Minus, of course, the title page (which I presented to my Senior English class of about 20 people, and was marked a 96% by my teacher. I even got to hand out and grade lecture-companion work sheets
). Enjoy and comment/critique:
Godzilla vs. The Hollywood Double Standard
In 1954 from the blackened waters of Odo Island the monster Godzilla first appeared to the modern world. A cobalt saurian, roaring and breathing the fires of radiation, the creature had then gone on to terrorize Tokyo, a third nuclear assault upon the nation of Japan. When Godzilla first appeared he served as a symbol of the potential evils of nuclear war.
The Godzilla which made Japanese film legend is not the beast with which most are familiar. American critics and audiences alike snicker at the mention of the name Godzilla, picturing an awkward stuntman in a far from convincing monster suit behaving like a child with an active imagination let loose upon a hapless cardboard city while poorly dubbed Asian stereotypes scream the infamous line "Run, it is Godzira!" in a phony-sounding accent. However, these depictions rarely reflected the actual films.
To Godzilla’s global fan base, Godzilla’s rise to popularity had little to do with hilariously bad visual effects, so-bad-it’s-good acting, or quickly thrown together juvenile plots. What of it? Who is Godzilla’s fan base anyway? The stereotypical basement-dwelling nerd stuck living with his mom right up until early adulthood? Hardly. Across Godzilla’s fifty years and twenty-eight film appearances the mighty dinosaur has captivated the imaginations of film director Tim Burton, Hugo award winning artist Bob Eggleton, comic book artist Matt Frank, college professor William Tsutsui, countless heavy-metal bands including, of course, Gojira, and even legendary film director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had even gone on to say that the original 1954 film Gojira
"was the most masterful of all dinosaur movies because it made you believe it was really happening" (qtd. in Tsutsui 24).
If Godzilla had become a global phenomenon because it was a good movie, why then has it become common knowledge that the films are insufferably bad? That any enjoyment derived from these films was from their phenomenal badness? There is no simple answer. "Saying it’s just a man in a rubber suit is the wrong attitude," Shusuke Kaneko, one of Japan’s most prestigious film directors once commented. "It’s more enjoyable to watch these films when you understand their long history and culture" (qtd in England).
Indeed the only real explanation lies in following Godzilla’s history and how the creature falls into Japan’s traditional culture. Gojira was not, as many mistakenly claim, a figure of Japanese legend (Tsutsui 15). Rather, Godzilla’s story begins with the men behind the monster, film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka who had conceived the idea of a monster movie, Eiji Tsuburya, the special effects technician who pioneered Japanese special effects, master composer Akira Ifukube, and Ishiro Honda, the film’s director.
Tomoyuki Tanaka was one of Japan’s leaders in the film industry. Overseeing his first film in 1944, Tanaka quickly established a reputation for finishing films on time and without going over budget. Tanaka was revered among his colleagues as being very prolific, averaging ten films a year, with Gojira
following four other films in the year of 1954 alone (Tsutsui 21). While Tomoyuki Tanaka is best known to the world at large as the producer of Akira Kurosawa’s films, Godzilla was Tanaka’s brainchild. The story goes that Tanaka was on a plane ride home from Indonesia when he first had the notion of producing a monster movie. Tanaka had been in negotiations with an Indonesian film company to collaborate on a blockbuster, only to discover that the Indonesian production company backed out. Tanaka was trying to think of a replacement, when a piece of recent Japanese history came to mind. In the previous months a fishing vessel, The Lucky Dragon No. 5, had strayed too close to American nuclear testing. Several of the ship’s crew died of radiation poisoning, and tuna boycotts were common for fear of radioactive fish being sold on the market. This story inspired Tanaka’s vision of a nuclear blast awakening a sleeping giant, a premise which had already been explored in the 1953 U.S. film The Beast From 20,000 Fathom
Tanaka pulled much of the cast and crew from Kurosawa’s films to work on Gojira
, the first film of its kind to have been attempted by Japanese film studios. The director to helm Gojira
was to be Ishiro Honda, a personal friend of Akira Kurosawa who had served beneath Kurosawa as assistant director before taking on Gojira
