In Search of Godzilla
Myth, Science, and Politics in Ishiro Honda’a Masterpiece
By Rick “Old Gator” Wallach
Prologue: Monsters and Mythopoesis
We need to be of several minds when considering Godzilla, whether the 1954 Japanese original, Gojira, or Transworld’s redacted 1956 American release, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. During the past few decades appreciation of director Ishiro Honda’s masterwork has grown exponentially. Full of political, social, historical, and even religious commentary, it has become the subject of critical discussion from the most rudimentary viewer responses to sophisticated poststructural and postcolonial studies. In any event, the story of the circumstances which culminated in the original 1954 film is a very long one. Most accounts of where Godzilla as cinematic icon originated begin with the Pacific war, especially with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that’s an abbreviated version. The monster’s roots actually go down into the whaling fields of the Marshall Islands and into African and Indonesian soil as far back as the late Nineteenth Century.
My personal fascination with this dark, sad movie began two years before I ever saw it, in a museum gallery in New York City where, although I couldn’t know it at the time, the story of Godzilla received its initial impetus too. In the summer of 1954 the American Museum of Natural History was a very different place. Its exterior hasn’t changed much, an edifice of granitic blocks reveling in their cruel weight. The big changes to it, tracking advances in the biological sciences, microscopy, paleontology, and architectural fashion, would happen inside. Splendid old galleries, the museum’s catacombs clustered around a few high ceilinged lobbies and rotundas. Hallways between them felt too high and narrow, and many of the galleries were claustrophobic. Stone staircases linking the floors splayed at their landings like river deltas while crazed windows at the ends of its corridors dimmed the urban light filtering in from the streets.
In the Hall of Reptiles I met my prequel to the dinosaurs: two enormous Komodo dragons mounted in a glass diorama, one maintaining vigilance while the other bit into a boar it had either killed or scavenged. These charcoal-colored monsters were brought to the museum in 1926 by a globe-trotting socialite-explorer named W. Douglas Burden with the encouragement and support of the museum’s director, Henry Fairfield Osborn. Burden had read of the capture of a few specimens prior to World War One by the Dutch colonial museum of the East Indies (Burden 16-17), but with records of that episode scattered by war he resolved to travel to the Lesser Sunda Islands and secure specimens for the museum in New York. A few years after my first museum visit I would read Burden’s journal of his expedition to what were then called the Dutch East Indies in a facsimile edition of National Geographic. Decades further on I would read about how Burden’s celebrity inspired the envy of his friend, another socialite, a documentary filmmaker named Merrian C. Cooper. Cooper’s plan to make a film of his friend’s pursuit of the legendary dragons of Komodo on their island redoubt was, however, waylaid by a dream. The pathway from these prehistoric survivals to Godzilla would wind through that dream, elliptically but surely. Meanwhile I had my own dreams, terrifying dreams, waiting for me just down the hall.
Turning through vaulted entryways into lofty rooms, also dimly lit, burnished skeletons of monsters confronted me. These galleries exhibiting prehistoric death – for the animatronic era was not yet upon us – were, like the vanished world they represented, foreboding places. In the center of the Jurassic Hall an Allosaurus bent over its Brontosaurus dinner radiating gratification despite its fleshlessness. Around another corner and through another time tunnel the Cretaceous Hall featured an old school Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton towering into the murk, tail dragging behind, tiny two fingered hands raised in a saurian mudra, head askance as though catching something out of the corner of its eye. A child needed to lean slightly backwards to take in its full height. At four years old, “extinction” didn’t mean enough to me to ameliorate a shiver of dread. A floor level glass case displayed a lifesized replica Tyrannosaurus skull, enabling a child to meet his bad dream nose to nose as though my Komodo dragons had burgeoned in size and horror by a factor of ten.
