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PO-TA-TO” / “PO-TAH-TO”; … “GOJIRA” (ゴジラ) … “GODZILLA”:


by CEJ

(Everything you always wanted to know about the history of GODZILLA but were afraid to ask
for fear of being thought of as “un-cool” or being blasted by his radioactive breath!


     A couple of weeks ago the very talented writer, and just plain effervescent human being, Cindy Falteich (who, by the way, will be hosting one of our upcoming GullCottage online TV network shows), apparently taken by the combined in-depth knowledge of genre film history of myself and Mr. Steve Vertlieb - the subject of my feature length documentary STEVE VERTLIEB: THE MAN WHO “SAVED” THE MOVIES, floated the notion of perhaps taking in Gareth Edwards’ upcoming big screen reboot of GODZILLA with a group of film students; then later, over coffee, breaking down the cinematic history of everyone’s favorite “King of the Monsters”.

     The impetus of this idea was that while many of our upcoming younger generation of movie makers may have knowledge of the fact that the films of say Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro are peppered with many genre-favored slants, they may not necessarily be personally aware of specific ones or from whence these often quick-witted (mostly hidden) cinematic “Easter Egg” homages originate.

     I was at first kind of taken aback by Cindy’s suggestion because, as I mentioned to her, “I don’t think I can recall hearing the phrases ‘Godzilla movie’ and ‘discuss it over coffee afterwards’ ever used in the same sentence together”.  The films of Akira Kurosawa? - yeah, those are the ones scholars and historians “discuss”.  Oh, and by the way - did you know that both the films of Kurosawa and the Godzilla series featured much of the same production personnel and were even produced by the same studio?  More on that in a bit.  But Godzilla?  Godzilla is for the most part a “born out of fond remembrances of childhood” thing.  Maybe this will nail it. 

     Does anyone else remember how years ago soda used to come in glass bottles?  And not just your “drop from the machine” 20 oz. bottles, but those big-assed 2 liter ones?  Well, I remember me and friends getting those damned heavy things from the supermarket just so that we could toss them into the air and hear that awesomely cool muffled “Kabloom-ushhh!” as they shattered on the parking lot asphalt.  Yeah, I know!  Sue me!  Anyway, years later I’d experience the same adolescent school boy thrill (and laugh my ass off) watching David Lettermen drop watermelons to the street from atop the roof of the Ed Sullivan theater. 

     A certain particular joy and charm in the original Godzilla films (as well as later comics, animated series, remakes, reboots and more) is quite simply a big kid’s fascination with … well, … just “blowin’ shit up!”.  So, to a certain degree, the first and most important thing to remember in “discussing” Godzilla is to not make that common cineaste mistake and take things too seriously.  Not to analyze too much, for in so doing one can dissect the very lifeblood out of that elusive magic which makes the character perhaps arguably THE most popular monster in movie history.     

     Thinking a little more about Cindy’s idea however, I had to admit there was “something more” to the Godzilla fad / mythos than just a 12 year old’s undying fascination with watching tanks and fighter jets melted with radioactive breath.  After all, how (and why) would the ENTIRE WORLD have the same undying 12 year old’s fascination with (admit it) not only the most beloved, but also one of the most consistently cheesily realized creatures in movie lore?  By all rights bad special FX alone should have years ago relegated the original Godzilla films (approx. 27 in number!) to that cinematic landfill parceling out real estate to such legendary howlers as THE FOOD OF THE GODS, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS and TROG.  And what about recent films such as Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMER series - born of the same “tokusatu” origins as Godzilla?  As entertaining as they are in their multi-million dollar mission to “blow shit up” with grand scale grandeur (and a refreshing sense of humor), it’s a pretty safe bet to say 55 years from now they won’t hold the same unshakable fascination for generations of audiences as Godzilla is more than likely to still have. 