. Honda had been a serious film maker, having studied film at Nihon University, before a draft into the imperial army put his film career on hold. During World War II Honda served three tours in the infantry and was captured and held in China as a prisoner of war before he at last returned to his home country of Japan. Honda witnessed firsthand the ruins of Hiroshima (Tsutsui 21). Honda’s ambition was to make the movie more than just a monster film, incorporating heavy-handed messages of the threat nuclear weapons posed into the script for Gojira
Because the film was to rely heavily upon visual effects Tanaka sought the aid of Eiji Tsuburaya. Tsubaraya hadn’t always wanted to work in films. Initially, Tsuburaray had set out to be an aviator. When the institution for aviation he attended went under, he then discovered film. He became intrigued with trick shots. During the war he became involved in propaganda films, supervising the visual effects shots for many World War II films, specializing particularly in intricate miniatures. His aerial bombing of Pearl Harbor for the film The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malaya
was said to have often been mistaken as actual war footage from the news reels (Tsutsui 22). However talented Tsuburaya had been, after the war he had felt ashamed of his work in propaganda films, and all who had been involved in such war time films were black listed from the Japanese film industry. Tsuburaya earned new inspiration upon seeing a 1952 re-release of King Kong
(England). Interestingly, for a long time the Japanese had held a strange view of storytelling. Stories were usually about historical figures, and were thus considered to be historical truths dramatized. Fiction had, for a long time been viewed as a form of lying, and even the Lady Murasaki Shikibu was thought to have been burning in hell for writing The Tale of Genji
(Thorntorn 50 ). Interestingly, Japanese audiences of the 1940s and 1950s had held a similar view of visual effects, that it was an attempt to trick the audience. So when Tsuburaya saw 1933’s King Kong
it served as a revelation. It showed Tsuburaya that visual effects didn’t have to be used to fill in the gaps of a movie, but rather a story could be told centered on the visual effects (Kalat).
Drawing inspiration from Cooper’s King Kong,
Tsuburaya had wanted to use the same technique of photographing a miniature frame-by-frame, manipulating the puppet between exposures, known as stop-motion animation for Gojira
. However, the film was to be shot in a short period of only three months, forcing Tsuburaya to be a bit more creative (England).
"He was a genius. I don’t know how else to put it," special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano, a colleague of Tsuburaya later recalled. "I’ve never seen a more original film maker" (qtd. In England ). To make the scenes scripted in Gojira
a reality on screen, Tsuburaya again implemented his intricate miniatures and introduced the world famous man in a monster costume. Tsuburaya’s miniature famed cityscapes were expansive, well-crafted and could stretch as tall as seven-to-ten feet easily. Built at 1/25 the scale of the real thing, buildings which were to be cinematically demolished were often detailed on the interior as well as the exterior for the maximum effect when the monster met with it. For buildings which were to suffer with Godzilla’s radioactive breath pyrotechnic charges were set and ignited within the miniatures. (Tsutsui 23). Miniature buildings destined to survive Godzilla’s rampage (and even some which were not) often sported working lights and sliding doors. They were not, as myth tells, cardboard. All of this was built on an elevated set so that the camera could easily look upward at the stunt actors. What this meant was that even barren landscapes or forests took time. The base of Mt. Fuji constructed for Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster
took 12,000 man hours to complete and featured real foliage (Kalat). To get the proper width of the branches compared to the tree trunks Toho’s staff often cut up and reassembled their miniature trees from various plant species, including roots so that the plants never looked small (England).
Although the fabled man in a monster suit had been a time-cutting decision, it was not a decision made for the sake of comfort. The original Godzilla suit was constructed through a series of trial and error. The first suit, weighing more than 200 pounds, was too immobile to shoot with. The man within the monster suit, Harou Nakajima, suffered cramps, frequent weight loss, burns from the special effects explosions, and came close to drowning on numerous occasions ( England).
