With my eleven Gamera movies watched and reviewed and the last outlier on its way I decided it was time to delve into more kaiju films, specifically as many of them, in chronological order, as I could reasonably manage.
Which of course means we need to start with the granddaddy of the genre.
My planned viewing is outlined on this Evernote note, for those curious. The Gamera movies I’ve already reviewed, obviously, but when the order demands it I will relink to them. I made the timeline myself, as I couldn’t find a pre-existing one. Let me know if there are any clear absentees or unnecessary additions:
- 1954 Godzilla (Godzilla, King of The Monsters)
- 1955 Godzilla Raids Again
- 1956 Rodan
- 1957 Kronos
- 1957 The Mysterians
- 1957 The Giant Claw
- 1958 Varan (Varan the Unbelievable)
- 1959 The Battle in Outer Space
- 1959 The Giant Behemoth
- 1961 Mothra
- 1961 Gorgo
- 1961 Reptillicus
- 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla
- 1962 Varan the Unbelievable
- 1962 Gorath
- 1963 Atragon
- 1963 Matango
- 1964 Mothra vs. Godzilla
- 1964 Dogora
- 1964 Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
- 1965 Invasion of Astro-Monster (Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)
- 1965 Frankenstein vs. Baragon (Frankenstein Conquers the World)
- 1965 Gamera
- 1966 Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster)
- 1966 The War of The Gargantuas
- 1966 Gamera vs Barugon
- 1966 Daimajin
- 1966 Return of Daimajin
- 1966 Wrath of Daimajin
- 1967 Son of Godzilla
- 1967 The X From Outer Space
- 1967 Monster From a Prehistoric Planet
- 1967 King Kong Escapes
- 1967 Gamera vs Gyaos
- 1968 Destroy All Monsters
- 1968 Gamera vs Viras
- 1969 All Monsters Attack (Godzilla’s Revenge)
- 1969 Latitude Zero
- 1969 Gamera vs Guiron
- 1970 Space Amoeba (Yog, Monster from Space)
- 1970 Gamera vs Jiger
- 1971 Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster)
- 1971 Gamera vs Zigra
- 1972 Godzilla vs. Gigan
- 1973 Godzilla vs. Megalon
- 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla
- 1975 Terror of Mechagodzilla
- 1977 Mighty Peking Man
- 1980 Gamera: Super Monster
- 1984 The Return of Godzilla (Godzilla 1985)
- 1986 King Kong Lives
- 1989 Godzilla vs. Biollante
- 1989 Gunhed
- 1991 Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
- 1992 Godzilla vs. Mothra (Godzilla & Mothra: The Battle for Earth)
- 1993 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II
- 1994 Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla
- 1994 Yamato Takeru (Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon)
- 1995 Gamera: Guardian of the Universe
- 1995 Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
- 1996 Rebirth of Mothra
- 1996 Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (Gamera 2: Gamera vs. Legion)
- 1997 Rebirth of Mothra II
- 1998 Rebirth of Mothra III
- 1998 GODZILLA
- 1999 Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris
- 1999 Godzilla 2000: Millennium (Godzilla 2000)
- 2000 Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
- 2000 Sakuya: Slayer of Demons
- 2001 Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
- 2001 Reptillian
- 2002 Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla
- 2003 Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
- 2004 Godzilla: Final Wars
- 2004 Garuda
- 2005 Negadon the Monster From Mars
- 2006 Gamera the Brave
- 2007 Big Man Japan
- 2008 Bringing Godzilla Down to Size
- 2008 The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit
- 2009 Gerharha The Long and Dark Haired Monster
- 2014 Godzilla
Twenty-one years before Ishira Hondo would direct Godzilla a very important film came out. King Kong. Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary special effects took the world by storm, captivating audiences and inspiring another generation of visual effects masters. A genius like Ray Harryhausen would never have existed with O’Brien’s brilliant stop-motion effects on King Kong. His incredible skills shine through the movie, still granting it a touch of magnificence. It’s an almost unrivalled feat of imagination made real. For cameraman and effects man Eiji Tsuburaya it was an incredible sight and inspiration, one that would plant the seeds that would eventually lead to the inception of kaiju film.
Although, King Kong is, technically, a kaiju film. Kaiju just means monster in Japanese. Kaiju has come to be a catchall term for daikaiju films, meaning giant monster. More specifically it has become a catchall term for daikaiju films utilizing suitmation, a technique we’ll explore more thoroughly in a bit. By the strictest of definitions King Kong is every bit the daikaiju Godzilla is.