     So yeah, Cindy - you got me on this.  Godzilla SHOULD be discussed.  So, popping on David Arnold’s Ifukube-inspired soundtrack to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version - yeah, the one with Matthew Broderick which everyone hates (and which we’ll piss people off later by claiming isn’t at all the dog many like to claim), we’re gonna do a little “primer” thing here in an attempt to hone in on just why Godzilla, … Gojira, … “Monster Zero-One” … whatever you like to call him (or “her” if you’ve seen the Emmerich version) remains “the Once and Future King”

GODZILLA (2014) - Theatrical Trailer #2 (U.K.)

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     It's fair to surmise even those who’ve never seen a GODZILLA film, or one of it’s many offshoot sequels, spin-offs, etc. (KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, MOTHRA, GHIDRAH, GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER - remember that title song “Save The Earth”?), are still well aware of the pop-culture sensation’s impact on … well, on pop culture of the last 60+ years.  For those who "came in late" however - the original 1954 film story in a nutshell …

play GODZILLA (1954) score - "Suite Excerpt" (A. Ifukube)

     After a Japanese fishing boat (and it’s investigative craft) are destroyed by a mysterious “sea presence”, a group of scientists and journalists converge on a Japanese island community where they discover enormous radioactive footprints, and learn that for years the local population has been offering the “Kong-like” sacrifices of young girls in order to appease a monstrous entity ten times larger than a dinosaur, which they claim sporadically rises from the depths of the ocean.

     When the scientists’ arrival and investigative prodding provokes an attack by the creature (whom the islanders call “Gojira”), a trio of them put their romantic rivalries to the side in order to work together to learn the origin of the beast.  When Gojira rises from the sea and attacks the modern city of Tokyo, the military comes up with a plan to use a net of high tension wires filled with 50,000 volts of electricity to bring him down.  But when Gojira snaps the wire webbing like thread, the scientists come up with a dangerous alternate plan to use a prototype (and highly controversial) “Oxygen Destroyer” - which ignites then disintegrates oxygen molecules within the air, to destroy the beast. 

     After much discussion and debate the plan is implemented.  But the scientists, realizing Gojira was born of such nuclear experimentation in the first place, plan to destroy the technology, along with themselves - the creators of these horrific sciences, as they descend to Gojira’s lair on the ocean floor to put an end to him in a climactic blaze of glory.

     Released in Japan on November 3rd, 1954, GOJIRA received mixed reviews from critics but became one of the biggest domestic box office sensations of the year.  It was even nominated for two Japanese Movie Association Awards; winning for best Visual Effects but losing in the Best Picture category to Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI.  Throughout the remainder of the 1950s GOJIRA, in it’s original language, played to packed theaters in predominantly Japanese neighborhoods throughout the U.S. 

    And it was such a success, American distributor Jewell Enterprises (who’s only previous release had been the 1952 sci fi / exploitation film UNTAMED WOMEN), acquired the North American rights, renamed it GODZILLA, dubbed it into English; then excised a few scenes and  spliced in more with future IRONSIDE actor William Conrad as an American radio journalist in Tokyo -  broadcasting (Hindenburg disaster-like) when the creature attacks the city. This "revised" version was released to mainstream U.S. theaters and drive-ins, and it  became a surprise hit.



      Those who remained throughout the end credits of Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 sci-fi / actioner PACIFIC RIM noticed a dedication tribute to recently passed legendary film makers Ray Harryhausen (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, the original CLASH OF THE TITANS) and Ishirō Honda - of GODZILLA fame, and king of the classic “kaiju“ film.  This because, while del Toro clearly stated to his designers that he didn’t want to directly reference say RODAN, GHIDRA or GODZILLA himself, his monsters vs. robots super-slam epic would indeed look back on them with a loving nod for their inspiration. 


      "One of the points I made clear to my designers, every head of department, is we should not reference other movies. We should not re-watch GAMERA, or re-watch GOJIRA (GODZILLA), or re-watch WAR OF THE GARGANTUANS. We said, 'Let's create the world that we're doing. It falls in here and falls in there, but we should not be doing a referential film.' If things happen, they happen because they're being made by people who love those genres. But I didn't want to be postmodern, or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, (but) something madly in love with those things“.                         