The monster’s actions were set to the haunting score of legendary composer Akira Ifukube. Ifukube was, like most involved with Gojira,
an experienced professional, composing nationalistic marches before beginning work in the film industry. Ifukube composed the soundtrack to Gojira
in a mere week and even created the monster’s famous roar by drawing a leather glove across contrabass strings before altering the sound in an echo chamber (Tsutsui 24, 26).
In the end the film Gojira
was and is the product of collaboration between the best and brightest Japan’s film studios had to offer. Yet the Godzilla films still earned a reputation in America for wooden acting, cheesy dialogue and incredibly inept film making all around. The fault was not so much the films themselves as it was American cinema and foreign marketing. A film historian creatively dubbed Galbraith once observed that the crew behind Godzilla had been "sophisticated men working in a highly unsophisticated genre" (qtd. In Tsutsui 22).
In the years before Godzilla 1933’s King Kong
had been a much talked of movie. This was a generation unaccustomed to the luxury of video home cassettes so the only way to see a film was to see it in the theaters. This new generation of children had grown up hearing of King Kong
but had never seen it. The film’s re-release in 1952 surpassed the box office records its first showing had had and American film companies were interested in producing their own Kong-like movie. However, these new monster films often lacked Kong’s grandeur. With the exception of Ray Harryhausen’s films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
, most monster movies emerging were made on shoe-string budgets from companies which did not aspire to do anything but profit from King Kong
’s popularity (Kalat). Monster movies in general became known as schlock movies.
The Godzilla films were high-end visual effects movies which were simply made at a time when no other companies were producing high-end visual effects movies. That these films were Japanese meant that they had been easy for low-budget companies to purchase the rights too, then alter and market the movies in America as they pleased. Godzilla movies were bound to their far inferior American contemporaries, placed on double-bills with such forgettable features as Teenagers From Outer Space
. Even Toho’s Mothra
, a film about a gentle giant moth forced to commit acts of violence by greedy human antagonists (Justice 21), was portrayed as a horror movie on American movie posters. Unfortunately, things have not improved in recent years with the most commonly heard of monster movies like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus
(and a plethora of others making rounds on the Sy Fy Channel) actually playing up the well-known fact or misconception that monster movies are supposed to be bad as a selling point. Lyle Huckins of G-Fan
, a quarterly magazine for Godzilla fans, once wrote that these films may cause some people to "lump Godzilla and Gamera into the same junk pile as MS vs GO [Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus]
and move on" (19).
If this were not enough, American re-cuts of the films were often riddled with dubbing errors, or the insertion of new scenes featuring wooden actors reciting lines to fill in the gaps in continuity that the hasty editing left on the cutting room floor. Even Akira Ifukube’s scores were often replaced with stock library cues from movies like The Creature From the Black Lagoon
The worst example of poor treatment of a Godzilla film was perhaps the now infamous King Kong vs. Godzilla
. A result of special effects man Willis O’Brien’s suffering in the harsh economy in which no one cared to pay for his expensive stop-motion efforts, O’Brien had been forced to sell his script of King Kong vs. Frankenstein
to an opportunistic film producer named John Beck. Beck sold the script to Toho, who then altered the script to feature Godzilla and to make the end result a comedy. Beck disapproved, expecting a straight forward monster movie and edited most all of the comedic elements from the film (Kalat). The end result being that visual effects which had intentionally been made to appear silly instead looked as though they were simply inept.
Often American movie critics didn’t consider these movies worth their time, reviewed the movies without watching them first or even went out of their way to make these movies sound worse than they were.
John Clute’s Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia
the lowest possible score and reviewed the movie in a single paragraph ending with, "there were 15 sequels, all alike" (262). It is a commonly held belief that all of the Godzilla movies were the same stories retold with a slightly different monster introduced each time. In actuality Toho had made a special effort at keeping the Godzilla series fresh. Such cosmetic changes included changes in locale and new monsters with distinctive appearances, abilities and motives appearing every year.