When King Kong came out Eiji Tsuburaya recognized it as the next level accomplishment it was. He made it his duty to study the film in the hopes of working backwards to learn how O’Brien had pulled off those effects. See Japan’s film industry wasn’t really in communication with anywhere else, and so technological advancements made over in America didn’t cross the ocean. The Japanese film industry might hear about a new piece of tech, or see the results of it, but they had to figure out how to do it for themselves. Which is where a savant like Eiji Tsuburaya comes in.
King Kong was a tremendous hit all over the world, including Japan, and turned RKO Pictures from a second-rate film company to a first-rate one. I tried to pursue the studio I was working for to import the technical know-how, but they had little interest in it, because at the time, I was seen as merely cameraman who worked on Kazou Hasegawa’s historical dramas.
– From a 1962 interview with Eiji Tsuburaya
Tsuburaya managed to get a 35mm print of King Kong and spent his free time studying it. He examined and re-examined every frame of the film in an attempt to learn how it was made. He managed to convince Nikkatsu, who he was working for at the time, to put some of his newfound techniques to use. Specifically he proposed testing some rear-projection effects he had designed, something that hadn’t been attempted in Japan. Eiji Tsuburaya had stared at King Kong long enough that he’d managed to invent rear projection without any training from anyone who’d used it before, or any access to existing rear projection technology. He took too much time and care lighting these scenes however, and after clashing with the studio over it he left the company.
Then an MIT graduate named Yoshio Osawa, who ran Osawa Trading Company Studio Division, invited Eiji Tsuburaya to join the company and further develop his techniques. It was for Osawa that Eiji Tsuburaya came close to perfecting something he’d been working on before – a camera crane. Again without any kind of reasonable access to preexisting rigs Tsuburaya managed to create a counterbalanced crane that sat on a truck on tracks, allowing the camera to move from eye-level to the ceiling in seconds, again something new to the Japanese film industry.
The company was renamed J.O. Studios and Eiji Tsuburaya was appointed chief cinematographer in 1932. He was heavily involved in many groundbreaking visuals at this point. Unfortunately many of his most important contributions have been lost along with most pre-War Japanese films. On September 11, 1936 a railroad magnate, politician, and entertainment tycoon named Ichizo Kobayashi merged P.C.L. Studio with P.C.L. Film Company and J.O. Studios to form Toho Motion Picture Distribution Company. Which was then renamed Toho Motion Picture Company. Eiji Tsuburaya would end up creating the studio’s logo.
Toho’s president, Taji Uemura, and their production manager, Iwao Mori, wanted to modernize Japanese films. They wanted to bring their film productions a less antiquated style of stories, and they wanted to explore new technical innovations to create films that were more current, and more groundbreaking. The rest of the Japanese film industry was pretty skeptical of this new direction, but the two forged on. Mori contacted Eiji Tsuburaya, asking him to head up Toho’s Special Arts Departments in 1937. After some consideration Eiji Tsuburaya decided to cement his transition from cinematographer to special effects wizard.
Eiji Tsuburaya, between this time and 1954, made a massive quantity of brilliantly rendered war movies. Some of these movies were designed as propaganda pieces by the Japanese government. However Eiji Tsuburaya’s groundbreaking effects meant that film after film made loads of money. However one film got him in trouble. In 1984 Eiji Tsuburaya was fired from Toho, seemingly because of some special effects that were simply too good. His highly detailed miniatures for a scene set in Pearl Harbour led the American forces now occupying the Japanese film industry to suspect Eiji Tsuburaya was a spy. They were just too good for Tsuburaya to not be part of some menacing réseau.
He and his son decided to start the Tsuburaya Visual Effects Laboratory. He did work for hire for a number of studios before eventually being rehired by Toho. Toho’s revenant genius returned with the team he’d worked closely with during this tumultuous time.
Eiji Tsuburaya then worked on a remake of the same project that had gotten him in so much trouble. It was renamed Eagles of the Pacific and rewritten to include the end of the war and take a more lugubrious look at the lives of those affected by the war. It was a colossal hit, but little did Toho and Eiji Tsuburaya realize it was only the start of something far bigger. And scalier.
Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was planning a follow up to Eagles of the Pacific. He wanted to make a film about the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, in an attempt at healing some of the bad blood left over from the war. Instead of creating a positive political piece Toho wasn’t even allowed into Indonesia. They had to cancel the whole project.
Supposedly this is how Tomoyuki Tanaka came up with a replacement project. He was sitting on an airplane and merged the plot of a newly announced Ray Harryhausen project with a recent incident off the shores of Japan.
