(7/10) Inspired by King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gojira gave birth to the massive Japanese kaiju movie industry, and more or less single-handedly brought science fiction into the country’s mainstream. Eiji Tsuburaya pushed Japan’s severely under-developed special effects industry forward by a mile, but the quality was still a far cry from Hollywood at its best. Despite its clumsy rubber monster and the under-developed characters, Gojira is a tremendously gripping and stark allegory for Japan’s experiences during WWII, and director Ishirô Honda elevates Gojira above its B movie roots with his beautifully grim visuals and his relentlessly intimate focus on the casualties of war.
Gojira/Godzilla (1954, Japan). Directed by Ishirô Honda. Written by Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata & Shigeru Kayama. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Kokuten Kôdô, Haruo Nakajima. Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka for Toho Film.
IMDb rating: 7.5/10. Tomatometer: 93% Fresh. Metascore: 78/100.
In 1954 a horror was unleashed upon the world that resonates to this very day. Few movie monsters have the distinct honour of impacting our culture so that it actually changes our language, and becomes a concept in and of itself, even for people who have never seen the films they appear in. We talk about ”the King Kong of” some product, Frankenfood, the Governator and of course Bridezilla. The list could perhaps be made slightly longer, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many more monsters, or indeed film concepts, that resonate so strongly throughout the entire world. Godzilla is one of those rare creatures that everybody in the world can conjure up an image of, regardless of age or geography. And like most great movie concepts, the reason for Godzilla’s timeless appeal is a number of happy (or unhappy) coincidences.
Even the monster’s English name is a mistake, as it was transcribed ”Godzilla” with the American 1956 re-edit, when a more accurate transcription would be ”Gojira” (ゴジラ), or perhaps ”Godzira”. To distinguish between the Japanese original and the American bastardisation, I will be calling the Japanese original Gojira, but regarding the sequels I will use the international/American titles, as I usually do on the blog, in such cases that a film has an ”official” English title.
Most people reading this blog will probably be familiar with the plot of the original Gojira by now, so I’ll keep it brief. Gojira opens with a ship outside of Japan exploding mysteriously, as do two other vessels investigating the accident. At the same time all fish in the area disappears. One survivor speaks of a great monster. A thunderous storm rises at the island of Odo during one night, and after the devastation a team of scientists, led by Dr. Yamane (Takashi Kimura) find huge, radioactive footprints, a trilobite thought to be long extinct, and eye-witnesses that speak of a giant monster, crushing houses underfoot. And it doesn’t take long for the scientists themselves to witness the 50 meters tall dinosaur for themselves.
At a government meeting Dr. Yamane explains that the prehistoric beast has survived for millions of years in the deep sea, but that its habitat has been disturbed by recent hydrogen bomb testings, and now it has surfaced to find new living grounds. It has also absorbed a huge amount of radiation. To make a long story short: the military throws everything it has at Gojira, but the monster seems invulnerable. Pissed off, it wreaks nightly havoc on Tokyo, reducing the city to rubble and killing thousands of people. We follow not only Dr. Yamane, but his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) and her fiance, the battle-scarred scientist Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and his love-rival, maritime captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), with whom Emiko is really in love.
As it turns out, Serizawa has developed a terrible invention called “Oxygen Destroyer”, a compound that instantly destroys all oxygen in the surrounding waters, killing everything in it in a matter of seconds. This would be the one and only way to kill Gojira. But he hesitates to share this secret with the world, for fear of what might happen if it falls into the wrong hands. The pivoting point pf the film is Serizawa’s moral struggle between letting Gojira destroy Japan or unleashing his terrible weapon on the world, with potentially even worse destruction as a result.
As we all know in this age of the internet, the original Gojira was a far cry from its campy sequels. It was director Ishirô Honda’s metaphor for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a battle cry against further development of the then new H-bomb. Books have been written on the subject, and I don’t think I have much to add to this particular discussion that hasn’t already been written in numerous articles, reviews and blog entries. For more on the subject, I can direct you to Motherboard’s article or the always splendid and you call yourself a scientist?!.
However, I’m going to put this in another historical context for you. Although Japan has a long and proud cinema history, the industry was hit hard by WWII. Most output during the war was propaganda, although a few gems were also released during this time, such as Akira Kurosawa’s debut Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and the Pearl Harbour epic Hawai Marê oki kaisen (1942), remembered for special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya’s Pearl Harbour miniature. Following the ending of the war in 1945, Japan lay under US occupation until 1952. This was an interesting time for Japanese cinema in many ways. The industry slowly started growing again, and a number of interesting directors and writers entered the scene. However, the occupational forces enforced a tight censorship on a number of topics, such as nationalism, revenge, suicide and naturally the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or other possibly inflammatory issues regarding WWII. And naturally criticism of the United States was prohibited. And on top of this, there was also an Americanised moral code, similar to the so-called Hayes Code in the US. So, like in the Soviet Union and the USA, Japanese filmmakers had to find creative ways of commenting of different issues without actually commenting on them. But another important factor was the huge influx of American movies and comics into Japan in this period. This also helped American distributors gain a firm foothold in Japan – and vice versa – which would prove vital for both the birth and the success of Gojira.
