On April 2nd, 1997 Godzilla fans everywhere lost an idol: Tomoyuki Tanaka died. Tanaka was the producer of all of Godzilla's screen exploits. Along with special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya and director Ishiro Honda, he was primarily responsible for the creation of the enduring screen icon we call Godzilla. With his passing, all three of these men have left us.
Godzilla can make a claim to fame that can be made by few other fictional characters who have appeared in a series of films. He was created on, and for, the movie screen. While Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes have both appeared in more movies, both were created on the printed page. And Godzilla is quite nearly the first enduring character to be created on screen. Although King Kong came before him, Kong's movie work in the last decade has been scant. Unlike the many characters who came after him, Godzilla has been a popular character for over 40 years.
The movie we review here is the original Japanese version. For American audiences the film was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Raymond Burr was inserted into the movie as a character named Steve Martin. While this version, directed by Terry Morse, is not as bad as most attempts to insert new scenes into a foreign movie, the overall effect of the film is lessened. There are several dramatic subplots which are simplified or deleted from the American version, not to mention the fact that none of the original Japanese dialogue remains intact. We chose to review this film in its original form.
Emiko (woman with the silly hat),
Dr. Serizawa (with eyepatch and silly hat),
Dr. Yamane (looking concerned with silly hat)
and Ogata (who left his silly hat at home).
The plot of Godzilla is standard for monster movies of the time. Ships in the vicinity of Ohto Island in the pacific ocean are being destroyed by a mysterious force. The Japanese navy sends a ship to investigate, but it too is destroyed. A second group is dispatched to the area. This group is led made up of scientists, and we know they must be smart because they travel to Ohto by helicopter. On the island, the team, led by Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), finds what appear to be huge footprints made by a creature unknown to science.
Naturally, this creature turns out to be hostile and makes a bee line for Tokyo. Dubbed Godzilla (or actually Gojira, in the Japanese) by the Ohto islanders, the monster astounds everyone when it can not be deterred by depth charges or machine guns.
Godzilla only seems to attack at night, so during the day the people of Tokyo have plenty of time to consider ways to destroy Godzilla. Unfortunately, the key to destroying Godzilla is held by the moody Dr. Serizawa, who is betrothed to daughter of Dr. Yamane. This daughter, Emiko, is not interested in the Serizawa, but is hoping to marry naval officer Hideto Ogata. The message of all of this is that countries should try to keep social lives of its top scientists free of strife, or they may not be able to concentrate on crises like this one. The US, for instance, could be in a lot of trouble if you consider the case of Dr. Stephen Hawking.
Godzilla is very much a child of the fifties, in particular post-war Japan's fifties. To the original audience, the metaphor of a huge radioactive creature coming out of nowhere and destroying cities was uncomfortably close to something that already happened. While Godzilla was clearly based on the US movie The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms from the year before, the creators of Godzilla made their monster uniquely Japanese. Particularly terrifying was Godzilla's fiery breath weapon, a real problem in a country where most buildings were made from wood.
If you've never seen Godzilla before, you might actually be impressed by the quality of the acting and script. This isn't a scream-queen b-movie, despite its reputation. Most of the characters seem genuinely terrified of the thin air they're staring into before Godzilla is matted in, and Serizawa's moral quandary about the weapon he possesses is as dramatic as any found in more "serious" films. These characters are quite real, and they do more than scream in terror. Although it certainly laid the foundation for such movies, Godzilla is not merely a film about a giant monster who tramples Tokyo. It's a film about a lot of things, not the least of which is a culture that survived a display of unprecedented destruction.
Oh no! There goes Tokyo!
Godzilla himself is realized through a couple of different of special effects techniques. For most of the close-ups, two different kinds of puppets were used, one mechanically operated, the other a more traditional hand puppet. The balance of the shots involving Godzilla were created by putting a man in a full-sized costume, then having him stomp around a miniature set of Tokyo. While this may seem primitive, a certain degree of realism was achieved through filming almost all such scenes in relative darkness, slowing down the final footage so that Godzilla moves with the plodding gait of a large animal, and by filming Godzilla from low angles, enhancing the illusion that Godzilla is a 100-foot tall creature.
We would suggest that this technique of putting a guy in a dinosaur suit may be the secret to Godzilla's continuing popularity. Anyone who is watching a Godzilla movie knows that there is some guy in that suit having the time of his life destroying a city, and people want to be that guy. True, it turns out that in real life being in the suit is not much fun at all, as it is unbearably hot, but we think it works on people subconsciously. The thrill of destroying a city vicariously is just too much to resist.
Godzilla has earned its place in film history. The image of a giant lizard creature knocking over buildings and breathing fire has incorporated itself into the culture of the modern world. To catalog the effect Godzilla has had on American pop culture alone would be impossible. During our childhood Godzilla was a regular feature of Saturday afternoon movies on TV, and now you can see Godzilla films on the Sci-Fi Channel. There was the animated series from Hanna-Barbera, and a 24 issue Marvel Comics series. Godzilla has appeared regularly on Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. Godzilla has made cameos in such US movies as Mars Attacks, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and One Crazy Summer. Godzilla starred in a series of Dr. Pepper commercials a decade ago, and looking ahead, the creators of Independence Day are working on big budget US Godzilla movie that will be released here in the summer of 1998. Can anyone stop Godzilla? We don't think so.