The film was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a campy film about a giant lizard frozen in arctic ice that’s awoken by an atomic test. The movie’s plot is loosely inspired by a Ray Bradbury story, but was transformed into a typical 50s science fiction affair chiefly elevated by Harryhausen’s brilliant stop motion animation. Now Tomoyuki Tanaka hadn’t actually seen the film, he’d merely read about the upcoming movie and decided to crib one of the main plot points.
He made it a more truly Japanese film when he decided to blend the film with a real life incident – the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru was a boat, the name meaning Lucky Dragon No. 5. The fishing vessel sailed into the nuclear fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test. They were outside the danger zone, but the U.S. bomb had twice the anticipated power and radius. This, when combined with the weather, meant that Lucky Dragon No. 5 was caught in a rain of nuclear ash. Before leaving the area the fisherman retrieved their nets, exposing them to the radioactive ash for several hours.
When they returned it was established that all of the fisherman, and their catch, were dangerously radioactive. The contaminated fish started a panic, resulting in nearly five hundred tons of fish being destroyed. This threw the whole fishing industry into decline. The U.S. government estimated that 856 fishing boats were exposed to the test, as well as the entirety of the Marshall Islands. The States were worried about anti-American sentiment after this incident, and worked out a settlement for the survivors. Japan refused to accept any offered money.
So Tomoyuki Tanaka was sure this blended idea would appeal to Iwao Mori. He swiftly wrote an outline during the rest of his flight about a giant lizard awoken by a nuclear test, and the creature’s eventual attack of Tokyo. He named it The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Mori was confident this premise would be perfect for Eiji Tsuburaya, especially now that he’d really honed his techniques incorporating much more intensive preproduction planning, specifically storyboards. They gave the film the security code Project G, for giant. Eiji Tsuburaya submitted a script about a radioactive octopus he’d written three years earlier. Popular mystery writer Shigeru Kayama was contacted and asked to write a treatment using these ideas.
Shigeru Kayama was known for his monster filled novels, but his treatment was considered too tame. Most of the script was about the monster looking for food. The creature was vaguely imagined and far less malevolent then was initially envisioned. The only thing the creature destroys is a lighthouse.
They let it be however, and started looking for a director. They landed on Ishiro Honda, who’d worked on the visual effects for Eagles of the Pacific with Eiji Tsuburaya. The script was tossed out, and Honda and Takeo Murata reworked it, adding back in the all-important H-bomb subplot. They wanted the film to be set firmly in the real world. They wanted to have a serious film that addressed real political issues and past Japanese disasters.
The origin of the name Gojira is a mystery. Some claim it was a crew member’s nickname, one that combined the Japanese word for whale with the word “gorilla.” Gorilla + kujira = Gojira. This is highly unsubstantiated and apocryphal however.
Eiji Tsuburaya started planning the special effects early. He wanted the film to be stop-motion initially, just like King Kong. However when he told Iwao Mori it would take seven years to shoot all the required special effects, that was quickly deemed impossible. It was at this point that Eiji Tsuburaya reevaluated his plans. His team had mastered the use of miniatures, so Eiji Tsuburaya figured that could be combined with a man in a costume. As long as the scale was right and the effects were well designed it would work. Mori and Tanaka agreed to this plan, giving Eiji Tsuburaya the go-ahead.
This marks the birth of the suitmation style that would be come synonymous with Japan’s daikaiju films.
Extensive storyboarding and planning helped work out what parts of the scenes were undoable. Mainly Eiji Tsuburaya told Honda and Murata their plans were feasible, but a few scenes were deemed impossible. Other problematic scenes or shots were stumbled upon and altered or removed during the storyboarding.
The team had to obtain blueprints for numerous real life structures in Japan. Any time they couldn’t find the proper blueprints they sent a team out to comb over and survey every inch of a number of streets. They had to take photographs and survey the areas and some times even just sketch what they were looking at. Eiji Tsuburaya was exacting, making his team rebuild complex and time-consuming miniatures because of minor flaws and problems.
Manga artist Wasuke Abe was hired to design the movie’s monster. Abe’s cartoony designs included a creature with an A-bomb explosion as a head. These were rejected, but he did introduce the crew to some influential tyrannosaur drawings. In the end Abe was kept on to produce a massive number of storyboards. Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Honda decided the film needed a new type of dinosaur – one they’d invent themselves. They looked the drawings of Rudolph Zallinger and Zdenek Burian. This led them to combine the tyrannosaurus rex with the iguanodon, throwing in some stegosaurus plates for good measure. Akira Watanabe did the actual drawings. Eiji Tsuburaya contacted Teizo Toshimitsu, who he’d worked with in the past. Toshimitsu started doing a series of sculpts of the monster, experimenting with a variety of skin textures before eventually landing on alligator skin over the less pleasing scaly and warty versions.
