It’s alive!

Christopher Tayler

  • Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters by William Tsutsui
    Palgrave, 240 pp, £8.99, December 2004, ISBN 1 4039 6474 2

When Toho Studios released Gojira in November 1954, Japanese audiences, according to William Tsutsui, watched its scenes of destruction ‘in respectful silence, sometimes leaving the theatres in tears’. Gojira – or Godzilla, as he came to be known in English – was a fire-breathing dinosaur played by a man in a latex suit, but his destruction of Tokyo wasn’t played for laughs. Ishiro Honda, who directed the movie, had passed through Hiroshima after the war, and Godzilla, he said, was a way of ‘making radiation visible’. On 1 March 1954, the US tested a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, showering 7000 square miles of the Pacific with fallout. Along with 28 military personnel and 239 Marshall Islanders, 23 men on a Japanese tuna boat – the Lucky Dragon No. 5 – were exposed. Their contaminated catch had already been sold when they were hospitalised with radiation sickness. Not surprisingly, there were vigorous protests in Japan (even the emperor stopped eating fish). The ship’s radio man died on 23 September; there were claims that the American authorities had misled his doctors in order to protect their nuclear secrets. Six weeks later, Gojira went on general release.

Godzilla, a scientist in the movie explained, was a deep-sea survivor from the Jurassic period, transformed by nuclear testing into a 50-metre giant with radioactive breath. He was not the first of his kind. In a low-budget American picture called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), a stop-motion dinosaur thawed by the Bomb lays waste to lower Manhattan before succumbing to the American military’s nuclear know-how. Gojira started out as a rip-off of The Beast – the project’s working title was apparently ‘Big Monster from 20,000 Miles beneath the Sea’ – but soon took on a life of its own. The movie begins with the destruction of a fishing boat, clearly modelled on the Lucky Dragon, and the screenplay isn’t shy about voicing Japanese resentments. ‘Radioactive tuna, atomic fallout, and now this Godzilla to top it all off,’ a commuter complains before the assault on Tokyo begins. ‘We’ll be joining your father soon,’ a young widow tells her children as the Ginza district collapses around them, and we sense that her husband probably died in the war. The film also puts an unusual emphasis on the aftermath of the monster’s attacks – little girls being scanned by crackling geiger counters, and so on. And, unlike his American counterparts, the inventor of the weapon that vanquishes Godzilla chooses to die with the monster rather than let politicians of any kind learn the secret of the fearsome ‘oxygen destroyer’.

In other words, Gojira was an impressively exploitative horror film, stirring memories of the war and fears of nuclear catastrophe but providing a certain nationalistic uplift. Akira Ifukube, who wrote the score, was known for his rousing wartime marches, and he composed similar music for the film’s many sequences showing a heroic Japanese army mobilising against the atomic beast. At the same time, however, Godzilla is a ‘strangely innocent and tragic monster’, as a character puts it in one of the numerous sequels. True, pity for the creature was nothing new in giant monster movies: King Kong (1933) – re-released in 1952 – is an obvious template. But for an exercise in ‘cultural scab-picking’, as one anonymous fan has called it on the internet, Gojira seems peculiarly concerned to invest its star attraction with pathos. In the eerie final sequence, in which Godzilla and his antagonist perish at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, it’s not easy to tell who we’re meant to feel more sorry for. Ifukube said that the monster was ‘like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war’. ‘I went to the very first screening of Gojira,’ a cast member recalled. ‘I shed tears. Godzilla was killed … but Godzilla himself wasn’t evil and he didn’t have to be destroyed. Why did they have to punish Godzilla? Why? He was a warning to mankind. I was angry at mankind and felt sympathy for Godzilla, even if he did destroy Tokyo.’

