It’s (Still) Alive! A History of Godzilla in the United States
“Godzilla,” produced in a Japanese studio, is an incredibly awful film. It looks as though its Japanese producers … made a close study of the old film, “King Kong,” then tried to do substantially the same thing with a miniature of a dinosaur made of gum-shoes and about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains.¹
When the Godzilla franchise was first unleashed on New York theaters on April 27, 1956, the unflattering opinion of New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was widely shared. Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, as the US adaptation was titled, was seen as a pale imitation of an American giant monster film released 23 years prior: King Kong. The spectacle of a man in a suit destroying a model version of Tokyo felt both goofy and pointless to US consumers, prompting critics to damn it as a meaningless romp. The film’s US gross of $2.5m put it at the higher end of summer B-movies, but only just.
This was an inauspicious American debut for one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable cultural icons. Back in Japan, by contrast, the original Gojira (a fusion of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” later Westernized as “Godzilla”) brought some audience members to tears upon its release in November 1954. It smashed numerous Japanese records by selling 9.6 million tickets and imprinted the kaiju (giant beast) genre permanently onto Japan’s cultural DNA.² The success of the first film spawned a series of thirty-two mostly Japan-only sequels.
Godzilla did, of course, gain a cult following outside of Japan as well. Historian Barak Kushner describes the film as “Japan’s first postwar media event,” marking the country’s “return to the international stage” after its crushing defeat in the Second World War.³ Godzilla crossed the Rubicon into the world of ubiquitous imagery, appearing in TV commercials, cartoons, video games, toy sets, and cereal boxes ad nauseam.⁴
But ever since the flat-footed entrance onto American soil in 1956, Westerners have struggled to get Godzilla. The series is usually judged by the standards of a typical action or disaster flick: good for cheap thrills but little more. The stylistic and narrative features that are integral to the franchise and made it such a rampant success in Japan have been interpreted as just bad movie-making. In fact, no Godzilla film with a mainstream Western theatrical release holds a Metacritic score higher than 62. The King of Monsters has a reputation for mediocrity.
How did this happen?
The Atomic Age
More than most films, Gojira was made possible by a very specific set of social and political circumstances. By the time it was viewed by Japanese audiences in 1954, just nine years had passed since the nation’s collective spirit was scarred by the American nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.⁵ Two years had passed since Japan regained its independence from a US-led occupation force that took control following Japan’s surrender. And just eight months prior, memories of nuclear destruction were revitalized when the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru was afflicted by fallout from American nuclear tests in the South Pacific.
Japan remains the only country to have experienced a nuclear attack — and the only country, therefore, to have dealt with the physical and mental anguish of the aftermath. The sheer scale of the destruction, including the loss of around 300,000 lives, fostered a unique sense of victimhood in public discourse. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, known as the hibakusha, continued to suffer for many years after the bombs hit, and their struggle for compensation led to the creation of the Atomic Bomb Victims Association in 1952 and the Council of Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Victim Groups in 1956.⁶
The widespread feeling of injustice that radiated from the atom bombs was accompanied by a search for answers regarding Japan’s defeat. Why, it was asked, had Japanese science fallen so far behind that of America in the first place? Emperor Hirohito himself wrote after the surrender that Japan lost the war because it “placed too much weight on spirit and forgot about science … So from now on we must have group training, foster science, and the entire nation must labor hard to construct a new, better Japan than today.” In this way, the uncomfortable truths exposed by defeat prompted a desire for self-betterment. As the head of Japan’s Information Bureau said shortly before the Allied Occupation began, it fell on the Japanese people to transform themselves from the “losers of war” into the “winners of peace”.⁸
Science was at the forefront of the new national culture. Hirohito himself was frequently photographed with scientific equipment, and many of those previously involved in wartime biological and chemical warfare programs rehabilitated themselves into civilian scientists or medical doctors. Japan became a leading high-tech exporter, so successful that American commentators in the 1980s began to panic about this new behemoth they had helped to create. From 1946 to 1973, Gross National Product grew by an average of 9.6% annually.⁹ Japan was winning the peace.