In both halls dust whirled in light slanting through dirty windows into near gloom, imparting a strobic effect to those gorgons posed as though yet pursuing their hungry affairs. Murals depicted these ghastly revenants in situ, in cycad fringed swamps surrounded with tree ferns, or striding across volcano rimmed prairies. One mural was of that same Allosaurus, here fully fleshed, leaning over its quarry tugging bolts of meat towards its mouth with its claws. These were the paintings of Charles R. Knight, whose representations of prehistoric life dominated the imagination of generations of spectators. His Brontosaurus, a dun olive giant wallowing in a lake, gazing over its shoulder, was our archetypal sauropod for much of a century. Knight’s faceoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops approaching one another across a prairie, each with dreadful confidence, personified the implacability of ancient life. For my generation, as for those who came before and immediately after, the way Knight envisioned dinosaurs was the way they were. His representations heavily influenced stop-motion animation wizards Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen to re-create his dinosaurs in movies like The Lost World, King Kong and The Valley of Gwangi (Fradken 2020) and so, in a real if, again, elliptical sense, they ultimately influenced the form Godzilla’s creators would give him. The artist had revised the forms those beasts had been given by the feuding paleontologists of the fin de siècle, Othniel Marsh and Edwin Drinker Cope, and by the earlier misconceptions, in 1854, of Richard Owen and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ dinosaur sculptures in the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. Knight laid to rest in the popular imagination the competing representations of their discoveries. Cope and Marsh’s battles over fossil fields and funding, as vicious as any one-on-one between those departed leviathans themselves, had yielded their fury to history and anecdote. So had Hawkins’ and Owen’s quadruped Iguanadons, which oddly resembled those living dragons of Indonesia whose discovery was as yet 70 years in the future. Over the coming decades other paleontologists would proffer their own amendments, ever aware of our resistance. Feathers or bright colors on dinosaurs? Those dragging tails replaced by balance beams? We surrendered our faith in Knight’s depictions no more readily than we abandoned the pretty poetry of Genesis.
In April 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters opened in the US and dominated the summer popcorn season. With an irony I would not appreciate for decades it followed the year’s previous blockbuster, John Huston’s film of Moby Dick, which had been released in January. On my insistence, because I had read the Classics Illustrated comic book version of Melville’s saga, my father took me to see it sometime during the winter. Unbeknownst to me, as to most Americans, the Japanese name of Godzilla, Gojira, was a conflation of gorira, the Japanese loan word for ‘gorilla,’ with kujira, for ‘whale.’ Following the American release of the original Japanese version on DVD in 2006 by Classic Media, it became common knowledge the gorilla who inspired the first syllable of this portmanteau was King Kong. The 20th anniversary re-release of Merrian C. Cooper’s 1933 classic reaped a box office windfall in Japan. It had been Cooper’s idea to make a film about a rampaging gorilla battling one of his friend Douglas Burden’s Komodo dragons. News reports about Alfred the gorilla, a captive in the Bristol Zoo in England, were widespread in the 1930s. Cooper reportedly had a dream about a giant gorilla, likely inspired by Alfred’s currency and popularity, which inspired him to switch out Burden’s dragons altogether for a giant ape, rendering his film about an expedition to a mysterious south Pacific island uniquely his own.
The 1953 American monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was also recording worldwide box office success before arriving in Japan, a fact of which the Toho Studios brass was well aware. It grossed nearly $5,000,000 in the US alone. Together the achievements of the two films encouraged Toho to risk an unheard of investment in a monster movie, $900,000 (the equivalent of $8.5 million today). It sounds like a pittance compared to contemporary film budgets but in a time of limited resources it was enough to put the studio in financial jeopardy. Such was Kong‘s box office influence. Such too was the novel pressure of television, a recently introduced home entertainment medium with which cinema now had to compete (Brothers 2013: 5).
However, the source of the concluding pair of syllables of our monster’s name, –jira, was less often speculated, aside from the beast being huge and a marine organism. Along with a couple of other, likely apocryphal, attributions the best known origin fable was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s contention that the monster was named after a hulking Toho stagehand whose nickname was Gojira. The real name and company position of this original “Gojira” remains unknown which, as Guy Mariner has noted, “given the Japanese studio’s penchant for keeping accurate records, further suggests the story is apocryphal. The name of whomever came up with Godzilla is lost in time as well, so…. at this point no explanation of either genesis is likely to be forthcoming” (6). In a 1998 BBC documentary Kimi Honda, director Ishiro Honda’s widow, laughed off that story of the stagehand. “I believe it came out of serious meetings between my husband and the producers,” she said. In fact no one in any position of authority ever explained how the name was decided. Honda’s biographer Steve Ryfle admits that “the name’s origins remain mysterious” (88).
