War Scars and World Renewal: GODZILLA (1954)

J.L. Carrozza
26 min readDec 14, 2020
Toho international pressbook for GODZILLA (1954), © Toho Company, Ltd.

Haunting footfalls are heard against a black screen before an iconic roar cuts through the sound mix. Then driving music starts playing. We then cut to a shot of the sea from the deck of a salvage vessel. The crewmen pass the time by playing a harmonica and guitar on on deck. Suddenly, the ocean erupts in a blinding flash of light and the ship bursts into flames. This is the opening of Ishiro Honda’s classic 1954 Godzilla. Many film scholars have difficulty admitting this, but Seven Samurai is not the most famous Japanese movie. Godzilla is. As beloved as Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork is, you could go anywhere in the developed world and ask any person about Godzilla and chances are they’d know of it. This is powerful pop culture iconography akin to American creations like Star Wars. Opening to harsh reviews in both Japan and the Western world, the original Godzilla has stood the test of time. It remains hauntingly relevant; a classic cross between the B-movie populism of Hollywood science fiction works and deeper subtext. On the surface Godzilla is a typical B-picture about a giant, dinosaurian beast destroying a city. Yet its topical themes and documentary-style depiction of a nuclear spawned monster’s hellish rampage are more in line with the arthouse than the drive-in.

Art by Noriyoshi Ohrai, ©Toho Company, Ltd.

Japanese studio Toho was planning a co-production with Indonesia’s Perfini called In Glory’s Shadow. It was to be a lavish color war film directed by Senkichi Taniguchi and starring Ryo Ikebe. The visas for the cast and crew wound up denied by the Indonesian government. The Indonesian Foreign Minister disagreed with the film’s message and still harbored bitterness towards the Japanese. Toho were left scrambling for a replacement project to fill their release slate. It should be noted that the first ship destroyed by Godzilla was named the “Eiko Maru”. This could be a production in-joke to that project, “Eiko” meaning “Glory’’ in Japanese. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, on the flight back from Jakarta, looked out at the vast sea and wondered what might be lurking beneath the waves. King Kong (1933) had just been re-released in Japan and did excellent business so Tanaka felt a monster movie could be profitable. Toho’s president, Iwao Mori (1899–1979), convicted as a Class B war criminal by the Allies for making propaganda films, agreed.

Tanaka (1910–1997) was born in Osaka to a military family. He attended college at the Kansai University of Economics, graduating in 1935. From there, he started producing stage plays. He joined Taisho Studios as an associate film producer. Taisho soon merged with Toho. Tanaka, with his education in economics, showed a knack for this as he was mentored by his senior Iwao Mori. Tanaka’s first film as full-fledged producer was Three of the North (1945). It was, incidentally, the last film released in Imperial Japan. In theaters on August 5th, Hiroshima was bombed only a day later. After the war Tanaka continued his producing career. He left Toho for a time when the union disputes took place in 1947. Unlike others who migrated to Shin Toho, Tanaka took over a small company called the Film Arts Association. He returned to Toho in 1952 when Mori was allowed to come back per the end of the U.S. Occupation. 1954 would be the year Tanaka rose to prominence as one of Japan’s most successful producers.

Fan poster by Francesco Francavilla.

Tanaka got to work devising a concept for a film similar to the previous year’s Hollywood production The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. He brought in Shigeru Kayama, a famous science fiction novelist, to write the treatment. Toho’s special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya was also brought on board to direct the effects sequences. Iwao Mori wanted In Glory’s potential director Taniguchi to direct the film but he passed on the project. Instead, Tanaka brought junior director Ishiro Honda on board.

Born in mountainous Yamagata Prefecture, Honda (1911–1993) was the youngest son of Hokan Honda, a Buddhist monk. Ishiro Honda had a long standing love of science as a youth, encouraged by his physician brother Takamoto. As a teenager he became interested in films, often sneaking to the theater to see silent movies against his parents’ wishes. At the time, silent films were shown in Japan with live commentary from a narrator called a benshi which enraptured young Honda. He was accepted into Nihon University’s film program in 1931. Here, one of Honda’s teachers was Iwao Mori who was working on founding a film production company. Mori offered Honda a job at PCL (Photographic Chemical Laboratories) where he became an assistant director. His mentor was director Kajiro Yamamoto whom he learned a great deal from before being drafted into the army. Honda enlisted in the infantry under commanding officer Yasuhide Kurihara. At the time, military service in Imperial Japan was only compulsory for 18 months. In 1936, Kurihara led a military coup against the government to be infamously known as the February 29th Incident.