      The most direct inspiration is in the film’s giant inter-dimensional creatures themselves being dubbed “kaiju”.  Directly translated “kaiju” (大怪獣, aka - daikaijū) simply means “strange creature”.  But because of the word’s association with the series of Japanese monster thrillers which sprang up in the wake of the 1954 box office success of the original GODZILLA (those others including the aforementioned GAMERA, GARGANTUANS, GHIDRA and RODAN, along with DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, MOTHRA and TV series such as ULTRA-MAN and THE SPACE GIANTS) it has since become the one word definition of the entire “giant monsters from Japan” genre itself. 

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS publicity still (1968)   

     As stated earlier, a child-like affection for simply “blowin’ shit up” isn’t enough to account for the over half century staying power and worldwide allure of “kaiju”.  And with the “kaiju” genre at least part is owed to it’s stylistic indebtedness (just as the Chinese martial arts film has it’s roots in Chinese dance, opera and theater) to ancient Japanese theater - specifically “kabuki” (with it’s legendarily choreographed mano-a-mano fisticuffs) and “bunraku” puppetry - from which sprang the  “tokusatsu” (or “special effects”) film. 

     Three men in particular would be responsible for morphing the high brow artistic stylization of Japanese theater into the mass pop culture sensation which became “kaiju” cinema - special FX pioneer
Eiji Tsuburaya (1901 - 1970), producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (1910 - 1997) and director Ishirō Honda (1911- 1993).

Eiji Tsuburaya (1901 - 1970)
         Born in 1901, Eiji Tsuburaya’s fascination with aviation lead him as a child to obsessively design and build model airplanes.  But when his hopes to attend the Nippon Flying School were dashed upon the tragic death of it’s founder, he'd instead attend trade school, this leading to his employment in research and development for Utsumi toys.  More an engineer than toy designer, Tsuburaya’s career took a major turn when, at a company party in 1919, he met director Yoshiro Edamasa, who offered him the job of cameraman.  

      During the second Sino-Japanese War and WW2, Tsuburaya was Japan’s Frank Kapra and Ray Harryhausen, directing and creating visual effects for numerous propaganda films produced by the then fledgling Toho Studios - which had begun life as owners of the vast majority of Tokyo’s “kabuki” theaters.  While at Toho Tsuburaya developed numerous cutting-edge FX techniques, and created a panoply of innovative camera rigs to which the Japanese film industry would become indebted - all of this spurred by his first viewing of the original KING KONG when it had debuted in Kyoto.  Upon his first exposure to Willis O’Brien’s classic Tsuburaya promised himself, “I will someday make a monster movie like that”. 

     Tsuburaya and his ULTRAMAN cast   

      In 1963 Tsuburaya would found his own visual FX company, Tsuburaya Productions, then in 1966 launch his first TV series ULTRA Q, which two years later was followed by the now legendary ULTRAMAN.  ULTRAMAN would become the first Japanese television series exported worldwide. Even as a successful producer, director and film production company owner in his own right, Tsuburaya remained faithful to Toho, staying with the studio until his death in January 1970.
Tomoyuki Tanaka (1910 - 1997)   

      Born in 1910 in Osaka, future producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (affectionately referred to by film crew who worked under him as “Suwari-Ushi” / “Sitting Bull”) graduated as an economics major from the progressive Kansai University in 1940 then immediately went to work for Toho Studios as one it’s best and brightest young up-and-comers.  In 1945 he produced his first film for the company, THREE WOMEN OF THE NORTH.  And it was on THREE WOMEN that he met actress Chieko Nakakita (Akira Kurosawa‘s ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY), whom he would wed and to whom he'd remain married until his death in 1997.

