Golden Age of Japanese Cinema-Giant Monsters ~ Installment 12
Despite silent movie antecedents, it was not until the sound production of King Kong (RKO, 1933) that giant monsters on the rampage were established as a viable genre. The next most important development—leading directly to today’s glut of cinema behemoths—was Japan’s production of Gojira (Toho, 1954*) that, with additional footage and English language dubbing, spawned the series with the most filmed giant monster of them all, Godzilla!
*All dates will be for Japanese releases.
Cynics might argue that Godzilla had a potential for sequels far in excess of King Kong, because the former was a man in a robber suit and the latter was the result of intricate work with stop motion animation models. There is room for this theory. Plenty of room. But if pop culture means anything, Godzilla was the perfect combination of elements (myth, science fiction, obviousness) to bridge east and west, and wreak a terrible revenge on the children of the victors of the Second World War. American producer Joseph E. Levine was first to recognize the gold mine and hired Raymond Burr to do extra scenes that would be added to the English language release print in 1956.
Some histories incorrectly report that Godzilla was the first giant radioactive dinosaur born of the atomic bomb. The American production of Harry Hausen’s the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms precedes it (WB, 1953); but as the only population to ever be on the receiving end of a nuclear deterrent, the Japanese made this theme uniquely their own. Director Inoshiro Honda and special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya collaborated on a seemingly endless series of giant monster films, in which Godzilla figured as the central archetype (or fall guy), and in short order inspired a tidal wave of bad reviews about championship wrestling from Mount Fuji.
At some point the producers of these efforts must have sensed the sea change, and made a deliberate play for laughs. A competing studio, Daiei, must have had something of the sort in mind when they came up with Gamera in 1965. No transition to comedy was ever more swiftly accomplished than with a giant, atomic, flying, tusked box-turtle that would eventually encounter its most dreaded foe in the guise of a creature with a can-opener-head! The Godzilla/Gamera parallels are significant: both began their careers solo in a black and white film (except that Godzilla was a moody and serious film, made for adults); thereafter both did battle with an ever more surreal assortment of other monsters in mostly color films; and both evolved, or degenerated, from initial menace to surrogate Lassies with scales, always available to rescue kids and save the earth.
Godzilla had advantage of being at the more expensive studio. Toho came up with more monsters than all other competition in the Orient combined (and that’s even including a South Korean outfit!) Toho’s early color efforts were as serious as the first Godzilla picture: these included Rodan (1956), about titanic jet-propelled pterodactyls; Mothra (1961) which tried for a fairy tale quality; and the H Man/Bijo to Ekitai Ningen (1958), a variation on the blob idea instead of the usual colossus.
By the time Toho started combining its monsters, a definite formula was in place that would be copied by its competitors and influence numerous Japanese television programs. Some of the most famous of the monster festivals are: King Kong vs. Godzilla/King Kong Tai Gojira (1962), which beat Dino De Laurentiis to the inevitable man-in-the-gorilla suit: Godzilla vs. the Thing/Mosura Tai Gojira (1964), in which Mothra would save her caterpillar young from the big guy; Ghidrah, the Three-headed Monster/Ghidorah Sandai Kaiju Chikyu Saidai No Kessan (1964), a turning point in these films when a really nasty space monster—the title critter—unites Godzilla, Mothra nad Rodan against a common foe: and Monster Zero/Kaiju Daisenso (1965), a crossover with the studio’s space movies, dragging the tag-team match off to Planet X, which including one of the last screen appearances of American star Nick Adams. Let us not forget some of Godzillas’s other memorable battles: in 1968 he had to deal with a giant shrimp sporting lobster claws, known as the sea monster; in 1971 the problem was pollution personified in the Smog monster; in 1974 he faced off against a mechanical version of himself, Mecha-Godzilla, and that spawned the predictable sequels; he even had to do pest control regarding a bug sort-of-thing when Megalon popped up from the center of the earth in 1973 (and to make matters worse, a giant grinning robot with its very own theme song who decided to help out). Godzilla was expected to make an appearance with every other piece of mobile rubber on the Toho lot in Destroy All Monster/Kaiju Soshingeki (1968), but he was undestroyed enough to go on and on long afterward, and face his greatest danger as part of a kid’s fantasy, complete with the Son of Godzilla, in Godzilla’s Revenge/Oru Kaiju Daishingeki (1969), a film that depended heavily on an earlier picture from 1967 that fist introduced the goofy, ET-like horror of Godzilla’s son (whom Forrest J Ackerman once designated as Tadzilla!)
Not to be outdone, Gamera fought a parade of uglies throughout the sixties, including Barugon, Gyaos, Gaos, Guron, Jiger, Monster X, Viras and Zigra. Whether from the depths of space or sea, none of these monsters ever figured out that the normally effective way of dispatching a turtle just didn’t work on Gamera. No sooner would they get him on his back, than he would pull in his legs and head, shoot out rocket jets somehow or other, and whiz off into the sky. A pretty terrifying sight, one would imagine, to a vampire fox with wings.
Daiei studios did not leave more serious efforts entirely to Toho. In 1966 they came up with Majin, the first of three films about a giant statue of a samurai warrior that comes to life and avenges victims of various cruel warlords. The style of these pictures from Daiei owes something to Kurosawa’s classics which contributed so much to Toho studios’ international prestige! (Some of the same actors who appeared in Kurosawa’s samurai films may be seen in early Honda science fiction.) It is perhaps odd that the crossover of giant monster and samurai picture would have been done by a different studio.
Today, Toho’s perennial star is still going strong. Godzilla made a big comeback in the mid-eighties, and once again an American company hired Raymond Burr to reprise his role for Godzilla 1985! A new series has come of this with Godzilla vs. Biolante (1989), the high water mark of Godzilla vs. King Ghidrah (1991) and the conclusion of Godzilla vs. Destroyer (1995). Poor Tokyo! The lack of an American distributor did not keep the films from finding an American market thanks to video tape rentals and sales. (Letterboxing and English subtitles almost gave the new efforts the feel of an art film. Well, almost…)
After the travesty of the American Godzilla, things are back to normal with Godzilla 2000. Let’s hope they stay that way. As for the new Gamera films, Gamera -- the Guardian Of The Universe (1995) may be the best Japanese giant monster film of all time. The turtle has come a long way.
There will never be an end to giant Japanese monsters. And they aren’t all men in rubber-suits. Dogora the Space Monster/Uchudai Dogora (1964) was an animated cartoon creature that floated in the air like a giant jellyfish and ate diamonds! Now that’s originality.