2 or 3 Things I Know About Godzilla

Inside Criterion / On the Channel — May 20, 2018

The box cover for Frankenstein Conquers the World promised a colossal mutant offspring of Mary Shelley’s creature, clutching an ocean liner in one fist and a smashed jet fighter in the other. “He rolled the Seven Wonders of the World Into One!,” screamed the graphics. 

Pretty cool, but hold on. 

The ad art for Godzilla vs. the Thing pictured the radioactive Lizard King locked in mortal combat with a titanic mass of spiked tentacles, coiled around the film’s title. Under the words “the Thing” was a mysterious giant question mark and a topper of a tagline: “SEE the BIRTH of the world’s most terrifying monster!” 

Which infernal vision of death and mass destruction, both created at Tokyo’s Toho Studios, would be more fun? It was a tough decision for a monster-crazed boy who’d been twelve for less than twenty-four hours. 

My parents, prone to their own epic battles, stood beside me at the Kmart camera counter, behind which towered a spectacular display of Super 8 films. The old folks were in a good mood and promised their birthday boy a new movie digest for his growing collection. 

“Digest,” you ask? 

In the age before home video, and long before DVDs, streaming, and on-demand were an inkling, movies screened at the local theater, then disappeared. The only ways to see them again were in rerelease, on television, at film festivals, or via studio-sanctioned home movie editions. 

Initially offered for private use in 16 mm (think schoolroom movie projectors), studio films were later made available in the smaller 8 mm and Super 8 formats. While some collectors purchased full sound features, more economical consumers—especially kids—opted for condensed versions of their favorite films, called digests or cut-downs. Available in reels of 200 feet (about twelve minutes) and fifty feet (three minutes), digests were sold in department stores and camera shops, or through mail order from home movie distributors like Ken Films Inc. and Castle Films.

“I was among the millions of American kids who grew up watching the first generation of Godzilla movies on TV in the final decades of the twentieth century.”

Though VHS had debuted by the dawn of my puberty, it was still pretty expensive, and only a few kids I knew had families who owned a VCR. Besides, I loved Super 8 and found both inspiration and empowerment in the curation of my own film library, which I kept boxed in the bedroom closet, between my GAF Model 1666Z Duel 8 movie projector and back issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Anyway, I went with Godzilla vs. the Thing.

By the time we got home, my parents’ mood had soured and their fighting began. I retreated to my room, a private planet insulated with movie posters and populated by books, homemade comics, a terrarium crawling with anoles, and clay puppets for the stop-motion films I’d begun making. 

Quick with excitement, I closed the curtains, set up my projector, unboxed the new reel, and threaded the black-and-white film (color digests were more expensive). Sounds from the outer world melted away in the 1666Z’s sweet churn. I had no screen and simply projected my little movies against a white bedroom wall. I liked how the swirling Sherwin-Williams paint patterns intermingled with the grainy images of villainous Godzilla clashing with the Thing, which turned out to be Mothra—a colorful hybrid of moth and peacock butterfly with an 820-foot wingspan. This benevolent nature goddess was inspirited by a dream that possessed Eiji Tsuburaya, the genius behind the film’s visual effects and one of the creators of the Godzilla series. 

“The ‘Thing’ moniker had nothing to do with cashing in on Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951),” says August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. “Following the film’s Japanese release as Mothra vs. Godzilla, it acquired U.S. distribution through American International Pictures (AIP). However, Columbia Pictures handled the stateside release of the original Mothra (1961) just two years prior in 1962. So, AIP simply nixed the use of ‘Mothra’ in their title to avoid potential legal problems. They then built a marketing mystery with a giant egg and that question mark—‘What THING Is Inside The Egg?’ ”

August and I were among the millions of American kids who grew up watching the first generation of Godzilla movies on TV in the final decades of the twentieth century. My introductory G-film was also the first one made. Sort of.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), which once targeted child-friendly dayparts of U.S. television on a regular basis, was the extensively re-edited and Americanized version of Toho’s Gojira (1954), whose titular monster evoked the nuclear horrors of both World War II and the then current U.S. H-bomb tests in the Marshall Islands.

The Japanese original was the brainchild of frequent Akira Kurosawa producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, writers Takeo Murata and Shigeru Kayama (a popular science fiction author), Tsuburaya, and director Ishiro Honda. All five men were deeply affected by World War II. Tanaka and Tsuburaya had been enlisted to make propaganda films for the Imperial Japanese government. Honda, who also contributed to the Gojira screenplay, survived the American firebombing of Tokyo, spent the final months of the war as a POW in China, and was repatriated to Japan through the devastated city of Hiroshima. “Mankind had created the Bomb,” Tanaka later said, “and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Exploding with Tsuburaya’s innovative visual effects and draped in composer Akira Ifikube’s exquisitely anguished score, Gojira paradoxically reflects both the lingering trauma of America’s nuclear vengeance and the creative inspiration of  U.S.- made films like King Kong (1933) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Indeed, Tanaka’s working title for Gojira (whose name is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale) was The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Despite the U.S. version’s depoliticization (a plot point inspired by the real-life irradiation of Japanese fisherman by H-bomb fallout was cut) and narrative reshuffle (including the addition of new scenes with Hollywood actor Raymond Burr), it retains much of the original’s horror and depthless sense of tragedy. Crucially, it preserves Kayama’s Oppenhiemer-like character Dr. Serizawa, a reclusive young scientist whose secret invention, the Oxygen Destroyer, is the only hope for stopping Gojira. The catch-22? If released from its bottle, Serizawa’s genie might one day wipe out humanity. In light of this soul-splitting dilemma, the screenwriters’ choice of giving Serizawa a patch over one eye—a war wound mentioned in the script but never remarked upon in the movie—seems hardly superfluous. 