As the censorship gradually lessened in 1950, and the occupation started to roll back i n 1951, the Japanese film industry suddenly bloomed and entered its golden age. One of the strengths of the Japanese movie industry were its five major movie studios, Toho, Daiei, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and Toei, which by competing created a rich diversity, much like the case was in the US. This period also gave rise to the four great artists of Japanese cinema: Masaki Kobayashi, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirō Ozu. All of these filmmakers dealt with both WWII and the occupation of Japan in their unique ways.
The most celebrated of the Japanese directors, at least outside of Japan, was of course Akira Kurosawa. One person who followed his rise to fame very closely was his lifelong friend Ishirô Honda. After graduating from film school in 1933, at the age of 22, Honda immediately started working as ”assistant assistant director” for a number of directors, and in 1935 he enrolled in the army. On his first leave in 1936 he was second assistant director on Kajirô Yamamoto’s Enoken no senman chôja, alongside a young Akiro Kurosawa. Their paths would cross again on a number of occasions, often alongside each other as assisting directors, up until the end of the war. For Honda, the next decade would be spent alternating between the trenches of war and the movie sets. Between 1936 and 1946 he also had time to get marries and produce two kids. In 1945, on campaign in China, Honda was captured as a prisoner of war, and got left behind as the war ended. He was released in March of 1946 after six months in a Chinese prison camp. On his way home he passed through the devastation of Nagasaki, an experience that would leave a lasting imprint on him. But this also marked the year when he could finally devote his full attention to his film career.
In 1949 Honda worked as first assistant director on rising star Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dogs, which opened new doors for him, and in 1951 he finally got to make his directorial debut with Aoi shinju (The Blue Pearl). Another important film was his 1952 movie The Man Who Came to Port, not so much for the movie itself, but because it was here he met Tomoyuki Tanaka and Eiji Tsuburaya. The first ended up producing Gojira and the latter created the memorable special effects.
Honda and Tsuburaya teamed up again in 1953 for the effect-heavy Eagle of the Pacific, which was one of movie studio Toho’s major films of the year, an epic Hollywood-styled war film – again on the subject of Pearl Harbour. One of the film’s stars was Takashi Shimura, a favourite of Kurosawa’s who would later play Dr. Yamane in Gojira. For one of the many special effects shots of the film, Eiji Tsuburaya needed a plane to burst into flames with an actor in the cockpit. He wanted a brave/foolhardy actor with a good physique to pull off the stunt, and approached a 24-year old contract player called Haruo Nakajima. In latter interviews Nakajima has stated that one of the reasons he agreed to the part was that he held an amateur aviator license and dreamed about becoming a fighter pilot. Instead, the part came to seal his fate as an actor: when Tsuburaya needed a strong and foolhardy actor able to take a lot of punishment, shuffling around the heavy Gojira suit, he immediately thought of the crazy guy who agreed to set himself on fire in Eagle of the Pacific. Nakajima ended up playing Godzilla in a total of 12 films, as well as a number of other monsters. Eagle of the Pacific was a smash hit, and ended up as the third highest grosser in Japan in 1953.
Now let’s back up a bit and fly over to the other side of the Pacific. Science fiction had made a huge splash in the United States in 1950 and 1951. Destination Moon (1950, review) kicked off the space exploration subgenre, while The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and The Thing from Another World (1951, review) became the standard-bearers of the UFO movie and the alien invade movie, respectively. But 1952 was a lame year for sci-fi films. Instead it was a movie from 1933 that would change the course of sci-fi history; King Kong (review). Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the film, RKO re-released King Kong in cinemas, to unbelievable success. The studio had re-released the film a number of times, but nothing had prepared them for the huge popularity it garnered in 1952, sweeping the floor with all the major studios’ major productions.
Warner Bros. quickly picked up on the giant monster theme with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), featuring a giant dinosaur mutated by nuclear radiation in the depths of the ocean, surfacing to wreak havoc on New York. Universal made its own King Kong adaptation with Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (review) in 1954, and Warner again followed suit the same year by bringing out giant ants in Them! (review). King Kong was a hugely popular film in Japan as well, and garnered two exploitation movies in the thirties, Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933) and King Kong Appears in Edo (1938). Both films are now lost. The first movie didn’t feature a giant ape, but rather used the name for marketing reasons. Concerning King Kong appears in Edo, accounts are in conflict. According to some sources the shooting script featured a regular-size ape let loose by a mad scientist. But in later years, the special effects artist of King Kong Appers in Edo, Fuminori Ôhashi, has later claimed that he did indeed create effects for a “giant ape” for the movie. Ôhashi also worked on the team that created the Gojira suit.
Science fiction was not yet a genre in Japanese cinema in the early fifties. Only one sci-fi film had been made previously, Tômei ningen arawaru (1949, review), a crime drama inspired by Universal’s The Invisible Man films. It can also be seen as the first so-called tokusatsu, or special effects film, and who else would have created the effects, other than the godfather of tokusatsu, Eiji Tsuburaya. But with the American influence on Japanese cinema, it was only a matter of time before Japan picked up the genre. has later claimed that he created a giant robot puppet for the film). However, the success of the American re-release of King Kong in 1952 didn’t go unnoticed by Japanese filmmakers.
