The first monster movie I ever saw was Godzilla , and I remember the moment like one does a trauma. Age six, curled up on my parents’ bed, lights black, using the only VCR in-house. This was the sole time I would be scared of the atomic dragon. The only night Godzilla would sneak into my sleep and chase me down the highways and dark train lines of Tokyo.
Godzilla engrossed me the way Jaws and Alligator did, even as they seeded a paranoia against swimming that bled into adulthood. As a kid, I remember fear, the thrill of imagining things that lurked beneath the carpet, or behind my walls, or hovering above my bedroom. The books I read, the stories I was told, the real beasts I encountered. Once, I was nipped on the ass by an aunt’s Doberman and later begged my parents for one. If I’m in the mood for horror, it’s for monster films that unzip my skin in a sheet.
Godzilla holds the Guinness World Record for longest continually run film franchise: thirty-one movies over sixty-three years. In 2015, a poll revealed Godzilla was the most popular monster, ahead of Frankenstein’s creature and our claymation Kong. The monster we Americans are most fascinated with is known for ripping up metropolises on the far side of the ocean. What bright flame has drawn our imaginations toward a creature that destroys lives on the other side of the sea?
Godzilla was born in 1954 and has accomplished much in its life. In film, it has traveled to Osaka, Shanghai, New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Tokyo many times, Sapporo, San Francisco, and Antarctica. He’s encountered and defeated a three-headed dragon, a giant, blood-sucking dragonfly, a moth goddess, a giant condor, a giant spider, a robot version of himself, another robot version of himself, a monster made out of sludge, a monster controlled by aliens who are really cockroaches, a monster controlled by aliens from the third planet near the black hole, and a monster that is a giant plant made out of radioactive cells, rose petals, and the soul of a botanist’s murdered daughter.
Besides roaring, stomping, crushing, and roasting, he has learned many skills. He has danced, meditated, and sprinted. He has dove, swum, and navigated lava tubes. He learned how to digest nuclear reactors. He cracked an iceberg like one does a walnut. He’s played volleyball with a boulder and a giant lobster. He learned to parent his son . He’s managed to talk with his friend. And, using atomic breath as propulsion, he has even managed to fly .
The Godzilla movies after 1954’s Gojira were not about radiation or environmental ethics. The films morphed from sequel ripoff to monster battles to Godzilla acting as Tokyo guard-dog pummeling kaiju that rumbled close. Godzilla movies, after the first, are about awe, which is something children understand, that primal satisfaction of seeing the world’s limits stretched past their breaking, watching horizons spread.
Writing now, I must acknowledge that inner six-year-old who has long been attracted to things outside my horizons, the primal corpus of psychology who still cranes its neck at clouds and skyscrapers and marvels at food piles at state fairs, who visits zoos and gawks at bears. Godzilla films—I’ve watched all thirty-one—entrance me not because the plots are complicated or the special effects avant-garde, but because they ask me to feed my ravenous imagination.
I have little practice in film criticism but a lot more writing about invasive species, thanks to an impending book I’ve been writing—deadline’s a monster. I think my flirtation with invasives stems from childhood monster-wonder.
In trying to figure out Godzilla, watching all of his movies and researching his bibliography, I’ve come to see him as the ultimate territorial, invasive creature. Not manmade but man-morphed, something that’s been around but nudged with human tinkering into menace, reminding us of what we’ve done.
As an ecological being, Godzilla’s niche is deep-ocean apex predator. It is fifty meters tall or a hundred or 118.5 meters, depending on the movie. It resembles a stegosaurus-mated T-rex. It was ripped from its ecology by nuclear radiation that the United States scattered across the Ring of Fire. The beast grew, inherited nuclear capabilities, and was driven from its home by the same spark of light that birthed its terrifying breath.
His skin is charcoal ash-gray, sometimes evergreen, and tough: withstanding bullets, bombs, and lasers. In one movie, scientists studying Godzilla debate the medical advancements made from skin that can shrug off tank shells. One of them worries that if the military murders the monster, Godzilla science will be lost forever. The creature is a kind of rainforest, shielding its mysteries, walking with possibility.
That the discovery bears the cost of destruction, cities laid waste so human knowledge may lurch forward, harkens to an ancient, carnal, biblical transaction. Something akin to growing up.
When I was nine, I received my first Godzilla action figure from a rich aunt who lived in a pillared mansion along Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi. The toy was eighteen inches tall, muscled, snarling, with tough, plastic-leather skin. I played with this toy more than any other, Godzilla winning his battles, toppling a model of my aunt’s house made out of Legos, a house she prided. The house where once I stayed, sprinting up staircases, tornadoing around the gaudy halls and epic backyard. Where I broke a window and remember no punishment. Where one of her three guard-dog dobermans bit my ass. A place where I had enough space to exhibit my monstrous self.
