In this brilliant look at the decades-long, loved and mocked Godzilla movie series, Jim Knipfel delves deep into one of his own obsessions to extract a wealth of cross-cultural insights. Among other things, the book covers the history of monster film special effects, explores the relationship between nuclear war and Godzilla, and analyzes how the evolving film series tracked changing social and political imperatives. A Purposeful Grimace -- In Defense of Godzilla is a fascinating and unique study of one of the Twentieth Century’s most-loved, most-dismissed and most-enduring pop phenomena.
Excerpts from A Purposeful Grimace -- In Defense of Godzilla
All excerpts copyright©2013 by Jim Knipfel
Godzilla first emerged from the waters off Odo Island and headed for Japan in 1954. He hasn’t quite gone away since, despite the best efforts of man and monster alike. He’s been shot with countless missiles, buried In avalanches, electrocuted, swallowed up by volcanoes, pummeled, dissolved, pelted with rays of various kinds, most any damn thing you can imagine—almost had a meltdown once, even—and still he keeps coming back. We’ve come to expect him.
It's pretty banal, I suppose, to point out that Godzilla has become an important part of not just Japanese culture, but Western culture as well over the past half-century. The films have been spoofed on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and in innumerable feature films. Songs have been written about him. Baseball players have been nicknamed after him. There have been several Godzilla video games. Godzilla has appeared in commercials for Nike and Dr. Pepper and has inspired at least three literary novels that I can think of off the top of my head.
But how did he—if he really is a “he,” which is the subject of some sad debate—come to be in the first place?
From that very first appearance off Odo Island in 1954, it was clear Godzilla was like nothing else anyone had seen before. Yet after decades of theorizing, nobody has yet fully explained where he came from. He’s a mutant all right, but his lineage is far more complex than most could imagine.
It would be very easy to say that the origins of that first Godzilla film can be traced back to the fire-breathing dragons of mythology. After all, dragons worked their way into the legends of cultures the world over—China, Japan, Northern Europe and South America all had their own dragons to contend with.
So it's simple, right? Godzilla came to be because fire-breathing dragons were always part of Japanese culture, and a producer at Toho Company, Ltd.—one of Japan’s largest movie studios at the time—decided to make a movie about a new kind of fire-breathing dragon, one that symbolized the dangers of the contemporary world. Simple as pie.
Simple as it is, it wouldn’t be correct. Not exactly, anyway. As the official story goes, Toho was trying to set up a major co-production deal with an Indonesian film company when political tensions between the two nations got in the way. The funding fell through and the project was scrapped. This meant Toho was suddenly left with a fast-approaching gap in their release schedule. Flying back to Tokyo after everything collapsed, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka knew he had to come up with something. Some new film to fill out the schedule. Looking out the plane window at the ocean below, he imagined a giant sea monster.
Noting that monster movies seemed to be mighty popular at the time, he decided to make a quick and cheap monster film to plug that hole. Japanese audiences had never seen a Japanese monster movie before, so it would be a first, and an almost certain money-maker. His only stipulation was that the monster, whatever form it took, be specifically Japanese in nature. He also wanted the film to have something to say, some kind of message to it. Toho, after all, was a serious and prestigious film studio—home to, among other noted directors, Akira Kurosawa.
Before you knew it, there was Gojira stomping on Tokyo.
But to leave it at that would be kind of a cop out. Throughout the twenty-eight-film series, Godzilla’s origins have been explained and revised and revised again any number of times. Likewise, the real story behind the birth of Gojira is a complicated, convoluted bit of business—it's in fact a Möbius strip of history, influences and references which, to date, continues to fold back upon itself.
Dragons aside, in order to trace the origin and evolution of Godzilla, we need to go back to the first part of the Nineteenth century.
Even though the star of King Kong was only eighteen inches tall and made out of steel, rubber, and hair, Kong exuded more personality and more humanity than any of the actors on screen with him. Although he was essentially little more than a fancy doll, when O’Brien was done with him he was more human than human. Again, because O’Brien was able to bring that doll to life, audiences cared what happened to Kong and the film became an enormous success. A monumental success, even. So much so that a sequel (Son of Kong) was whipped together and released that same year. And Kong itself became the first film in history to be re-released—first in 1938, and later in 1952.
One of the people who saw the film in 1933 was young Ray Harryhausen, who at age eight walked out of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Unlike most of us who felt that way once or twice when we were kids, Harryhausen stuck with his initial post-Kong dream.
Like O'Brien, Harryhausen began building dinosaur models and making short stop-motion films. As a teenager filming dinosaur movies in his parents’ garage, he was even able to arrange an audience with O'Brien himself, when he showed off some of his models and screened a reel of his work.
O'Brien, Harryhausen would recall years later, was blunt in his criticisms, but supportive of the young animator’s work. O'Brien was apparently more than mildly impressed by what he saw, given that In 1947 he hired Harryhausen to be his assistant on the next of O'Brien's “giant ape with a heart of gold” pictures, Mighty Joe Young.
