Written by Barney Buckley
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The thesis was very simple. What if a dinosaur sleeping in the southern hemisphere had been awakened and transformed into a giant by the bomb? What if it attacked Tokyo?
Tomoyuki Tanaka, producer of all Godzilla movies through until 1995, entered filmmaking in 1940 after a stint as a theater director. Promote your producer at Toho Studios; Tanaka oversaw billed by the internationally acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa. In 1954, Tanaka held Toho’s Japanese-Indonesian co-production, Beyond the Glory. Intended as Toho’s premier release for the year, the big-budget production was set to star Ryo Ikebe and Toshiko Yamaguchi. The Indonesian government denied Ikebe and Yamaguchi visas, however, forcing Tanaka to shelve Beyond the Glory and leaving a significant gap in Toho’s release schedule. Needed the blockbuster film, and fast. On the plane ride back to Tokyo, Tanaka began thinking about combining the King Kong story with modern fears about radiation.
Many science fiction films in the 1950s revolve around the fear of radiation. Among American releases, one can find monsters mutated by radiation in Monster from the Ocean Floor, Them!, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Bride of the Monster, The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Monster That Challenged the World, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Monster from Green Hell, Monster on the Campus, The Alligator People, The Giant Behemoth, The Hideous Sun Demon… The list goes on and on. Through the use of atomic radiation in these and other films reflect some of the societies concern with this dangerous new age and the terrors science could unleash upon the world.
As Bill Warren points out in his two volume set, Keep Watching the Skies!, However, use of radiation in the 50s science fiction films were primarily a gimmick. Electricity, radar, satellites, and planned transplants were similar gimmicks and other eras. A 1930s met Dr. Flick with the monster created by electricity strongly resembles the 1950s radiation monster flicks. There is a danger in reading too much into the frequent use of radiation in such films; stead of reflecting a pervasive social. It may simply reflect lazy scripting.
In Japan, though, the case was different. Only the Japanese have directly experienced the horrors of nuclear war, and their perspective as victims of the atomic age carries a deeper significance. The Japanese did not develop or test nuclear weapons, therefore hold no responsibility for this act of hubris. Even with radioactivity as a mere gimmick, American movie mobsters can be seen as some kind of reaction to the bomb. In a Japanese context, the monster is less a reaction to the bomb that a symbol of the bomb.
The writer Tanaka fire to flesh out his ideals, science fiction author Shigeru Kayama, closely modeling his story after Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, even using a similar title, Daikaiju No Kaitei Niman Maru (“Big Monster from 20,000 Miles beneath the Sea”). Storyboards for the film even mimic the design of Ray Harryhausen’s “Rhedosaur” monster. The similarities to Beast from 20,000 Fathoms led Harryhausen to harbor a personal grudge against Toho’s Godzilla series for decades thereafter, thinking they had won promotional success only by stealing from his film.
The head of Toho special effects department at the time, Eiji Tsuburaya, eagerly anticipated working on the monster movie project. Tsuburaya’s special effects work for the war consisted of propaganda films, and after the war ended he was so closely associated with wartime propaganda that he was virtually blacklisted. His skills at re-creating battles with miniatures was such that his special effects footage depicting the attack on Pearl Harbor convinced the American occupying forces that they were watching documentaries films shot by the pilots of attacking zeros. Ever since seeing King Kong in the mid-1930s, Tsuburaya had dream of making his own monster movie. His dream project involved a giant octopus, and early stages of planning for the 1954 movie showed Godzilla as a mutated octopus. Although Tanaka ultimately opt for a dinosaur like monster instead, she Tsuburaya it managed to fill octopus seems for several subsequent Toho monster movies (including the 1962’s King Kong versus Godzilla).
Shigeru Kayama’s story outline, using Tsuburaya’s monster octopus as the menace, won approval from Toho’s impressed executives. By the summer of 1954, production on the film began in earnest. The title Daikaiju No Kaitei Niman Maru has been abandoned by this point, replaced by a generic G for giant. According to Tomoyuki Tanaka, a Toho technician had been Christian “Gojira” by his co-workers as a jibe at his burly structure. Gojira is made from the words “guerrilla” and “Kujira,” Japanese for whale. Tanaka heard of this, and agreed the name was appropriate for his new monster (Gojira would be pronounced Go-dzee-la).
