Film: Prehistoric monster back to wreak havoc
Inspired by the fear of nuclear proliferation, the remake - coming 60 years after the release of the original Gojira - is well thought out
The first of this year's big summer releases opened nationwide yesterday, and on the face of it Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is your average Hollywood blockbuster. Made for around $160m (€120m) and featuring Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, it follows the progress of a prehistoric sea monster that attacks San Francisco before turning out to be more of a friend to mankind than he'd originally seemed.
It sounds like your average effects-driven monster/alien invasion action film, but in fact Godzilla is a well-thought-out remake of a special film. Sixty years ago, Tokyo's revered Toho Studios released Gojira, an ambitious and, for the time, very expensive movie about a giant monster that attacks Japan. Renamed Godzilla for international audiences, it became a huge success through the 1950s and went on to spawn at least 30 sequels.
But Gojira was not your average film: groundbreaking in all sorts of ways, it had a serious subtext, having been inspired by the fear of nuclear proliferation. In 1954, the Japanese had more idea than most about what nuclear conflict means. Just nine years before, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been flattened by A-bombs only a fraction as powerful as those that had been invented since.
Next door to Russia and under the sway of America, the Japanese has every chance of ending up in the firing line if World War Three kicked off, and memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deepened the nation's fears. They found catharsis in the shape of Godzilla, a giant, irradiated sea creature that serves as both a warning and an avenging force.
Though the monster's design was partly inspired by the 1953 Hollywood B-picture The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla's lumpy, scaly skin resembled the bulbous keloid scars found on Hiroshima survivors. His orgy of destruction in downtown Tokyo was intended to represent the remorseless progress of a detonated atom bomb.
Godzilla's opening scene, in which a lone fishing boat is attacked by a blinding, burning light, mirrored the unfortunate case of Lucky Dragon 5. In March of 1954, the ironically named tuna trawler was fishing near the Marshall Islands when it got caught up in the fallout from a nuclear test on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.
The fishermen later recalled seeing a blinding flash on the western horizon, and about eight minutes later lumps of flaky white dust began raining down on the ship. It was fallout, and by the time they got back to land all the men were experiencing the effects of radiation, and one died.
While Godzilla was being made, a Russian nuclear test contaminated the rainwater in northern Honshu, an event that is supposedly referred to in a scene where an old man warns children not to drink irradiated water.
As imagined by writer/director Ishiro Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, Gojira was an ancient, prehistoric monster awakened and mutated by exposure to radiation. Modelled in part on dinosaurs, he was designed to stand 50 metres, or 164 feet – big enough to peer over the tallest buildings in Tokyo at the time. And as the city's skyline rose, so did the monster.
Though Ishiro Honda greatly admired the stop-motion techniques used in King Kong, the process was too slow and expensive for the Toho Studio bosses, who wanted to release the film as quickly as they could. So Honda and his effects team made an elaborate monster suit, which was worn by stuntman and martial arts expert Haruo Nakajima, and they built a tiny scale model of central Tokyo for him to rampage through.
For Nakajima, the role turned out to be quite an ordeal. The suit was so heavy and cumbersome he could only wear it for three minutes at a time, but all the same, it grew suffocatingly hot. A valve was put on to drain the sweat, but Nakajima passed out several times due to heat exhaustion and must have been delighted when the shoot came to an end. However, he continued to play the role for almost 20 years.
Though the film's effects seem dated now, they were ingenious for the time. One of Godzilla's least endearing characteristics was his propensity to blast radioactive heat rays from his mouth: special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya used everything from jets of gas flame to bright lights to render the ray, and designed miniature electrical towers in wax that were melted using hot air.
The sound department tried amplifying various animal cries for Godzilla's roar, but the results were underwhelming: in the end they rubbed a leather-gloved hand up and down a double bass and reverberated the recorded sound. A kettle drum and a knotted rope were used for the monster's thunderous footsteps.
The results were truly spectacular. Toho Studios had nearly bankrupted itself by producing Gojira and Akira Kurosawa's action classic The Seven Samurai simultaneously, but both films became big international successes, and Godzilla made Toho a fortune after being repackaged for the American market.
Between 1954 and 2004, Toho made hay by pitting Godzilla against various enemies including King Kong and a particularly nasty sea monster in 30-odd sequels of varying quality.
Though initially a mindless destructive force, the monster subsequently proved capable of joining forces with mankind if aliens happened to be threatening the planet. And, though no fan of humans, he sometimes inadvertently comes to our aid. Shogo Tomiyama, who produced some of the later Godzilla films, likened the monster to one of the ancient, angry Shinto gods that are neither good nor bad. But distancing Godzilla from his roots in post-war nuclear paranoia definitely weakened his appeal.
It's been said before – and it's true – that the nuclear attacks at Nagasaki and Hiroshima allowed Japan to reposition itself as a victim of war rather than its instigator. But the explosions did fundamentally change the way the country thought about itself, and helped bring Japan's history of aggressive militarism to an end.
The original Godzilla was an important cultural expression of this new national pacifism, and a potent symbol of the unthinkable horror of nuclear war. But it's also a cracking good horror film.
Monster mash: the three best Godzilla films
Ishiro Honda's groundbreaking black and white Gojira brilliantly told the story of the monster. The parallels with Hiroshima were obvious, and intentional.
J.J. Abrams tied the Godzilla story to the found footage genre in this action romp, in which a group of New Yorkers are stranded when the monster attacks the city.
Updates the original with an environmental theme. The monster resurfaces, furious and threatening to throw us all back to the Stone Age. Great fun.