      GODZILLA’s primary birth parent, Tanaka first came up with the idea for the indestructible “King of the Monsters” after his in-the-pre-production-phase joint Japanese-Indonesian film EIKO NO KATATANI (BEHIND THE GLORY) was suddenly scrapped when at the last minute the Indonesian government decided not to grant his cast and crew work visas.  Not wanting to lose his assembled personnel (along with money already spent) Tanaka had to quickly come up with a replacement project.  And this he did while gazing out the window over the ocean during a plane trip back to Japan. 

     Partially inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s fanciful “Rhedosaurus” in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and partially by still fresh memories of Japan’s destructive encounter with the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanaka envisioned a mutated reptilian creature, far beyond the size of a traditional dinosaur, rising from the depths of the sea - both created then later re-awakened by mankind’s nuclear folly, which the creature would revisit upon his “creators”. 

      The original 1954 film was titled “GOJIRA” (ゴジラ) in Japan.  And the word is a literal combination of “gorira” (“gorilla”)  and “kujira” (“whale”): apropos as Tanaka and his screenwriters at first conceived their monster as a gigantic mutated version of both.  Gojira would later be re-imagined by Tanaka, Tsuburaya, Honda and art director Akira Watanabe as a bastardization of an Iguanodon, alligator, T-Rex and Stegosaurus.  And, in perhaps the most significant reference to nuclear nightmare memories, the creature’s skin texture would be patterned after keloid scars (the overgrowth of collagen granulation tissue at the site of a healed skin injury) which had become an all too common sight during the 1950s (particularly in Japan) in victims of radiation injury and sickness.

“Daigo Fukuryū Maru” on display in Tokyo

      Tanaka also conceived of opening his film on the setting / location of his first inspiration - at sea, as a fishing boat is “attacked” by a sudden and violent flash of light off Odo Island; then another vessel is sent to investigate, only to suffer the same fate.  This would be a direct reference to the controversy over the “Lucky Dragon 5” tragedy which had occurred only months prior, and at this time was a major point of contention within U.S. / Japanese post war relations. 

      On March 1st, 1954, the trawler vessel “Daigo Fukuryū Maru” (“Lucky Dragon #5) was engulfed by nuclear fallout (in the form of a cloud of white ash formed by atomically dissolved coral) after a United States nuclear explosion test (“Operation Castle Bravo”) at the Bikini Atoll ended up being twice as powerful as planned, and shifting weather patterns took fallout well beyond the established danger zone.  Within seven months the entire ship’s crew had died of acute radiation syndrome, and the incident became a hot button flash point between the two nations.  Tanaka’s filmic prelude would make none-too-subtle commentary on the event, and in it’s wake it would be greeted by a “fallout” all it’s own - some calling it “tasteless” while others deemed it “pointed and contemporary”.

      A master at bridging the gap between socially relevant “high cinematic art” and “popular mass entertainment”, Tanaka at Toho would produce over 200 films during his professional lifetime.  The majority would be of the “kaiju” genre.  But he was equally renowned for his six film partnership at the studio with legendary director Akira Kurosawa on THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960), YOJIMBO (1961), SANJURO (1962), one of our all time faves - the crime thriller HIGH AND LOW (1963), RED BEARD (1965) and KAGEMUSHA (1980 - the international release version co-executive produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola).

Ishirō Honda (1911- 1993)   

     Just like directors who would follow him (incl. Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro), Ishirō Honda - his name often misprinted in international press material as “Inoshiro Honda”, began as an artist / illustrator.  Born in 1911, Honda would study art at Nippon University, but his creative life would be interrupted by eight years in the Japanese military; a block of those years as a prisoner in a Chinese POW camp - images and memories of which would influence the visual style of his later films.