I think, though, we do have some clues about the derivation of those two concluding syllables. Gojira’s crooked jaw, seen clearly in his frontal closeup above Hachiman Hill on Odo Island during his first reveal, and on several occasions during his excursions through Tokyo, appears to be a sly reference to the –jira part of his name. Moby Dick, most monstrous of all fictional cetaceans, was also marked by his crooked jaw. Captain Ahab famously exhorts his sailors to sight the leviathan, promising them “Whoever of ye raises me a white headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw” would win a gold coin he nails to the mast. A partial translation of Melville’s novel by Tomoji Abe appeared in Japan in 1940, another revised section in 1949, yet another in 1950, and a complete translation was finally published in 1954. Abe was highly visible in the country’s literary and political circles before and after the war, not only one of Japan’s most respected translators of western literature but a novelist and critic of stature. He was also the author of five original film stories from 1938-1955. An anti-nuclear and anti-militarism essayist, his political and social opinions aligned him with Ishiro Honda’s own brand of pacifistic humanism. His translation of the American masterpiece was anxiously anticipated by Japan’s literary crowd.
We also know Honda was familiar with him. In 1950, the future director of Gojira worked on pre-production for a Toho project, Shimbun koz (Newspaper Kid), based on an original story written by Abe (Ryfle 49-50) at the same time he was translating his third instalment of Moby Dick. Since Gojira story author Shigeru Kayama was also a fantasy and adventure novelist of stature, and given Japan has to this day retains its controversial whaling industry, it is likely at least two of the key contributors to Gojira were familiar with the translated American novel and incorporated that telltale deformity into the monster’s physiognomy.
There are other noteworthy allusions to Moby Dick in Gojira. Like the tormented amputee Ahab who dies with his whale when it submerges, the mad captain stabbing at it with his charmed harpoon, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, who lost an eye in the late war, submerges and dies with his monster while activating his oxygen destroyer. As if to anticipate this analogy, the wrought iron guard framing the chemist’s parlor window consists of rows of vertical rods ending in lanceolate, twin-flued points, like a rack of harpoons. Tellingly, we see this window just after the journalist Hagiwara interviews Serizawa who, unsettled by the reporter’s awareness of his research and his German connection, prepares to reveal the existence of his oxygen destroyer to his fiancée, Emiko. We see the window again later in the film when Emiko and her boyfriend Ogata confront the scientist about the existence of his weapon and urge him to use it against Gojira. I don’t believe it is coincidental that the harpoon image recurs on both occasions when the oxygen destroyer is discussed. Bluntly put, the harpoons are meant to draw an analogy between hunting down Moby Dick and killing Gojira.
The film version of Melville’s novel affords us another dollop of synchronicity. As Gregory Peck’s Ahab plots on his sea charts his course to intercept the great whale, he informs Starbuck of his intention to encounter his quarry near Bikini – the site of the Crossroads and Castle series atomic and hydrogen bomb tests which rousted Gojira from his abyssal habitat in the first place. The island had been the site of American atomic bomb tests since 1946 so it was already enshrined in the popular nuclear ethos. Bikini does not appear in Melville’s novel so one is left to wonder if its fissionable celebrity was behind screenwriters John Huston and Ray Bradbury’s decision to make it the site of Ahab’s fateful encounter with his whale. As if all this weren’t enough, several critics have noted Gojira appears upon the centennial of Japan’s opening to the west in an allegory of the destruction of traditional Japanese culture by westernization. Commodore Perry, it turns out, invited Herman Melville to accompany him before his Kurofune, or black ship fleet, kicked in the doors of shokoku Japan in 1853. Melville declined (Blouin 2).