Godzilla was the toy I most identified with as a macho-raised male, the spiky, aggressive element of steam-valve destruction (my aunt’s window a victim).
Besides Godzilla, I also grew up with eighties’ action heroes: Rambo, Van Damme, Arnold. I replayed their films over and over on our lone VCR, gawking at the terrifying muscles erupting from skin. The harm they could cause, their power over the Earth. Maybe that is what I hated, as a kid, the lack of control; I envied action star agency. Possibly I craved the giant space of my aunt’s, as if I were a monster alone in the world.
Hollywood action heroes, I realize now, were another kind of monster, morphing the human skeleton through weights and steroids and retrograde masculine tropes. And they too left destruction in other countries across distant seas.
On March 1, 1954, the tuna skipper Lucky Dragon sailed the Pacific off the coast of the Marshall Islands. Twenty-three sailors witnessed a light appearing on the edge of the horizon, shimmering, then glowing, then blinding. One claimed later he saw “the sun rising in the west.” A seven thousand square mile mushroom sprouted, and ash rained on their faces.
In port, the sailors were diagnosed with radiation poisoning and skin burns. The radio operator died of liver failure. The fish in the ship’s hold were radioactive, as were subsequent catches. Emperor Hirohito, disgusted, said he would cease eating fish, and many citizens followed, this on an island country eponymous for sashimi. Japanese journalists dubbed it “Japan’s third atomic strike.”
Two weeks after the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb test , film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka commuted home over the Pacific. His latest project scrapped, he was mulling his failure and the new power unleashed onto the world. He fretted as he looked out the plane window, at the horizon-cracking blue, knowing about the radiation entering the water that surrounds Japan like a death hand.
The ocean has long been ominous for Japan, the secretor of tsunamis, hurricanes, Americans. Peering over the depthlessness of the atomic-wrecked Pacific, Tanaka wondered, what could be down there that humans were awakening?
1954’s Gojira is not to be confused with the castrated, imbecilic Godzilla, King of the Monsters! starring Raymond Burr . The latter replaced almost a third of the Japanese cinematic marvel with footage shot in one, marathon twenty-four-hour filming session, and dubbing that took just four hours.
Gojira ’s anti-nuclear message was clipped, as was the hand-wringing by one of the scientists about whether to use an even worse weapon to liquify Godzilla. The film slashed hints that Japanese scientists co-developed the Oxygen Destroyer with Germans during the war, but decided, unlike Americans with their atoms, not to unleash that weapon onto the world.
No, in the American version, the scientists have fewer scruples using their weapons, less guilt for the destruction they may cause. Power, the American version says, is not made to be chained.
Tanaka’s Gojira begins idyllically : sweaty yet smiling sailors aboard a fishing vessel, the men guitar-strumming and harmonica-humming, circled around. Then, a bright flash, the men rushing to the deck. Water boiling. The sailors scream as the light grows to surface-of-the-sun hot. The ship erupts in flames. There is a shot of the guitar alone on deck, abandoned, burning. Their innocence and youth ablaze.
During Gojira ’s production, the director, Ishiro Honda, added the detail of Godzilla’s atomic breath. Honda had survived Tokyo’s fire-bombing only to be shipped out to China as a soldier. When he repatriated, he traveled through Hiroshima, and he witnessed the aftermath. He wrote, “There was a heavy atmosphere . . . a fear the world was already coming to an end.”
When filming attack scenes, Honda remembered the Tokyo bomb attack and Hiroshima, people looking up and watching fire rain.
Honda desired a monster that didn’t simply lumber and cause random, passive damage like an excited dog. Atomic breath gave Godzilla agency. He could melt tanks, decapitate skyscrapers, poison a nation’s fish supply. Isotopes from his glowing head were what humans had co-created with the ancient world.
Gojira ’s score composer, Akira Ifukube, also suffered radiation poisoning during the war. He would compose eleven of the Godzilla film scores as well as for two hundred other movies. He was also tasked with creating Godzilla’s roar. He wanted something natural and ethereal, organic but metallic, the sound of the deep ocean as well as the psychic vibrations of monster mythology.
He visited Tokyo’s Music Conservatory, which housed the only contrabass in the nation. With permission, Ifukube donned a leather glove and gripped and slid his hand down the bass strings. He recorded the sound and put an echo to the recording. What resulted was a roar that would reverberate sixty years into the stomachs of Japanese and Americans, into children across every ocean, waking arm hairs, reconfiguring memories of war and animal gods, alerting us to the living mysteries lying beyond and beneath our horizons.
