Fragment #24: The Invention of Godzilla

[In this extract from his book Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, August Ragone describes the development of the eponymous monster for the original Japanese Gojira (1954), better known to international audiences as Godzilla.]

“They … wanted the film to reverberate with current geopolitical, national, and social concerns, as well as evoking the spectre of the Tokyo Fire Raids and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They agreed they should approach the film in earnest, treating it as they would any serious, real-life subject, rather than as a ‘monster movie’. The monster’s attack on Tokyo could be seen as an incarnation of war itself, and [executive producer, Iwao] Mori thought the creature should carry the physical scars of H-bomb tests.

Originally, [Eiji] Tsuburaya wanted to bring the nuclear nightmare to life using stop-motion effects, as King Kong had been made. When asked how long it would take to produce such effects, Tsuburaya told Mori it would take seven years to shoot all of the effects required by the screenplay, based on the current staff and infrastructure at Toho. Of course this was out of the question – the film had to be in theatres by the end of the year. Tsuburaya decided that his department’s considerable expertise in miniature building and visual effects photography could accommodate working with a live actor in a monster costume instead of using stop-motion techniques. Mori and Tanaka agreed and gave him the green light to proceed with planning and construction.

Planning was a painstaking process. To ensure that things would run smoothly, [director Ishiro] Honda and [writer Takeo Murata] would present scene ideas to Tsuburaya, who would tell them whether his team could pull them off. (More often than not, he told them he could.) Problematic scenes or shots were rooted out during the extensive storyboarding process, helping prevent costly mistakes during shooting.

[…] To design the creature, Kayama suggested popular mangaka (comic book artist) Wasuke Abe, who had illustrated several of Kayama’s juvenile adventure stories and worked for numerous publishers and in many genres. Abe’s most famous work was Kenya Boy (Shonen Keniya), written by his brother, whose pen name was Shoji Yamagawa. The story, about an orphaned Japanese youth lost in Africa, was more Lost World than Tarzan, set in a land alive with prehistoric creatures. When Abe conferred with the Godzilla staff, he brought with him the current edition of Kenya Boy, which featured an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This would prove to have a decisive influence on the production design of Godzilla. While Abe’s designs were ultimately rejected – they were more abstract and humanoid than animal, and the beast’s head was rendered like a mushroom cloud – he was retained to help draw the hundreds of storyboards required for the film.

Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Honda decided to focus on an original dinosaur of their own design. Inspired by a Life magazine pictorial on prehistoric times featuring paintings by Rudolph Zallinger and by the celebrated Czech dinosaur artist Zdenek Burian, production designer Akira Watanabe combined attributes of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Iguanodon, and added the plates of the Stegosaurus. To bring Watanabe’s drawings to life, Tsuburaya contacted his old colleague from The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malaya, Teizo Toshimitsu. Toshimitsu took Watanabe’s drawings and began to render the creature in clay. After experimenting with scaly, warty, and alligator-skin textures, the staff agreed on the alligator version.

Toshimitsu and the staff of the visual-effects department began construction of a Godzilla suit for an actor to wear. The first version of the suit was built over a cloth-and-wire frame and layered with hot rubber, which was melted in a steel drum and applied in layers over the frame. This resulted in a heavy and immobile costume in which the actor could barely move, and so it was scrapped.

A second suit, while still incredibly heavy at 220 pounds, allowed more freedom of movement, and became the final costume. The first suit was cut into two sections and used for scenes requiring only a partial shot of the monster, and Toshimitsu also created a smaller-scale, mechanical, hand-operated puppet that could spray a stream of mist from its maw, to simulate the creature’s nuclear breath in close-ups. A young actor and stuntman, Haruo Nakajima, was given the part of Godzilla (a role he would play a number of times in a long career that found him frequently cast as a monster), alternating with fellow thespian Katsumi Tezuka, which allowed production to continue when Nakajima needed relief from the physicality demanding part.

[…] The first day of shooting miniature photography involved Godzilla’s destruction of the National Diet Building, Japan’s Parliament, which was built in 1/33 scale so that Godzilla would appear to tower over the structure. They decided to let Tezuka play the scene, Nakajima later recalled, but he fell flat and hit his jaw square on the miniature set, ruining the shot and necessitating retakes, this time with Nakajima in tight close-ups because Tsuburaya did not have time to rebuild the set.

The punishing role would bruise and scar both men. Stuffed into the stifling suit, roasting alive under the studio lights, they suffered from heat exhaustion and blackouts, and found themselves breathing fumes from burning rags soaked in kerosene, used to give the impression that Tokyo was ablaze. More than a cup of sweat was poured out of the suit after each scene was shot, and Nakajima ended up losing twenty pounds during the course of the production. On one of his rare days off, Nakajima received word that Tezuka and several crew members had nearly been electrocuted when a live wire fell into the indoor pool set. While using live actors was less time-consuming than tackling stop-motion animation, it was far from an easy shortcut, and involved long, arduous hours, often all-nighters.”

3 thoughts on “Fragment #24: The Invention of Godzilla

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