Honda, due to his association with Kurihara, was sent to Manchuria despite having nearly finished his service. Until the end of World War II, he would serve several tours in China. At one point, he was almost killed by a mortar shell. Between tours, he returned to Japan and worked as an assistant director. He was an AD on the acclaimed Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). On the set of Kajiro Yamamoto’s A Husband’s Chastity that same year, he met another young AD named Akira Kurosawa. The two developed a deep friendship, spending all their off-set waking hours talking about art and cinema. The up-and-coming Honda, Kurosawa and Senkichi Taniguchi were known as the “Three Crows”. Honda recalled seeing Kajiro Yamamoto’s Horse, co-directed by an uncredited Kurosawa, while stationed in Wuhan in 1941. As he watched the film, Honda immediately recognized his friend’s aesthetic style. The years 1940–41 were a dark period in Honda’s life where he was assigned to run a “comfort station” or army brothel in China. He recalled feeling great pity for the women forced to work there. Despite all his wartime hardships, Honda still dreamt of directing. His hope that one day he could return home and make films again kept him going. At one point during a battle, he remembers seeing a single flower growing in the Chinese countryside. He wondered why the Japanese and Chinese had to kill each other in such a beautiful place. During his final deployment in 1945, Honda was captured by the Chinese and spent months as a prisoner-of-war. He returned to his wife Kimi and children Takako and Ryuji in early 1946, visiting the bombed out ruins of Hiroshima on his way to Tokyo. This had a profound impact on Honda. He also brought the mortar which almost killed him back to Japan. Keeping it on his desk for the rest of his life, it would serve as a stark reminder of his war experience and near brush with death.

Upon his return to Japan, Honda resumed work as an assistant director. He worked on many projects for directors like Yamamoto, Senkichi Taniguchi and Motoyoshi Oda. He did second unit photography on Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, helping to create the film’s gritty post-war atmosphere. He directed educational shorts in the meantime for a subsidiary of Toho to prove his mettle. His former teacher Iwao Mori was keen to let him direct. Sadly multiple projects planned to be his directorial debut were shelved. This included a drama called Newspaper Kid and a war film entitled Kamikaze Special Attack Corps. Honda would finally get his chance with 1951’s The Blue Pearl, a docudrama of sorts about pearl divers. By 1954, Honda was fresh off directing two brooding war dramas, Eagle of the Pacific and Farewell Rabaul, where he worked with Tsuburaya. Mori approved Tanaka’s decision to hire Honda for their new monster picture.

Pre-production storyboards drawn by art director Akira Watanabe, © Toho Company, Ltd.

The film was christened Project G. The monster’s name Gojira, as is known, comes from “gorilla” and “kujira” (whale). Urban myths that the creature was named after a large crewman who worked at Toho are almost certainly false. Tanaka wanted a creature akin to an aquatic Kong while Tsuburaya was keen on a giant octopus. Manga artist Kazuyoshi Abe did an early design for the monster with a head like a mushroom cloud, but this design was rejected. Eventually a dinosaurian monster was developed, designed by SFX art director Akira Watanabe (1908–1999) and modeled by Teizo Toshimitsu (1909–1982). Tsuburaya was so obsessed with King Kong that he owned a print of the film and he would examine it to study its technique frame by frame. He estimated how long it would take to animate Godzilla with stop motion animation. His calculation of seven years drew laughter from Toho’s brass. Nonetheless, as a nod to Willis O’ Brien, Tsuburaya would insert a handful of stop motion shots into the movie.

