…
A good friend of mine recently wrote: “Along with the 1933-version of King Kong, this original Japanese release of Gojira is the most essential giant monster movie ever and one of the very few horror movies that every film lover in general has to see at least once.” These words provide the best way to introduce one of the most influential and successful movies ever to come out of Japan. As much as Gojira is a monster movie pur sang, it also transcends the genre. The film makers nor the film critics nor the fans of the first hour could have predicted the worldwide impact Gojira would have, upon the year of its release and over the next 50 years to come. When Gojira was first released in 1954 in Japan, the national critics were not enthusiastic. They didn’t understand why Japanese film makers should bother making monster movies, a genre that currently was being monopolized by Americans. But the Japanese audience loved it. A box office monster hit was the result and a sequel, Gojira no gyakushu (aka Godzilla Raids Again) was quickly rushed into production. Gojira became an icon of Japanese pop-culture during the 60s and 70s. Up until this day, 28 official Toho produced Gojira movies were made (with Gojira: Fainaru Uozu or Godzilla: Final Wars from 2004 being the most recent one). The amount of Gojira merchandise and memorabilia is simply countless. During the second half of the 70s, American based Marvel Comics produced a Godzilla series. So did Dark Horse comics in the first half of the 90s. 1998 saw the release of the big budget American re-make Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich. And two years ago the PS2/XBOX game Godzilla: Save the Earth was released upon mankind. These random facts & figures should convince any layman that the words “essential” and “influential” are obligatory in any introduction to the original Gojira.
But exactly what kind of creature is Gojira? In the film, scientist Kyohei Yamane can be seen speculating about the creature’s origin. Supposedly, Gojira is a huge amphibious bipedal dinosaur-like creature. However, due to the lack of continuity in the Gojira series, various speculations concerning its origin circulate. Some think it was frozen for millions of years at the bottom of the ocean until it was awakened by nuclear tests. Others claim – and this is slightly more plausible in the context of the original Gojira storyline – that Gojira somehow survived all those centuries by inhabiting caverns under the sea, living off of various sea animals. This is slightly more plausible because some of the older villagers of the local population of Odo Island have already seen glimpses of Gojira, as they refer to it as some sort of sea god. They also regularly seem to sacrifice young women – though not shown in the movie – to appease its hunger and ensure abundant fishing. Either way, the nuclear aspect remains: Because of hydrogen bomb tests performed in its habitat Gojira mutates. It grows in strength and size (approximate 164 feet tall) and his breath becomes all fiery and 100% radio-active. Now it’s angry and will stomp its way through Tokyo, leaving destruction and chaos in its path…
Gojira’s sole reason of existence already hints at the ecological message this movie is carrying: If mankind tempers with nature (in this case through nuclear testing), things are bound to go wrong and the consequences can be disastrous. This theme returns in other Gojira sequels, for example in Godzilla vs. Hedorah where Gojira has to take on a giant smog monster created by chemical pollution. But that’s a different story. The deeper meaning of Gojira is actually far more profound than one would expect from a monster movie. And the warning this movie cries out is firmly grounded in the context of the era this film was produced in. In its core, Gojira is a credible allegory of nuclear warfare as well as it is an indictment against it. We’re talking about the only country here, ever to have suffered from a nuclear attack and its devastating aftermath. Gojira was one way to make sure the world would never forget this and another way to point the finger at the Americans, since it is strongly hinted at in the movie – though never explicitly mentioned – that it are them who are doing the nuclear testing in the beginning of the movie (and at the end the Japanese provide the solution and clean up the metaphorical mess). This plot element is actually based on historical events. After the end of WWII, the Americans had gained the authority over the Pacific Ocean and were testing the first hydrogen bombs in those waters during the early 50s. In 1954 it was even so that one Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, somewhere outside the exclusion zone and not having received an evacuation message, was exposed to radio-active dust caused by the nuclear fallout after detonation. One crew member died six months later from radiation sickness. Many other natives who were exposed, suffered from cancers and birth defects.