The first attempt at actually making a suit was a manqué affair. It was built from hot rubber applied in layers to a frame made from cloth and wire. The costume didn’t move and was too heavy to wear. It was cut into two halves, to be used when only parts of the monster were in view. The second suit weighed 220 pounds, but was more flexible and became the production’s main beast. Toshimitsu also made a small hand puppet version of the creature’s head, designed to spew steam in close-ups.
Young stunt man and actor Haruo Nakajima was given the role of Godzilla. A role he would play from then until 1974. He has forty-eight credits to his name, and most of those are kaiju. The part was so demanding that a second actor was hired, so the two could rotate. Katsumi Tezuka made up his relief team.
Filming started in August of 1954. Eiji Tsuburaya had the crew work in three teams. One team worked on location work, another worked on miniatures, and another worked on the animation and optical photography. Eiji Tsuburaya worked first with the locations team, overseeing the required shots for future compositing. Then he returned to Tokyo to work with the miniatures team.
The very first time they shot Godzilla destroying something, Tezuka tripped, ruining the shot and the massive model of Japan’s Parliament. The scene had to be reshot in less ideal close-ups.
The final suit, while mobile, was a damaging experience for both actors. They blacked out from heat exhaustion on more then one occasion, suffering and sweating inside the sweltering suit. The sealed suit and the glaring studio lights made for a makeshift oven. Burning kerosene soaked rags, used to make the models look like they were slowly blazing, filled the suit with toxic fumes. Both actors ended up bruised and battered. Over a cup’s worth of sweat would be poured out of the suit after shooting. Nakajima lost twenty-two pounds during the production. Tezuka and several crew members were almost electrocuted at one point when a live wire fell into an indoor pool. The suitmation may have been less time consuming than stop-motion, but it was far more dangerous and harrowing for the cast.
Ishiro Honda wrapped his portion of the shoot after forty days. Eiji Tsuburaya finished his shoot after sixty-two. Both of which were shockingly under-schedule. That didn’t effect the fact that this was one of Toho’s most expensive films to date, costing over one hundred million yen, which, adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to $13,000,000 U.S. Not a lot by today’s standards maybe, but still a massive risk for Toho. Their last big risk and success was Seven Samurai, but Godzilla would even outshine that. It quickly became one of the biggest hits of the year, garnering recognition around the world and winning Eiji Tsuburaya a Japanese Film Technique Award.
Godzilla still holds up remarkably well. Much like King Kong the craft and significance can be felt in most of the film. It’s so well made, and so powerful and raw in its themes and concerns, it’s impossible not to admire it.
The film starts with scenes that serve as a mimesis of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident. Boat after boat strays into a dangerous glowing patch in the ocean. Japanese authorities start to panic, worried about the danger as fishing villages along the coast begin to turn up empty nets. One village in particular becomes convinced that the lack of fish must be the effect of something predatory. The fish are being eaten, and why wouldn’t it be related to the shipwrecks? One old man speaks of an ancient myth about a great sea monster known as Gojira.
It’s in this village that Godzilla first arrives on land. His inaugural terrestrial attack is mainly off screen in this frightening scene. A storm passes over the village. The inhabitants of one house in particular are struck by a sudden frisson even as the thunder resolves itself, transforming into the thunderous footsteps of the daikaiju. It’s a wonderful piece of sound design, part of the film’s fabulous sonic tapestry. Akira Ifukube’s legendary score combined with the fabulous sound design provides the film with a brilliantly visceral and moody aural first impression. These thunderous footsteps get closer and closer until the house the scene takes place inside of starts to rip apart and crumble. This dramatic first attack does a lot to set the tone of the film.
Godzilla’s first appearance is an interesting one too. A party dispatched to examine the ruins of the destroyed village pour over the potential evidence left behind. The slow realization that the radioactive indents they’re exploring are footprints is effectively ominous. The discovery of a trilobite in the same footsteps is a deft little touch. Their examination is cut short by the same thunderous sound heard over the storm. This gives us our fist appearance of the titular monster. His head peers over the edge of a hill as a throng of people run to try to spot him. It’s a bit of a tease, and the beast disappears into the sea before we can get a proper look at his whole frame. Instead we just see his menacing visage peering over the hill, and his ginormous footsteps marked into the beach.
It is established that Godzilla must be an antediluvian dinosaur revived and angered by atomic testing. The rest of the movie is character interaction mixed with a series of incredibly rendered moments of destruction. Eiji Tsuburaya’s genius is on full display. The film’s concerns are so wonderfully limpid and straightforward. Perhaps that’s the best thing about Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla. The film is beautiful in its simplicity and directness.