Tsuburaya (1901–1970) was born Eiichi Tsuburaya. His mother passed away when he was only three, so he was largely raised by his grandmother and young uncle Ichiro. As a boy, he excelled in school and became interested in aviation. He would often build model planes out of wood and was considered a child prodigy of sorts. In 1911, he had his first cinematic experience, seeing documentary footage of a volcanic eruption. This spurned a love of the moving picture for the young Tsuburaya. He was especially fascinated by the technical aspect of it. This fascination inspired him to try and build his own film projector. After graduating primary school, his interest in aviation blossomed. He enrolled in the Nippon Flying School under Seitaro Taimai. Taimai died in a plane crash a few years later. The school closed and Tsuburaya was accepted into the Tokyo Engineering School. While studying and working for a toy manufacturer, by chance he was approached by Yoshio Edamasa, a film director. Edamasa offered him the position as a cameraman. The only 18 year old Tsuburaya relished the opportunity. Like Honda, his early film career was interrupted by conscription into the military. Tsuburaya was, however, honorably discharged after six months. He returned to Tokyo after the great Kanto earthquake and worked at the silent era studio Kokukatsu. In 1926, he was recruited by cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama to assist him on shooting Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926). An early silent masterpiece, the film’s haunting and atmospheric images are no doubt Tsuburaya’s partial contribution. He became a respected and innovative cinematographer for the studio Shochiku. Tsuburaya shot numerous films around this time and invented his own camera crane. He became known for atmospheric images and use of smoke on set. This got him the nickname “Smoke Tsuburaya”. In 1933, his career took a turn as he saw Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s monster masterwork King Kong. He was floored and even purchased a 35mm print. He studied and analyzed it frame by frame, learning Willis O’Brien’s stop motion techniques through simple close observation.

Tsuburaya was hired at Nikkatsu to help them develop better shooting techniques. He quit after clashing with the brass. Afterwards, film producer and entrepreneur Yoshio Osawa recruited Tsuburaya for his fledgling film company, J.O. Studios. Tsuburaya devised a better version of his crane made of metal and was appointed chief cinematographer. He developed a reputation as one of the best DPs in Imperial Japan. One project in particular, 1935’s Princess Kaguya directed by Nobuo Aoyagi and Yoshitsugu Tanaka, was notable. This early adaptation of the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter was Tsuburaya’s first film to use extensive miniatures and visual effects. Sadly, it is lost. Much of Japan’s pre-war cinematic history went up in flames during America’s fire-bombings of Tokyo. Many other prints were destroyed by the Imperial army to harvest its metal in the war to come. In 1936, industrialist Ichizo Kobayashi acquired J.O. Studios and merged it with PCL Film Company and other studios. This was the birth of Toho Company Ltd. Producer Iwao Mori brought Tsuburaya into the fold. Mori gave him an entire “Special Arts Department” division of his own. He was to help advance the company in the development and filming of visual effects techniques. Tsuburaya was apprehensive as he was now esteemed as a cinematographer. Yet he always had a particular passion for the technical trickery of filmmaking. He accepted and began work on various propaganda films. One of these was called The New Earth and was a co-production between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. He was recruited by the Imperial air force, commissioned to work as a combat photographer and make flight training pieces. This would benefit his special effects work at Toho tremendously. His first major film as FX director was Naval Bomber Squadron (1940), directed by Sotoji Kimura. It was Tsuburaya’s first credit for special effects.

After Japan entered the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Toho commissioned a propaganda film celebrating it. The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay (1942), directed by Kajiro Yamamoto, was the first film to gain Tsuburaya notoriety. Its main set piece was a stunning recreation of the Pearl Harbor attack. This film was the highest grossing in Japanese cinema history up to that point. This was followed by films like Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron (1944), though by this time the tide was turning against Japan in the Pacific Theater. When the war ended unfavorably for Japan and the country was occupied, Tsuburaya found himself targeted by MacArthur’s forces. To them, his special effects work on The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malay was just too realistic. For him to have created such detailed miniatures of a U.S. naval base and its warships, he had to have been a spy. He was thus blacklisted from Toho. Tsuburaya and his son Hajime worked freelance for the next several years. They took work when they could get it such as on Daiei’s The Rainbow Man and The Invisible Man Appears (both 1949). After the American occupiers departed in 1952, he was allowed to return to Toho.

