Godzilla: Baptized in the Fire of the Atomic Era

Godzilla (Japanese: ゴジラ) (1954) Directed by Ishirō Honda. Screenplay by Takeo Murata and Ishirō Honda. Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, and Takashi Shimura.

On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated a thermonuclear bomb called Castle Bravo at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The device was, and remains to this day, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by the U.S.; it was in fact two and a half times more powerful than predicted and led to widespread nuclear fallout. Radioactive particles of gas, dust, and smashed-up coral fell over the residents of the nearby islands and spread across the globe. In the aftermath, there was international pressure to develop a ban on testing nuclear weapons, which eventually led to the limited 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Among the victims of the fallout of the Castle Bravo detonation were 23 fishermen aboard the Japanese boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru. The fisherman were trawling outside of the designated danger zone, but radioactive dust fall over the boat and led to the entire crew becoming sick within hours. One man died from the radiation sickness a few months later; the rest of the crew survived, although many had lasting health problems. The U.S. government did what they always do and tried to shift the blame onto everybody else—to the fishermen themselves for being in the wrong place, to imaginary Soviet spies conducting a false flag mission, the usual—as the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident led to widespread outcry and anti-nuclear protests in Japan.

Among the people paying attention to the news was Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer for Toho, the Japanese film production company. A planned Toho movie had just faltered due to political problems, after public outcry regarding the brutality of the Japanese occupation during World War II led to Indonesia declining to grant visas to the Japanese filmmakers for a joint production. Tanaka had to come up with something to take that movie’s place. So he looked around at what was going on in the world, and he looked around at what was popular in the movies, and he decided to combine them.

That’s how he brainstormed a crossover between the very real Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident and the very not real giant monster movies recently popularized by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and the runaway success of the 1952 theatrical rerelease of King Kong (1933). Even before he had a director or a story, Tanaka got Eiji Tsuburaya onboard to do the special effects. Tsuburaya had an outline of a potential monster movie sitting around that he offered up for inspiration. (That monster was imagined as a giant octopus—and a giant octopus would later make an appearance in King Kong vs. Godzilla, released in 1962.) Sci fi writer Shigeru Kayama joined up and wrote a different script, one that included a scene of the monster attacking a lighthouse (we’ve seen that before) and featured a voiceover directly criticizing the American nuclear tests; his script also wanted to use actual newsreel from the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident. (Kayama went on to publish his version of the story as a novel, which was finally translated into and published in English in 2023.)

Several directors passed on the movie—as the story goes, they thought the idea was too silly—but Ishirō Honda was interested in taking it on and, more importantly, taking it seriously. He wrote the final screenplay with Takeo Murata, incorporating Tsuburaya’s and Kayama’s ideas as they did so, and in August of 1954, they began filming.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you might be looking at the dates above and scratching your head a little bit. The Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident happened on March 1, 1954. Godzilla premiered on October 27, 1954. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Japanese tokusatsu filmmaking, where films with extensive practical effects are made very quickly and very cheaply, such that one of the most beloved and important movies in the history of cinema can be conceived, written, rewritten, constructed, filmed, scored, and released within a span of ten months.

The speedy timeline was the reason for the choices Tsuburaya made when creating the special effects. He originally wanted to use stop-motion animation like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. But Toho didn’t have the time or money, as stop-motion animation is extremely time- and labor-intensive. (Ray Harryhausen would sometimes spend months on a single scene. All of Godzilla’s special effects scenes were filmed in about 70 days.) There is one stop-motion scene in the film, as proof that they tried it out: the moment in which Godzilla’s tail smashes the Nichigeki Theater in Tokyo.

For the rest of the movie, Tsuburaya opted for a more efficient approach: a man in a monster suit smashing a whole lot of models and miniatures. Or “suitmation,” as it came to be called, but honestly I think “a man in a monster suit smashing up miniatures” sounds more fun. Even though, by all accounts, it wasn’t much fun for the men in the monster suit.

The creature was designed by sculptor Teizō Toshimitsu and special effect artist Akira Watanabe. According to several sources, the big guy’s name—ゴジラ, or Gojira—gives some clues to his evolving design, as it is a combination of ゴリラ (gorilla) and クジラ (kujira, the Japanese word for whale). Exactly how that name came about is not very clear, but one story about it coming from a nickname for a very large crew member working at Toho has persisted for decades. As both the name and the inspiration from King Kong suggest, the original conception of the character was a lot more ape-like, but Toshimitsu and Watanabe came to prefer a dinosaur-like design, with the upright stature of a Tyrannosaur and the dorsal spines of a Stegosaurus. Then it passed through a brief phase of being smooth and amphibious, before finally settling on the craggy, thick fellow we all know and love.

(Note: The Anglicized name “Godzilla” was chosen by Toho when they sold the film to an American distributor; some articles claim the studio specifically wanted to reference God and lizards for American audiences. I have not seen Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), the version that was significantly reshaped and released for American audiences. I would love to hear from anybody who has—chime in below with a comment!)

The actual costume was built with a thin, light underlayer of wire covered by sturdier mesh and cushioning to provide bulk, and atop the mesh were several layers of latex, which were melted and glued on to give it that distinctive scarred look. The costume was ridiculously heavy and so difficult to maneuver that actors Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka could only wear it for a few minutes before needing a break. Both men went on to play Godzilla and/or other kaiju in several more films, which suggests it must have been at least a little fun, in spite of the discomfort.

So Godzilla is a man in an excruciatingly heavy, barely-mobile suit made of wire and rubber, methodically stomping 1:25 scale miniatures of buildings, trains, streets, and power lines, which were then set on fire or blown up using real explosives. The stomping is real, the shattered wood and plaster are real, the fire is real. Even the storm waves on Odo Island are real; that’s water in a barrel sloshing over a miniature model of the coastline.

Can we tell that it’s a guy in a suit smashing models? Sure. We know what we’re looking at. The models are excellent, but they are still models. Godzilla can’t seem to move his arms or turn his head. The action can never be particularly speedy or agile, especially not in comparison to the way the franchise has evolved after 70 years.

But it doesn’t matter. It really, truly doesn’t matter. Godzilla is a fantastic movie. It’s really fucking great. It’s been great for 70 years. It will always be great. The heavy, ponderous motion of the monster does not detract from the film. To the contrary, because Honda and Tsuburaya knew how to use what they were working with, the overall effect emphasizes the steady, implacable, relentless nature of the threat.

Monster movies of the time were not, in general, made seriously or treated seriously. Japanese critics weren’t too fond of Godzilla when it first came out; a lot of them didn’t know quite what to make of the combination of a roaring giant monster with the solemn tone of a war movie. But audiences loved it, the film was a success, and the world has never stopped making Godzilla movies.

I want to talk a bit about that solemn tone, because it is the aspect of the film that I find most fascinating, and one that is, I think, sometimes a bit forgotten in the movie’s long legacy. I do love the bright, weird, campy, monster-punching kaiju action films that Godzilla inspired, but Godzilla is none of those things. It is melancholy and bleak, all the way from the opening scene to the ominously sad ending.

The film opens with a direct reference to the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident, as the sailors aboard the ship Eiko-Maru encounter deadly radiation before their ship is incinerated. The ship sent in response to their distress signal is also destroyed, and a survivor who washes up on the shores of Odo Island claims they were attacked by a monster. One island elder remembers local lore about a giant monster from the sea that will hunt on land after the ocean is emptied. A storm batters the island later that night, and the monster comes ashore, wrecking homes and killing both people and livestock.

Through all of this, we don’t get more than a glimpse of the monster through the rain and darkness. The first act of the film, the entire section that takes place on Odo Island, builds tension in the same manner as a horror movie, with the danger looming, unknown, and just out of sight.