While both producer Tanaka and special effects director Tsuburaya were looking forward to making a monster movie in the American mold, director Ishiro Honda approach the project from a different perspective. Honda, born in 1911, study art at Nihon University. In 1933, he joined Photochemical Laboratory (PCL) studios, which would later become Toho. Ishiro Honda left PCL temporarily when he was called away to war in China in 1938, the first of three times he was drafted by the Imperial Army.
Returning in 1946, he found his close friend and neighbor Akira Kurosawa recently promoted to director. Honda began his film career at Toho as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on such films as Stray Dog (1949), ultimately earning promotion to director on the 1951 film. The Blue Pearl. In his book Something like an Autobiography, Kurosawa acknowledges Honda’s role “I had Honda do mainly second unit shooting. Everyday I told him what I wanted and he would go out into the roots of post-war Tokyo to film. There are a few men as honest and reliable as Honda. He faithfully brought back and neck from the footage I requested, so almost everything he shot was used in the final cut of the film. I’m often told that I capture the atmosphere of post-war Japan very well in Stray Dog, and if so I owe a great deal of that success to Honda.
Honda’s wartime experiences left an enduring psychological scar, which would later inform his directional style. While on furlough from the Army, he lived through the firebombings of Tokyo. Later, as a prisoner of war in China he heard about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visiting Hiroshima in 1946, he became fascinated with the nuclear holocaust, particularly the destructive power of invisible substance “radiation”. On the felt compelled to translate the horrors of modern war into film. “But no one questioned concerning [Gojira] was the fear connected to what was then known as the atomic bomb, in the original film,” Honda explained in an interview in 1991. “At that time, I think there was an ability to grasp a thing of absolute terror,” as Shigeru Kayama himself called it. When I directed that film, in terms of society at that time, it was a surprising movie with all its special effects but, actually, when I return home from the war and I passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere-a feared the earth was already coming to an end. That became my basis.
With Gojira, Honda saw an opportunity to make radiation visible. Honda suggested that the giant monster has the ability to admit a radioactive beam, a character trait that would become a trademark for Toho’s monster icon.
While American monster-on-the-loose films use radiation as a narrative device to get the monsters up and running around, Honda saw his monster as a narrative device discussed the chair of the nuclear age. This intelligent, sensitive approach gave Toho’s Gojira a gap you monster-on-the-loose films have. Honda’s wartime experiences influences filmmaking on many levels. One of his associates once said of Honda that, “when he shot scenes of people being threatened by Godzilla, he would have recalled the air attacks he had experienced.
Ishiro Honda work closely with screenwriter Takeo Murata to develop Kayama’s story into an effective script. They include the characterization of the humans and increase the obvious animalism of Godzilla, making the creature more of a true monster. Also drop from Kayama’s story were obvious “lifts” from the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, such as Godzilla’s assault on a lighthouse. In all, Honda and Murata gave the script its emotional intensity, which greatly helped to elevate the film above the standard monster-on-the-loose scenario.
While Iwao Mori developed under the storyboards from the finished screenplay to assist Eiji Tsuburaya in planning the many complex and demanding effects the sequences, Tsuburaya and Honda discussed the task ahead of them. Honda, who had once been a documentarian filmmaker, desired a semi–documentary feel for Gojira. Once, the two stood atop the Matsuzakaya department store in the Ginza district that would spread to the Ginza shopping district. Worried, store security guards stopped them for investigation.
Akihiko Hirata had appeared in Honda’s war melodrama Saraba Rabauru protein that year. Honda liked Hiratas performance NAS into screen test for the role of Ogata, the romantic lead in Gojira. Shortly before filming was to begin, Honda decided on the basis of their respective screen test to switch Hirata with Akira Takarada, originally cast as the reclusive scientist Dr. Serizawa. Both men would continue to star in the Godzilla series and other special effects-based pictures for Toho over the decades to come. Takarada, remains associated with the series, having appeared in the 1992 Godzilla versus Mothra. Akihiko Hirata intended to return the second series sequel, Godzilla 1985, but he died of cancer in July of 1984.
