Though it took many collaborators to bring the monster as we know him to the screen, it was Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka who had the initial idea for the iconic character that would become known as Gojira / Godzilla. Gazing out the window at the ocean below while on a flight from Indonesia back to Japan in 1954, Tanaka began to wonder what sort of secrets – what sort of creatures – the sea could hold, what could be lurking beneath the surface. A large scale film project Tanaka had been trying to assemble had just fallen apart, he was in need of a new movie idea… and with his thoughts about a monster from the sea, he had found it.
There were several sources of inspiration for the idea that began to form in Tanaka’s mind. For one thing, monster movies were doing good business at this time. An international theatrical re-release of the 1933 classic King Kong in 1952 had been very successful. So had the 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which had been about a dinosaur being awoken by a nuclear bomb test in the Arctic Circle and going on to lay siege to Manhattan. Spinning off from the basics of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Tanaka could make a sea monster movie that was tied in to the horrors the Japanese people had endured because of nuclear weapons – the bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States to end World War II in 1945, which resulted in the deaths of around 200,000 citizens, and more recently the March 1954 tragedy that befell the crew of a Japanese tuna fishing boat called Lucky Dragon 5 when they were caught in the fallout from the testing of a nuclear weapon at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific’s Marshall Islands, despite being outside the announced danger zone. The boat’s crew members were contaminated by radiation, as was their tuna haul, some of which reached the market, and one of them would go on to die within the year.
As Tanaka began to develop his new project at Toho Studios, which he first thought of titling “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea”, he was breaking new ground for Japanese filmmaking – monster movies, science fiction, horror, they weren’t really what Japan was making in those days. He hired popular horror/sci-fi/mystery writer Shigeru Kayama, whose prose stories often featured monsters and mutants, to create a story for the creature in his mind, which had been dubbed Gojira, a combination of the word Gorilla and the Japanese word for Whale, as Tanaka told Kayama Gojira was to be a sea monster that was like a cross between those two animals. Kayama established the basics of the story that would reach the screen with his script, which then received revisions from writer Takeo Murata and the director who was hired to helm the picture, Ishirô Honda.
Honda had been an artist and fledgling director when he was drafted into the miltary and ended up serving in World War II, during which he was captured and held in a prison camp for several months and also saw firsthand the devastation the bombing of Hiroshima had left behind. It was Honda’s personal, real world experiences that truly shaped the first Godzilla movie into what it became; not just another monster movie, but something much more meaningful.
The film begins at sea, on the fishing boat Eiko-maru. The crew is relaxing, enjoying some downtime, when their peace is suddenly interrupted by a loud rumble from beneath the sea. With a blinding flash, the boat suddenly bursts into flames. Crew members barely have time to send out a distress signal before the burning vessel sinks completely. Disaster on a fishing boat, a cinematic echo of the Lucky Dragon 5 disaster that had occurred just eight months before the movie reached screens in Japan.
Ships that sail to the last known location of the Eiko-maru searching for signs of the boat or survivors meet the same fate.
On nearby Odo Island, food supplies are running low as the locals are repeatedly unsuccessful in their attempts to catch fish, there doesn’t seem to be any in the area. The island elders know who must be to blame – Godzilla, a monster of legend that lives in the sea and will come to feed on humans if it is not appeased. The younger generations brush Godzilla off as a relic of the past, which elders say they do to their own peril – those who doubt Godzilla will become his prey. There’s a “King Kong and the natives of Skull Island”-esque touch in the mention that islanders used to sacrifice girls to Godzilla at times when the fishing was bad. All that remains of the old traditions now is an “exorcism ceremony”, a musical ritual performed on the beach by people in costume.
If this ceremony was ever effective at quelling the beast in the sea, it’s not cutting it anymore. A storm blows into Odo Island that night, accompanied by unusual loud, echoing rumbles – that’s not thunder. In a harrowing sequence set in the lashing rain and the dark of night, we watch as islanders are driven out of their shaking, crumbling homes and forced to witness the deaths of loved ones… When the storm has blown past, there have been at least seventeen destroyed homes and nine deaths.
A belief arises that it wasn’t just a hurricane that hit Odo Island, that there was something else – the destroyed structures appear to have been crushed from above, and one survivor, an orphaned boy named Shinkichi, claims to have seen some kind of animal out in the darkness.
Shinkichi is taken in by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane, who is part of the research party that goes out to investigate the incident on Odo Island. Yamane is accompanied by his daughter Emiko, and the departure of their ship is emotionlessly seen off by the man Emiko has been arranged to marry, Doctor Daisuke Serizawa. The ship is captained by the man Emiko truly loves, Southern Sea Salvage worker Hideto Ogata.
