Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
In the wake of World War II, Japan was hurting. The country was devastated physically, but also economically. The Allied Powers occupied the country up until 1952. During that time period, Japan was changed from an empire to a democratic nation. Many of the countries’ prewar politicians were convicted and sentenced to death as war criminals as well.
As Japan recovered, the horrific images of WWII remained in the minds of its citizens. In particular, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. To this date, it remains the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare in history. An estimated 90,000 – 120,000 in Hiroshima and 60,000 – 80,000 in Nagasaki were killed as a result of the bombings. In the months that followed, a large number of deaths were reported due to radiation sickness, illness, malnutrition, the effect of burns, and other injuries. Both cities took years to rebuild, Hiroshima was reborn as a City of Peace while Nagasaki became known as a city for foreign trade. The United States continued to test nuclear weapons, including the first hydrogen bomb on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific starting in 1952.
In 1954, passengers of the Lucky Dragon 5, a Japanese fishing ship, suffered severe radiation sickness (after believing they were in a safe zone from testing) resulting in the death of at least one crew member after the first U.S. test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb. On a flight home to Tokyo, Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had the incident on his mind, as well as the widespread fear and paranoia most Japanese citizens felt towards nuclear testing by the United States. He conceived the idea of a giant prehistoric kaiju who is resurrected and goes on a rampage across Japan, leaving a trail of destruction in his path. This creature was named Gojira (know to U.S. audiences as Godzilla), a blend of the Japanese words gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale.)
The film concerns the resurrection of the giant prehistoric dinosaur, Godzilla, who rises from the depths of the ocean after being awakened by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane is sent by the Japanese government to investigate the creature. While Yamane wishes to capture Godzilla to study the creature, all other officials seek to destroy it. Godzilla eventually surfaces from Tokyo Bay and enters the city, unleashing a path of destruction across Tokyo. The scientists, along with government officials, work together in order to stop Godzilla’s deadly rampage.
Godzilla deliberately uses the kaiju as a symbol for the nuclear holocaust suffered by Japan in WWII. One of the film’s producers, Tomoyuki Tanaka, remarked “the theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” The monster’s attack on Tokyo was filmed as a metaphor for an atom bomb attack, with Godzilla given all the characteristics of a nuclear weapon.
Though the film had a small budget of 60 million Yen (approximately $900,000 U.S. dollars), it had lofty ambitions. Godzilla struck a chord of paranoia and fear with its audiences. The imagery used — Tokyo in flames, hospitals full of the sick and injured, children suffering from radiation exposure — were images still fresh in the minds of Japan’s citizens at the time. The film might be a monster movie at first look, but beneath the surface the film is a profound political statement against the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Godzilla served as a warning for man-made tragedy. In fact, after the Fukushima Daishi reactor meltdown in Japan, Google searches for ‘Godzilla’ spiked across Asia. The king of the monsters reigns as symbol for the destruction human beings can impart onto one another.
To achieve Godzilla’s icon roar, composer Akira Ifukube covered a leather glove in pine tar and then rubbed it across the strings of a double bass. The result produced an unearthly, discordant growl.
Two different stuntmen wore a monster suit throughout filming to portray Godzilla. The performers often suffered heavy bouts of exhaustion and dehydration. The Godzilla suit itself had a valve in it that drained the sweat from the actors.
In 2004, for the 50th anniversary of Godzilla, the creature was given his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
What’s your favorite monster movie? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
IMAGES: Criterion Collection
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.