That changes after the islanders go to Tokyo to plead for help. The government sends paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) to head up the investigation. Yamane brings along his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kōchi), and her beau, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), to find out what’s going on at Odo Island. They do not bring along Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Emiko’s soon-to-be-former fiancé; he’s left behind to brood until the plot needs him. On the island, Yamane and the investigation team find a massive footprint, a trilobite that’s supposed to be extinct, some radiation, and—surprise!—a giant monster.

Following the Godzilla sighting on Odo Island, Yamane presents his conclusions before members of the government. Godzilla, he says, normally lives in caverns beneath the sea, but the recent H-bomb tests have disturbed his home. The movie never explains the tests, because it doesn’t need to. Everybody watching in 1954 would have known about Bikini Atoll and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, the ongoing fear of contamination affecting both people and a major food source, the anger over how little information the government provided about the incident, and the political agitation regarding the American nuclear tests and the perception that Japanese politicians were capitulating too much to American interests.

The government tries to kill Godzilla with underwater explosives, but of course that fails, and Godzilla keeps sinking ships as he makes his way toward Tokyo. As Yamane points out, Godzilla has survived a thermonuclear blast—a feat so impressive Yamane would prefer they study the creature rather than kill him, to learn how he can withstand nuclear weapons, but nobody else agrees with this sentiment. Godzilla emerges to stomp through Shinagawa and destroy a train (in a really cool special effects sequence) before returning to the ocean. That’s when the military decides instead to build a massive, electrified wire fence around all of Tokyo Bay, in hopes of stopping Godzilla the next time he comes ashore.

Meanwhile, Emiko and Ogata have decided this is the perfect time to officially remove Serizawa from the love triangle of their lives. But when Emiko goes to speak to him, Serizawa shows her a secret scientific project he’s working on in his basement. All we get to see is that Emiko is horrified by what Serizawa is doing—and so is he, because he swears her to secrecy in a way that even somebody who had never seen a movie before could predict would become relevant very soon.

And Godzilla, for his part, returns to do what Godzilla does best. The wire fences don’t stop him—but we knew they wouldn’t. Godzilla easily melts the metal towers with his atomic breath and wreaks havoc upon Tokyo through the night, transforming a portion of the city into a smoldering, radioactive hellscape.

This entire sequence is, as a piece of filmmaking, truly fantastic. The special effects are incredible, the sense of terror unrelenting, and the emotional impact is powerful. The large-scale scenes capture the magnitude of the destruction, such as Godzilla walking through the Diet Building or the panoramic view of the burning city, while the small-scale scenes show the horror and the tragedy: the mother holding her children and promising them they’ll see their father soon, the reporter bravely broadcasting right up until the moment of his death.

It is also a showcase for one of my very favorite elements of this movie: the score, by Akira Ifukube. The music is deceptively simple, with a deep, heavy, funereal march accompanying the monster’s attack. The pace changes when the humans fight back, but there are never the musical flights of optimism or triumph that we tend to expect in major action sequences. It remains dark and heavy and solemn, even when it rises with a breathless tension. Godzilla’s booming footsteps and screeching roar are woven directly into the sound.

It’s beautiful and relentless. Everything about the music conveys a sense of weight, of inevitability. It has no intention of letting us escape from the movie’s serious tone.

Ifukube also created Godzilla’s terrible, perfect roar. The sound crew experimented with a lot of different sounds (they tried variations on a lot of real animal noises, for example) before Ifukube tried a distinctly nonorganic approach. He loosened the strings on a double bass and rubbed them with a leather glove covered in pine-tar resin. The result is a roar that’s tortured, metallic, and a bit sad, in the way that stringed instruments so often are.

