Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954), Monster and Metaphor

Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954), Monster and Metaphor 


On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city Hiroshima, bringing World War II to the closing stage. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki was also bombed. Over 400,000 people have died, according to the numbers given by the United Nations, from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet this is not the end of the story. A hydrogen bomb, aka H-bomb, that is said to be up to 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima was tested by the US in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1954. It was the biggest man-made explosion ever until a megaton test was put forth in 1961. The gigantic mushroom cloud was not the only result of the H-bomb test. About 264 people were accidentally exposed to radiation, among them the crew of 23 people on a Japanese fishing board called Lucky Dragon who suffered from severe radiation sickness; the boat was within 80 miles of the test zone at the time. The film Godzillawas born in this historic context.

The poster of Saraba Rabauru (Farewell Rabauru,) another film that Honda made in the same year as he made Godzilla. This is the usual film style of this tender gentleman, extremely different from his Godzilla series.

Having survived World War II and witnessed the H-bomb test in 1954, director Ishiro Honda felt strongly the anger and objection towards war and nuclear weapons when he started to make the film Godzilla. Honda introduced the idea of a post-nuclear monster. According to J. Hoberman’s essay “Godzilla, Poetry after the A-Bomb,” “Godzilla,” “Gojira” in Japanese, is a combination of the Japanese term “kujira” (whale) and the English term “gorilla.” This exotic name hints back at the historic context in which the film was made. Godzilla became a medium for Honda to show how the consequences of nuclear explosions, such as radiation contamination and fall-out, can have a gigantic impact even on a species that somehow escaped extinction centuries ago. On the other hand, Honda was also suggesting a rebirth of Japan after these tragic dark years through this monster that would live forever. The special effects used in Godzilla were very similar to that used in King Kong (1933). Miniatures and matte-painted backgrounds were frequently used in the film. The biggest difference was that in Godzilla, a real performer was hired to dress up in rubber costumes to film Godzilla’s actions, as oppose to having a puppet model in Kong Kong. The film crew nicknamed Godzilla as “Goji,” meaning “five a.m.” in Japanese, since the crew had to work through days and nights to finish the film only eight months after the H-bomb test. Notice that the first Godzilla suit was over 220 pounds, so burdensome that the performer Haruo Nakajima was said to drain a cup of sweat out of the suit after each day’s performance.

Sugar waffles were said to be used to construct the miniatures of Tokyo due to the shortage of building materials. Can you tell from the picture?

The New York Times made fun of the seemingly ridiculous monster in a review published in 1956, saying that it is “an incredibly awful film, ” “cheap horror-stuff, ” and that the import of Godzilla was a result of “not enough monsters in Hollywood.” Even till now, reviews or articles that mention the original Godzilla sometimes still adopt a condescending tone. The American version of Godzillais to be blamed, since the film severely truncated for release in the U.S.  This version cut out the very essence of the film, involving the suffering of people, the morality of war, and the question of “the temptation to play God with weapons of mass destruction,” as Brent Staples phrased it. The remainder of a performer trampling a miniature city in a rubber costume caused the unfortunate failure of film to be appreciated stateside. (The good news is that Emory Cinematheque will be showing the original Japanese version with subtitles. Please come prepared to defend this classic.) Legendary Pictures is now looking to make a 3D Imax version of Godzilla, aiming to completely reboot this legendary character. Let us look forward to Godzilla 2012.

  • Gallery of photographs taken behind the scene of Godzilla movies from 1954-1965.
  • Godzilla‘s page on The Criterion Collection website, where a film essay about Godzilla written by J. Hoberman and a very meaningful and informative gallery made by Curtis Tsui can be found.
  • Clips from King Kong Vs. Godzilla (キングコング対ゴジラ Kingu Kongu Tai Gojira, 1962). The debate of who won is still going on even though fifty years have passed since the release of the film.
  • Natural disasters closely tie to the design of Japanese monsters. The body of the monsters usually looks like they are consisted of stones and cracks, or the monsters’ existence is caused by an earthquake, a flood or a volcano erupt. On the other hand, monsters are not the only super stars in Japanese culture: its opponents, the Ultramen, the protagonists of the superman series made in the ’60s ,also long live till today.  It is interesting how the monsters become more robotic as time passes.I. Classic Ultraman monster:
    II. Newer Ultraman monster: