In 1954 a hydrogen bomb released a force of nature on movie audiences that endures to this day. Godzilla, king of the monsters, was born from the mind of Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. He had seen Ray Harryhausen’s 1953 film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and proceeded to create the first Japanese giant monster film. Coincidentally, about the same time, a horrifying accident occurred in the south Pacific. During the Castle Bravo test on March 1, 1954, the U.S. detonated the largest thermonuclear weapon it has ever tested. A 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, nearly 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vaporized three islands and rained radioactive fallout hundreds of miles away on a Japanese fishing trawler named “Lucky Dragon #5”. The crew subsequently died of radiation poisoning, and sparked an outrage against nuclear testing.
Tomoyuki Tanaka incorporated this tragedy into his story saying, “Mankind had created ‘the Bomb’, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Tanaka’s working title became The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea. He took his idea to Iwao Mori, a powerful executive producer for Toho Studios. No Japanese studio had ever taken on such a huge and costly project. Mori approved of the idea and knew it would require the talents of Toho’s chief special-effects man, Eiji Tsuburaya. Tanaka chose an experienced director who had worked on war dramas involving numerous special effects. That director was Ishirô Honda. As Mori refined the project he also shortened the working title to simply, Project G, giving it top-secret status.
Now the creature needed a name. Because the original concept was for the monster to be part gorilla and part whale, they used an amalgam of Gorilla-kujira (the latter being the Japanese word for “whale”). The beast had his name, “Gojira”! In order to sell the concept to Western audiences, Toho’s marketing team revised the name to “Godzilla”. During the 1950s, giant reptiles and dinosaurs were becoming popular in films, so Tanaka wisely made Gojira a dinosaur-like creature that would threaten Japan. Something so horrifying that citizens would relate its destructive force to that of the atomic bomb.
Production for Godzilla began July 5, 1954, only four months before the film’s release. Critics often ask why Honda didn’t use stop-motion animation for the effects. Given the budget and tight deadlines required, stop-motion animation was out of the question. Instead, Tsuburaya pioneered what is now referred to as “suitmation”. The method worked well with the fine models that Tsuburaya’s team could build to portray the apocalyptic destruction Godzilla could wreak on Japan. In the film, Dr. Yamane estimates that Godzilla is 50 meters tall (167 feet) requiring most of the miniatures to be 1:25 scale. Forced perspective also made the buildings in the distance to appear smaller and farther away.
The first Godzilla suit was said to have weighed over 200 pounds, preventing the average actor from wearing it. The search for strong and athletic men to wear the cumbersome costume led the production team to Haruo Nakajima, a young actor and stuntman, and a teenaged Katsumi Tezuka. Both men had excellent endurance and strength from years of martial arts training and sports. Nakajima would be go on to reprise the role of Godzilla, becoming Toho’s principal Godzilla suitmation actor.
With a total budget nearing $900,000 (in adjusted U.S. dollars), Godzilla was the most expensive Japanese movie of its time, surpassing The Seven Samurai’s $500,000 budget. The expensive gamble paid off on November 3, 1954, when Godzilla broke the opening-day ticket-sales record in Tokyo held by The Seven Samurai. During its initial run, nearly 9.6 million people saw Godzilla in its original form. Toho had more than doubled its investment, taking in 152 million Yen ($2.25 million), and securing the future of the series.
Today, 60 years and 26-plus sequels later, the king of the monsters is as popular as ever. This year Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures is launching its reboot of Godzilla (this time set in San Francisco), while Rialto Pictures has painstakingly restored the original 98-minute Japanese version of the film for a new release under the title, Godzilla: The Japanese Original. American audiences now have the opportunity to see this classic film as it was meant to be seen. The 20 minutes of American footage (mostly with Raymond Burr) are gone while approximately 38 minutes of the original film are now restored.
What remains from the original production? Sadly, not much. The oldest known prop from the 1954 production is the Oxygen Destroyer that was used in the original to kill the monster (and featured on the poster for Godzilla: The Japanese Original). The original costumes have deteriorated over the years, leaving almost nothing behind for today’s fans to appreciate from the first Godzilla film. However, outside of Toho Studios in Tokyo, stands a statue honoring the monster that started a new era in Japanese cinema. It’s a reminder of the impact that Godzilla and Honda’s original film have had on movies for six decades.
Godzilla: The Japanese Original screens now though May 8th at the Somerville Theater.