However, the award for keeping the Godzilla series new and exciting went to writer Shinichi Sekizawa. Sekizawa was quite good at what he did, and cemented his career as a writer when he was assigned the task of writing for the movie Profile of the City
only to return in the next four days with a completed final draft of the script. Up until the late fifties movies like Rodan
had been successful after Gojira’s
premiere. However, Sekizawa himself was bored with the formula of man discovers monster, monster attacks man, man destroys the beast. Sekizawa did an effective job of blending Godzilla and related movies with other genres, spawning Dogora: The Space Monster
with hints of cops and robbers and throwing spy movie elements into Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster
The movie which started this trend was the aforementioned Mothra.
Although the simplified plot outline of a monster discovered on an island used as a nuclear dump site might sound familiar, Mothra
approaches its subject matter in a different way. Mothra, the giant insect for whom the movie is named, is not a mutation, but rather perhaps closer to a spirit. Twin fairies speak for the insect deity and it is explained that Mothra fights to preserve the Earth as it was. The radiation has caused her home to become desolate and the villagers are aware as to who is to blame, however, Mothra never becomes violent until the fairies are abducted by the island’s greedy visitors (Justice 22). Other entries in the Godzilla series followed this trend. Film historian David Kalat noted: "In the old paradigm, monsters threaten people and people resolve it. In the new Japanese iteration, people threaten people and monsters resolve it" (Kalat).
The "all alike" excuse seems to be no more than a ploy to spare science fiction historians or film historians the pain of observing all of the films in the series. Still, those which make an effort to review several are sketchy at best. Video Hound’s Golden Movie Retriever: 2009
describedGodzilla vs. the Sea Monster
as follows: "Godzilla makes friends with his former rival Mothra (a giant moth) and together they bash Ebirah, an enormous lobster backed by an evil cadre of (human) totallarians [sic]. The unrepentant crustacean turns the tables on our heroes, however, by growing a new tentacle every time one is ripped off. (394)" This description is wrong on several accounts. First, Godzilla does not partner with Mothra, Mothra does not partake in any fighting, Godzilla experiences no difficulty in dispatching Ebirah and Ebirah has no tentacles to be torn off because he’s a lobster.
Roger Ebert makes several mistakes in his review of the original film. Ebert refers to a character’s fiancé as "the fiancé to his son" and in the same paragraph criticizes the Oxygen Destroyer (the super weapon used to destroy Godzilla) as being "anticlimactic." "He drops a pill into a tank of tropical fish, he shouts ‘Stand back!’, the tank lights up, the fiancé screams and the fish go belly up. Yeah, that’ll stop Godzilla in his tracks" (Ebert). Evidently, that the fish were disintegrated is lost to Ebert.
Critics also go out of their way to attack the film’s traditional special effects. Ebert shamelessly perpetuates the cardboard buildings myth, then goes on to add "King Kong was more convincing" (Ebert). This hardly seems to be a fair comparison. Firstly, King Kong
was not the first attempt Willis O’Brien had made at creature effects, while it was for Tsuburaya. Secondly, King Kong was no where near as big as Godzilla (a 154 foot monster dinosaur is not meant to look elegant), nor did King Kong cause the kind of damage Godzilla did or at that scale.
"Using suits and miniatures instead of stop motion gives better results in destruction scenes. Miniature buildings get smashed and fall down. In slow motion it looks real. The impact of destruction with miniatures is a lot stronger than with stop motion animation," Shusuke Kaneko added (qtd. In England). In stop motion animation, the cutting-edge technology which brought Kong to life, destroyed buildings must be manipulated the same way as anything else, frame-by-frame. Because the objects are still in real life there is no motion blur in the completed animation.
Finally, what Ebert fails to mention is that Godzilla was a better special effects creature than most of the other monster movies following King Kong.
