When many of us think of Godzilla, we think of awkward dubbing and a man in a rubber suit running around crushing model cities while occasionally fighting along side or against other monsters. My first exposure to Godzilla came from watching re-runs of the adorable yet absolutely cringe-worthy Hanna-Barbera animated series as a child. But Godzilla represents far more than the child-friendly hero of the cartoon I fondly remember. Godzilla is an international film icon and his appeal goes beyond audiences' appetite for destruction. William Tsutsui in Godzilla On My Mind reminds us that "Godzilla in all his glory was spawned from a virtual primordial soup of political concerns, cultural influences, cinematic inspirations, genre traditions, economic crassness, simple opportunism and sheer creativity." (Tsutsui, 2004) With the release of a new Godzilla reboot, I'd like to take this opportunity to remind viewers of the significance of Godzilla films and how this giant amphibious radioactive lizard monster went from a ghastly reminder of our nuclear past to an international sensation and enduring pop culture icon.
But what is it about Godzilla that is so compelling? Well, Tsutsui explains "Teasing out the charm of Godzilla is no easy matter, for in our embrace of the beast are entangled strands of nostalgia, the phantoms of nuclear war, the mysteries of childhood, the hard-nosed business of movie making, the unresolved tensions of world history. Freudian desires, fantasies of violence, and fundamental questions of humanity, spirituality and the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Understanding the appeal of Godzilla, when all is said and done, means understanding ourselves." (Tsutsui, 2004)
Godzilla's first film (released under the monster's Japanese name, Gojira) came out in 1954. It was just two years after the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan and in the immediate wake of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident. Mark Anderson in his essay "Mobilizing Gojira: Mourning Modernity as Monstrosity" explains. "The atomic era depicted in Gojira (1954) shared significant continuities with the wartime period of the debate (1942).....Gojira, implicitly raises questions about the ethics of the United States and U.S. scientists in pursuing the Manhattan Project and enabling the subsequent arms race that awakens Gojira."
At the time, Gojira (1954) was the most expensive film ever produced by a Japanese studio and the results are stunning. The film's dark atmosphere, solemn message, and brilliantly suspenseful yet melancholic soundtrack (courtesy of renown composer Akira Ifukube, who is also responsible for creating Godzilla's trademark roar) combine to create a truly captivating experience.
The film spawned a heavily edited and dubbed American production titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters which was a box office success. For many Americans, Godzilla was their first introduction to Japanese culture. In fact, William Tsutsui cites a 1985 New York Times/CBS News poll of 1500 Americans which embarrassingly found Godzilla to be among the three most famous Japanese "people." (Bruce Lee was also in the top three...)
In 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed and Godzilla's original function as a warning against nuclear testing was no longer relevant. As a result, subsequent films began to depict Godzilla as a hero rather than a warning and tragic reminder of our nuclear past. Chon Noriega in his article "Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When "Them!" Is U.S." explains "The genre now focused on the role of a child guiding the monster to save Japan from another monster, reflecting changes in post war Japan. The family, atomized by occupation reform, began to restabilize in the mid-sixties when Japan's economic success began to alleviate social anxieties. Children born in the sixties were also a generation removed from World War II. The realities Godzilla reflects became history rather than lived experience." (Noriega, 1987)
Although Godzilla had become something of an action hero for children in the '60s and '70s (the time of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon I loved so much) by 1985, cold war tensions had intensified and it was appropriate for Godzilla to return as a symbol of the nuclear age. In Godzilla (1985), Godzilla once again serves as a warning. As Professor Hayashida states in the film "Godzilla is a warning, a warning to everyone of us. When mankind falls into conflict with nature, monsters are born." Noriega further asserts" Godzilla 1985, more than anything else is a nuclear parable." (Noriega, 1987)
From the late 80's on, Godzilla films pitted our star against a number of formidable foes both old and new such as Biolante, Mechagodzilla and Space Godzilla, leading to Godzilla vs Destoroyahwhich was to be the end of the series. In 1998, Hollywood released Godzilla (1998) which featured a heavily reimagined creature. In fact, Kenpachiro Satsuma, an actor who played Godzilla, walked out on the film remarking "It's not Godzilla. It doesn't have his spirit" (Ryfle, 1998). The creature in Godzilla (1998) was so far removed from the original in both appearance and behavior that some began calling the creature GINO (Godzilla In Name Only) or "Zilla" in order to differentiate it from the original Godzilla.
Godzilla films continue to be made, some better than others. In fact, there is already talk of a sequel to the just released Godzilla (2014). Whether we view Godzilla as a solemn reminder of nuclear devastation and the atomic age or we just enjoy watching a giant reptile smashing Tokyo, Godzilla has captivated audiences worldwide and will continue to be a part of our popular consciousness for a long time. I'll close this post with the words of Godzilla creator Tomoyuki Tanaka as quoted by David Kalat in his A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series. "Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb. He is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul. He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse. As long as the arrogance of mankind exists, Godzilla will survive." (Kalat, 1997)
I would now like to highlight the Godzilla content held in the collections of the New York Public Library. Please feel free to comment below and tell us about your experience with the Godzilla franchise.
Godzilla at NYPL
Godzilla. (Image Entertainment, 2012) - From the criterion collection. Includes the original Gojira along with the American Godzilla: King of the Monsters. With high definition digital restoration.
Vaz, Mark Cotta. Godzilla: The Art of Destruction. (Insight Editions 2014) - "Published to coincide with the release of Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, this visually stunning book presents an extraordinary new vision for the beloved character through a dynamic selection of concept illustrations, sketches, storyboards, and other pre-production materials." (Perseus Publishing)
From the special collections
Godzilla. (H. Leonard, 1998?) - Printed music. Songs from the motion picture with acc. arr. for piano and added guitar chord symbols and diagrams.