Once they reach the island, the research party makes some very strange findings – traces of radiation, huge footprints, and a creature called a trilobite, which was supposed to have gone extinct millions of years ago. More than that, they see, in broad daylight, the creature responsible for the destruction, the one Shinkichi caught sight of.
Twenty minutes into the film, Godzilla makes his first onscreen appearance, his head rising over the crest of a hill to look down on the people on the other side and let out a roar.
In our first glimpse of the special effects used by Eiji Tsuburaya to bring Japan’s greatest monster to life, it’s clear that the “gorilla crossed with a whale” description was thrown out along the way. In the iteration that reached cinemas, the design of Godzilla was actually an amalgamation of three different dinosaurs – the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Iguanodon, and the Stegosaurus.
Fittingly, Tsuburaya was inspired to get into effects work by Willis O’Brien’s work in King Kong. But while Kong and the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were brought to the screen using stop-motion effects, Tsuburaya knew that approach wouldn’t be feasible for Godzilla. No one in Japan had experience with stop-motion, and the film only had a schedule of a few months, while Tsuburaya estimated that it could take as much as seven years to do it properly with stop-motion… And so, he pioneered what is referred to as suitmation.
As everyone knows, Godzilla is in fact a man in a suit, portrayed in this first film alternately by Katsumi Tezuka, Jiro Suzuki, Ryosaku Takasugi, and the man who would go on to reprise the role in multiple sequels, Haruo Nakajima. Nakajima is widely considered to be the Godzilla performer, playing the monster in a total of twelve films. Some may consider suitmation to be silly, but it was no easy task for the actors who had to wear this suit, it wasn’t as simple as just slipping on a costume. The Godzilla suit weighed over two hundred pounds and was very hot, causing the performers to sweat profusely. Since it was also form-fitting, the suit would rub against their sweaty skin and cause them to be covered with blisters. Walking around in this heavy, hot body suit under the blazing studio lights, it wasn’t rare for a Godzilla performer to pass out on set.
Godzilla isn’t only a “man in suit” in this film, however; in some shots he’s a hand puppet, and that includes when we first see him on Odo Island.
Returning to the mainland to tell of this charcoal grey beast that stands approximately 50 meters (or around 164 feet) tall, Yamane theorizes that Godzilla is an intermediate type of dinosaur that came about between the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which would have been around 145 million years ago, although characters within the film make the error of saying 2 million years. He believes this creature has survived in the abyssal regions of the ocean, feeding on deep sea organisms, until recent nuclear bomb test detonations (like the one at the Bikini Atoll) disturbed its habitat, explaining both why it has now risen to the surface and why it has radiation contamination.
Despite Yamane’s belief that Godzilla should be captured alive so he can be studied to find out how he could have absorbed so much radiation and remain alive, the authorities and military, spurred on by the fears of the citizens, focus only on killing him before he can make his way to the mainland, which is where he seems to be headed, continuing to destroy ships along the way.
A Counter Godzilla Headquarters is established, wherein plans are made for how to stop the creature or at least deter him. The first plan involves a fleet of ships filling the ocean between Tokyo and Odo Island with depth charges. Yamane is deeply depressed to see this going on, but at the same time he believes that our weaponry may be useless against Godzilla anyway – how can a creature who has survived nuclear radiation be stopped?
Amidst all the fear, planning, and paranoia, the heart of the story is the love triangle of Emiko, Ogata, and Serizawa. Her father must be well aware than Emiko and Ogata have feelings for each other, Ogata is around his daughter all the time, and yet the distant Serizawa, who Emiko thinks of merely as a brother, is her betrothed. Typically in a monster movie, our focus would be on characters who have a place in the forefront of the defense against the monster, but here it’s these characters on the edge of it all. Emiko and Ogata plan to tell Yamane of their love, their plans for the future, to ask for his consent, but he’s so disturbed by this Godzilla situation that it’s not a very good time, and it doesn’t help that Ogata is on the “Godzilla needs to be destroyed” side of the fence.
After all of the preemptive measures taken against Godzilla prove fruitless and he does indeed briefly come onto land, a plan for how to deal with his return is put in motion – a plan to fall back and meet the beast at the coast. Citizens are evacuated and the military constructs a 30 meter high, 80 meter deep electrified (50,000 volts) barbed wire fence along the shoreline, with soldiers armed with artillery waiting to blast the creature from the other side.