So what if Godzilla was not cutting edge? American movies like 100 Million B.C.
or Irwin Allen’s The Lost World
had sank to even lower depths, gluing horns and fins to the heads and backs of livelizards (Gerani 26). Compared to other monster movies released at the same time as Gojira
such criticisms seem needlessly harsh.
Finally, critics never acknowledge the involvement of Kurosawa’s crew in the Godzilla series, either because they just didn’t care, or perhaps they were making a special effort to preserve the reputation of lauded thespians. Takashi Shimura was regarded by the New York Times
as "the best actor in the world" for his performance in Kurosawa’s Ikiru.
The same year the same critic when viewing Godzilla
stated that no one in the cast could act (qtd. In Tsutsui 23).
American actors featured in hastily spliced in scenes which could last as little as two minutes were routinely given star billing over the Japanese cast and the opening credits were removed entirely from The H-Man
for that movie’s American distribution (Kalat).Akira Ifukube, the legendary composer to Akira Kurosawa , is rarely referred to in history books for his involvement in the Godzilla series. Worst of all, Ishiro Honda’s involvement in the Godzilla series appears to have guaranteed that he will never be acknowledged in any study of serious film making. Honda’s name could be translated in several different forms, as such Honda was actually listed as two separate people in various resources. Usually Ishiro Honda is the name given to Honda for his works on Akira Kurosawa’s films, while Inoshiro Honda is the name associated with the schlock Godzilla series. While George ***** and Francis Ford Coppola are credited with finally encouraging Akira Kurosawa to return to filmmaking, Kurosawa himself gave that honor to Ishiro Honda (Kalat).
Many critics roll their eyes and insist that these films are not a reflection of Japanese cinema and that true attention towards Japanese film should be paid to Akira Kurosawa’s works. The aforementioned critics would be awestruck to learn that Akira Kurosawa not only supported the Godzilla film series, but had wanted to direct a Godzilla film of his own. Unfortunately, Toho was less than willing to hand the reigns of a Godzilla feature off to Kurosawa for fear his praised perfectionism would result in the production going far over budget (Kalat).
To further confusion, American film critics who had panned these films were partially correct. Television had been taking the Japanese market by storm. By the late 1960s audience members preferred to stay at home and the typical Japanese citizen visited the theater only once a year (Kalat). Children were among the few still visiting the cinema. Toho attempted to make Godzilla more appealing to the children so that by the 70s Godzilla had undergone a transformation, the results of which were either cute or horrendous depending upon personal taste. Godzilla’s head became disproportional to his body, his cranium and eyes enlarged to appear more benign. The Godzilla films even incorporated goofy humor, pop culture references to other Japanese films which had left Japanese audiences rolling in laughter while the same moments in the American releases rendered audiences confused (Tsutsui 54).
American merchandising reflected Godzilla’s changing image. "You kids have found Godzilla again," an eccentric professor sporting a Ph. D of questionable authenticity declared in a recorded "drama" released by Wonderland Records in 1977. Consisting of two "stories" told through dialogue and sound effects, these audio recordings delivered the cheese ten fold as the same professor goes on to call Godzilla a "friendly creature," while the obligatory scientist on the other side insists that Godzilla is a plesiosaur (Matzke 56).
Toho’s losses in the bad economy meant that budget cuts would have to be made. Unfortunately the special effects department had been the first to suffer. The Godzilla movies of the late 1970s recycled film scores, Godzilla suits from previous films instead of rebuilding them like they had had cash to do in the 60s (England) and even used stock footage from the other films to extend special effects sequences (Tsutsui 58). The sour combination of declining box office receipts and the younger demographic later defined the "cheesiness" the Godzilla films became associated with.