American viewers were not so solemn. ‘It’s fun to watch the man walking on the toy buildings,’ was as far as Donald Richie was prepared to go in the Japan Times; Japanese critics weren’t much impressed either. Gojira was a domestic hit nevertheless. When it reached the US, however, it was strictly drive-in fare. ‘It’s alive! A gigantic beast, stalking the earth! Crushing all before it in a psychotic cavalcade of electrifying horror! Raging through the streets on a rampage of total destruction!’ screamed the trailer for the American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), which cut about a third of the original film and replaced it with footage of Raymond Burr. Playing a reporter who’s ‘stopped off in Tokyo for a social call’ en route to Cairo, Burr minimises the need for dubbing by saying things like ‘I’m afraid my Japanese is a little rusty’ – whereupon his helpful sidekick explains what’s going on. Sombre moments went untranslated or were edited out altogether, and when the series turned to camp semi-spoofery during the 1960s, few English-speakers were in a position to notice much difference. Even Susan Sontag, who praised Honda’s films in an essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, had little to say about Godzilla: she was more taken with Rodan (1956), in which a giant pterodactyl shames its pursuers by killing itself for love.

Rodan wasn’t the Godzilla films’ only rival. By 1965, when Sontag’s essay appeared, Toho Studios had long since embarked on a full-blown cycle of kaiju eiga (‘giant monster films’). After the first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), Honda and his colleagues produced a number of freestanding oddities, including The Mysterians (1957) and Varan the Unbelievable (1958), ‘the story of a huge reptilian flying squirrel’. Godzilla returned in King Kong v. Godzilla (1962), which introduced the sturdy ‘v.’ format and was enjoyed by some 12.6 million cinemagoers. But the most influential movie of the cycle was Mothra (1961), in which a giant moth turns out to be a wise, benevolent creature attracted by church bells and crosses. Mothra’s strain of gently satirical fantasy appealed to younger viewers, and Godzilla – still officially a dangerous baddie – began to clean up his act. In 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty made him something of an anachronism, and by the mid-1960s he’d taken to defending Japan from rival monsters. As the decade wore on, TV ate into his adult audience: Godzilla began to commune with children, did victory dances, acquired a son. Eventually, the films were sustained only by the merchandising rake-off, and dwindling receipts put an end to the series in 1975.

Since then, there have been two further series. The first was inaugurated in 1984 in an effort to cash in on Reagan-era anxieties. The second – begun in 1999 and apparently still going – is a riposte to Roland Emmerich’s bungled Hollywood remake of 1998. When Westerners talk about Godzilla, though, it’s rarely these they have in mind: the 1960s version is still the most widely and fondly remembered. Bought on the cheap, re-edited, and dubbed by the likes of George Takei and Daws Butler (better known as Mr Sulu, from Star Trek, and Yogi Bear), Toho’s cheerily ludicrous pictures were endlessly recycled in American drive-ins and, later, on Saturday afternoon TV. Films that were originally made for eight-year-olds gave generations of teenagers the lasting impression that the Japanese were culturally obsessed with giant robots. Only the Japanese, it was felt, could have made a hero of a monster who stopped other monsters from smashing up Tokyo, then smashed the place up himself while heading home. But, unlike Hollywood’s atomic mutants, the kaiju had names and personalities: a strong selling-point among collectors of nerdish trivia. Godzilla’s booming footsteps, awkward gait and, in Ifukube’s words, ‘melancholy, ear-splitting cry’ – more of a squawk than a roar, with a muted honk of feedback at the end – became common pop-cultural reference points, assisted along the way by Blue Oyster Cult’s celebratory song ‘Godzilla’ (1977).

Outside fandom, however, there’s a general vagueness about what Godzilla stands for – especially in Britain, where most people under 30 associate him with a late 1970s cartoon memorable chiefly for its melodramatic theme tune. Things are different in the US: when, in 1985, pollsters asked 1500 Americans to name a famous Japanese person, Godzilla came third (or second, if you don’t count Bruce Lee, who wasn’t Japanese; Hirohito came top.) But, even in America, his name connotes little more than bigness, Japaneseness, latex costumes and violence towards buildings. Serious writers on Japanese cinema have tended to decry its low-end ‘plethora of nudity, teenage heroes, science-fiction monsters, animated cartoons and pictures about cute animals’. ‘How,’ asks the fiery Jonathan Lake Crane in Terror and Everyday Life (1994), ‘can lumbering dinosaurs spewing atomic fire … approach the fiery chaos that engulfed Japan?’ On the other hand, Japanese horror films staged a comeback during the 1990s, and Hollywood has been borrowing from Japanese comics and animation for some time. When you can watch a man eat a live octopus in the Korean movie Oldboy (2004), the Godzilla films’ once renowned strangeness seems less striking.

