How the Japanese Destroyed Tokyo Themselves and Unwittingly Unleashed a Trans-Pacific Collaboration that Helped Mend US-Japanese Relations
The early 1950s was not an easy time to be Japanese, especially if you were trying to please Americans. Despite winning the Pacific War and exacting vengeance by firebombing Tokyo and subjecting Hiroshima and Nagasaki to nuclear annihilation, Americans still percolated with bitter resentment for Pearl Harbor and punishing campaigns for places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. While Americans might begrudgingly purchase saucers and curios marked “Made in Occupied Japan,” they were generally uninterested in admitting that anything about Japanese culture was worthwhile.
That began to change in the 1950s, but it was a slow and sporadic process. Director Akira Kurosawa (who spent the early 40s making a series of artful propaganda films) blew the doors off theatres worldwide with the enigmatic Rashomon. The US occupation ended in 1952 and, with it, certain limitations on the subject matter Japanese publishers and filmmakers could tackle. Kurosawa was at his creative peak in 1954 with his martial epic Seven Samurai, another international hit that caught the attention of American critics and cinephiles. Another film was released that same year, whose long-lasting and unexpected impact its creators could never have imagined.
To be fair, Toho Studios was aiming high with Gojira, an ambitious and massively budgeted monster movie that represented a considerable financial risk. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka—Gojira’s godfather—drew inspiration, surprisingly, from two American influences. First was RKO’s highly successful The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on a Ray Bradbury short story and featuring impressive stop-motion special effects from Ray Harryhausen. Second—and much closer to home both geographically and psychologically—was the tragedy involving the Lucky Dragon No. 5, a Japanese fishing vessel that strayed too close to a US nuclear test. What if, wondered Tanaka, such atomic testing could stir up some unlucky dragon of the deep?
Thus was “born” Gojira, a Jurassic orphan awakened (and possibly mutated?) by a nuclear test. After attacking several ships off the Japanese coast, the beast eventually turns his attention to Tokyo, and the Japanese Self-Defense Force is powerless to stop him. Ultimately, Gojira is taken down by 20th century pseudo-science: the “oxygen destroyer,” a device that separates oxygen from water—including the water that resides in living organisms!
Directed by Ishiro Honda, and featuring Japanese superstar Takashi Shimura (who appeared in Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and numerous other films now considered classics), Gojira was a huge hit in Japan. Despite featuring a towering dinosaur with white-hot atomic breath, the film was also dark, brooding and philosophical. It was a clever parable that reflected the pessimism and helplessness of post-war Japan. Even the ridiculous “oxygen destroyer” became a lesson in the moral dilemma presented by nuclear weapons. In 1945, on the eve of Trinity (the first test of a nuclear weapon), American scientists worried that an atomic explosion might trigger an unstoppable chain reaction that would burn off the planet’s entire atmosphere! In Gojira, Dr. Serizawa agonized at the possibility that his oxygen destroyer, once activated at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, would set off a reaction and destroy all the water on earth.
Gojira‘s special effects gambles paid off as well. Realizing that they had neither the expertise nor the budget for stop-motion photography as seen in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Toho’s creative team designed an elaborate rubber suit, in which an actor could lumber about, destroying a miniature—and very convincing—Tokyo. While this arrangement severely limited what Gojira could do on-camera, it was believable enough, and when combined with ingenious sound effects and other well-crafted props, a cinematic icon was born.
But could Gojira appeal to a global marketplace like his artier, more reputable cousins? The answer was both “yes” and “no.” American audiences would inevitably view any giant lizard flick as kids’ fare, and kids were not going to sit through two hours of subtitles, much less a bleak and somber message about the menace of nuclear weapons. And so, one of the most expensive movies in Japanese history came to American theatres as a low-budget film distributed by a pair of independent producers operating at the edges of the Hollywood system. By reshuffling much of the original film and inserting hastily shot (but damnably clever) scenes starring Raymond Burr (who wasn’t quite a household name at that time), director Terry Morse presented the story of the humorously named American reporter Steve Martin (Burr), who arrives in Japan to visit his friend Dr. Serizawa. The two never meet, as Martin is swept up in the chaos of the monster Godzilla (renamed for American audiences).
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) ends up as a more or less straightforward monster movie; albeit one with an exotic tinge and a puzzlingly tertiary role for its American star. All but gone were the allusions to nuclear testing, and the various relationships amongst the Japanese cast were watered down. Still, Godzilla was a smash hit in the US.
Lost in the ballyhoo of a man in a rubber suit kicking over balsa-wood buildings and breathing nuclear fire is the fact that Gojira/Godzilla accomplished two things: it proved that the Japanese could produce something that the average American could relate to, and it portrayed a spectrum of Japanese society every bit as broad as that in America. Here were scientists, and politicians, and businessmen, and families—regular people, just like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They weren’t the slavering, sallow-faced troglodytes of wartime propaganda. The Americanized Godzilla refused to portray the Japanese as anything other than normal human beings. Perhaps this message was not intended by the American producers, and maybe it was absorbed subliminally by American audiences, but it had an effect. Only a few years after Godzilla premiered, American TV stations were airing Japanese shows like Astroboy, Gigantor and Speed Racer.
Here’s the ultimate irony: in the wake of Gojira/Godzilla‘s success, Toho Studios has continued to release Godzilla sequels to this day (over two dozen as of last year), and all of them far less serious—even insanely so—than the dark, brooding original. Where the Americans declined to make Gojira a total laughingstock with Godzilla, the Japanese gladly stepped in to do it for them. (We’ll just ignore the fact that the beast was literally dissolved at the end of the first film, which raises the question of how he could be around for sequels at all.) Over the years, Godzilla has fought King Kong, a giant moth, UFOs, and even a mechanized version of himself, and while the camp audacity of these films does have a certain appeal, it makes you wonder how Westerners might have viewed Godzilla today had no sequels been made, or if they had taken a more serious approach. US audiences didn’t get to see the unexpurgated, unshuffled Gojira until 2004, when Rialto Pictures released it to a limited number of art cinemas.
Now Toho and Sony have released a fascinating two-disk DVD set called Gojira: The Original Japanese Masterpiece, containing both Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters. It’s tastefully packaged with attractive black-and-white stills and bold red logos. Also included are an informative story-behind-the-film booklet, and optional film commentaries by Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski (whose comments, plus data from imdb.com, provided much of the background for this article).