In 1955, the Japanese film company, Toho, Inc., introduced the world to “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” The bulky, green monster terrified audiences in the marginally familiar form of an enormous T-Rex, with notable size differences, muscular body and bigger arms and all brought to life by a puppeteer in a rubbery body suit. Originally called by the Japanese word, “Gojira,” meaning “gorilla whale,” the monster was so successful he’s been a worldwide star since his first black and white appearance in Tokyo.
Uncertain how a Japanese film would fare only a decade after the end of World War II, American exhibitors insisted an “American” element be added to make the dubbed, foreign monster flick more relatable to U.S. audiences. So, who better to report on the devastation than one of the most trusted faces on television at the time, Perry Mason himself, Raymond Burr. Not included in the Japanese version, Burr played an American journalist reporting on Godzilla’s attack into a tape recorder from the safety of a nearby office building.
During the 1960s and 70s Godzilla made his way into color features where his ominous appearance was softened a bit and his character reworked a bit from a menace to more of a hero as he battled other creatures threatening Tokyo from Monster Island. His gigantic, “30-story” upright posture, signature stomp, glowing dorsal plates and fiery breath were a hit with movie goers around the world.
In 1985, Godzilla reappeared in a more serious, direct sequel to the original. Although the monster had made countless appearances in other, sillier films, like “Godzilla vs. King Kong,” and “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” this reprisal brought Godzilla back to his roots – as a devastating, uncontrollable statement on the increasing nuclear scare at the peak of the Cold War.
Although it was no longer necessary to smooth over American audiences, Raymond Burr reprised his role from the original film in a few scenes added to the U.S. release to provide continuity and attract a nostalgic audience. “Godzilla 1985,” did well at the box office and even better in the newly-minted home video market.
Fast forward a few years to 1998, when the monster was licensed by Tri-Star Pictures for an American, almost campy, version set in New York City. Studied by a worm biologist played by the likable Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off / The Producers), Godzilla takes up residence in Manhattan and is hunted by the US Military who manages to lay waste to everything except their target, even wrecking the iconic Chrysler Building. A liberally-preachy, anti-nuclear storyline and a totally computer-animated Godzilla, that didn’t look or act much like the original, completely failed to lure audiences.
Over the years, Godzilla appeared in 28 films and an American cartoon show. He even achieved the honor of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But the origins of the character are deep in Japan’s nuclear pain and far more serious than most people might know.
Like the newest American incarnation set for release in May 2014, Godzilla is portrayed as a mutation directly resulting from nuclear testing, emphasizing the need to do away with these weapons. He was, essentially, the symbol of everything that can go wrong with nuclear power and weaponry.
The underlying message in the more serious Godzilla story lines is that use of nuclear weapons and power has unimaginable consequences. A mutation that can cause a giant monster with nuclear powered breath is a pretty good personification.
In any case, the new film is sticking closer to the original concept, not just in story but in the look and actions of the monster himself. He’s a rampaging beast and the addition of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, adds another level of drama to a once-campy character.
In no loss of irony, Japan is the only country in the world whose people have experienced the horrible result of nuclear devastation and America is the only country who has ever inflicted it on anyone else. It’s somehow fitting that people from both countries come together to create a fictional character that personifies the horror that can result.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business contributor to the WDTN-TV2 program, Living Dayton. More at www.gerydeer.com.