No matter how you look at it, historians and film critics are unanimous: Gojira had to happen! One reason was because of a country coming to terms with the apocalypse that had occurred in the Second World War. Related to all this, is Japan’s destructive history; a history of earthquakes, fires and volcanic eruptions. In a way Gojira represents the elemental force of nature that can destroy us all. The other reason was of a commercial nature: In 1952 the aforementioned King Kong was re-released worldwide in cinemas and other than that, Gojira obviously is Japan’s answer to Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. This leads us to Gojira’s conception. A well-known story is of course that of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka from Toho Company Ltd. who was one day gazing out of the window of an airplane while flying over the Pacific Ocean. He wondered what could live in the dark depths of these waters and then imagined a ‘what-if’ scenario about a prehistoric monster rising from the deep to terrorize modern civilization – on an side note: a similar story circulates about a producer from Daiei Studios who was day dreaming on an airplane and when he looked outside the window he thought he saw a flying turtle. He then went on to produce the first Gamera movie. A lesser known story (but an actual fact) is that director Ishiro Honda was a prisoner of war during WWII. He only returned to Japan when the war was over. As he passed through Hiroshima, he saw the devastation with his own eyes. Buildings destroyed, cities turned to dust. And, according to his wife Kimi Honda, that planted the idea that fear influenced his work and brought forth the images of Tokyo being destroyed in Gojira.
A first glimpse upon this monstrosity will sure not put a smile on your face…
So what’s in a name, right? Concerning the origin of the name of our most favourite Japanese monster, a lot of tall stories used to circulate. The most plausible one, and often referred to as the one and only true story, is that Gojira is a compound of the Japanese words for ‘gorilla’ (gorira) and whale (kujira). It supposedly also was a nickname for a rather upstanding crew member of Toho Films at the time. But a fact is, that during the whole production of Gojira, the film secretively was referred to as Production G. Even when actor Haruo Nakajima (who played Gojira) received the script, his character was only named G. In 1956 the movie was released in American theatres and the American producers re-baptized the movie (based on suggestions the Japanese gave them): Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. But, as everyone knows, that’s not all they did. They feared that an all-Japanese movie would do very poorly at the box office, so they hired director Terry O. Morse to shoot extra scenes with American actor Raymond Burr. Those scenes contained the storyline of reporter Steve Martin who happened to be in Tokyo at the same time Godzilla decides to have some fun in it. The rest of the movie was dubbed in English and the extra footage blended in quite well with the original material. Unfortunately the producers had the original 98 minutes long film cut down to 80 minutes. Thereby a lot of background story of the original Japanese characters got lost. So you get the picture, don’t you? Watch the Japanese version first, if possible, and then the American cut.
We’ve been through some facts & figures. We know a bit about the historical context. We’ve had some background information on the project. Now let’s get to the fun part, shall we? Or, wait a minute… How did I ever make first acquaintance with Gojira? Well, it was back in the mid 80s when my parents got their first VCR. I must have been around 8 years old at the time. My dad took my brother and me to the video store and we were allowed to both choose one movie. My dad got himself a war movie. My brother picked out the first Evil Dead (he could, you see, because he’s 7 years older than me). And what was in it for me? Well, there it was, standing on a shelf: A VHS-cover with a big, dark scary-looking dinosaur-like creature on it, staring back at me with big menacing eyes. There also was a picture on it of something I could only describe as a giant, big-eyed grey jelly-fish! If I remember correctly, the title on the cover art read Satan’s Creature. I just had to see it. And so I did. In fact I watched it a second time the day after. I was amazed. I think I didn’t even notice (or if I did, I sure as hell didn’t care) it was just some guy in a rubber monster suit beating the crap out of a giant styrofoam thing with plastic eyes. It was years later that I learned I had been watching Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971). Some 4 years ago or so, I had the pleasure of re-watching this gem and only then I noticed that, besides a lot of fun, this movie also is one truly psychedelic experience. It still is one of my favourite Godzilla movies to date. When I was in my mid-teens I saw Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991). And once again I had quite a bit of fun with it, especially because of the time-travel plot, really way out there. After having seen bits and pieces from other Godzilla films, I finally found a copy of the first Gojira (which was hard to find at the time here in Belgium). Unfortunately it was the American cut, dubbed in French (I didn’t even know about the different Japanese version back then). So, you can say that the movie didn’t have the impact it should have had on a first time viewing. But I was pleasantly surprised by its dark and foreboding tone. There was nothing to laugh at this time. Finally, less than a year ago, I was able to buy a dvd copy of the original Japanese version. I watched it three times since, and I can now honestly rate it at its true value. Especially after having seen stuff like The Giant Gilla Monster (1959), to name only one.
Right, the fun part: Gojira, the movie! When the Toho logo appears on screen, it is accompanied by three loud pounding noises. As if something immensely huge, like a 20 ton hammer for example, is hitting solid earth with frequent intervals. Then the Gojira name scrolls onto the screen while we hear this deafening, spine-chilling roar. A better hint at the titanic proportions of this King of the Monsters simply cannot be imagined. The film is set up in a classical structure, displaying all the characters and plot elements at the right time. This keeps things from getting boring or the pacing from slowing down too much. The opening scene shows us the crew of the Eiko being exposed to an intense white light coming from what appears to be a massive underwater explosion. We are then treated with the sinking of a charming miniature ship on fire, staged as it were in the dark and desolate waters of the Pacific Ocean. In the tradition of all great (monster) movies, this sequence succeeds in what it sets out to do: grab your attention.