The nation’s rehabilitation on the cultural front was also underway by the 1950s. A flood of new magazines and novels made use of the more open cultural atmosphere, no longer restricted to the nationalistic and militaristic themes of wartime propaganda. The Japanese film industry, too, began to re-emerge from the ashes. Kurosawa Akira, a leading light in the new wave of directors, produced films like Rashomon (1950), which was set in medieval Japan and followed two competing narratives about a rape and murder. Several of Kurosawa’s films were adapted for Western releases, and his death was marked by a full-page obituary in the New York Times.¹⁰
Until 1956, however, no Japanese film made a significant impression on the international market, and none had entered the realm of instant recognizability. Given the emotionally-charged political atmosphere in Japan, it was only fitting that the first film to achieve this level of success should be an allegory for Japan’s nuclear trauma. Enter Godzilla.
A man, a monster suit, and a tragedy
Honda Ishirō was born the son of a Buddhist priest in 1911. After spending his early years in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan and then Tokyo, he matriculated at Nihon University in 1931 to study film. Before graduating, Honda was given a job at a small film-making outfit that in 1936 was subsumed into Tōhō, the company under which he eventually created Gojira.
Honda lived through the devastating Allied fire-bombings of Tokyo in March 1945, and a year later he saw first-hand the scenes of ruin in what was left of Hiroshima. Recalling that experience in 1991, he said “there was a heavy atmosphere — a fear the Earth was already coming to an end. That became my basis [for Gojira].”¹¹ He wanted to make the issue of nuclear radiation visible and palpable, while also empowering the Japanese people to master the trauma of the bombs through film.
When the opportunity arose to create Gojira, Honda was joined by numerous leading figures in Japanese cinema, including producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, special effects director Tsuburaya Eiji, and storyteller Sekizawa Shinichi. The serious intent of the film was also signaled by its high-brow cast. Shimura Takashi, who played the paleontologist Professor Yamane Kyōhei, had appeared in numerous artistic films like the aforementioned Rashomon (1950). With this great-and-good crew, Gojira was, by the standards of Japanese films at the time, a significant big-budget production.
The story of Gojira begins with the disappearance of Japanese merchant ships off the coast of Odo island. A village elder on Odo tells a reporter from the mainland that the disappearances are due to a mythical creature — the film’s namesake, Gojira. The government sends paleontologist Yamane Kyōhei to investigate these claims, and on the island he catches his first glimpse of the 50-meter tall radioactive beast (played by Takarada Akira wearing a monster suit).
As the story reaches its climax and the Tokyo skyline is left shattered by Godzilla’s radioactive breath, it becomes increasingly obvious that the monster was created or awoken by American nuclear testing in the South Pacific. When attempts to kill Godzilla with conventional weapons fail, Professor Yamane’s eye patched colleague, Dr Serizawa Daisuke, invents a new device that causes asphyxiation by annihilating oxygen atoms. Godzilla, having returned to the waters of Tokyo Bay, is pursued by Serizawa and Japanese military ships carrying this “Oxygen Destroyer”.
In the final phases of the film, Serizawa dons a diving suit and plunges into the depths to find his target. However, concerned that the Oxygen Destroyer’s terrible potential would be harnessed by the Cold War superpowers, he decides that he must share Godzilla’s fate. As the weapon detonates, Serizawa cuts his oxygen line and takes his monstrous technical knowledge to the ocean floor, along with Godzilla’s corpse.
This makes for a highly nuanced ending. On the one hand, it depicts Japanese science winning the day against an apocalyptic opponent, thereby turning the powerless indignity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on its head. But, on the other hand, the film encourages the viewer to question the seemingly inexorable forward-march of weaponized science. For Japanese theater-goers, still reeling from the Second World War’s terrifying conclusion, the message of the film could not have been clearer.
Director Honda Ishirō described Gojira as “a sincere protest against nuclear destruction,” but it was also about a nation grappling with an unspeakable tragedy through the medium of film — something that cannot easily be translated for foreign audiences. As Barak Kushner argues: “No film could be more Japanese since only Japan had the atomic bomb dropped on it, and only the Japanese understood the deep-seated fear of sliding back into war again.”¹²
Subsequent films in the Tōhō series were considerably less serious. Godzilla, or rather a series of new Godzillas from the same species, is given a laundry list of rival monsters to fight alongside or against, including the benevolent Mothra, a robotic counterpart called Mecha Godzilla, and even a Japanese-speaking son. The plots get progressively wackier and the quality of the acting declines. None of this, however, should detract from the thematic weight of the original.