Toho laserdisc release of GODZILLA (1954). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Tanaka announced Godzilla in July of 1954 to much ballyhoo, yet the design and nature of Godzilla was kept secret for months. A radio drama based on the film aired weekly up to the release and helped stoke anticipation as well. Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata fleshed out a screenplay from Kayama’s treatment and filming commenced for two and a half months. Honda and Murata would consult with Tsuburaya and Tanaka while writing the script to make sure their vision for scenes was executable and affordable. Conceptually Honda and Tsuburaya worked closely, but at Toho, tokusatsu (special effects) films were always shot with two units. One unit was managed by the main director who would shoot the actor-driven drama scenes. The other unit was run by the special effects director with a separate crew who shot the films’ trick photography. The director and special effects director would have to coordinate closely to make sure their footage matched and edited together cohesively. Honda, however, had final say in the editing process. Despite their iconic association with each other, Honda and Tsuburaya were never personal friends. In their years of working together, they seldom socialized outside of the Toho backlot. An amusing anecdote goes that at one point during pre-production, Honda, Tsuburaya and assistant director Koji Kajita (1923–2013) stood on the roof of the Matsukaya Department Store. They were planning Godzilla’s destructive rampage, mentioning where fires would break out and what buildings would be destroyed. The authorities overheard this alarming conversation. The trio were made to show identification proving they worked for Toho.

Illustrated diagram showing the tokusatsu production process, from Ian Thorne (Julian May)’s children’s book GODZILLA (1977).

Shooting for Godzilla began in August of 1954. The scenes at fictional Odo Island were shot at Ijikacho in Mie Prefecture. The summer heat was brutal and Honda developed a severe sunburn while filming. The extras in these scenes were locals. Honda had difficulty directing them as they did not understand that the monster was going to be added in post-production. The sequence atop the hill where Godzilla makes its first appearance was particularly grueling to film. It took an hour and a half by ship to reach the locale and another hour to climb the summit. Actors and crew often passed out during filming and communication was difficult due to the terrain. At one point, the camera magazine was left behind at the hotel and an assistant had to go all the way back down the hill to get it back. Honda and company would film for twenty days in Mie before returning to Tokyo to shoot mostly on Toho’s lot.

Masao Taimai (1908–1997) shot Godzilla. Unlike later DP Hajime Koizumi who became a permanent fixture of Honda’s team, this was Taimi’s only film with Honda and only monster film. He was better known for his work on Mikio Naruse’s work, most notably Late Chrysanthemums, Floating Clouds and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. He insisted on bringing the lighting crew from his Naruse films on board. His images, shot on old school nitrate film, are atmospheric and rich. One of the most difficult scenes to shoot was the underwater footage for the film’s climax. These shots were done at Gokasho Bay, also in Mie Prefecture. A pair of divers were hired as stand-ins for actors Takarada and Hirata. These scenes used a waterproof camera type created for Honda’s debut The Blue Pearl. Yuzuru Aizawa, Taimi’s assistant, was charged with shooting the underwater segments. He nearly drowned on his first day after a crew member forgot to turn on his suit’s oxygen. Aizawa would act as DP twenty years later for Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

Possibly the first piece of English language press related to GODZILLA.

Tsuburaya’s unit were considered a group of eccentric misfits until the success of this film. They would go on to shoot for an extra three weeks once Honda’s unit wrapped. Tsuburaya pioneered a high frame rate shooting style which was then slowed down to 24 frames per second. This would give the miniatures and monster suits the illusion of immense weight. Working from extensive photographs of downtown Tokyo, a team of 40 carpenters led by Yoshio Irie spent a whole month building a miniature Tokyo at 1/25th scale. Over 500 miniature buildings were made for Godzilla. Portions of the tiny streets were made with sawdust, so they would crumble as Godzilla’s feet trampled them. Models that weren’t destroyed in some scenes were refurbished and reused in others. Wafer crackers were even used to build some of the smaller buildings, as they looked convincing when blown up. Tsuburaya’s unit would reuse this technique for 1961’s The Last War. Thousands of pounds of gelatin, mixed with water, created convincing looking ocean scenes, soon a Toho FX tradition. An auxiliary third “C” unit run by Hiroshi Mukoyama assisted Tsuburaya’s FX unit. They created the film’s impressive composites using mattes, background plates and double exposures. Choosing effective camera angles was difficult for the creative team and required a lot of ingenuity. In total, 263 of Godzilla’s 868 cuts were special effects shots.