During that fateful spring of 1956, American television ads for Godzilla, King of the Monsters featured a child’s voice crying “Wow! Look what’s coming to our local theater! This movie I gotta see!” while Godzilla loomed over rooftops with his unforgettable honking roar. The ad grabbed me like a snapping turtle. That roar hooked a lot of other folks, too. Every kid in the neighborhood wanted to see it. The writers of a popular comic book contemporaneous with the film, Dell and later Gold Key Comics’ Turok, Son of Stone called their dinosaurs “honkers.” I was by then a great aficionado of all things dinosaur and my room was a warehouse of picture books, plastic figurines, and poster versions of Knight murals.
My father took me to a Saturday matinee of Godzilla, King of the Monsters at the Strand Theater in Far Rockaway, New York in May 1956, a few weeks shy of my sixth birthday. The Strand was a capacious old theater with faded flock wallpaper, every bit as somber and brooding as those museum galleries even with its house lights on. It felt like the right place to see a dinosaur movie. We scored our popcorn, candy bars (I got a Clark Bar, now as rare yet defiant of extinction as a trilobite) and soda and took seats right in the middle of the orchestra. In the tradition of those grindhouse years the Strand played double features on weekends, so I had to endure a western while waiting for the main event.
After sitting through a few trailers the house lights dimmed again as Godzilla finally unspooled. The hidden beast, that uncanny roar presaged a ragged font of the monster’s name which appeared across a cauldron in the night sea. It was as spooky as the Cretaceous gallery but augmented with frightening sound effects. This dinosaur was not going to be a static display. Neither was it a smooth skinned, glistening brute like one of Knight’s renderings. Its flesh was rucked and rumpled, its features deformed, its castellated back glowing as it spat fire like a dragon. It cooked and trampled buildings and people. Cannon fire only enraged it. I was transfixed. Scenes of citizens fleeing before it framed from just behind its advancing feet were to haunt my dreams into adulthood. Six years old, I didn’t follow the anti-nuclear, moral, or romantic subplots but even while appreciating its pure spectacle I could sense the film’s pervasive melancholia. All that human damage – children watching their parents die in overcrowded hospitals as ambulances unloaded still more of the maimed and irradiated, some of whom cried out in pain – broke my heart. I didn’t understand its Japanese audience recognized those scenes from experience. Nevertheless, I felt like Prince Gautama must have when he wandered from the palace to encounter pain and death for the first time. Most of all, I remembered Ogata’s portentous words, written by Hollywood lifer Al C. White for the partially dubbed soundtrack, as the young salvage diver struggled to convince a recalcitrant Serizawa to relinquish his oxygen destroyer: “You have your fear, which might become reality, and you have Godzilla, which is reality.” That, I realized in some instinctive manner, was all the philosophy I would ever need.
The great Argentine fictionist Julio Cortázar recalled how “when I was a child and went to elementary school, my notion of the fantastic was very different from that of my classmates. For them the fantastic was something they had to reject because it had nothing to do with the truth, with life, with what they were studying and learning. When they said ‘this movie is pure fantasy’ what they meant was ‘This movie is trash’” (35). My experience of Godzilla was much the same: it mattered to me in ways I understood it didn’t to my peers. It still matters. I had occasion over the ensuing years to ponder the hold on my imagination this creature exercised, a hold which only strengthened while other childhood and, eventually, adolescent preoccupations fell away. I don’t know how many times I must have watched it on television. Unlike Jackie Paper, my magic dragon didn’t yield to more mature preoccupations. Godzilla grew up with me. My interest in him, in the fascination he continued to elicit, sharpened while I studied mythology, psychology, politics and comparative religion.