In the aftermath of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, the film spends some time showing the dead and injured, including the patients with radiation burns filling up hospitals. The extent of the devastation is what convinces Emiko to tell Ogata that Serizawa might have a way to stop the monster. Serizawa has invented a way to disintegrate oxygen atoms—yes, he’s been casually splitting atoms in his basement—which he demonstrated for Emiko by disintegrating some fish. At first, Serizawa refuses to use his invention to kill Godzilla; he knows that as soon as he shows the world what it can do, it will be developed into a weapon. He does change his mind after seeing news reports of the casualties and destruction, but there is no sense of excitement or relief at this decision. There is only a solemn acknowledgement that they have no other choice.

That grim acceptance carries through to the end. Ogata and Serizawa successful deploy Serizawa’s device against Godzilla underwater, but only Ogata returns to the surface. Seriwaza cuts his oxygen line to die by suicide and remove the knowledge of his terrible invention from the world.

The end of the movie is mournful, not triumphant. Because, after all, none of this ever had to happen. Yamane reminds us at the very end that Godzilla only emerged because of humanity’s capacity for destruction.

There is a tendency among modern, Western critics, when talking about more recent Godzilla movies, to describe the original movie as symbolic or allegorical with regard to the nuclear parallels. But I don’t think that’s an accurate interpretation of what the film is doing. Obviously Godzilla is not real, but the movie doesn’t treat Godzilla as a metaphor for the bomb. The movie shows Godzilla as an equally terrible answer to the bomb.

I think that nuance is important when it comes to understanding what Honda meant when he said he was taking the premise seriously. In the world of the movie, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened, then nuclear tests continued, then Godzilla happened, and the destruction caused by Godzilla is a mirror of the destruction caused by the atomic bombs.

That’s why Godzilla has the woman on the train remarking that she barely escaped the bombing of Nagasaki and now has to contend with this new threat, why the reporters die as they broadcast from the front line, why the terrified mother gives up hope of surviving when she sees the rampage, why Serizawa chooses death over the possibility of being complicit in the creation of more and more destruction weapons. Godzilla may have been introduced as a monster unlike the world had seen before, but his purpose was to show devastation the world had seen before and was, with the continued testing of nuclear weapons, callously intent on seeing again.

It’s inevitable, really, that the ending of Godzilla makes me also think about the movies that end very differently. Aliens (1986). Independence Day (1996). Pacific Rim (2013). The Avengers (2012). Those are just a few American movies that come to mind where the triumphant final act is to defeat the monsters with a nuclear bomb, an ace-in-the-hole atomic response to any threat that can be deployed by the characters with uncomplicated relief and fist-pumping satisfaction. It’s so normalized that it’s a common critique when movies don’t go that route: “Why don’t they just nuke the monster?” Why, indeed? It’s not a question many movies ask these days. But Japanese filmmakers in 1954 didn’t have the luxury of overlooking it. 

Over the past 70 years, many, many words have been written about the impact and influence of Godzilla: how it helped so much in introducing Western audiences to foreign movies, how it stands as a genre-defining example for both monster films and disaster films, how it set the bar for the scale of danger and destruction movies could portray, how it combines a science fictional premise with real-world political issues, how it made it so easy to fall in love with the awesome spectacle of giant movie monsters. (And we do so very much love the spectacle of giant movie monsters!)

But it’s that solemn ending that really sticks in my mind, where so many movies that follow in Godzilla’s (large, radioactive) footsteps favor a more triumphant ending. Because the humans in Godzilla beat the monster, but they so in a way that resists offering any reassurances or easy answers. The film asks us instead to consider what it means to defeat monsters by becoming the bigger monster ourselves.

Comment with your thoughts and feelings about Godzilla! About the special effects, the score, the politics, the legacy, any of it! What are your favorite films or monster match-ups from the 70-year franchise? Has anybody seen Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the heavily Americanized edit released in 1956?

Next week: Now for something completely different, we’re traveling around the world and into the modern era with Trollhunter (2010). The fun part about being in charge of film club is that I get to make the rules and I have decided the rules allow for large Norwegian trolls. Watch it on Amazon, YouTube, Hoopla, Vudu, Tubi, and many other places. icon-paragraph-end

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