The Lizard King
On March 1 of this year, a group of islanders on Rongelap Atoll marked the 60th anniversary of the Castle Bravo nuclear test that ravaged their picturesque corner of the earth. Joining them from Japan was 80-year-old Matashichi Oishi, one of the surviving crewmen of the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), which was only 100 kilometers away from the blast on March 1, 1954. “I remember the brilliant flash in the west and the extraordinary sky which turned red as far as I could see,” Oishi told reporters. Vaporized coral snowed down on the boat. When it returned home two weeks later, every member of the crew was suffering severe radiation sickness. In the confusion, its cargo of contaminated tuna was unloaded and sent to market.
The blast was 1,000 times the magnitude of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and coming just nine years later, the story struck a still-raw nerve across Japan. Tokyo housewives started a movement to call for a ban on atomic weapons. Schoolchildren sent letters to the ailing crew, and when the radio operator died that fall, nearly half a million citizens lined up to pay their respects.
In 1959, director Kaneto Shindo would transform the headlines into a film named after the boat, which is today housed in its own museum in Tokyo (see p.9). But before that film could be made, eight months after the Castle Bravo detonation, the nation’s nuclear trepidation had already coalesced into a potent physical embodiment on the silver screen. Gojira premiered on November 3, 1954. Later rebranded internationally as Godzilla, the leviathan remains Japan’s best known global icon.
The camp value of a man in a rubber dinosaur suit stomping through model buildings has since eclipsed the franchise’s more serious origins. To Japanese audiences, though, the message of the film that starts with a fishing boat hit by an atomic blast was clear—play with atomic power and awake sleeping monsters. “Godzilla is the embodiment of violence and hatred for mankind, because he was an animal created by man’s atomic energy,” Jun Fukuda, who directed several later films in the series, told the BBC in 1998. “He is symbolic of humanity’s complicity in their own destruction.”
One of the Western misconceptions of Godzilla is that the franchise started with a quickie B-movie aimed at children, but it was a big affair that attracted top-tier talent. Takashi Shimura, who plays the scientist who testifies that H-bomb testing awoke the monster, was one of the country’s most respected actors, already known for Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Director Ishiro Honda was given a budget of nearly USD$1 million, the same as the year’s Best Picture winner On the Waterfront and three times the average in Japan, making it the most expensive film made in the country at the time. Although Kurosawa created a timeless classic with Japan’s other seminal film of 1954, it was Honda who won at the box office, smashing the record for opening-day ticket sales set by the Seven Samurai, which also starred Shimura.
It’s true, though, that Gojira was filmed quickly. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had to fill a slot in Toho Studios’ fall roster after a diplomatic wrangle with Indonesia quashed plans for an international coproduction. Inspired by the 1952 re-release of King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which an atomic dinosaur destroys New York, Tanaka called in Eiji Tsuburaya, known as tokusatsu no kamisama (“the god of special effects”). A mechanical genius who built cameras and projectors as a child, Tsuburaya was confident he could create a creature through stop motion, provided he had seven years. The schedule allowed only four months from start of production to release, so Tsuburaya simply asked stuntman Haruo Nakajima to step into a rubber suit.
Now 85, Nakajima recalls bringing his lunch to the zoo to observe the movement of gorillas, giving credence to the story that the monster’s name is a portmanteau of the Japanese words gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). The creative team was completed by Akira Ifukube, one of the country’s most renowned classical composers, who wrote a march to accompany the monster’s romp through Ginza, and developed Godzilla’s distinctive roar by rubbing his gloved hand along the loosened string of a contrabass.
The resulting film is a snapshot of a nation in transition. Two years after the withdrawal of occupation forces, Japan was still coming to terms with its defeat in WWII. “The appeal of Godzilla to the people was that it was impervious to guns and bombs,” Ifukube said before his death in 2006. “It is stronger than the technology that brought Japan to its knees.”
As a returning serviceman, Honda traveled through Hiroshima and was overwhelmed by what he saw. His widow would later comment, “If there had been no bomb, there would be no monster.” Or as a woman on the Yamanote line says in the film: “I barely escaped the bomb in Nagasaki, and now this!” The monster also represents a rural past that the post-war generation was eager to forget. “There’s no such thing as monsters anymore,” says a girl on the fishing island where one is about to set foot. “Ridicule our traditions,” spits the village elder, “and I will feed you to Godzilla!”
And yet the film is remarkably relevant today. Newspaper headlines warning of radiated tuna, scientists telling villagers their water supply is no longer safe and parents watching their children scanned by Geiger counters could just as easily be from 2011 as 1954. When the Japanese version was dubbed for American audiences, not only were scenes of Raymond Burr as a foreign reporter added, most of the H-bomb references were cut. While it is commonly misconstrued that the beast breathes fire, what made him so frightening to Japanese audiences was that not only was he awakened by radiation, he exhaled it as well. “They took the big message of our film and erased it,” actor Akira Takarada said at a recent Tokyo screening of the original. Thus began the descent into camp, reaching a nadir with the introduction of the cute “son of Godzilla” Minilla as Toho pandered to an increasingly younger audience.
A reboot in 1984 brought new filmmakers and energy to the series, eventually leading to the 1998 big-budget Hollywood film. The response to Roland Emmerich’s computer-generated iguana was so adverse, however, that Toho retroactively reversed its licensing agreement, declaring the creature to be not Godzilla, but “G-zilla” in an attempt to please disgruntled fans. Now, a new Hollywood take set in San Francisco and featuring Ken Watanabe has just been released in Japan. Its box office success in the U.S. has already guaranteed a sequel, suggesting the franchise may be back on its enormous feet. Although some Japanese fans have dismissed the Hollywood creature for being “too fat,” director Gareth Edwards was determined to return Godzilla to his roots. “To me, he’s like a force of nature,” Edwards says, echoing earlier director Jun Fukuda, “Like the wrath of God or vengeance for the way we’ve behaved.”
Akira Takarada, who had just turned 20 when he was cast as the romantic lead in the original film, makes a cameo appearance in the new blockbuster. “When I was in Los Angeles, I saw a big Godzilla statue in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” the 80-year-old star recalled recently. “I thought, ‘This guy has gotten so big.’ Godzilla no longer belongs to Japan—he belongs to the world.”
The new Godzilla will be released July 25 at Toho Cinemas Roppongi and other theaters nationwide.
The original Godzilla is available on DVD/Blu-ray in Japanese/English ( ¥4,380 via amazon.jp )