Haruo Nakajima stomps buildings using the bottom half of the first suit. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Godzilla was played by stuntmen Katsumi Tezuka and Haruo Nakajima. Haruo Nakajima (1929–2017) was born the third son of five brothers in Sakata, Yamagata. His father was a butcher and at a young age he developed a love of athletics and swimming. Unbeknownst to him, his athleticism would come to be useful later in life. When Nakajima was a teenager the Pacific War broke out. In 1943, he was enlisted in the Imperial Navy’s aerial training program. He wanted to fly but dreaded being sent to his death as a tokko (kamikaze). The war ended and unlike many he was lucky enough to escape such a fate. At the age of 16 he returned home. After the war, he first assisted his father in his butcher business and then drove a transport for the U.S. Occupation forces at Misawa Air Base. At the age of 18 he found his calling when he saw a newspaper ad for an actor training program. From here, Nakajima entered the film industry. His first onscreen role was an extra in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949). Sadly his shots wound up on the cutting room floor.

In 1950, he formally joined Toho and continued work as an extra. From here, Nakajima began to work as a stuntman or “doppelganger actor” as the industry called it. In 1953, director Ishiro Honda needed an actor to be set on fire for a stunt in his war movie Eagle of the Pacific. Only the fearless Nakajima volunteered. His reputation as a stunt person was solidified and his can-do attitude impressed Honda. He also played one of the bandits in Kurosawa’s masterwork Seven Samurai (1954). This made him a natural choice to act inside the Godzilla suit. Nakajima suffered tortures of the damned inside a suit so heavy and stiflingly hot under the studio lights that he would often faint if a take ran long. He had to move fast per Tsuburaya’s shooting style, which in a heavy monster suit was excruciating. Tsuburaya screened Nakajima his print of King Kong as inspiration. In addition, Nakajima visited the local zoo to study how animals moved, especially bears. The Godzilla suit was built out of latex with an armature made of bamboo and mesh wire, its construction headed by brothers Kanju and Yasuei Yagi. It would take two entire months to construct the first suit, which wound up weighing over 220 pounds. Nakajima was unable to move in it and so another, lighter suit had to be built, this time taking only two weeks to finish. The first suit wound up cut in half and used for certain close-ups of Godzilla’s feet stomping buildings. The main suit had to be cleaned and repaired constantly throughout production. It was frequently damaged by stunts and the inside was lined with cotton which absorbed sweat. A cup of perspiration would be drained from the suit after each day of filming. For some shots of Godzilla expelling its heat ray, propane was used and Nakajima’s face had to be shielded. Other “heat ray” shots were done using hand drawn animation courtesy of Mukoyama’s unit. Nonetheless, Nakajima was a trooper and would return to sweat inside a myriad of monster suits in the decades to come. A smaller hand puppet was also employed for certain close-up shots, such as Godzilla biting down a radio tower.

Teizo Toshimitsu sculpts the Godzilla suit. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Godzilla’s unmistakable roar was made by a glove rubbing on the strings of a contrabass then played backwards. Akira Ifukube was hired to compose the soundtrack. Ifukube (1914–2006) was a versatile and brilliant composer who excelled at creating mood. A forestry student by trade with a hobby and passion for indigenous music, as a youth he lived in a Hokkaido community with a large Ainu population. He transitioned to composing music after suffering radiation poisoning while X-raying wood. Some of his early compositions were used by the Imperial government for propaganda purposes. After the war he began to compose music for movies, starting with Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail with Toshiro Mifune in 1947. While scoring Godzilla, Ifukube was not allowed to see any of the special effects footage as Tsuburaya wasn’t comfortable screening his unfinished work. It did not help that Mori and Tanaka were skeptical when viewing dailies of the monster footage. Yet when the score was finished and synced with the movie, the brass responded far more favorably. Like John Williams with Jaws and Star Wars years later, some even felt Ifukube had single-handedly saved the film.