      After returning to Japan he joined Toho Studios, where he struck up a relationship with FX innovator Eiji Tsuburaya, and became lifelong best friends with Akira Kurosawa; Honda assisting and doing second unit work for Kurosawa on STRAY DOG (1949), KAGEMUSHA and RAN (1985).  And while officially retiring as a director after 1975’s “kaiju” magnum opus TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, when Kurosawa’s health began to fade, Honda would return as “production consultant”, “creative coordinator” and “directorial advisor” on a number of Kurosawa’s films including RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (1991), MADADYO (1993) and even (as officially uncredited co-director) on the anthology film DREAMS (1990) - co-produced by lifelong Kurosawa fan Steven Spielberg, and featuring another lifelong fan, Martin Scorcese, in a rare acting role as artist Vincent van Gogh.  Oh, and by the way,  … 

     A brief breaking of the “third wall” between reader and article writer.  Sorry to momentarily shatter the narrative state  “just as things were startin’ to get good“.  But the repeated Scorcese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, et al references.  Nah, not just “name dropping” for the attempted sake of interesting contemporary film groupies.  But as a re-assertion of a core philosophy we hold near and dear here at the GullCottage / Sandlot - namely, that any bonafied film lover (or film maker) tends to make no distinction between an “important / artsy” film and a “non important” / “popcorn” one.  See some of our other postings such as “The Snob: No Room For You Here”, “The 84th Academy Awards: A Surprising and Refreshing Return to Basics”, and (of course) our ongoing series “The Inherent Power of Genre” to hear us harp on this some more. 

      In a nutshell we love the example that while most would consider say THE ENGLISH PATIENT as an “important” film and AIRPLANE or LIAR LIAR unimportant, if you’d just returned from the hospital having learned that someone near to you (or you yourself) had a terrible physical condition, you’d probably find the roles of “what constitutes ’important’” suddenly reversed - as a series of good laughs can change one’s entire life outcome given specifics such as one’s particular time, place and life event.  In such a case LIAR LIAR could save your sanity while THE ENGLISH PATIENT could quite possibly make you contemplate suicide. 

     Humor (along with sci fi, fantasy and horror) can be a formidable tool in saving the psyche as well as addressing serious social concerns.  At a time when Japan (and the world in general) didn’t want to hear or be reminded of the still living and breathing after effects of WW2 and the discomforting dawn of the new nuclear age, genre films such as THEM!, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS and (perhaps more than any of them) Honda’s GOJIRA (“GODZILLA” - the name ultimately changed that American audiences might pronounce it easier) allowed society to exorcise these still festering fears within the safe environs of a darkened theater and the arena of the imagination. 

Cinematic brothers Honda and Kurosawa - both as Asst. Directors in 1938

     “Important” film makers such as Kurosawa recognized this.  And so do contemporary trend-setters such as those mentioned above.  This is why they - Spielberg for example, will shift so effortlessly back and forth between films such as JURASSIC PARK to SHINDLER’S LIST or AMISTAD to THE LOST WORLD within the same year.  And perhaps the most wonderful up-to-date analogy would be in the relationship of Mexico’s  “Three Amigos” - directors and best friends of years Guillermo del Toro (CRONOS, BLADE 2, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, PAN’S LABYRINTH, PACIFIC RIM), Alfonso Cuarón (A LITTLE PRINCESS, Y Tu Mamá También, THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON, CHILDREN OF MEN, GRAVITY) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL) - all of whom regularly shift between “independent art house cinema” to "mass populace genre entertainment”, and all of whom even co-edit one another’s films. 

Cinematic brothers Iñárritu, del Toro and Cuarón - "Los Tres Amigos"

     More than just “blowin’ shit up” with the destructive glee which appeals to the (hey, we admit it’s still within us) boyish tendencies of a perpetual 12 year old, the “kaiju” genre in general, and GODZILLA films in particular, like the very best genre excursions (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS anyone?) have over the years managed to ohhh so subtly re-invent themselves to be a mirror of the concerns of their respective eras.   This was the intent of GODZILLA’s legendary “Three Fathers” - Tsuburaya, Tanaka and Honda, from the outset.  And (time to piss more than a few people off here) the best aspect of director Emmerich’s much maligned 1998 big screen re-invention of the “King of the Monsters”.


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