A Brief History Of 'Godzilla'

Senior Contributor
03.03.14 4 Comments
Godzilla in a scene from the film.  © Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Godzilla has gone, in the space of one trailer, from iguana jokes to a contender for the most popular movie of the summer. But most of us aren’t familiar with one of the longest-running film franchises of all time. Here’s what you need to know about the Big G.

So, how did the Japanese first think of putting a guy in a suit and have him stomp on models?

It actually goes back to World War II. Eiji Tsuburaya, who went on to create Ultraman and was instrumental in the design of Godzilla, became the head of Toho’s special effects unit just before World War II. The Japanese didn’t send cameramen on a lot of their military missions, so part of Tsuburaya’s job was to recreate, in small scale and in exacting detail, battles as they happened for propaganda purposes. In other words, Tsuburaya was really good at making convincing models and blowing the hell out of them.

OK, so why the giant lizard?

Godzilla first came about because, essentially, Toho needed to fill in a massive hole in its schedule. Toho was planning what amounted to an Oscar-bait epic, a coproduction with Indonesia. Unfortunately for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, politics out of his control meant his movie got sunk. That presented Tanaka with a problem: He needed a flashy movie to sell tickets, and he needed it fast.

Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and others involved have claimed that Godzilla came about for noble reasons to do with nuclear warfare and the like, but the truth is more likely that movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were massive hits, and there are some notable similarities between that movie and Godzilla. Stop motion animation was, of course, time-consuming and expensive… but a stuntman in a lizard suit is a lot cheaper and faster.

This seems very unlikely to be a cultural phenomenon.

You’d be right, except the original Godzilla is more or less a horror movie designed to play on Japanese fears of nuclear holocaust. The original cut, which was hard for Westerners to find until extremely recently, is full of references to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as World War II. For example, there’s a moment in the movie, cut from the Western release, where Godzilla stomps a war widow and her children flat right after she reassures them they’ll be with Daddy soon.

Yeah, we’re not talking “subtle”, here. The movie also touches on the Lucky Dragon incident, where a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to staggering amounts of radiation.

Japanese critics at the time hated it, but it didn’t matter: It was a massive box-office hit, selling over nine million tickets. Thus, a franchise was assured.

Wait: Every Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen involves him fighting guys in goofy suits with wrestling movies and some annoying kid.

Yeah; the earnestness of the Godzilla franchise didn’t last very long, especially as Toho began turning them out on a semiregular basis and the series took a turn for the comedic. In America, Godzilla movies were drive-in fare and packaged for television; they were essentially supposed to be goofy creature features, and that drive in the American market, combined with the fact that in any country foreign film gets the shaft, helped turn Godzilla from scary nuclear horror to giant cuddly lizard. It really didn’t help that the movies were often brutally re-edited, rarely with an ear to what might have actually made sense.

That said, there are some pretty well-done Godzilla movies; the series had a tendency to goof on capitalism and greed, in movies like Godzilla Vs. Mothra and King Kong Vs. Godzilla, and the special effects are some of the best you’ll see for the time. Godzilla also benefited from the fact that the 1960s were a Golden Age in Japanese cinema history; attendance at theaters was enormous, some of the greatest directors in Japanese film history were putting out classic films, and Godzilla movies made Toho a fortune in overseas markets. Unfortunately, what the ’70s did to music they also did to Godzilla.

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