As a comparison to help Westerners comprehend the mindset behind Gojira, film historian David Kalat points to the terrorist attacks that hit the United States on September 11, 2001. Both the pain and the resilience connected to that event feel uniquely American, to the extent that foreign consumers of 9/11-themed media may never fully understand the visceral mix of emotions present on that day.¹³ In a similar sense, the message of Gojira defies cultural transfusion.
All of the American Godzilla films have to be seen in this context. Their creators were attempting to do something exceedingly difficult — maybe even impossible. They had to take source material infused with Japanese atomic nightmares and make it intelligible to American viewers who not only lack experience of nuclear attacks, but are taught that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary evil. The narrative gymnastics required to pull this off sometimes resulted in a confusing mess, but the attempt itself is worthy of some praise.
Made in America
The now-legendary producer Joseph Levine was already a major player in the postwar American movie distribution scene by the time Gojira was released in Japan, but in the early 1950s he was looking to carve out a different career making cinematic experiences of his own. An intriguing opening was provided when the Manson International distribution company paid Tōhō $25,000 for exclusive US rights to Godzilla. The adapted version of Honda’s masterpiece that made its way to American screens in 1956, Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, was the brainchild of Levine, director Terry Morse, and the production crew at Embassy Pictures. Their creative decisions — including the insertion of a new American character, a journalist played by Raymond Burr— significantly altered both the expectations of the audience and the moral impact of the story.
Levine, arguing that the creature in Gojira was not physically “powerful enough” for American tastes, insisted that he be drastically increased in size in promotional posters.¹⁴ Film viewers were led by the marketing to expect a purely action-oriented picture similar to the slew of King Kong imitations then being released. As for the film itself, most of the Japanese speech was dubbed over while some of it was left in place and “translated” for the audience by the associate of the visiting American journalist. Scenes are also rearranged and the meaning behind them subtly adjusted.
As Kalat points out, the editing process resulted in some curious side-effects. Japanese characters can be heard repeatedly using the word “Gojira” long before the American version introduces the monster, only for their sentences to be followed by a completely unrelated translation. Another oddity is the supposed death of a Japanese character who then reappears in later scenes. These oversights, Kalat concludes, are symptomatic of a ‘condescending’ attitude in the American production team, which assumed their audiences would struggle to distinguish between Japanese words or faces.¹⁵
Most significantly, King of the Monsters! removed numerous references to both the Second World War and the Cold War because they were deemed too politically sensitive. Some of the most emotionally impactful lines from the original therefore go untranslated. With this crucial context removed, references to mankind’s hubris and the dangers of modern science, though still prominent, seem more generalized and less profound. Historian Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu describes the resulting film as “a standard monster-on-the-loose flick devoid of any social relevance”.¹⁶
King of the Monsters! is not entirely without merit. It did, after all, help pave the way for Godzilla to become a rampantly popular and profitable global franchise. But by giving Americans a mistaken idea of what Godzilla is really about, it set in motion a cycle of cultural misunderstanding that still endures today. Despite some admirable efforts, recent attempts to reintroduce Godzilla in a different, more meaningful light have struggled to overcome the restrictions imposed by this decades-old first impression.
Forty-two years passed between the release of King of the Monsters! and the franchise’s next mainstream theatrical release in the States. It was during this interim that Godzilla established himself as a nebulous worldwide symbol of Japan; a darker counterbalance to the cutesy image of Japanese culture popularized by brands like Hello Kitty (launched 1974).¹⁷ By the time a new American-made film hit theaters in 1998, this vacuous but “cool” view of Godzilla in the US was firmly entrenched.
Titled simply Godzilla and produced by Sony’s TriStar Pictures, this new iteration was led by the director/producer duo from Independence Day (1996): the German Roland Emmerich and the American Dean Devlin. The film’s script went through several overhauls, with early versions envisioning a battle between Godzilla and a rival monster reminiscent of Tōhō’s sequels. Emmerich, who was not a Godzilla fan and had no particular interest in the history of the franchise, threw out these ideas and replaced them with a fairly generic disaster movie storyline.¹⁸ Plans for a traditional-looking Godzilla were also scrapped in favor of a more T-rex-like creature — something that left Tōhō staff speechless.