Shot like a black-and-white docu-noir in hell, by artists who saw and survived the destruction of their nation, Gojira reworks the monster-on-the-loose tropes of its Hollywood progenitors into an urgent pacifist plea for a world on the brink.

With Gojira a smash in both Japan and abroad, Toho fast-tracked a sequel into theaters a mere six months later. If Godzilla Raids Again (1955) shrinks in the shadow of its predecessor, the film’s climactic bout between Godzilla and a thirty-ton quadruped named Anguirus notably inaugurates the epic beast battles that became a series hallmark.

Though Raids Again made bank in Japan, Toho put Godzilla on ice for several years while expanding its monsterverse with classics like Rodan (1956), an irradiated pterosaur whose supersonic strafes obliterate urban centers, and later the aforementioned Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), a jolt of post-nuke gothicism wherein a young Hiroshima victim grows into a rampaging giant after eating the famous monster’s heart. Its sequel, The War of the Gargantuas (1966), is just as delicious. The plot, centered on a city-stomping battle between two Yeti-like Frankenstein brothers—one good, the other evil—could have been a Serizawa fever dream.

Never down for the count, the Big G came roaring back to brawl with his cinematic forefather in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, the most profitable entry in the franchise. Next, Toho sent their nuclear nightmare on a kamikaze mission to the city of Nagoya (whose wartime plane factories were a common target of American firebombs) for Mothra vs. Godzilla. A favorite with fans, and featuring some of Tsuburaya’s most astonishing visuals, this clash between regenerative nature and radioactive mutation seemed to cement Godzilla’s identity as the twentieth century’s go-to demon of doom.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Godzilla became . . . a good guy. A superhero even. A protector of Earth and a friend to children. What the . . .

“After all the years and hours of Toho monsters I’ve consumed, it’s that Godzilla vs. the Thing digest that still haunts me”

“Godzilla’s metamorphosis from villain to antihero during the 1960s was largely economic,” says Ragone. “Just as it had in the U.S. a decade before, television was proving stiff competition for the Japanese studios. The popularity of monster-oriented Japanese TV shows like Tsuburaya’s Ultra Q and Ultraman created a ‘Monster Boom,’ and the writing was on the wall. So, starting with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), in which Godzilla teams with Rodan and former enemy Mothra to defend Earth from a hydra-like alien, Toho began changing the character of Godzilla to try and boost ticket sales.”

A few years later, the studio initiated a series of children’s matinee packages called the Toho Champion Festival, consisting of a feature and shorts. Following the lead of Daiei Studios’ Gamera films, which starred a giant flying turtle, Toho resurrected Godzilla as a children’s hero. By marketing directly to kids with titles like 1969’s All Monsters Attack, an underrated, Oz-like fantasy with Godzilla as an imaginary father figure to a bullied latchkey boy, the character was rebranded for a new generation.

Mothra vs. Godzilla, as it turned out, would be the monster’s last outing as an antagonist until Toho’s Godzilla (1984), a reboot of its 1954 namesake. Distributed in America as Godzilla 1985, the film spotlights Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Like the 1954 original, it was recut for stateside release and featured new scenes with an older Raymond Burr. 

But after all the years and hours of Toho monsters I’ve consumed, it’s that Godzilla vs. the Thing digest that still haunts me. And so, while writing this piece, I set out to track it down.

Deep within a closet, inside a plastic storage bin, I find it sleeping in a stack of films that form a Super 8 scrapbook of my life: the 200-foot reeler of Equinox, bought from Famous Monsters with paper route money; an Italian Bugs Bunny cartoon, gifted by a long-lost Roman girlfriend; the collection of Charlie Chaplin shorts that film poet Stan Brakhage left to me when he died in 2003.

I linger on that beautiful Godzilla cover art, its bright Kmart colors now faded a bit with time, then unbox the reel. Poking a pencil through its center, I unspool a foot of film in front of a window and squint. I’d forgotten how small 8 mm frames are.

As the brittle celluloid slips through my fingers, my mind drifts back to the tragic Dr. Serizawa, and a few facts culled from research: when the first Godzilla movie opened in 1954, there were 1,853 nuclear weapon stockpiles in the world. Today, there are thirty-one live-action Godzilla films and, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Nuclear Notebook, more than 9,000 nukes in military arsenals.

I move closer to the pane, and the film is shot through with hot winter light. Sliding on my reading glasses, all I can see are grainy black-and-white memories and swirls of Sherman-Williams paint.

Seven Godzilla films, including the 1954 original, are now available to stream on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.