Godzilla kindled my interest in all matters Japanese. Eventually he drew me to Japan. I traveled through the country several times dragging my family along with me, a scholarly tourist in search of a monster. When the hotel I booked for my first visit to Tokyo, the Shinagawa Prince, stood on the very hill from which Yamane, Shinkichi and Ogata watched the creature emerge from Tokyo Bay and trample the rail yards, I felt engulfed by coincidence. By sheer luck a cab driver the hotel concierge recommended as a guide was a kaiju fan and sacrificed his street map to mark off Godzilla’s route through the city. We followed it like some tokusatsu Way of Saint James. Naturally, I made my pilgrimage to the Gojira statue in the plaza of Tokyo’s central rail terminal, the very spot where, twenty years later, Shin Gojira would run out of steam and be unceremoniously frozen stiff. Onward, I visited the atomic parks and museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Aside from a visit to Auschwitz or Dachau, you couldn’t imagine a more sobering experience or a more sickening exposition of man’s bottomless inhumanity. The dioramas of flayed hibakusha wandering the ruins like ambulatory cinders contributed hugely to my comprehension of the impact Gojira must have had on its audience when it opened in Osaka in October 1954.
Reading widely in Japanese literature, I was absorbed by the novels and stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Shusaku Endo, Seicho Matsumoto, Hyaaken Uchida, Kobo Abe, Haruki Murakami, Masuji Ibuse and, inevitably, Yukio Mishima. The latter’s “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy arrested me with its accommodation of Japan’s recent political history to the mythopoesis of its ancient rituals and lore, an amalgamation which became central to my understanding of why Godzilla has become such a polyvalent figure in that nation’s – and the world’s – popular culture. In fact Mishima loved Gojira when it opened, celebrating it in a critical review entitled “Gojira’s Egg.” He put his nationalistic ideological agenda behind it, as he always did, but his appreciation of the film was still more perspicacious than the response of most Japanese critics at the time.
I also studied foundational texts in Japanese drama like Zeami’s Fushikaden, in religion and myth like the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, and spent hours watching its national cinema, absorbing its art, drama and dance. Belatedly, as a bucket list item, I began learning the Japanese language. I’m still plugging away at it.
Gojira has since exfoliated into a mind-boggling phenomenon. He now presides over a marketplace of cartoons, comic books, figurines, friction toys, keychain maquettes, posters, novels, coloring books, how to draw books, tattoos, plushes, party costumes, t-shirts, blankets (my daughter, whom I created a Japanophile, bought me a comforter with Godzilla superimposed over Hokusai’s ukiyo-e “Great Wave off Kanagawa”), and his ever-proliferating fan websites. As statues of various sizes, from one meter high pedestal mounts to life sized busts looming above buildings or swallowing zipline riding tourists, Godzilla has become a tourist attraction or even a local creature-mascot, what the Japanese call yuru-kayara.
There have been over thirty sequels to the original film. I know those sequels have their enthusiastic partisans but I’m not one of them. Nevertheless, I won’t spend any time denigrating those films since, at the very least, their sheer proliferation kept the franchise in view as critical attention to them also proliferated and eventually returned to the 1954 foundational work I want to consider in detail here. Hence, I focus below on Ishiro Honda’s original, its uneasy dialogue with its 1956 Americanized version, and Hideaki Anno’s 2016 extended parody, Shin Gojira. I have also ignored the “monsterverse” series of American Godzillas and Roland Emmerich’s mutant iguana version which resembles the late Miami Dolphins’ coach Don Shula more than the original beast, and which I think of as “Chin Godzilla.” Wherever else my interests led me, in a persistent childhood unconscious data and perspectives went on constellating around the lumbering kaiju I first met on that distant summer afternoon. It was not until 1982 when Gojira was shown in New York as part of a festival of Japanese films that I finally got to see it unbowdlerized. I had read about its differences from the Americanized version but, even so, in its added depth and pathos it was a revelation.
