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Archive for November, 2014

Godzilla is surely one of the most familiar and recognizable characters in all of cinema, yet what do we really know about this monstrous being?

In some ways, the only constant is change. Godzilla has appeared in over 30 films, if you count the most recent American versions, and there is little attempt at continuity between them. Some of the movies are serious and dramatic, while others are directed to children and have a more comical tone. The general tale is that Godzilla  was a gigantic reptile, sleeping peacefully in the deep sea, until a nuclear explosion roused his fury. This fits with Japan’s traditional Shinto religion, which included many nature spirits and dragons that lived in the sea.

The first films were black and white, and the famous rubber suit (developed by effects master Eiji Tsuburaya) was charcoal gray with the back fins painted white in order to give better contrast. However, in print and animation, Godzilla is often shown as dark green, similar to an American alligator’s coloration.

Dinosaur science has always been a major inspiration, with Godzilla standing upright the way Tyrannosaurs had been depicted. As science has begun to show Tyrannosaurs crouched forward and using their tails to balance their weight, Godzilla’s posture has also shifted. An upright posture was easier for the stunt actors playing this role. With more of the performance shifting to CGI technology, this isn’t as much of a concern.

Godzilla’s height has also shifted over time. Initially, he measured 160-170 feet, tall enough to peer over Tokyo sky scrapers. But these films used miniatures of actual buildings, and as the buildings reached ever higher, Godzilla had to grow as well. Current movies have him towering 300 feet or more!

A final point of confusion is whether the “king of monsters” is actually a queen. Several movies show Godzilla adopting a baby called Godzilla Junior or Baby Godzilla. One American rendition famously showed Godzilla guarding a clutch of eggs. Well, as we all known, there is only one Godzilla, so who did Godzilla mate with to produce offspring? One possibility is that Godzilla’s pre-irradiated form was a female Komodo dragon. These large reptiles have been known to lay eggs in zoos, even when no male lizards were present. In this scenario Godzilla would have to be female, since males can’t carry out parthenogenesis.

What does remain consistent is Godzilla’s incredible size, strength and vitality. In some variations, his thick scales protect him from all but the most devastating attacks of other daikaiju. In others, he can be wounded but regenerates. Fiery atomic breath is a constant, as is that indescribable roar. His fierce personality and dislike for humans are well established. (However, Godzilla does not kill and eat people; he subsists on vegetation and nuclear materials.)

If Godzilla helps people, it is a side effect of his battle against some other menace. One of his producers once described Godzilla as being like a Shinto god, not bound by human morality. Yet nature will restore and renew what Godzilla destroys. Unlikely as it might seem, the King of Monsters is a defender of the earth. When aliens or monsters attack, Godzilla will be there to stop them… and a lot of stuff will get crushed or burned.

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Believe it or not, the tragic voyage of Number Five Lucky Dragon played a part in the origin of one of entertainment’s most remarkable characters: Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Godzilla is one of several prominent movie creatures known collectively as daikaiju, from the Japanese kaiju, “strange beast,” with the modifier dai that makes it a huge “kaiju.”

Japan in the 1950s was struggling to recover its identity. Through the 1930s and ’40s, this country had been a military juggernaut with great national pride. Now the mighty had been laid low by the only use of atomic weapons in wartime. One could argue that Japan had brought this upon herself, but no one could deny the horrific devastation. In some ways, it was a similar blow to that which rocked the US after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01.

As years passed, the Japanese incorporated the atomic experience into many kinds of entertainment. What caught the world’s attention were the daikaiju movies, and Godzilla was the very first. Director Ishiro Honda and art director Akira Watanabe had created the ultimate monster and a powerful metaphor for the dangers of nuclear weapons. Many details directly refer to atomic explosions. For instance, the pattern of Godzilla’s scales was said to have been inspired by keloid scars on the bodies of Hiroshima survivors.

This movie was released in November of 1954, so it must already have been in production when Number Five Lucky Dragon strayed too close to Bikini Atoll. Indeed, the very first scene shows a fishing trawler caught in the furnace of an atomic explosion. The fate of her crew was fresh in the minds of the Japanese audience and instantly elevated Godzilla above mere entertainment. The titanic beast burned and trampled everything in its path. It couldn’t be intimidated or reasoned with. Truly, Godzilla was nuclear war personified.

In America, Godzilla and nearly 30 similar films have been beloved, yet ridiculed. The effects are silly, the voice acting is terrible, the plots are ridiculous. We grin and munch popcorn as bizarre behemoths slam each other into sky scrapers and roast cities. Scenes where panicked civilians evacuate, clutching just a few possessions, are hardly noticed in the US. These were real, painful memories for the original audiences.

Throughout the years, daikaiju movies have maintained their cautionary tone. Not only Godzilla, who was awakened by a nuclear blast, but Rodan was freed by miners who dug too deep, and Mothra ravaged Tokyo while trying to rescue the Cosmos Twins, who had been abducted by a greedy businessman. Nature sends daikaiju to avenge environmental damage, pride and lust for power, and the pursuit of science without regard for consequence. Any year now, I expect a Godzilla movie that decries global warming.

Next Wednesday, I’ll be back with more of a personal profile on the Big Guy.

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