It’s (Still) Alive! A History of Godzilla in the United States

Promotional poster for Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) by Embassy Pictures.

“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.

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.

Photograph of the flattened city of Hiroshima, taken shortly after the nuclear bombing of August 6, 1945. Made available for public use by the US Navy Public Affairs Resources Website.

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.

On the set of Gojira (1954). Image in public domain, copyright expired.

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.

Raymond Burr (left) in one of the inserted American scenes scattered throughout Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) by Embassy Pictures.

Redemption?

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.

Promotional poster for Godzilla (2014) by Legendary Pictures.

Historian of modern Britain, popular culture, and queer identities. PhD student, trans activist, and Quaker from South Wales. She/her pronouns.

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