Criticized for having “bad acting” on both sides of the Pacific, Godzilla is actually well performed. Ikiru and Seven Samurai’s Takashi Shimura (1905–1982) leads the cast as Yamane. Shimura, of course, needs no introduction as one of Showa Japan’s premiere thespians. Akira Takarada as Ogata and Akihiko Hirata as Serizawa shine as well. Both young actors would become favorites of Ishiro Honda and frequent fixtures in his movies. Akira Takarada (1934-) was born in what is now North Korea. His father was an engineer and was soon transferred to Northern Manchuria. Takarada and his family lived in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province from the time he was two. After Japan’s surrender, the Russians invaded Manchuria. The Soviets showed little mercy to the retreating Japanese as the military had conducted medical experiments nearby. As his family fled in 1946, a 12 year old Takarada witnessed Russian soldiers raping a Japanese woman and was shot. It was an Imperial army doctor who removed the bullet from his body. The Takaradas returned to Japan, settling in Murakami City in Niigata, the hometown of Akira’s father. After graduating from high school, Akira Takarada’s good looks and natural talent got him accepted into Toho’s New Face program. Takarada was in the Class of 1953. His classmates included Kenji Sahara, Momoko Kochi, Yu Fujiki and Masumi Okada. His debut was in 1954’s And Then the Liberty Bell Rang. Godzilla was the first real leading role for Takarada, only 20 years old at the time. He was both nervous and excited to work with Takashi Shimura and to take on a pivotal role in an important production for Toho. Shimura would become a mentor figure for Takarada, teaching him much about the craft. For all the film’s thespians, trying to act while envisioning a giant monster looming over them was a mind-boggling endeavor.

Before GODZILLA was released in November 1954, Toho had a Shinto ceremony to pray for the film’s box office success. Akihiko Hirata was the priest and Momoko Kochi the miko (shrine maiden). © Toho Company, Ltd.

By Hollywood standards, the characters are not given much development in Honda and Murata’s script. Yet they serve their purpose in the film’s narrative efficiently. They are quintessentially Japanese archetypes, torn between righteous duty and their inner passions. Serizawa’s character is the best written among them: a tormented man bearing the scars of war and driven to a uniquely Japanese sacrifice for the greater good. He was a character science-loving Honda had a strong empathy for. Hirata (1927–1984) was born Ahikiho Onoda to a wealthy family in Japanese occupied Seoul, Korea. He was a graduate of a prestigious military academy and a political science major at Tokyo University. His family was unamused by his decision to enter the film industry, spurned by his older brother Yoshiki Onoda. At first, he was interested in working behind the camera but took a liking to acting, aided no doubt by his handsome looks. Taking the stage name Hirata, his debut was in 1953’s The Last Embrace by Masahiro Makino. He became known as the “Japanese Gregory Peck”.

Momoko Kochi (1932–1998) plays Emiko Yamane. She was born Momoko Okochi, the daughter of painter Nobuhiro Okochi. Kochi was accepted into Toho’s New Face program in the same class as Takarada. Her debut was in 1953’s A Woman’s Heart Released. Though Kochi also appeared in Honda’s Half Human (1955) and The Mysterians (1957), she declined to appear in any of the Godzilla sequels. She did not like that people on the street would point to her and say “Godzilla”. Eventually she left Toho to pursue more serious stage acting. Before she died, Kochi did reprise the role of Emiko in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995). Sachio Sakai plays journalist Hagiwara and was one of Honda’s favorite character actors. Sakai (1925–1998) worked with Honda as late as 1970’s Space Amoeba. His debut was in Akira Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday (1947) and he would appear in several more Kurosawa movies including Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (1961). He was also a fixture of Toho’s popular Young Guy series with Yuzo Kayama. His final role was in Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August (1991). Fuyuki Murakami (1911–2007) was another one of Honda’s preferred character actors. Born in Yamaguchi, for Honda he often played scientists and politicians. Most notably, he later played Dr. Sano who creates The Human Vapor in the 1960 film of the same name.

The 1954 Castle Bravo atomic test.

Godzilla is evocative from its first scene, immediately stirring up unsettling memories in the mind of its audience. The opening is a nod to the Dai-go Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) incident, a political hot button issue involving the United States. At the time, the U.S. was testing hydrogen bombs at the Marshall Islands, ironically captured from Imperial Japanese control a decade prior. In early 1954, the tuna vessel Lucky Dragon strayed too close to America’s Castle Bravo atomic test site. Seeing a mysterious flash of light like in the movie, the fishermen encountered the dusty fallout and developed radiation sickness, with the radioman dying. Some of their contaminated catches even reached the market. This gives you an idea of where Japan was collectively in 1954, with their American occupiers having only recently departed. Press called the incident the “third atomic bombing of Japan”. The Castle Bravo atomic test in later films would become Godzilla’s origin story. Kayama’s original treatment directly referenced the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident, opening with it returning to Japan. Honda rewrote this into the destruction of the Eiko Maru as he felt it was too on the nose.