The next step of the exposition is to get acquainted with our leading couple, salvage officer Hideto Ogata and his girlfriend Emiko Yamane. Later on we learn that Emiko is part of a love triangle involving Ogata and the scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. All this serves as a subplot which blends in nicely with the monster action. The character development of all the main persons in the plot is very well-crafted, providing us just enough information to care about them. To come clean right away concerning the main characters, here’s the deal: Emiko is the daughter of palaeontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (he is the only person in the whole plot that would prefer to study Gojira instead of destroying him). Emiko is to be engaged to Dr. Serizawa, as approved by daddy Yamane.
Unfortunately, Emiko is deeply in love with Ogata, so she struggles intensely with how to break this news to both daddy Yamane and Dr. Seriwaza. Still with me? Well it doesn’t matter that much really. But to Emiko it does matter who dies in the end and who doesn’t. To be completely honest, this whole love triangle thing is portrayed in a rather clinical fashion without any form of passion whatsoever. If this movie would not have had subtitles, I doubt I would be able to find out that there even was a love triangle at all. Dr. Seriwaza, however, is a very interesting character. He has the looks of your typical every day mad scientist, complete with eye-patch, but in fact, he isn’t. He’s an intelligent, but very sad man who has to carry this unbearable burden of having invented a weapon of mass destruction: The Oxygen Destroyer. In one of the best scenes of the movie (not featuring Gojira, of course), he shows the workings of this weapon to Emiko. The strength of this scene lies in not showing the viewer what the effects of this weapon are, but only showing Emiko’s shocked and terrified reaction. As a viewer, you desperately want to know what this invention is all about, but you’ll just have to wait until the third act. Afterwards Seriwaza asks Emiko not to tell a single soul of what she had just seen. Poor Dr. Seriwaza might be a brilliant scientist, but he sure knows nothing about women. Everyone knows to never ask a woman to keep something a secret. But ironically, it is Emiko’s inability to keep a promise that will save Japan – and most likely the rest of the world too – from total damnation.
Okay, now we’ve got that out of the way, here comes the main attraction. Can you hear that heavy stomping in the distance? Can you? Now then, run fools! Run to the hills! Gojira is coming! I will now guide you through some of the highlights. The first scenes concerning Gojira unleashing its wrath, result in the wreckage of ocean vessels Eiko and Bingo. Not much later we are presented with one of the most powerful and well crafted scenes from the first half of the movie: The destruction of a small fishing community on Odo Island. A raging nightly thunderstorm provides the background to the demolition of several houses and a helicopter. A complete miniature bay was build to provide an overview shot of the savage sea invading the shoreline. Up until this point we’ve seen nothing yet of Gojira, except one second-long glimpse of what can only be a fragment of Gojira’s scaled leg in the exterior shot where fisherman Masaji’s roof comes down. But we already got the right impression: This thing is huge! From here on, the movie wastes no time. At approximately 21 minutes into the movie, Gojira makes its first on-screen appearance by stretching its neck over a hill while people are running for cover. Surprisingly, the film makers made the decision to have this scene take place in broad daylight. They apparently used a Gojira hand puppet and a cleverly photographed composite shot to craft the scene.
At the time – and even now, I might add – the glorious monster itself was a terrifying and truly menacing creation. During pre-production producer Tanaka and director Honda, both being admirers of Ray Harryhausen’s work, contemplated using the same technique for making the monster alive. They soon realized that they did not have the time nor the budget for using claymation for all the scenes Gojira was in. So the decision was made to have Gojira played by an actor in a monster suit. And thus, giant monster-movie history was made. In the original Gojira there are nevertheless two scenes in which stop-motion was used: The one where a fire truck crashes and the one where Godzilla swings its tail against a building.
At exactly 45 minutes running time, Gojira hits Tokyo city. Its feet are stomping. Its tail is sweeping. At this point we also learn what kind of mutated powers Gojira has gained from all this radiation. As the scales on its back start to glow, out of its mouth comes burning atomic plasma breath, incinerating everything within sight. Its giant feet crush buildings. It picks up trains and munches on them. Bridges are being lifted up and thrown away. And what’s worse: Nothing seems to stop Gojira. The demolition of Tokyo takes place at night and it are those scenes, with their scarcely lit sets, that add to the dark and foreboding atmosphere this movie is known for. The combined efforts of special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and director of photography Teisho Arikawa are simply astonishing. Their images of a burning Tokyo, besieged by Gojira causing havoc, are downright infernal, haunting and drenched in a frightening murkiness. The black & white photography certainly adds to the gloomy and creepy look this film has. Yet, as to be expected, not all effects are as convincing. In particular the air raid the army launches on Gojira has a pretty high Ed Wood factor. You can see Gojira standing rather motionless, on a very obvious set, in a pool filled with water and a grey back-drop. Miniature plains on visible strings are flying around his head. Our beloved monster doesn’t even take a swing at them. In one shot it even looks like the missiles (as in fireworks) are hitting the grey back-drop. But a good laugh every now and then never hurt anyone, right? And after all, this is the only scene in the movie that really is a bit unintentional funny. After the air raid, when Gojira has returned to the ocean, another delicious shot follows. The camera slowly travels to the left capturing another one of those detailed miniature sets of the desolate ruins of Tokyo city. As much as it reminded me of images of a completely annihilated Hiroshima, it even more so reminded me of a few shots from the opening sequence of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (without the machines and the shooting, of course). How’s that for a comparison?
And this is what caused it:
However, when you watch closely enough, various other technical flaws will reveal themselves. For example, the editing is pretty sloppy, even for those times (and this has nothing to do with the print having deteriorated or anything). For instance, during the last scene in Serizawa’s laboratory, there is this one close-up shot of Emiko. Within that same shot her facial expression had to go from normal/observant to a sudden burst of tears. They clearly did several takes of that shot and for some reason (maybe Momoko Kochi didn’t get it right in any of the shots), editor Kazuji Taira took the first expression from one take and the second from another. This resulted in a slightly irritating jump-cut. Two similar jump-cuts can be found elsewhere in the movie. One even so obvious, it actually hurts when you see it. And then there’s the matter of this one set which just wasn’t big enough. In the shot where journalist Hagiwara leaves Ogata’s room (Emiko is in it too), the camera keeps Hagiwara in the frame when he walks towards the door, thereby panning to the left. The problem is it pans just a little too far, making visible what looks like the end of a fake wall. As a result, you can see Hagiwara’s arm re-appear on the left side of the screen after he has walked through the door. All this on a side note, though, and all the errors of the world cannot change the fact that Gojira remains one of the most excellent classic monster movies ever made.
There’s just one guy we haven’t mentioned yet: Composer Akira Ifukube. His musical score is highly memorable, especially Gojira’s main theme (repeatedly used in sequels too). Ifukube also was responsible for Gojira’s most favourite roar. They achieved this unique sound by playing a double bass in a very unorthodox manner. First they fiddled with the peg box on top of the instrument. Then they opened up the tail piece and pulled it away. With gloves on, to protect their hands, they then produced Gojira’s voice by scraping their hands down the strings. A sound that would terrify worldwide audiences. Another strong scene involving music, is the one where we can see a nationwide broadcast on television of female students in uniform singing a prayer to put some heart into the population and encourage them to keep strong. It is their lamentation and that scene in particular that brings a lot more weight to the movie. At the risk of sounding prejudiced, I believe that only Japanese producers could have come up with the idea of inserting such a scene into the movie. I’m fairly certain that if this was to be a Hollywood movie, American producers would have come up with a scene where the president would address the masses in a nationwide, slightly patriotic speech of some sort. Back to Ifukube’s score now. During the final scenes, when the army sets out to the ocean to finally destroy Gojira, Ifukube’s score becomes highly appropriate and it works on many levels related to the events unfolding on the screen. For one thing, it’s tragic, as Gojira’s death is linked to a rather unexpected and perhaps even unnecessary human sacrifice. There’s also a deep sense of sadness embodied in the music. For Gojira’s death is rather sad. When they eventually do find it in the ocean waters, they find it sleeping, doing no harm whatsoever. When they apply Serizawa’s weapon, it doesn’t even put up a fight. Strangely I found Gojira’s death to be as sad as King Kong’s, even though Gojira is a much more difficult creature to sympathize with.
Children’s lament… Chaos and grief at the crisis centre
Another charming miniature ship… … and Gojira’s last swim.