The thing that started the ball rolling for Gojira was that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s big Japanese-Indonesian film project In the Shadow of Honour fell apart when his local Indonesian backers withdrew from the film in 1952. To make back his and the Toho studio’s losses, Tanaka needed a big, successful movie, and inspired by King Kong’s American success, as well as an accident involving a Japanese fishing boat and American H-bomb test, he started contemplating the first big Japanese monster movie. When The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms made a killing at the American box office, he went to Toho’s studio heads with his idea of a Japanese version of the film. So impressed with the idea was Toho, that the studio decided to make this new monster movie one of its top priorities of 1954. The studio promised Tanaka a gigantic budget of over 60 million yen, making it the most expensive Japanese film when it was released (the previous record was held for just a few months by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). In American currency that was about 900 000 dollars, or somewhere along the same lines as the most expensive American science fiction films of the fifties. Toho assigned one of its top directors, Ishiro Honda, to the movie, along with special effects master Tsuburaya, and further attached huge movie star Takashi Shimura to the film. Imagine Billy Wilder directing Cary Grant in a film with a guy stomping cardboard sets in a clunky rubber suit, and you’re sort of in the ball park. Of course one of the reasons Iwao Mori, an executive producer of Toho, decided on Honda was that Honda had previously worked with Tsuburaya on big special effects movies.
One cannot point out too many times how outlandish the idea of making a giant monster movie in Japan was. The country’s film industry had never done anything even closely resembling such a film. The Japanese audience was accustomed to war films, family dramas and samurai movies, and despite the influx of foreign productions, King Kong was really the only reference point they had at the time – The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was actually released in Japan after Gojira. And to make matters worse, Toho only gave Tanaka 6 months to do the film, which for a big special effects movie was not a lot. It didn’t help that Japan had almost no tradition of special effects. In the fifties, Tsuburaya was pioneering techniques that had been used in European and American films as early as the twenties, and had been perfected by Universal in the early thirties. But Tsuburaya was the top man in the country, and had a history of taking on near-impossible tasks, and succeeding.
It is clear that the filmmakers had either seen The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or were at least very familiar with the script. Early in the project Tanaka even called the movie “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea”, not making any secret of its inspiration. Even if the war and nuclear angle was present from the beginning, the original drafts for the film weren’t nearly as somber and stark as the finished movie. Toho hired renowned mystery and pseudo-sci-fi writer Shigeru Kayama to write the first story draft. Kayama was then at the height of his popularity, spawned by stories about bigfoot-like creatures, Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery stories and some tales including sea monsters and mutants. He started writing in May 1954, and the finished film hit the theatres in early November, according to Steve Ryfle’s book Japan’s Favourite Mon-Star.
One of the first decisions made about the film was that the monster would be called Gojira, a mashup of the words ”gorilla” and ”kujira”, meaning ”whale”. One story has it that the name was taken from a rather big Toho employee, nicknamed ”gojira”. In early script talks, the monster was described as a mix between the two animals, and at one point it was to be a giant octopus, inspired by one of Kayama’s earlier short stories, which partly carried over to his script draft. According to Ryfle Kayama’s draft much more closely resembled a traditional monster movie in the vein of King Kong, with a monster that attacked animal transports and ate the animals, and had a special interest in human females. Kayama did create the framework and the four leading characters, but the key contributor the the finished script was Takeo Murata, a senior assistant director with Toho, who locked himself in a hotel room along with Honda for three weeks to refine Kayama’s story.
It was in that hotel room that Gojira became the stark, grim apocalyptic vision that was put on screen, as Murata and Honda decided to put all the characteristics of the atom bomb into the monster, and made the call to focus on the victims and the aftermath of Gojira’s attack, something that has been surprisingly rare in these kind of movies. Honda also wanted to draw parallels to the incendiary bombing of Tokyo, which he himself had been witness to. The writers also toned down the eccentrics and the camp of Kayama’s story. Kayama had written Dr. Yamane as a classic mad scientist, with a black cape and shades, living in an old mansion and dealing with secret experiments. Some of these traits were moved to Dr. Serizawa, with his eye-patch and his secret weapon, but most of all, the writers thought that the monster was eccentric enough. The people, they thought, should be real, rounded characters that the audience could identify with. It was also Honda and Murata who came up with the love triangle between Ogata, Serizawa and Emiko, one of the central pivoting points of the film, which nonetheless are also one of the Achilles’ heels of of the production, as it tends to bog down the storytelling. Along with Tsuburaya, the duo also directed a lot more attention to the destruction of Tokyo, which was to become the center-piece of the film.
Of course what sets Gojira apart from films like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, is that Toho didn’t use the stop-motion techniques of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen in creating their monster. Eiji Tsuburaya was a big fan of King Kong, and had long dreamed of making his own stop-motion monster movie. But much to his dismay, the six-month production period and the lack of a team with stop-motion experience made this approach impossible. Tsuburaya is quoted as saying that if Gojira, as it was filmed, would have used stop-motion, it would have taken seven years to complete. Rather reluctantly, Tsuburaya resigned to the fact that it would have to be done as a ”man-in-a-suit” film. Some have argued that Tsuburaya simply didn’t know how to do stop-motion, but in fact, there is a stop-motion scene in the movie, of Gojira smashing a building with its tail. Other techniques are also incorporated, as a hand puppet, used in many of the close-up shots of Gojira. This technique was used to give Gojira more animation of the face, which the full suit didn’t allow. There was also a hand puppet with a mist spraying nozzle to achieve Gojira’s radioactive breath and a mechanical puppet for chomping down on trains and cars, that could also move Gojira’s arms.