As the film gets going, the references to Japan’s wartime misfortunes take on more gravity. There’s a scene midpoint that shows a Nagasaki survivor lamenting at having to go back into the shelters. Once Godzilla begins its rampage through Tokyo, the viewer is barraged by unsettling scenes invoking the war. People are burned by Godzilla’s ray in the streets and a mother, cuddling her two children, tells them that they’ll be with their dead father soon. The aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction is where the film most channels Japan’s war scars. The high contrast monochrome images depict smoldering rubble and the victims of Godzilla’s wrath suffering on futons in overcrowded hospitals. They are impossible to distance from similar documentary scenes of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ifukube’s arresting choral “Prayer For Peace”, filmed with hundreds of student extras from a Tokyo girls’ academy, only makes this message more poignant. Honda’s friend Kurosawa would himself soon direct a film themed around the existential horror of nuclear weapons: I Live In Fear (1955).

There’s dark irony in the fact that Godzilla is only destroyed via a weapon with as much destructive potential as it. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer is easily equivalent in terrible power to the atomic bomb. Yet its origins are unclear. One scene has Sachio Sakai’s reporter Hagiwara mention a “German colleague” of Serizawa to which the clearly uncomfortable scientist vehemently denies knowing. It’s a minor detail, but important enough to be included. Could this be a subtle hint that the Oxygen Destroyer is “Axis tech” derived from Nazi and Imperial Japanese research? If true, it’s an ironic twist that the American H-bomb spawned Godzilla is only brought down by an equally horrifying weapon created by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s own human experimentation.

Criterion Blu-ray of GODZILLA, autographed by actor Akira Takarada.

Ultimately, Godzilla is a film about Japan’s collective pain. Some have even argued that Godzilla itself represents Japan’s Jungian collective unconscious. Almost five decades later, director Shusuke Kaneko would explore this theme more deeply with 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Godzilla is akin to a Shinto yonaoshi god who seeks to humble humanity, particularly the Japanese, into realizing their place in the natural order. In his 2019 book Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan, author Takashi Miura explains that in feudal Japan, the peasants believed that the frequent local disasters were due to monstrous gods. Gods that brought about cataclysms, social change and “world renewal” (yonaoshi). Cinematic kaiju like Godzilla are the modern equivalent. They are a force of realignment, showing up when, ala Icarus, we fly too close to the sun. These monsters are like the Kanto earthquake, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Lucky Dragon incident, the 3/11 quake and now, perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of Godzilla, Dr. Yamane exclaims “If we continue testing nuclear weapons, another Godzilla may appear, somewhere in the world, again”. He wasn’t wrong. Godzilla was completed on October 25, 1954. Toho arranged a Shinto ceremony for its success at the box office and the film was screened for the staff and Toho’s brass. On November 3rd, its first day of release, Godzilla would break records for ticket sales. Toho’s brass and the shooting staff celebrated and the beer, sake and liquor flowed. Naturally Toho couldn’t resist the allure of a sequel. Godzilla Raids Again (1955), ala 1933’s Son of Kong, was the rushed into production quickie follow-up. Ishiro Honda was occupied with other assignments and could not direct. Instead “B-list” director Motoyoshi Oda (1910–1973, Ghost Man, The Invisible Avenger) was hired. Oda’s direction is among the most pedestrian in a Japanese programmer. Shigeaki Hidaka’s screenplay is also terrible with a poor structure. It violates the basic three act plot and not in a way that works. Godzilla Raids Again places Godzilla and Anguirus’ Osaka battle in the film’s center rather than climax. The rest of the film is devoted to the dull human plot. The saving grace is the special effects work from Eiji Tsuburaya’s unit. Hiccups aside, it is nearly on par with his work in the original with especially moody miniature photography. Unlike in future entries, photographed in slow motion where the monsters lumber as they battle, Godzilla and Anguirus’ duel is a ferocious brawl. The monsters move with lighting speed, more in line with real animals. This was caused by an error from assistant Koichi Takano who accidentally overcranked the camera. Yet Tsuburaya liked the effect so continued filming it that way.