This has been both a problem and an eagerly embraced opportunity for the people who’ve written books on the phenomenon. Like David Kalat’s A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (1997) and Steve Ryfle’s feebly named Japan’s Favourite Mon-Star (1998), William Tsutsui’s Godzilla on My Mind profits from the haziness of most people’s recollections by adopting a tone of authoritative, record-straightening debunkery. If you thought that Godzilla was green, think again: he’s usually ‘a dull slate grey’. ‘Godzilla was not, as some people may still believe, borrowed wholesale from Japanese folklore.’ Intermediate-level fans also feel the lash: there’s no evidence, for instance, that the Toho back lot once harboured a fat props man who lent the monster his nickname in 1954. And if you’ve fallen for the ‘legend, so oft repeated’, that the film-makers shot two different endings for King Kong v. Godzilla, Tsutsui will sternly tell you it’s not so. Although it gets pretty tiring – ‘“There was actually a serious Godzilla movie?” Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ – the approach works well enough with the original Gojira, which, until recently, few outside Japan have been able to see. Tsutsui gives less detail than Kalat on the Lucky Dragon incident, but his information is otherwise hard to fault.

When it comes to the 1960s and 1970s films, though, there’s an obvious difficulty: they’re not much good, and they don’t always have many subtexts to unpack. Some writers defend the special effects – for which Toho coined the word ‘suitmation’ – by speaking of their ‘operatic’ quality, explaining that they allowed for more detailed modelling than stop-motion animation, or reminding the reader that ‘realism’ is a fuzzy Western term. But even Kalat’s crisp paragraphs start sprouting exclamation marks when he has to summarise the plots of the later 1960s efforts, and Tsutsui doesn’t bother. Although he has an obsessive affection for these ‘broad, unpretentious and timeless’ entertainments, he sensibly gets them out of the way early on. He also scores heavily by drawing on Yoshikuni Igarashi’s Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-70 (2000) to explain Godzilla’s transformation into ‘a guardian of postwar Japan’s prosperity’. Godzilla’s ungainly half-nelsons were inspired, Igarashi explains, by a popular all-in wrestler called Rikidozan. Having learned his art in America, Rikidozan became ‘the second most famous’ person in Japan – ‘next only to the emperor’ – by defeating a series of villainous outsiders. After stolidly enduring the dirty tricks doled out by Jess Ortega, a Mexican, or two American wrestlers, Ben and ‘Iron’ Mike Sharpe, he would eventually set the rules aside and reclaim the national honour by laying the braggarts low with his mighty karate chop. His televised bouts attracted huge audiences and, after his death, there was much consternation when it turned out that he’d secretly been Korean all along.

Most of the academic analysis dug up by Tsutsui has a similar focus on the films’ patriotic, mildly anti-American overtones. Why does the US army never help to defend Japan from Godzilla, ‘despite the presence of tens of thousands of American troops stationed in the country and the existence of the 1954 Mutual Security Act’? Chon Noriega, in ‘Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is US’ (1987), says it’s because Godzilla represents America, arriving as an invader but later becoming an unpredictable ally ‘in order to symbolically re-enact a problematic United States-Japan relationship that includes atomic war, occupation and thermonuclear tests’. (He then goes on to explain that Godzilla can stand for Japan simultaneously because the Japanese language doesn’t set up a strict boundary between Self and Other – a claim that doesn’t impress the hard-nosed Tsutsui.)

Tsutsui gives this kind of stuff ample space, but – being both a fan and an academic writing for a mass audience – he’s terrified of sounding too serious. In a doomed effort to make the book Pseuds Corner-proof, he spends a lot of time trying to lighten the tone: ‘Ahh … the power of cheese’; ‘yada, yada, yada’; ‘Domo arigato, Mr Roboto’; ‘Nanu-nanu, beam me up, Will Robinson’; ‘Eeewww!’