The film was another big hit, and a few years later in 1953, Harryhausen was given the chance to handle all the special effects on a film called The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
As providence would have it, not only was this to be Harryhausen's big break—it also gave him the opportunity to work with an old friend, writer Ray Bradbury. The two had met in school and became lifelong friends. The first thing they had learned about one another was that they were both King Kong fanatics, and both loved dinosaurs.
Based on Bradbury's short story “The Fog Horn,” and directed by production designer Eugene Lourie, the plot of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a simple one. An atomic blast in the Arctic Circle awakens a giant prehistoric creature that promptly works its way down the East Coast, smashing boats and coastal towns along the way. Once it hits New York, it knocks over some buildings and snacks on policemen until finally reaching Coney Island. There, a sharpshooter lodges a harpoon carrying a radioactive isotope in the beast's throat, and it dies a convulsive death on the Boardwalk.
The film was yet another big hit. A few months prior to its release, King Kong had been re-released for the second time and went on to make more money than it did in 1933.
Around this same time, Tomoyuki Tanaka was on that flight back home from Indonesia, trying to figure out how to fill that sudden gap in Toho’s release schedule.
It's not irrelevant that both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had both been in theaters within the past year and both had made lots and lots of money. Even though The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had not yet been released in Japan, you have to figure that Tanaka was aware of it, given that the original title he gave the project was The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea.
You also have to figure that Shigeru Kayama, the writer Tanaka hired to come up with a story, was familiar with the film, too (or at least Ray Bradbury’s story), since his initial scenario included a scene in which the creature attacks a lighthouse, echoing a scene in both Bradbury’s original story and the subsequent film
In another interesting parallel, the dinosaur in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, besides crushing everything in its path, was also carrying an unknown prehistoric disease, so even those people who crossed the monster’s path without getting crushed ended up with a horrible bacterial infection. Godzilla of course is radioactive, so those people who cross his path without being crushed or burned still end up with radiation poisoning.
In fact, in ways too numerous to list, you could say that the original Gojira script was an amalgam of plot points lifted from both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. You have a prehistoric creature awakened by an atomic blast, you have superstitious natives on an isolated island offering up human sacrifices, you have giant footprints and a rampage in a major metropolitan area.
Toho's special effects genius, Eiji Tsuburaya, whom Tanaka had immediately hired for the project, freely admitted that he—like Harryhausen—had originally been inspired to become a special effects artist after seeing Willis O'Brien's work in King Kong. The very first sketches of what the monster would look like, in fact, were decidedly apelike in nature, but were soon discarded in favor of a more saurian design.
Tsuburaya said years later that before being hired for Gojira, he'd been planning to make a stop-motion monster movie about a giant octopus. He was forced to abandon the idea to work on Gojira, but coincidentally a year later in 1955, Harryhausen made his own stop-motion octopus movie, It Came From Beneath the Sea.
Unfortunately if he made Gojira as a stop-motion film, as Tsuburaya initially proposed, it would have taken years to complete. But they only had a few months to film, so he decided to go with a guy in a big rubber suit instead.
There was one major difference between Gojira and its influences. King Kong was a fable. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was a simple adventure story. Tanaka wanted his film to be more than that. He wanted his film to be an allegory both about atomic weapons and Japan's recent history. As a result, Gojira was a much darker film than either Kong or Beast. The opening scene of the film, in which the water around a fishing boat begins to bubble, followed by a blinding flash of light seconds before the boat bursts into flames, was a direct reference to an incident still fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences.
On March 1, 1954, the U.S. conducted an H-bomb test on the island of Bikini in the South Pacific. One hundred miles east of the island, the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon No. 5 found itself in the direct path of the fallout. All the fisherman aboard suffered radiation poisoning, and one died as a result. It was a major news story in Japan at the time, and one that convinced most Japanese (again) that not only were atomic weapons a threat to humanity, but also that the U.S. was being foolhardy and reckless in their testing.
Once more I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
It’s amazing that in spite of a tight budget and a tighter production schedule, the final film, released in November of 1954, was the masterpiece it was. It was far more than a simple monster movie. Director Ishiro Honda crafted a dark and somber allegory about the horrors of nuclear war. It was nothing to laugh at. The film ended with a sacrificial suicide, Tokyo in ruins, and the streets littered with the dead or dying.
And boy, by some accounts, was Ray Harryhausen pissed—believing correctly that he'd been ripped off and that Toho had made a mountain of cash as a result. While Harryhausen had put years of painstaking work into his giant animated monsters, Toho had taken the cheap way out, replacing stop-motion animation with a guy in a suit.
But the Möbius strip of Godzilla's evolution—one that began with Gertie—doesn't stop there. Gojira is merely an axis.