TriStar’s Godzilla is consequently the most hated movie in the franchise. It is, however, less faithless to the source material than many people would admit. The nuclear theme is front-and-centre, albeit updated for the post-Cold War geopolitical atmosphere of the late-90s. American nuclear testing ceased shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so this time Godzilla is awoken by the French detonations in Polynesia that continued until 1996. The film also contains scenes in Chernobyl, where a reactor explosion in 1986 reintroduced the world to the destructive potential of nuclear technology.
Unfortunately, though, this theme is drowned out by the action scenes that make up the bulk of the movie. And when the film’s atrocious critical reception resulted in the planned TriStar sequels being scrapped, Godzilla once again became commercially homeless outside of Asia.
This time, the wait for another spin of the wheel was much shorter. Legendary Pictures has so far produced two Godzilla feature-films — in 2014 and 2019 — as part of its ‘MonsterVerse’. The narrative will eventually converge with the recent King Kong sister films produced by the same studio, culminating in a colossal clash in Godzilla vs. Kong (planned for November 2020).
Legendary’s films are much more conscious of their heritage than their predecessors.¹⁹ Godzilla’s appearance is kept closer to the original than the derided TriStar beast, and he is depicted fighting a host of monsters reminiscent of the Tōhō series. Moreover, in a nod to both Honda Ishirō and his heroic character Dr Serizawa Daisuke, the leading Japanese scientist in these new films is named Ishirō Serizawa.
Still, the writers labor to make their Godzilla relevant both to modern-day Japan, through allusions to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and to the climate crisis, by depicting the kaiju as nature’s response to humanity’s arrogant stranglehold on the ecosystem. These messages sometimes feel slightly shallow or contrived, but they are consistent and frequent enough to stick in the memory after the end credits.
A new generation of Western fans — far too young to remember even the Cold War, let alone the Second World War — have been exposed through this series to the concept, however vague and clumsily implemented, that Godzilla means something. The curiosity that flowed from this realization has led many fans to seek out the “pure” Godzilla experience provided by the Japanese films. In this respect, despite its lukewarm critical reception, the Legendary series stands head and shoulders above past Westernizations.
This achievement also probably represents the best that an American studio can now hope to achieve with the franchise. While the critical acclaim and awards showered on Tōhō’s own reboot, Shin Gojira (2016), demonstrate that Japanese filmmakers still get it, after six-and-a-half decades it seems unlikely that their Western counterparts will ever fully bridge the cultural chasm that was exposed on April 27, 1956.
1 Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Horror Import; ‘Godzilla’ a Japanese Film, Is a State,” New York Times, April 28 1956.
2 Barak Kushner, “Gojira as Japan’s First Postwar Media Event” in Tsutsui and Ito [eds.], In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 41.
4 Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu, “Lost in Translation and Morphed in Transit: Godzilla in Cold War America” in Tsutsui and Ito, In Godzilla’s Footsteps, p. 51.
5 John W. Dower, “The Bombed: Hiroshimas and Nagasakis in Japanese Memory” in Diplomatic History, Vol. 19, (1995), pp. 275–295.
6 James J. Orr, The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National identity in Postwar Japan, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), p. 44, 142.
7 Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 533–4.
8 John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 494.
9 Yutaka Kosai, “The postwar Japanese economy, 1945–1973” in Peter Duus [ed.], The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume 6, Twentieth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
10 Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (London: Belknapp Press, 2000), pp. 712–3.
11 David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, (London: McFarland & Company, 1997), p. 16.
12 Kushner, “Gojira as Japan’s First Postwar Media Event”, p. 47.
13 Kalat, Critical History, pp. 2–3.
14 Guthrie-Shimizu, “Lost in Translation,” pp. 54–5.
15 Kalat, Critical History, pp. 24–9.
16 Guthrie-Shimizu, “Lost in Translation,” p. 56.
17 Christine Yano, “Monstering the Japanese Cute: Pink Globalization and its Critics Abroad” in Tsutsui and Ito, In Godzilla’s Footsteps, p. 153.
18 ScreenRant, “Writer Of 1998’s Godzilla Reflects On Movie’s Biggest Problems,” May 30 2018. [https://screenrant.com/godzilla-1998-dean-devline-film-problems/].
19 Mark Cotta Vaz, Godzilla: The Art of Destruction, (San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2014).