He seems a lot happier explaining how more recent filmmakers have interpreted the monster. During the 1980s and 1990s, Godzilla’s attacks on Japanese skyscrapers made him, some thought, ‘a conscience for an arrogant economic superpower’. ‘Everyone’s so concerned with the material, and then Godzilla comes and rips it all apart,’ a producer explained. ‘I suspect that is good for us to see.’ But economic triumphalism drives the plot of Godzilla v. King Ghidorah (1991), in which Russian and American time-travellers mount a surprise attack on Japan in order to prevent its becoming the world’s only superpower in the 22nd century. The same movie dabbles provocatively in Second World War revisionism by showing a pre-mutation Godzilla killing GIs in 1944, while the ‘intellectually substantive’ – if ‘ultimately rather muddled’ – Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) explains that the monster attacks Japan ‘because people have forgotten the agony of those killed in the war’.

Having dealt with the films, Tsutsui moves on to the mysteries of fandom. He’s most interested in its American manifestations. By soliciting responses from newspaper readers, he has made contact with many ‘casual Godzilla fans’ and asked them to explain the origins of their passion. Leaving out chortling so-bad-it’s-good types, and maintaining a coy silence about the monster’s foot-fetishist constituency,[*] he tries to ‘establish the contours of a response’. ‘Gojira don’t take no guff,’ one ‘lifelong follower’ explains. Another says it’s nice to see that he’s ‘active in his child’s life’ (‘But who’s the kid’s mom?’). A woman whose husband doesn’t care about Japanese monsters says: ‘I often wonder where he thinks the thunder and lightning comes from. Doesn’t he know that it’s Godzilla out there saving the world?’ As you’d expect, though, the most powerful factor turns out to be baby-boomer nostalgia:

That trip to the movies during my childhood was at a much simpler time than now. JFK was at the height of his presidential career, and Monica Lewinsky was not even a gleam in her father’s eye. We didn’t have to worry about illegal drugs, wars, Watergate, Whitewater (except at the beach), sexual harassment or career pressures. We were able to walk to the neighbourhood corner store without fear of kidnapping, molestation or gangs. Candy bars sold for a nickel, and comic books cost 12 cents. It was a great time to see King Kong v. Godzilla on the big screen. Wouldn’t it be nice to have those days again?

‘Amen, amen,’ says Tsutsui. But – knowing that this kind of talk might make us start to feel nostalgic for the days when people worried about Whitewater and Monica L. – he goes on to point out that the posters for King Kong v. Godzilla showed the two combatants ‘each standing atop one of the towers of the World Trade Center’. He also repeats claims that ‘a captured al-Qaida operative’ told his interrogators that Osama bin Laden had plotted to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge after seeing it destroyed in the Hollywood Godzilla.

It’s traditional for books on this subject to close with a slightly crazed speech in praise of the monster, and Tsutsui obliges: ‘Godzilla gives us so much, and yet asks for so little in return.’ Here, though, he’s outdone by David Kalat, whose Critical History audits the human cost of kaiju eiga before ending on a paradoxical note of triumphant affirmation:

Tim Burton once said that he wanted to grow up to be the actor inside the Godzilla suit. It is not a glamorous job, though. Kenpachiro Satsuma has suffered oxygen deprivation, nearly drowned, concussed his head during one stunt fall, almost burned his eyes, and endured painful electric shocks. The costumes are so heavy that he grinds his teeth while moving about in them, causing dental problems. Years of wearing the suit, however, have desensitised Satsuma to painkillers, so he must undergo dental treatment largely without anaesthetic. The steel wire reinforcements in the Godzilla suit once wore through the rubber and tore into his legs, leaving them lacerated and bloody. The pyrotechnic staff once neglected to remove the staples used to adhere explosive charges to the costume, and the staples fell inside, where they penetrated Satsuma’s knees. Nevertheless, Satsuma endures, survives and continues. His indomitable qualities make him the perfect choice for the role of a character [who] has lived for millions of years, surviving volcanoes, nuclear explosions, all weapons known to humankind, and quite a few completely fictional ones … Godzilla has withstood every attack alone and friendless, yet he survives.

His fans around the world can only hope to endure life’s challenges with a small part of that endurance and determination.

Godzilla lives.

[*] ‘I was looking through Godzilla pictures one day, and that’s when it hit me,’ writes the proprietor of a website, http://download.lavadomefive.com/members/BigClawz/, which focuses ‘on providing herpetophilic and macrophilic material to the world’. ‘I realised that I was interested in Godzilla films for the sole reason that I thought Godzilla was sexy, and I liked his feet and I liked the stomping and whatever.’