Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets. It’s a double month of prom and sea monsters as we celebrate Enchantment Under The Sea here at Nightmare on Film Street. In honor of sea monsters, were’ going to be looking at one of the most legendary monsters to ever emerge from the watery depths, Godzilla! And while the city crushing kaiju is a cultural icon, the powerful original film is often overlooked. But Godzilla lives on as one of the most effective uses of a monster as metaphor in all of horror.
It’s one of the most iconic monster films ever made, spawning two entire genres, countless sequels, spinoffs, and Hollywood reboots. But rarely do we examine the brilliant, mournful earnestness of the very first Godzilla (1954). It’s a film that somehow made a very clear statement on the tragedy of nuclear weapons, while also achieving an innovative and exciting special effects spectacular. It’s a balance of fantasy and reality that is so difficult to find, yet is the essence of the mission of horror and science fiction.
A Monster Born From History
Godzilla was conceived of by the Japanese Production Company Toho’s producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was inspired by the 1953 Warner Brothers B-Movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The film told of a hibernating dinosaur, brought to life by stop motion legend Ray Harryhausen, who is awakened by a nuclear test and rampages through New York City. While flying back from the site of a canceled Toho production in Indonesia, Tanaka thought of combining the spectacle of an attacking monster with a pertinent political message. In 1953, the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru was accidentally exposed to fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test in the South Pacific. The members of the crew were sickened and one eventually died, making him the first victim of a hydrogen bomb in history. By basing a sci-fi premise on a real-world tragedy, Tanaka set the groundwork that would slowly evolve into one of the best social horror films of all time.
Before giving the film the go-ahead, Toho had to ensure that the special effects needed to pull it off were possible. The fact that the film was assigned an effects supervisor before a director speaks to how the studio understood that a lack of believability would topple the entire film. Eiji Tsuburaya was chosen and assured that he would be able to execute the vision. Godzilla was a go, with Ishirō Honda directing.
Honda was in many ways the only person who could have successfully directed Godzilla. He had a deep interest in the strange and unusual and was committed to handling the subject seriously. This wasn’t the case for most of Toho’s original picks, who passed on the project because they found it laughable. Before filming began, Honda had every single member of production read the script and invited them to leave the project if they didn’t believe in it. Honda understood that in order to make the film envisioned by Toho and himself, they couldn’t approach it like they were making just any B-Movie. They needed to transform what Sci-Fi horror could achieve, by tapping directly into real horror.
“[Godzilla is] a balance of fantasy and reality that is so difficult to find, yet is the essence of the mission of horror and science fiction. “
Japan of 1954 was less than ten years out from the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the even more deadly firebombings of Tokyo. Most Japanese adults and teenagers still carried memories and trauma from those unprecedented experiences of mass death and destruction, and many were to cope with the delayed effects of radiation poisoning for years to come. Yet open criticism of nuclear weapons and the country that deployed them was still rare and even taboo. The 1952 film Children of Hiroshima dealt tenderly with the long term impact of radiation poisoning but didn’t make a statement against the war or the United States’ use of the bomb. Japan was still attempting to rebuild, and much of the leadership wasn’t looking to stir up anything with the United States again. So while they mourned their losses, indictments of nuclear devastation and the powers that wielded them were not present in the film industry. Godzilla changed all that.
Through the story of an ancient amphibious sea monster awakened by American H-Bomb testing, Honda and co-writer Takeo Murata were able to directly address the senseless destruction of a decade earlier. The film opens with a deliberate recreation of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru disaster, as a fishing boat is ambushed and destroyed by a mysterious power rising from the ocean depths. As boat after boat from the fishing community on Odo Island goes missing, an elder recalls a legend of an ancient sea monster named Godzilla who used to devastate the livelihood of the village unless appeased by human sacrifice. A haunting scene of a Shinto ceremony referred to as an “exorcism” in the subtitles precedes a spooky nighttime storm sequence on the island. Huts shake and the sound of the howling wind is punctuated by approaching footsteps and an unnerving roar. A house is suddenly flattened, and the camera pans across a scene of destruction. Yet we see no monster. Honda and Murata made the brilliant call to delay the full reveal of Godzilla for some time, creating a powerful sense of dread and tapping into the unseen monster technique so famously effective in Jaws (1977).
Creating a Kaiju
Before Godzilla’s first appearance on screen, he is represented primarily with sound effects, brilliantly conceived by sound designer Ichiro Minawa and sound recorder Hisashi Shimonaga. The opening credits are accompanied only by the sound of Godzilla’s thunderous footsteps, which rivals the famous two-note shark motif of Jaws in dread-inducing effect. As the title appears, the iconic Godzilla roar blasts on the soundtrack, and only after does any music begin. The footsteps would have sounded similar to the boom of distant bombing, no doubt familiar to post-war Japan, eliciting a familiar dread from audiences of the time. The roar is startlingly difficult to place. After the sound designers couldn’t achieve anything satisfiability unfamiliar with existing animal roars, the film’s composer, Akira Ifukube, loosened the lower strings of a contrabass and ran a leather glove through them. After fiddling with the recording pitch, he achieved the otherworldly roar associated with the beast to this day.
