Godzilla first appeared on theater screens across Japan 60 years ago today, on November 3rd 1954. Even if you’ve never seen a Godzilla movie, you probably know Godzilla is a monster born from a post-war Japan coming to terms with the bomb.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that Godzilla is what brought me to Japan. I spent my school days running a popular Godzilla fansite, my teenage years writing about Japanese monsters for various magazines and websites, and for the last two years I’ve been co-producing an online documentary series called SciFi JAPAN TV.
Like everyone else, I’ve heard the atomic bomb analogy time and again, but is that all there is to Godzilla? Films can tell us much about the times we live in, and with 27 sequels and 2 American adaptions produced over the last 60 years, there are few other film franchises that can show us quite so much about our own history as Godzilla.
The Godzilla films of the 1960s — the era most fondly remembered — were big, bold and colorful. These were forward-looking times from a world immersed in an ongoing space race, reflected by the numerous Godzilla epics featuring space monsters, aliens, rocket ships and other worlds.
Bringing these fantastic images to life wasn’t easy, and if you think the life of today’s salaryman is tough, you should meet the studio men who laboured behind the scenes to bring new and experimental special FX to life.
Over lunch early last year, some of the original FX staff related to the SciFi JAPAN TV team how they were so busy working around the clock that they wouldn’t clock-out of work for weeks on end, sleeping in the studio and going from one production straight into the next. “We received so much overtime pay we could stack the bills on end without falling over,” they told us.
One of the men holds up a hand and shows us where his thumb used to be, which he lost on a bandsaw while creating a miniature building. “I was too busy to go to the hospital,” he remarks. Another FX staffer, they tell us, was so tired that he passed out on the floor with his coffee still in hand — unspilt.
Times change however, and the 1970s energy crisis which rocked the economies of Japan and other major industrial countries around the world was reflected by changes behind the camera. As the budgets declined, so did staff, shooting times and the quality special FX.
In one of the earliest interviews we filmed for SciFi JAPAN TV, Teruyoshi Nakano, the man in charge of special FX during this turbulent era, lamented, “the action set of Godzilla vs. Hedorah was just a big open wilderness. Where is there anywhere like that in Japan? But we had no money to make miniatures. We shot that whole movie in about 2 weeks.”
A struggling economy wasn’t the only problem Japan suffered during the 1970s, however. An ever worsening pollution problem was about to reach a tipping point in Japan. Earlier this year we spoke to Godzilla vs. Hedorah director Yoshimitsu Banno, who also served as executive producer on this year’s Godzilla from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures.
He told us how Japan was slowly suffocating from pollution, and how it influenced the creation of one of Godzilla’s most memorable opponents, the ‘smog monster’ Hedorah. “I would see cities like Yokkaichi just covered in black smog, the sea filled with foam from all the detergent dumped into it, and the air smelled like rotten eggs. I imagined some kind of space virus like a tadpole being affected by this slime and growing into a monster.”
The ‘70s weren’t all gloom and doom, however. When the U.S. government returned Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972, it was quickly celebrated with the 1974 film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, an ambitious feature which not only introduced one of the most popular Godzilla opponents of all time, but was filmed almost entirely on Okinawa, with the island’s traditional shisa guardians brought to life as the giant monster King Ceaser.
After struggling through declining budgets and worsening box office returns, the series finally went on hiatus in 1975, returning in 1984 almost simultaneously with the birth of Japan’s economic bubble era. A wealthier Japan brought vastly bigger budgets and somewhat more extravagant ideas to the revived Godzilla franchise, including a life-sized Godzilla foot which the crew dropped from a crane onto the actual streets of Tokyo, and a 20-foot animatronic “cybot” Godzilla.
The bubble era influence reaches its apex in 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, where the film’s entire premise revolves around rogue nations from the future travelling back to the present day to use Godzilla to destroy Japan before the country becomes so economically powerful that it controls the entire world (clearly these were more optimistic times, too!)
Following the first attempt to bring Godzilla stateside with the 1998 flopbuster, Japan produced its final six Godzilla films from 1999 to 2004, in what fans refer to as the “Millennium” Godzilla series. In an attempt to bring Godzilla into the 21st century, these films began to integrate CGI and other modern FX techniques along with the traditional suits and miniatures. Recently our show spoke to director Masaaki Tezuka, who helmed three of the Millennium Godzilla films, and discussed what role practical FX still have to play today.
“I think if [the original filmmakers] were still with us they would use our current technologies to make movies like Godzilla,” he suggests. “By which I mean, I don’t think they’d have opposed the end of miniatures. Older fans expect a main in a suit destroying miniatures, but that’s an old technique now. I think they’d choose the cheapest and most efficient method, such as CGI, compositing and other digital techniques.”
It was these modern techniques are what brought to life this year’s Hollywood blockbuster Godzilla from director Gareth Edwards. Although the new film also adopts the anti-nuclear themes of the original film, it also — despite being set in the US — borrows much imagery from recent Japanese history. Most notably is the Hawaiian tsunami scene that proceeds Godzilla’s first appearance and the destruction of the Janjira nuclear plant, both images that evoke memories of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Although these events a strongly embedded in recent memory, executive producer Banno suggests they are perhaps even further embedded in Japanese culture as a whole. “[In Japan] we are animistic, meaning we believe even inanimate objects may possess souls, because we’ve lived with such rich nature and all these natural disasters for so long, and we try to harmonise with it,” he tells us. “This way of thinking is more important than ever in a world where our own technology could potentially kill us all.”
Guest Contributor: Jim Ballard is the Production Manager at ACTV Japan, where he currently serves as co-producer and editor on the documentary series “SciFi JAPAN TV”.