The suit was designed by sculptor Teizo Toshimitsu and SFX art director Akira Watanabe, and ended up being based on a T-Rex, with elements of other dinosaurs, dragons and some of the team’s own imagination. One of the key elements that distinguished Gojira from a dinosaur was the bottom-heavy design, giving it a more gorilla-like appearance. Once the design was nailed down, work on the suit began, led by brothers Kanji and Koei Yagi, alongside Eizo Kaimai. All five people were people who had worked with on Eiji Tsuburaya’s team. The frame of the suit was made with bamboo sticks and wire, then strengthed by chicken wire, and cushioned with with cotton to give it bulk. Over this the suit makers poured molten latex in several layers, which was then sculpted. It was an incredibly crude job by Hollywood standards, as the filmmakers had no experience of this kind of makeup art. The suit ended up being a disaster. Not only was it incredibly hot and difficult to breath in, it also weighed well over 100 kilos or 220 pounds. To make matters worse, the inexperienced suit builders had chosen the wrong type of latex, that curated almost completely stiff. When Haruo Nakajima got in the suit, he found he couldn’t move a fin. Mustering all of his power, he was able to shuffle forward about ten paces until he collapsed. Not a promising start for the world’s first kaiju.
The suit had to be remade from scratch. The team tried to remove some of the weight and use another type of latex. The new suit still weighed nearly 100 kilos, but at least it was possible to move in. Nakajima has described it as moving around in a suit made out of car tires. It was still extremely stiff, which is quite visible on-screen. Nakajima, sometimes replaced by a former baseball star called Katsumi Tezuka, could only be in the suit for a few minutes at the time. For close-ups of Gojira stomping trains and houses, the team cut off the bottom part of the old suit and made suspenders for Nakajima, so he didn’t have to wear the whole suit for those scenes.
Something Tsuburaya and his team had much experience with, however, was the building, photographing and destroying of miniature sets, as they had done so on several WWII movies. Still, the destruction of Tokyo was by far the biggest challenge they had faced up to this point. They painstakingly set out to precisely replicate huge parts of Tokyo, an impressive feat even by today’s standards. In addition to miniatures, there was also heavy use of both traditional and glass mattes. The team built an outdoor pool for the destruction of Odo island, and there were tons of pyrotechnic effects, small fireworks for missiles and miniature airplanes. Stomping Tokyo was hard work for the actors inside the suit, and after each days work the Yagi brothers emptied a cup of sweat from the suit and tried their best to dry out the cotton lining before the next day’s shoot. It wasn’t made easier by the fact that Tsuburaya chose to shoot the scenes of Gojira in slow-motion, which meant he shot them at an overcranked speed, sometimes as much as 72 frames per second – and the actors had to speed up their movements accordingly.
Toho named their technique rather overtly grand: ”suitmation”, when in fact it was simply a guy in a clunky suit. Even by fifties standards the Gojira suit was crude, almost resembling something that could have been used in Flash Gordon (review) serials in the thirties. But the first film cleverly hid the clunkyness with the black-and-white photography, dim lighting and quick editing. Gojira does come off as truly menacing in a number of shots, while he just looks quite silly in others. In the final climactic scene Gojira looks like a plastic toy bobbing in a bathtub, which slightly takes away from the gravity of the scene.
While Tsuburaya worked on the special effects shots, Ishiro Honda directed principal photography over 51 days. To make the two match seamlessly, the team used a technique borrowed from Walt Disney’s animation studios, storyboarding, which is a staple in most Hollywood filmmaking today. Storyboards were almost unheard of in Japan before Gojira, although Tsuburaya and Honda had used them in some of their war films to block out large special effects sequences in the past. But since Gojira relied so heavily on special effects, most of the film was storyboarded in over 300 panes, by a team led by special effects art director Akira Watanabe. The film was mostly shot in and around the Toho studios, but Honda also filmed the scenes for Odo island in different parts of the countryside surrounding Tokyo.
A last but important part of the creative team was Akira Ifukube, a respected classical composer, who was overjoyed to work on the project, despite some of his colleagues scalding him for lending his considerable talents to a monster movie. The low-pitched martial string and brass cue for the monster has since become iconic, and helps tremendously to sell the terror of Gojira, but the softer, sadder music during the scenes showing the destruction and agony following the monster’s attack are just as heart-wrenching. Ifukube also took a huge interest in the work of the sound effects team, and pitched in with ideas of his own, and helped out where he could. The sound team tried long and hard to create a memorable roar for Gojira by mixing different animal growls, as had been done on King Kong, but their efforts were never satisfactory. Ifukube solved the problem when he was able to borrow a contrabass, loosened the strings, and dragged a leather glove over them. The sound team then slowed down the recording, and thus Gojira’s trademark roar was born. A stroke of absolute genius is a long, lingering shot of a hall filled with 2000(!) girls singing the newly composed hymn Oh Peace, Oh Light, Return, sometimes called Prayer for Peace, which has later become something of an anti-war anthem.