Once again American distributors dealt a hard blow to Godzilla’s reputation. The Godzilla film most seen outside of Japan was 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon,
a the movie widely considered to have been the worst in the Godzilla series by fans of the movies and critics alike (Knipfel). The worst of the bunch including Megalon
were also featured on the comedy television series Mystery Science Theater 3000
Finally, very few outside of Japan are aware of the more current Godzilla films. The Godzilla series is broken into three parts: The first lasting from the 1950s-to the early 80s is known as the Showa series. The second stretching from the late 80s through the 90s is referred to as the Heisei series. Finally is the Shinsei, or new millennium series. The Showa movies are the films with which everyone is most familiar. These were the movies advertised and released theatrically in America. The Heisei and Shinsei series were generally darker, more serious films. The first in the Heisei series was the only one to make it to American theaters. Released in America under the title Godzilla 1985
an otherwise serious film was edited to feature intentionally cheesy jokes, American distributors evidently still under the misconception that fans preferred campy Godzilla films (Tsutsui 124). The others in the Heisei series were barred from American release under false accusations of having anti-American content. These films were finally released on American home video in 1998 just before the American remake.
However, the American remake did not better anyone’s opinion of the film series, offering improved visual effects and nothing else. Godzilla fans were appalled at Hollywood’s treatment of the big guy, taking away his invulnerability, his heat ray, his radioactive abilities. College professor Bill Tsutsui summed it up as follows: "The monster is not a message or a symbol, but simply a pest, an unwanted, annoying intruder that needs to be exterminated like a termite in the foundation or a cockroach in the cupboard" (202). Which may not have been too bad had the movie strived to be something original but rather the film was described in G-Fan
magazine as being, " a mediocre giant monster movie spiced by terrific special effects, a handful of outstanding set pieces, and an uninspired plot cobbled from virtually every giant monster film that preceded it" (Bogue 24).
The fan uproar was so intense that Toho reinstated the classic Godzilla series in 1999, just a year after the remake (73). However, these movies were not released theatrically in America, but rather went straight to DVD, usually limited to specialty vendors. A special effort was required to find them, so those who were mere casual fans were unlikely to stumble across them and those who still knew Godzilla as a children’s icon were extremely unlikely to buy them (Knipfel). However, it is possible that those who have yet to find them may view them as hidden gems, as did film critic Leonard Maltin. Maltin was particularly impressed with the 25th movie, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack,
saying that "The 25th Godzilla movie is considered by many fans to be the apex of the series, with terrific special effects and a consistently adult tone; worth seeing even for non devotees" (Maltin).
While perhaps Godzilla is not a profound drama, it is not without intellectual worth. Rather the film series is victim of entries of varying quality, relentless American bashing to preserve the difference between the art films of Akira Kurosawa and having been part of genre that was not at all well thought of at the time. The Godzilla films were by no means the greatest movies ever crafted, but they certainly don’t deserve the present derision.
Tsutsui, William. Godzilla On My Mind. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Mamillan, 2004.
Justice, Mark. "Save the Earth!: Ecological Messages in Toho’s Giant Monster Moies." G-Fan. Winter, 2011: 20-28. Print.
Thorntorn, S.A. Japanese Period Films: A Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, Inc., Publishers, 2008.
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Gerani, Gary. "Jurassic Park & Dino Cinema: In Search of Scientific Accuracy." Return to Jurassic Park. April, 1995. Print.
Clute, John. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Dorlin Kindersley Limited, 1995. 262. Print.
Video Hound’s Golden Movie Retriever. 2009. Cengage Learning, 2008. 394. Print.
Huckins, Lyle. "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus: A Review and Open Letter to the Inmates Running ‘Asylum’ Films." G-Fan. Spring. 2010: 19. Print.
Bogue, Mike. "Godzilla 1998: A Second Look." G-Fan. Winter. 2009: 24. Print.
Matzke, Mark. "‘You Kids Have Found Godzilla Again!’ Wonderland Records’ 1977 L.P. ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters!’." G-Fan. Spring. 2010: 56-57. Print.
Ebert, Roger. "GODZILLA (Not Rated)." Rogerebert.com rogerebert.com, 2 Jul 2009. Web. 3 Feb 2011.
Kalat, David, Perf. Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster. Classic Media: 2006, Film.
Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide. New York, N.Y: Signet,2008. 532. Print.