Later in 1955, Toho sold the film’s U.S. rights to producer Joseph E. Levine (1905–1987). Levine created the most famous alternate version of the film: Godzilla, King of the Monsters! released stateside on April 27, 1956. Embassy Pictures handled the distribution on the East Coast and TransWorld on the West. Some states got it in a double bill with Prehistoric Women and others with Jerry Warren’s Man Beast. Director Terry Morse (1906–1984) shot new scenes for this version, filmed in only 24 hours. Actor Raymond Burr would play an American reporter covering the carnage in Japan. Burr (1917–1993) was one of Hollywood’s most fascinating players. He often appeared as villains in film noirs. His most notable role was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Afterwards, Burr was best known for his long running roles as TV’s Perry Mason (1957–1966) and Ironside (1967–1975). He was a closeted gay man who kept a secret domestic partnership with actor Robert Benevides. Burr was known for his kindness as a generous philanthropist in later years. He would be back years later to reprise the role of Steve Martin in Godzilla 1985, the U.S. version of The Return of Godzilla (1984).

Japanese-American actor Frank Iwanaga (1922–1963) plays Martin’s translator. Overall, Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, is a very passable re-edit of the movie but vastly inferior to its Japanese counterpart. Burr gives a compelling performance but it is the Japanese characters who still drive the plot. The use of doubles to show Burr’s character Steve Martin interacting with the Japanese actors is done passably. The Japanese footage is reduced to an hour or so of material. Most references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and implications of America’s responsibility for creating the monster are removed. Godzilla: King of the Monsters! is missing most, but not all, of the political commentary of Honda’s original.

Some swimsuit clad models promote the release of GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956).

Much of the film is left un-dubbed with Burr providing a narration track. When the film does employ dubbing it’s quite crude. According to actor James Hong who provided the voices of Ogata and Serizawa, it was done without the use of loops and the technical sloppiness really shows. There’s even an instance where Yamane says a line of dialogue without his lips moving. There are sound design improvements; anguished screams are added to certain destruction scenes such as the train and police car segments. While this version of the film holds up decently to Hollywood’s atomic monster B-movies of the 50s, it’s neutered of its distinctiveness. Surprisingly, Godzilla: King of the Monsters! would be reverse-exported back to Japan with subtitles in 1957. In Japanese theaters, scenes involving Martin’s translator were said to elicit laughter from audiences.

American VHS of GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! from Vestron. Note the careless use of a still from GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973).

Some international versions of Godzilla (the German one especially) were patterned after the Japanese original. Most, however, were based on King of the Monsters! In 1977, Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi (1947-, Starcrash) would create his own version of King of the Monsters! Affectionately called “Cozzilla” by fans, this is a drastically re-edited and Italian dubbed version of the film using a rudimentary colorization that tints the footage with a kaleidoscopic effect. With added synth music by Fabio Frizzi (Zombi 2) and very 70s sound design, this version adds a lengthy Hiroshima-themed prologue. Copious footage of the atomic bombings and real life scenes of wartime destruction are spliced into the movie to make Godzilla’s rampage more violent. It was also to pad the run time as Cozzi was under obligation to make the film over 90 minutes. Kamikaze footage is used during the jet fighters’ attack on Godzilla. A lengthy montage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki footage is also edited into the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage. This gives Cozzilla a feel like a Godzilla movie filtered through an Italian mondo sensibility. Some destruction scenes are shown in slow motion, in an attempt to make them more powerful and likely to increase the film’s length. Shots from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla Raids Again are also added. This version is worth seeing primarily as a curiosity, though it does boast a nightmarish and unique tone. It was technically the first colorization of a black and white film ever created.

Godzilla wouldn’t be back again until 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. This was after producer Tanaka had made a series of standalone monster and sci-fi films including Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), Varan (1958) and Mothra (1961). Thankfully for Japan, the second Godzilla would wind up a more neutral force.

J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from several chapters in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.



J.L. Carrozza

Jules L. Carrozza (1986-) is a film director, video editor, writer, graphic designer and general crazy person.