The sound equipment used in the film was extremely crude and the optical recording equipment only four audio tracks. One was used for dialogue, and another for background chatter and sound effects. Gojira’s stomps were so loud that they needed a whole track to themselves, as not to bleed over other sounds. This meant that there only remained one track for both music and foley. Thus the musical soundtrack and the foley were recorded live at the same time in one studio. Amazingly, the gamble paid off.
This crudeness of technology was carried on throughout the film. Despite the expensive marketing promising better effects than in Hollywood movies, this was not the case. As stated earlier, Japan had very little experience with special effects, and Toho didn’t even have a special effects department. Instead, Eiji Tsuburaya collected around him a group of people he had worked with before, all of whom laid down the groundwork of what would later become one of the world’s most renowned special effects departments. As far as I can tell, there is no front or rear projection in the film, instead Tsuburaya seems to have used split-screen techniques for the very few shots where actors and Gojira are seen together in the frame, a technique that had almost entirely been abandoned by Hollywood in the early thirties. Gojira never directly interacts with any of the actors, since the special effects team probably didn’t have the time or resources to build giant puppet parts, like King Kong’s hand.
The miniature shots are all very obviously miniatures, but the photography itself, as well as the lighting, is extremely well done, and especially the editing by Kajuzi Taira helps tremendously to sell the scenes. By keeping the light low, covering the sets in smoke and flame, and using rapid editing, Tsuburaya and Taira manage to hide much of the blemishes. And in some scenes the miniatures really hold up to a good scrutiny. But there are also some obvious mistakes, such as mismatched jump cuts, wire-guided rockets that collide with the backdrop, and times when Gojira just looks awfully silly. Things that could have been re-shot if there had been more time, and done better if there had been more money and experience on the team. All in all, the film has the feeling of a very expensive low-budget movie, if that makes any sense. Disregarding the impressive destruction or Tokyo, the special effects are on the level of a Poverty Row studio in Hollywood, and even they tended to do better work than this in the fifties. However, this film was the first step on a steep learning curve for the Toho special effects team, and disregarding many of the crappy later Godzilla movies, the studio was able to turn out quite a few gems of tokusatsu in the fifties and sixties.
Now, I have yet to mention the actual actors of the film, mainly because they are secondary, and some of them not especially good. One of the strengths, as well as the weaknesses of the film, was that it had no obvious main character, apart from Gojira. The plot revolves around the old scientist, his daughter and her two suitors, but there are also prominent supporting players that fight for screen time such as the old fisherman retelling the legend of Gojira, played by Kurosawa favourite Kokuten Kodo, and the journalist Hagiwara, played by Sachio Sakai. And most of the supporting actors are at the top of their game.
Playing the kindly professor Yamana, Takashi Shimura brought both star power and credibility to a film inhabited by younger, less known actors and a big rubber suit. Shimura does his role with restraint and dignity, and is an interesting character to follow as he balances his wish to keep Gojira alive against the horror that the creature brings to Japan. In many ways, Yamana acts as the narrator for the audience, explaining what and why Gojira is, and what exactly is going on in the movie. But he is also at the center of the moral compass of the movie, helping us feel for the confused creature from the ocean floor, driven by man’s weapons testings into a new, modern world that it doesn’t belong in, and can’t understand, only to once again be at the butt of a new super-weapon created by humans.
Takashi Shimura was one of Japan’s most praised character actors in a career that spanned six decades. He was a favourite of Akira Kurosawa’s because of his charisma and verisimilitude. In 1954 he was at the height of his career. He played one of his few leading roles in Kurosawa’s Ikiru in 1952, a film that won both the Kinema Junpo and the Mainichi awards for best film of the year, and his role earned him a Bafta nomination for best foreign actor. Another one of his best remembered roles came in 1954 when he played Kambei Shimada in Seven Samurai, which earned him yet another Bafta nomination in a film seen by many as one of the greatest in movie history. I am surprised to see that the role also landed Shimura a Jussi – the Oscar of my home country Finland – when Seven Samurai opened here in 1958. But then again, I shouldn’t be surprised that the home of Aki Kaurismäki should reward a Kurosawa actor. All in all, Shimura appeared in over 250 movies, 20 of them for Kurosawa. But he was no stranger to Toho’s tokusatsu, either. He reprised his role as Yamane in the sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955, review), appeared in Honda’s The Mysterians (1957), had small roles in Mothra (1961), Gorath (1962) and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). His last film was a small part in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), which Kurosawa had written especially for Shimura. He passed away two years later.