All that notwithstanding, the incident which finally began to draw together my thoughts about Godzilla occurred right back at the American Museum of Natural History sometime during the fall of 2011. As the millennium labored to a close my wife and I took our young son and daughter there during a visit to the city. The catacombs which once enhanced the eeriness of primordial death were gone. They had been remodeled and were now light, airy, spacious – and, I thought, sterile. In this brave new post-Alvarez Hypothesis, post-Knight world the main dinosaur exhibits had been rearranged. No longer organized according to geological epochs, the rooms were now separately devoted to the two main dinosaur families, the saurischians and ornithischians, the latter accorded primacy since, after all, they were going to bequeath us birds. Even Brontosaurus had been taken from us by the power crazed ephebes of molecular genetics and cladistics, subdivided into Camarasaurus and Apatosaurus (could they have picked more charmless names?). Dinosaurs weren’t even reptiles anymore. Their skeletons were posed in frozen kinesthesis, tails held high off the ground, crouched like Olympic sprinters at their starting blocks. Those venerable Knight murals were now curios, fossils themselves, indicative not of how their subjects were but of how wrong we had been. In those august chambers Huxley’s victory was complete. The Wilberforces of paleontology had been vanquished.
One thing which hadn’t changed, though, was that replica Tyrannosaurus skull encased in its floor level plexiglass display. As we stood further down the gallery two young rabbis led a troupe of about a dozen Orthodox Jewish children with Downs Syndrome through the far portal. They clustered in their black coats around the rex skull while one of the rabbis patiently lectured, then waved them along. Something verging on preternatural told me to keep watching them. Eventually they moved away except for one child, youngest and smallest of the lot. He continued to stare transfixed, nose on with that brutish countenance, yet reverently, as though it were a bimah. Then he reached behind himself, underneath his coat and withdrew his siddur, his daily prayer book, from a back pocket. Holding it open before him in one hand, his other arm akimbo, he began davening, bowing and straightening, bowing and straightening.
The rabbi at the end of the group noticed he was a child short and spun around. When he saw the lad praying to the rex head his eyes flashed with horror. Striding back to the boy, he gently put his arm around him and eased him away towards the group, returning the siddur to his pocket. He reminded me of my own father displacing me from my seat at the Strand Theater decades ago. Once back at the end of the line with his mentor ushering him from behind the boy turned to look at the skull receding in the distance. He continued looking back until they were out of sight around a corner.
I’ve thought about that episode countless times, recalling William Tsutsui’s observation that “[Godzilla] remains ever available as a metaphor, ever compliant to interpretation and appropriation” (2006: 11). I don’t dispute that. My boyhood impression of Godzilla, one which has persisted despite accretions of discrimination and critical training, was nevertheless not of a symbol or metaphor, not even of a ‘man in a rubber suit,’ but of something real and alive. I suspect my fellow critics who treat the monster seriously also believe that or at least want to, even though they hide their fancy behind an analytical façade. What did that child think he was looking at which inspired him to prayer? Something about the rex’s size, its shape, its toothy rictus, engaged his sense of the holy, or of the mythopoeic if you will, such as he understood it to be. I suspect his experience of the monstrous was not so different from my own when I was his age. Vouchsafed an epiphany in puzzle form my thoughts would always bring me back to the King of the Monsters and his cultural milieu within which hell itself had been recent experience, dragons rampaged, and the demonic was an aspect of the divine. Gojira began to suggest itself as an anatomy of melancholia.
Joseph Campbell has called myths “energy releasing and directing signs.” In the sense that Gojira is based on a group of ancient Chinese and Japanese sea dragon myths, and has evolved a contemporary, transcultural mythos of his own as both Gojira and Godzilla, he also qualifies as such a sign. He has become a semiological problem and semiology, simply put, is the study of the language of signs. Jase Short framed the matter succinctly: “A creature with fantastic origins in local folklore of Pacific Islanders which has undergone a thorough science fictionalization at the hands of atomic testing became for the Japanese public a cultural cipher, or a symbol which could be readily understood as representative of something too vast and complex for a more realistic-oriented narrative” (66).
In what follows I propose to explore how a savvy director enables a monster to signify, concentrate, and focus anxieties at the heart of which cultural codes in crisis will inevitably be discerned. This book which follows is no more nor less than my working out of the puzzle of Gojira. Some of it is necessarily speculative because much about Godzilla and the fascination he elicits is so complex that, in the end, one can only speculate. I have wherever possible tethered my speculation to history, science, and ultimately to myth. But it hasn’t always been possible. Such is his enduring enigma.
© Rick Wallach, 2023, All Rights Reserved