For those amongst you who want a little more information on the King of Monsters: I already mentioned that to this date 28 official Japanese Gojira movies are made. These are spread over three series: The Showa Series (1954 – 1975), the Versus/Heisei Series (1984 -1995) and the Millennium Series (1999 – present). Now, if someone asks me if all Godzilla movies are good and worth seeing, I would have to answer with a firm ‘no’! Not all of them are good, and some of them are pretty goofy, plain hilarious or totally inept. The thing is there isn’t much continuity in Godzilla’s timeline. During the 60s Godzilla drastically changed, not alone in look, but also the whole basic idea behind it changed. Due to the success of the Gamera movies, the average age of Godzilla fans started to drop. Godzilla itself began showing more human characteristics. Its eyes became bigger, making it look cuter in a way. It developed a sort of comic wrestling style and at one point even, for one reason or another, started flying through the air. Godzilla became this child-friendly anti-hero, and even more so, the uncrowned protector of Japan. Now all this was light years away from all the things the original Gojira stood for. So the first series came to an end in 1975. In 1984 a landmark movie in the Godzilla franchise was released: Gojira aka The Return of Godzilla. This movie simply ignored all previously made Gojira sequels and is supposed to be a direct sequel to the 1954 original. Some consider it also a re-make of sorts, as Godzilla did die at the end of the ’54 version. Producer Tanaka even wanted Ishiro Honda to direct it, but he turned down the offer because he was repulsed by what had happened to the franchise over the years. So director Koji Hashimoto took the job and he really did his best to restore the true spirit of Gojira, making him once again an unstoppable giant killing machine.
So if a layman asks me which Godzilla movies to start with or what is the best way to learn more about the King of Monsters, I’d say: Start with the original Gojira from 1954, then proceed with the Gojira from 1984 and then watch Gojira 2000 from 1999. This last one is a perfect example of all the ingredients featured in your average Gojira movie throughout the decades. For this movie, they once again re-styled the monster (and boy, did he ever look that scary?) and this is also the first one to briefly feature a complete CGI Godzilla in an underwater shot. It also contains the legendary words “We humans created Gojira”. On a production note: A few months after shooting Gojira 2000 on location in Tokaimura, a serious nuclear accident happened in that very same town. The environment surrounding the power plant (which was actually a fuel processing plant) got severely polluted with radiation. The news reached the worldwide headlines. Toho Company, however, decided to keep the scene in the movie in order to warn the people about the dangers of nuclear energy. A message Gojira cried out to the world for the very first time in 1954.
1954 1984 1999
To many hardcore Gojira fans, this last paragraph will contain a few blasphemous words. Here they are: Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, the American big budget re-make from 1998. So is it worth seeing? Asking this general question at this point of time sounds a bit strange to me, since I have the feeling that many of today’s kids will ask the exact same thing about the original ’54 classic. But to answer that question: It is worth seeing and it is a highly entertaining giant monster movie with superb special effects. But that’s really all it is.
To make things clear: this is not a Gojira movie. The underlying themes, the whole message, the subtext about the war, Gojira’s origin,… all that is thrown out of the window. This Americanized version contains only two aspects from the original: The basic concept of a giant beast from the sea invading a metropolitan city and… Gojira’s voice. Most likely to pay homage to the original, a lot of care went into re-producing and modernizing that famous roar. A lesser known fact – or should I say rumour? – is that this wasn’t Gojira’s first attempt to make it into American movies. Apparently, somewhere around 1983 director Steve Miner (perhaps best known for directing the first two Friday the 13th sequels and Halloween H20) acquired the rights to Godzilla and commissioned Fred Dekker (director of everyone’s favourite 80’s sci-fi/horror/comedy Night of the Creeps and the failure that was RoboCop 3) to write a script. Miner tried to obtain financing for the movie for over 2 years but unfortunately, his rights to Godzilla expired. It was if like the Japanese were thinking “If this isn’t going to happen, then let’s do our own re-styling”, and thus they went on to produce The Return of Godzilla. A more or less similar thing happened after the release of the American Godzilla from 1998. As a response, Toho Company sort of ‘took back’ Godzilla and returned him to its roots. The result was Gojira 2000 (aka Gojira ni-sen mireniamu), to this date still one of the very essential Gojira movies. A peculiar thing is that some scenes in it (or at least certain shots) actually seem to pay homage to scenes from the American re-make. Having once again mentioned the essentiality of certain Gojira movies, we come back full circle to the one and only original black & white classic. To any self acclaimed movie lover it is important to know where things started. So go find a copy of Gojira, watch it and… Stomp hard!
Written by Gert Verbeeck, uncut, unedited.
- Documentary: Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1998) (TV), featuring Alex Cox, Akira Ifukube, Kimi Honda,…
- Classic Films & Classic TV: 100 Jaar Science Fiction, segment “Godzilla” by Michael Gingold
- The Energy Advocate
- Green Cow DVD production notes
- The Internet Movie Database
- Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
- Barry’s Temple of Godzilla