The two young male leads are both fair in their roles, but it is hard to make out their actual talents as actors because of the way the script is written, balancing between B movie schlock and opera. If you had to pick a lead actor of the film, it would be Akira Takarada as the sea captain Ogata. 20-year old Takarada had joined Toho’s New Face program in 1953, and this was really his first credited movie role. He is a bit stiff, but pulls through thanks to his natural charisma. The movie catapulted the handsome young man into tokusatsu stardom. He is the actor perhaps most associated with the Toho tokusatsu franchise, after having played leads in 6 of Toho’s science fiction films. He played the lead in the film Jû jin yuki otoko (1955, review), which is perhaps better known internationally as the film that was re-cut with added scenes of John Carradine, named Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1958). He also played the lead in The Last War (1961), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), and had big supporting roles in King Kong Escapes (1967) and Latitude Zero (1969). After the kaiju franchise had made a comeback in the eighties, Takarada returned in a supporting role in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992), and played the UN secretary general in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Takarada had a small cameo as a Japanese customs officer in the American remake Godzilla (2014), but his scene was eventually cut at the very last minute, because the producers wanted to cut down on the build-up and get to the monsters as fast as possible.
In a very recent interview with Kim Song-Ho for Sci-Fi Japan Takarada speaks about the difficulty of acting against something which wasn’t physically present: ”[we] had difficulty in filming scenes involving Godzilla because we had no idea of how the monster was to be depicted in the finished picture. We didn’t know if it was fully exposed, or it was looking sideways or backwards. I used to ask Mr. Honda, ‘How should I react to Godzilla?’ but he, too, was not sure, so he said, ‘Well, how about shooting two versions of the same scene? One for when Godzilla is looking straight ahead, and the other for when Godzilla is looking backwards. Maybe one of them should turn out to be right.’ That’s how we tried to solve problems on location.
Sometimes Mr. Tsuburaya visited the drama department with some storyboards, and we all gathered around to understand what the scene would shown on screen. ‘Aha, Godzilla is looking this way!’ So we tended to wait anxiously for the storyboards when we were acting.”
In his sixties Takarada became an ardent peace activist, inspired in part by his experiences growing in in Chinese Harbin, then occupied by Japan. When the Soviet Union invaded Harbin during WWII he was a teenager, and witnessed the atrocities the Soviet soldiers carried out against civilians, and also got shot himself. The above mentioned interview was carried out in 2016, and is evidence that Takarada, at 82, is still very much active in both film and society. He occasionally attends conventions, especially in the US, where he tends to visit his daughter, former Japanese pop star Michiru Kojima. Her mother was Miss Universe 1959, Akiko Kojima, whom Takarada married and later divorced.
Another actor who became closely associated with Godzilla and the Toho tokusatsu eiga was Akihiko Hirata, who plays the tormented scientist Serizawa, who invents the Oxygen Destroyer (which is actually referred to by its English name in the film). Just like Takarada and co-star Momoko Kōchi, Hirata rose through the ranks of Toho’s New Face program, but had slightly more experience than Takarada. Rumour has it that he was originally set to play Ogata, but in a 1992 interview Honda himself says that this was probably just a rumour. Hirata is very dramatic in his role as the reluctant hero of the film, although it is written in such an operatic manner that it is hard for Hirata not to over-act from time to time.
With his thin face cool visage, Hirata became a respected character actor, often playing sinister military types, but also a cult actor withing the tokusatsu genre. He appeared in 20 of Toho’s special effects films, and others, including Rodan (1956), The Mysterians, Varan (1958), The H-Man (1958), The Secret of the Telegian (1960), Mothra, Gorath, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Atragon (1963), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, The Killing Bottle (1967), Son of Godzilla (1967), Latitude Zero, Prophecies of Nostradamus, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), The War in Space (1977), Ultraman: Monster Big Battle (1979), Sayonara Jupiter (1984), and the low-budget TV movie Fugitive Alien, produced by Eiji Tsuburaya’s sons. He also had an important recurring role in the original Ultraman TV series.
Momoko Kōchi was another young actress catapulted to fame by Gojira. She is perhaps the actress that is most like a fish out of water in the movie. One of the problems with the film is that neither of her suitors have any sort of chemistry with Emiko. I know this was Japan in the fifties, so you’re not expecting passionate snogging, but if you turned off the sound of the film, there’s really nothing suggesting that any of these people have an interest in each other. However, audiences loved the pretty Kōchi with her endearing overbite. The role led to her being typecast in sci-fi movies, and she appeared in Jû jin yuki otoko, The Mysterians and other B movies, until she had had enough, and decided to pursue a formal actor’s training. This led to a successful career on stage, and thereafter she only occasionally appeared in films. In later years she told CNN in an interview that she loathed being associated with Godzilla. However, as with many former B movie actors, she came to embrace the cult fame in as she got older. Even to the point that she accepted a cameo to reprise her role as Emiko in the 1995 film Godzilla vs. Destroyah, which turned out to be her last movie.
If Andy Serkis has become the supreme authority on motion capture acting in recent years, then Haruo Nakajima was the master of suit acting from the fifties to the early seventies. He appeared in over 20 of Toho’s science fiction movies, almost always in a suit, and many times as Godzilla. Nakajima took pride in never backing down from a challenge, whether he had to be buried alive, hoisted on wires, submerged, set on fire or have explosives placed on his body while wearing the suit. A very strong man with great endurance and trained in martial arts, he was the ideal suitmation actor. However, it wasn’t before the sixties that he started to receive screen credit for his roles. Like Universal with Frankenstein (1931, review) and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Toho didn’t want to make the audience think about the fact that there was a man under the suit, let alone put a name to that man. This didn’t bother Nakajima, who instead relished in the respect he got from the people at the studio. In the sixties, he got an offer to move to Hollywood to do suit work, but stayed in Japan at the request of Eiji Tsuburaya, who said that he couldn’t do Godzilla without Nakajima.