Godzilla soon arises from the sea and advances on Tokyo. He walks right up to the fence that has been constructed to turn him away, or ideally electrocute him to death… and just starts smashing it to pieces. The electric current, the gunfire from the soldiers beyond, the tank shells exploding around him, they all just seem to serve to make him angry. So angry that he unleashes a special ability that we hadn’t clearly seen him employ earlier…
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had just been a simple dinosaur, but some promotional material artwork had shown the beast breathing fire from its mouth like a dragon. Since Godzilla took cues from The Beast in several areas, it seems appropriate that the film would make good on the promise that the other film’s marketing had made – 53 minutes into the movie, Godzilla exhales a stream of radioactive breath, which causes the things it touches to burst into flame and is so hot that it melts down the steel structures holding up the fence.
Bullets, bombs, missiles, none of our modern weaponry appears to have any effect on the prehistoric beast, who proceeds to lay waste to Tokyo, blasting people and buildings with his radioactive breath, tearing places part, smashing them with his feet and tail.
All the elements that make Godzilla the memorable classic that it is are on display during the Tokyo destruction sequence. The back-breaking work the performers in the Godzilla suit put into making the monster move across the screen. The special effects work of Eiji Tsuburaya in the mixture of suitmation and puppetry as Godzilla smashes into the 1/25 scale miniature replica of Tokyo, which was built with meticulous detail. The action is moved forward by, and the intensity amplified by, composer Akira Ifukube’s score. Ifukube also created Godzilla’s echoing, earth-shaking footsteps and his iconic roar with musical instruments. And then there’s the direction by Ishirô Honda.
As Godzilla reduces Tokyo to a sea of flames, it quickly becomes clear that this sequence is not merely to be taken as destruction spectacle eye candy, the way such sequences are so often treated in movies, but that Honda is presenting this as pure horror. It may come as a surprise to viewers of today who are used to these sort of sights in modern films when they realize that we are meant to be unsettled by these images. There are consequences to the damage Godzilla is causing. There are human casualties. Honda shows us how the citizens of Tokyo are forced to deal with this monster tearing apart their lives. People run for shelter, cower in hiding, we see the fear in their eyes. As sparks fall around them, a mother clutches her children close to her and tells them not to worry, they’ll be reunited with their father soon. In the afterlife. It is horrifying. As Godzilla causes his death, a radio reporter continues his broadcast, though scared out of his mind, to say goodbye to the listeners.
The horror doesn’t end when Godzilla wades back into the sea, either. The camera lingers on the destruction he left behind, and on the sick and wounded people that fill the hospitals after the attack. The victims aren’t just those who were hurt when the buildings were crumbling and vehicles wrecking, but some of them are suffering from radiation poisoning due to being in close proximity to the contaminated beast.
Honda didn’t take any of this lightly because of what he saw in Hiroshima after the bombing, he knew the heartbreak and devastation that this sort of destruction caused. He saw Godzilla as The Bomb personified, and he translated the real life horror he had witnessed to the screen through this monster movie, elevating it beyond a simple rousing adventure and making it an effective anti-war, anti-nuke statement.
When Emiko sees the suffering of the people in the hospitals, she’s so overcome with emotion that she breaks a promise she made to Serizawa – she tells of a discovery Serizawa has made while locked away in his lab, something that he’s only shown to her, they’re the only people who have known about it. The weight of this discovery weighs heavily on Serizawa, for he fears what could be done with it if got into the wrong hands – and even a well-meaning government can be the wrong hands, as the nuclear bombings of Japan showed. Serizawa is determined to find a way for his discovery to be used for good, and that it never be the cause of the death of civilians. Serizawa is so clearly disturbed by what he has found that it brings to mind physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, shakily quoting Bhagavad Gita when telling how he felt when he saw what the bomb was capable of: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Because of that, it seems fitting the Oppenheimer’s quote has been used in the teaser trailer for this year’s upcoming Godzilla movie.
Serizawa has been doing research involving oxygen, and his discovery is something called the Oxygen Destroyer. This device can split oxygen atoms into fluids. Oxygen is disintegrated, causing organisms to asphyxiate, and their remains are then liquified… A process which Serizawa demonstrates to Emiko by setting off the Oxygen Destroyer in a fish tank.
All other weapons have proven ineffective against Godzilla. The monster must be stopped, or more and more people will be hurt and killed. But can Serizawa come to terms with revealing the existence of the Oxygen Destroyer to the world and using it as a weapon?
The original Godzilla film is celebrating its 60th anniversary and still going strong, enduring in the pop culture consciousness not only because of the huge franchise it spawned, but because it was a fantastic achievement – not just for genre filmmaking, not just for Japanese cinema, but for cinema in general. With their collaboration, Honda, Ifukube, Tsuburaya, and Tanaka took a concept that could’ve just been the makings of an average B-level creature feature and made a truly a great film, certainly one of the all-time greatest monster movies.
To varying degrees of success, Gojira has been sequelized, rebooted, spun off from, adapted for animated television, etc. many times over during the decades since. While some great things have followed it, the original film still stands tall among the pack.