Joining Hirata and Takarada on the cast was Takashi Shimura, one of Japan’s finest actors and part of the Kurosawa’s “repertory.” Shimura starred in many of Kurosawa’s films, including Rashomon, Throne of Blood, and the Seven Samurai’s. As Shimura has been praised very highly for his work with Kurosawa, is ironic and unfortunate that American critics accuse Gojira and its sequels of bad acting. Surely the critics in question were really griping about the doubling, since they praised the same cast members when they appear in subtitle releases: the New York Times once called Shimura “the best actor in the world.” Shimura would reprise his role in the next installment; claim one of the few human characters to appear in more than one Godzilla film. He would also return in other roles in other Godzilla films, and was but one of the many among Kurosawa’s players to appear in the Godzilla series. Toho’s Kaiju-Eiga were flashy, big-budget spectacles, and Japan’s top actors gladly took roles in them. American science fiction films, by stark contrast, were frequently looked down upon as second-class movies and rarely attracted “a-list” actors.
The true star of the film, of course, was Godzilla himself, portrayed by both Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. Nakajima of veteran stuntman such auspicious credits as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai’s to his name, would continue alone in this part through 1972. In order to prepare him to play the role of a giant monster, Nakajima, lacking real-life monsters to use as role models, visit the Ueno Zoo to study the behavior of bears. While neither man received screen credit for playing Godzilla, they do both appear outside the monster suit cameos during the course of the film: not edema appears as the technician: the switch on the high tension wires intended to stop Godzilla was advanced, and Tezuka played the editor that sends the reporter to interview the reclusive Doctor Serizawa.
Nakajima and Tezuka suffered considerably inside the Godzilla suit area to enhance the illusion of watching a giant beast in action, Tsuburaya shot most of the footage at a higher frame rate than the normal 20-4 frames per second. When played back to normal speed, Godzilla lumbered realistically. In order to properly expose the scenes at this high frame rate, special effects lighting director Kuchiro Kishida had to like this stage more brightly than usual. Under the hot lights, and without ventilation inside the costume, the actor inside scarcely withstand 3 min. of film and. Nakajima fainted several times during the shoot, and when the studio technicians removed to the bulky suit they usually drain out a couple of his sweat, too. Nakajima also suffer blisters from rubbing against the rubber costume, painful muscle cramps, and ultimately lost 20 pounds.
Ryosaku Takayama and Iwao Mori designed the costume. Tsuburaya’s original concept of a giant octopus have been rejected by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the design combines features of a dinosaur with the local Chinese Dragon. Sculptor Sadami Toshimitsu prepared a play model of a tyrannosaur-like creature scaly skin and the back plates of a stegosaurus. Tomoyuki Tanaka disliked the scales, so a second model was built with a bumpy, warty skin texture and smaller head. A third model kept the basic body design but change the skin texture again to that of an alligator.
From this model, Sadami Toshimitsu and Kanzi Yagi began work on a full-size suit molded to fit the two actors. Because the Robert tended to decompose storage, and the rigors of filming took a considerable toll on the suit, the technicians frequently had to rebuild the Godzilla costume. Until 1984 each suit was made from scratch, so with each reconstruction the design changes lightly.
Consequently, Godzilla’s appearance differs from film to film. Model collectives in the 80s began nicknaming this suit designed to distinguish the various walks. The first Godzilla costume was nicknamed “Shodaigoji” for “First Godzilla.”
The latex skin was stocked with bamboo and urethane foam to provide sturdiness and bowl. Although a popular misconception exist that Godzilla is green, the two-PC was painted a deep charcoal gray, and all subsequent screen appearances maintained that charcoal coloring. The actors head fit in the neck of the suit, with Godzilla’s head serving as a sort of half. Inside the suit, Nakajima and Tezuka could open and close the monster’s mouth. The tail was manipulated by wires from the outside. A half-suit of just the lower section was built, which could be worn with the suspenders for some close-up shots. In addition to the full-size monster, a hand puppet was used for close-ups involving more detailed facial expressions than this suit could be delivered.
The 1/25 scale model of downtown Tokyo tax the ability of Tsuburaya’s group. Each building destroyed by Godzilla needed a complete interior in order to crumble realistically. The first Tokyo model set built did not meet Tsuburaya’s standards, and had to be rebuilt. The miniature vehicles Godzilla tramples were constructed from cast-iron so as not to appear unnaturally cleansing.
Gojira’s budget of ¥60 million made it one of the most expensive Japanese films ever made. Three times the budget of the average Japanese movie, Gojira cost approximately $900,000 at 1954 yen the dollar rate. Given the current strength of the yen, Gojira would translate into $65 million today. By contrast, Toho’s other big film of that year, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai cost $500,000 in