Katsumi Tezuka was the other actor who wore the Gojira suit in the first film. Tezuka was a former baseball star, who was well liked but the studio and the crew for creating a good atmosphere on set. However, Nakajima has stated that Tezuka was not strong enough to act well in the first rigid suit, and that none of his scenes actually made it on screen, and that he generally acted more as an assistant to Nakajima. Tezuka would, however, play other suit roles in many films during the fifties and sixties.
Although not yet fifty and still in good physical shape, Nakajima retired after finishing Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). Ishirô Honda was (more or less) finished with kaiju movies, and Nakajima’s principle director Eiji Tsuburaya had passed away in 1970. In the late sixties TV had finally invaded most Japanese homes, which hit the country’s movie industry hard. Some studios, like major player Nikkatsu, survived by going into soft-porn. Toho struggled on, but the atmosphere at the studio suffered due to major lay-offs. Movie budgets were slashed and with some exceptions, the quality of Toho’s kaiju films had been in decline since the mid-sixties. Nakajima simply didn’t have the enthusiasm for the work anymore.
After overcoming the first shock of the suit for Gojira, Nakajima took the role very seriously, and would prepare by visiting the zoo every morning before work to get acquainted with the way large animals move. In an interview with nippon.com, he says that every single movement was a chore, and they had to be done twice or sometimes thrice as fast as normal because Tsuburaya was over-cranking the camera: ”It was a very solitary feeling inside that suit. My thoughts were just focused on the next movement to make. It was pointless to think about anything else, since the whole job came down to playing the part without toppling over from the weight.”
As the movie franchise advanced, the Godzilla suit became visibly lighter and more agile, and in the mid-sixties one could even see Godzilla jumping around and doing victory dances, something which would have been unthinkable in the first movie. ”I kept on telling the special effects people how uncomfortable that costume was”, Nakajima tells Glenn Andreiev in an interview for Huntington Action Films.
Nakajima thought Gojira would be a one-off, since the monster dies in the end (oops, spoiler). But he recalls attending the opening night with Honda and Tsuburaya. When the party saw the lines of people running down the street from the ticket vendor, Tsuburaya leaned in towards Honda and stated calmly: ”We’re going to have to make a sequel.” And so it was: in 1955 Godzilla Raids Again was released, although Honda was unable to direct it because of scheduling conflicts. And as he has stated in later interviews, he wasn’t keen on reviving Godzilla, and even less on making the monster a ”hero”. So when he returned to the director’s chair in 1956, he instead created a new monster called Rodan, and thought he was now definately done with Godzilla.
However, fate would have it differently. Gojira did have a limited run in Japanese-American theatres in 1955, but no major distributor in the US showed any interest in the foreign monster movie. Instead, the rights to Gojira were picked up by a small-time distributor called Edmund Goldman, for 25 000 dollars, who in turn sold it to a small production company called Jewell Productions. Jewell’s owners were friends with a cinema owner and distributor called Joseph Levine, who had made a small fortune by buying cheap distribution and screening rights for decrepit westerns, foreign Z movies, sex hygiene films and exploitation flicks. They all saw the potential of the film – if it would only have had an American lead. Well, with an investment of 100 000 dollars from Levine and a combined sum of 75 000 from another producer and the company, it soon had a lead called Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr. The movie, now called Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was re-cut with 20 minutes of new material by director Terry O. Morse. He also hacked away about 35 minutes of the original movie, partly to spare the audience long stretches of dubbed Japanese actors, partly to tighten the pace, and partly to edit out most of the stuff that could be seen as anti-American or was deemed too critical of the nuclear bomb.
I’ll go more into detail about the Americanised version of the movie an a separate review, but suffice to say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters became a surprise hit in the States, sweeping into movie theatres hungry for ever more giant monster films. With much of the most serious material edited out, and the addition of Burr’s “narration”, the movie was perceived much more as low-budget camp than as a serious film, and as such kids and youngsters across the US ate it up like candy. The movie ended up grossing over a million dollars at the box-office in 1956. The incredible success of Godzilla in the US didn’t go unnoticed by Toho, and in 1957 the re-edited American version opened to full houses in Japan as well. Toho continued to create films based on new monsters, such as Varan, the abominable snowman, Mothra and Gorath, but in 1962 the pressure on Ishiro Honda became too great, and he reluctantly agreed to revive the public’s favourite, Godzilla. This film, King Kong vs. Godzilla, became the most popular Godzilla movie in history, selling 11,2 million tickets in 1962 (compare this with 3,9 million sold tickets for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 installment). After this, there was simply no turning back.
With only two longer breaks in production, Toho has, as of 2016, churned out 29 Godzilla films, with number 30 on the way in 2017. The movie inspired dozens of copy-cats with other Japanese studios creating their own monsters, and contributed to the third coming of lost world pictures in the US. Two more Godzilla films were reworked from Japanese originals by adding American actors, and one film was produced as a joint US-Japanese venture. However, it took the success of Jurassic Park and the emergence of CGI before Hollywood dared do its very own Godzilla movie, helmed by Roland Emmerich in 1998. Although universally panned by critics and Godzilla fans alike, the film cashed in 380 million dollars at the box office, double its cost, and proved that one still didn’t have to make a good Godzilla movie to make money off of it.