Once Godzilla does make his famous first appearance, he doesn’t disappoint. The effects are dated but somehow still effective, and it’s all in the approach. At first, the effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya wanted to emulate King Kong with stop motion effects. However, after realizing that Toho couldn’t support the infrastructure to achieve stop motion in a reasonable timeline, he opted for “suitmation” a technique in which a costumed performer interacts with miniatures, occasionally combining with live actors via composite shots.
“The sequence in which Godzilla comes ashore and destroys Tokyo is a testament to the power of black and white cinematography.”
The influence of King Kong (1933), looms large over Godzilla. In fact, the recent and wildly successful rerelease of King Kong in 1952 partly inspired Tamaka to produce the film. Despite predating Godzilla by more than two decades, King Kong’s stop motion is slightly more convincing than the bipedal lizard suit. Perhaps it’s the fact that the charm of stop motion animation maintains its dreamlike wonder, while Godzilla is pretty recognizably a man in a suit. The illusion somehow works because of the destruction, realistically conveyed in painstakingly constructed miniatures crumbling and bursting into flames from Godzilla’s atomic breath. The sequence in which Godzilla comes ashore and destroys Tokyo is a testament to the power of black and white cinematography. The shadowed, nighttime lighting and the flickering flames of destruction are haunting, a testament to the inimitable power of black and white cinematography to convey beauty in sci-fi horror.
The other key factor in convincing the audience to fear Godzilla is the realistic loss and devastation left in his wake. The film is full of irradiated children, overcrowded emergency hospitals, and sobbing, orphaned toddlers. The scenes of Tokyo engulfed in flames and fires trapping escaping families intentionally mirror the firebombing of the city a decade earlier. The film never exploits the recent tragedies on which it’s based. Instead, it’s doing what horror has always done best. It’s using an unbelievable premise to shine a light on real horrors that are too unimaginable to face head-on. In the 2017 biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, the director explained; “[If] our hearts were not in it 100 percent it would not have worked. We wanted [Godzilla] to possess the terrifying characteristics of an atomic bomb. This was our approach, without any reservations.”
How to Move Forward
Beyond the metaphor for atomic atrocities as represented by Godzilla, the film offers various perspectives on how best to respond to nuclear threats. The military tries fruitlessly to destroy Godzilla and keep his existence from the public in order to prevent panic and maintain good diplomatic relations with the U.S. Dr. Kyohei Yamane (the legendary Takashi Shimura), wants to study the monster’s invincibility to atomic weapons for the sake of humanity’s survival in the post-nuclear age. And the wartime scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) is determined to hide the powerful weapon he’s developed, despite its ability to destroy Godzilla. He knows that humanity will only use it for war, having witnessed the devastation of the Atomic Bomb. He only relents to using his “Oxygen Destroyer” after seeing images of Godzilla’s destruction on television but chooses to sacrifice himself and his research to ensure the weapon is used only once.
The underwater defeat of Godzilla is painfully beautiful, with mournful music and equally tragic regard for the demise of Dr. Serizawa and the monster. The image of Godzilla’s corpse sinking into the sea is oddly moving, a recognition that this creature’s rampage was caused by human error more than his own will. The final observation from Dr. Yamane, that if nuclear testing continues, another Godzilla could very well awaken, is both a great set up for a sequel and a sobering statement on the need for denuclearization.
As a metaphor, Godzilla is the opposite of subtle. But it seems that’s what was and is still is needed to address the massive and very obtuse reality of nuclear war. The Japanese audiences of 1954 had experienced unbelievable civilian death and destruction in their lifetimes, and they responded intensely to the cinematic therapy of Godzilla. The film, though not initially popular with Japanese critics, was a hit in Japan, spawning countless sequels and two new genres of Japanese film; the Kaiju films featuring giant monsters, and Tokusatsu films, characterized by an emphasis on special effects.
“[…] the original Godzilla is an essential antidote to the digital destruction of current cinema.”
Unsurprisingly, the heavy A-Bomb metaphors of the film weren’t going to fly in the U.S., where Godzilla was significantly re-edited before being released as Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 1956. The American cut removed any references to the war, American nuclear testing, or the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while dubbing the dialogue into English and adding an American character played by Raymond Burr. This was the only version of Godzilla available in the United States until 2004 when the original Japanese film was screened on tour for its 50th anniversary. It’s unbelievable that it took half a century for western audiences to experience the brilliance of the original Godzilla, but better late than never.
Today we know Godzilla as an icon of action sci-fi horror, rebooted recently in a series of big-budget American films attempting to replicate the domination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the other blockbuster franchises of our current age. But going back to the original Godzilla is an essential antidote to the digital destruction of current cinema. While current blockbusters are often content to destroy a metropolitan area for the sake of spectacle, the original Godzilla was intentionally mirroring recent tragedies, focusing on the human toll of the monster’s destruction above all. It’s an important, and ironic, fact to remember. The 1954 Godzilla, intending to be a somber warning against mass destruction, lead to a craving for more of it. Except thankfully, it was moved from the tangible world to the silver screen. So in its own way, the exorcism of Odo Island worked. It didn’t keep the monster at bay, but it did allow some psychological exorcism, a cathartic chance to address the impact of war, and how to respond.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on Godzilla with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!