As I have stated, Gojira does have its fair share of problems, from uneven quality of special effects to awkwardly written dialogue and flat characterisation. The movie also stalls a bit in the middle, with a few too many and too long military and government meetings. The love triangle doesn’t quite work because we don’t really care about the central characters. However, the movie instead works splendidly as an opera. If one views the characters simply as place-holders for ideas and moral questions, and sees the people of Japan as the central character, Ishiro Honda’s and Eiji Tsuburaya’s direction evokes powerful emotions. The clinch is that amidst all action and destruction, the movie constantly cuts away to the victims. The people of Odo sitting in silence at the beach, looking out to the sea that claimed their family members. An orphaned teenager covered in mud screaming out for his brother as the thunderstorm rips apart his house. A group of people looking out a window as Gojira’s tail lashes out to destry their home. The war widow trapped in the destruction telling her baby boy: ”We’ll be with your father soon.” In the aftermath Honda’s camera pans over rows after rows of dead bodys and nurses tending to the wounded in stunned silence in dark, dirty hallways. The silence broken by the cries of a small girl missing her mother. Just writing it now even brings tears to my eyes. Yes, it’s all very melodramatic, on the verge of pathetic, but it is all done with such sincerity that it’s impossible to resist. What makes the impact even greater is the knowledge that these scenes played out all over Japan just nine-ten years prior to the making of the film. If you remove the rubber monster, this is not a piece of fiction, it is a documentary on the horrors of war. And this, precisely, is what elevates Gojira above almost all of the campy science fiction movies made in the fifties. This was not camp, this was not even allegory. It was a retelling of what Honda, Tsuburaya and the rest of the movie team had all experienced first-hand.
And this, too, was why Honda faced some harsh criticism from some critics in Japan, accusing him of exploiting devastation of war, as well as the Lucky Dragon 5 incident that occurred in 1952. The Lucky Dragon 5 was a tuna trawler that accidentally ventured into US H-bomb testing territory outside the Marshal islands in 1952, getting caught in nuclear fallout, and eventually six of the crew members died. Several more boat crews were affected, as the US military had greatly underestimated the effect of the bomb, and all tuna-fishing in the surrounding area was halted, with great impact on Japanese export. The incident became a huge scandal and something of a national trauma, and was one of the main inspirations for the movie. The exploding ship in the beginning of the film is a direct hint at the incident, and one that every Japanese movie-goer would have recognised in 1954.
In later years, Honda especially remembered the negative reviews in the Japanese press, but seems to forget that the movie was nominated for the award for best film by the Japanese Movie Society. It lost, but it lost to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, not exactly something to be ashamed of. Instead it won the award for best special effects. In the US, it would have been sacrilege if a sci-fi film would have been nominated for best film at the Oscars in the fifties. And even the more critical critics began to change their minds after the US success of the movie, gradually starting to praise the frank depictions of the horrors of the atom bomb and the air raids over Tokyo. Unbelievably the Japanese original wasn’t officially released in the US before its 50th anniversary in 2004, to almost universal praise. Ten years later it was digitally restored and released on DVD along with a massive package of extra material as a part of the distinguished Criterion Collection. In Japan it is now generally considered as one of the greatest Japanese films ever made, despite its many flaws. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert upset many Godzilla fans in 2004 when he only gave the movie 1,5/4 stars. But perhaps there is some thruth in his statement: ”This is a bad movie, but it has earned its place in history, and the enduring popularity of Godzilla and other monsters shows that it struck a chord.”
As a fifties sci-fi film it doesn’t quite reach the sophistication of The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Thing from Another World, certainly not the class and wit of The Man in the White Suit (1952, review). It goes toe-to-toe with Them!, but loses out on overall quality of effects. In the battle of the suits it is mauled by Creature from the Black Lagoon, although it wins on script quality. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is light-years beyond Tsuburaya’s suitmation, but as a film Gojira is the better one. On social and political message it is far less naive than The Day the Earth Stood Still and much starker and more daring than all Hollywood contemporaries, and certainly more sober than George Pal’s or Arch Oboler’s heavy-handed religiousness.
Gojira/Godzilla (1954, Japan). Directed by Ishirô Honda. Written by Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata & Shigeru Kayama. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai, Toranosuke Ogawa, Ren Yamamoto, Hiroshi Hayashi, Seijirô Onda, Tsuruko Mano, Takeo Oikawa, Toyoaki Suzuki, Kokuten Kôdô, Haruo Nakajima, Katsumi Tezuka. Music: Akira Ifukube. Cinematography: Masao Tamai. Editing: Kazuji Taira. Production design & art direction: Satoru Chûko, Takeo Kita. Monster design: Teizo Toshimitsu, Akira Watanabe. Sound recordist: Hisashi Shimonaga. Sound effects editor: Ichirô Minawa. Special effects director: Eiji Tsuburaya. Special effects cinematographer: Sadamasa Arikawa. Stunt choreographer: Haruo Nakajima. Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka for Toho Film.