Among sixty years of unfathomable Godzilla creations, one stands out: Hedorah, the smog monster . In 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Hedorah congeals from pollution boiling in Tokyo Bay. The creature is reminiscent of a child’s trash bag ghost costume with blood eyes spraying lightning bolts and excreting toxic sludge. Hedorah first swims as a mutated tadpole. Then he stalks on land, and finally flies on his own flatulence. His emissions melt people, breaking down bodies into skeletons.
At one point, Hedorah wraps his gray lips around an industrial chimney and tokes. His eyes roll back and the smog creature appears giddy until quarrelsome Godzilla roars.
During the fight, Hedorah fires a snotball at Godzilla that burns his shoulder. Godzilla later repays him by punching out his eye. Godzilla then falls into a cavernous hole, into which Hedorah pours what appears to be toxic excreta.
In the film’s most bizarre scene, the young male character, Yukio, freaks out on LSD in an underground dance club. Yukio’s decked in seventies skinny peach pants and leopard shirt, moping at a table while his girlfriend dances and sings in a catsuit to a song called “Give me Back My Planet.”
Yukio stares at his girlfriend, at all the other go-go dancers, when suddenly the room spins, darkens, and everyone’s faces are replaced with fish heads. Yukio sweats, panics, screams, and the lights come back on. Then a river of Hedorah sludge descends the stairs. The party bellows, melts, or escapes, the lava lamps shining.
Having had bad acid trips, I empathize with Yukio and his vertiginous confluence of hallucination and toxic reality. It makes me wonder if the movie creators had a sadism toward teenagers, like Hollywood slasher films do. It’s unfair, berating teenagers for youth, which most of them, if my life is an indication, don’t realize their life stage and won’t appreciate it until skin begins peeling, just like the creatures Hedorah melts with his sludge.
There are other theories for the success of monster films besides awesomeness and sadism. One, of course, is that monster movies project fears that we will destroy the Earth and our guilt over doing so. Another is that Godzilla exhibits the violent catharsis that action movies always perform, and before them quest novels and Gilgamesh .
More disturbing to me is film historian Frank Dello Stritto’s arguments about the sexuality of monster stories in the book A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore: The History & Mythology of Classic Horror Films . A more-than-human interloper enters a socially oppressive atmosphere, acts on his forbidden cravings, and attempts to combat ruling norms. Monster stories, in this view, are voyeuristic, and they reward traditions that keep monsters thwarted: the Church, with its ability to stake transgressors, and the military and scientists for neutralizing radioactive beasts.
But the theory I’m more fond of comes from David Quammen in his book, Monster of God. The enduring success of beasts, from Grendel to Alien , reflects, Quammen writes, “not just our fear of homicidal monsters but also our need and desire for them . . . They allow us to recollect our limitations. They keep us company. The universe is a very big place, but as far as we know it’s mainly empty, boring, and cold.”
As a child I had an obsessive fear that I would be alone when my parents died. That I would never marry, that it would be as hard to make friends in adulthood as in childhood. Having Godzilla, the lone isolated predator, gave me a kind of kinship. Someone else, a fellow misfit.
In almost every Toho Godzilla film until the 1990s, a new suit was handcrafted. I noticed this as a child: the crocodilian look in Godzilla vs. King Kong , the buck-teeth of Godzilla Raids Again , the punched-up, acne scarring in Son of Godzilla.
Similarly, Godzilla has meant something different to me through my life, from the terror when I was six, to a voyeuristic friend when I was nine, to an amusement in my twenties, and currently a cultural curiosity.
In metaphor, Godzilla has also morphed from nuclear parable to pollution PSA in Smog Monster to a projection of Japanese nationalism in 2016’s Shin Gojira , following the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and subsequent nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. In Shin Gojira , Godzilla slithers up a canal, exploding Tokyo’s rivers, crushing boats in a gargle of foam and mud that spills onto shore. The scene recalls the myriad public-captured moments of the tsunami, when the ocean raised a battering fist and crushed the coastline.
Politicians in the movie are as inept as in 2011, lying to the public, meeting for mind-chilling hours, resolving little. Then Americans want to drop a nuke, its fourth nuclear strike. The movie advocates resistance to big-brother interference, to Americans who begot the creature. The monster isn’t Godzilla but bureaucracy thrust upon the island nation, another kind of human-natural disaster.
The original Godzilla design was a giant octopus, but producer Tomoyuki Tanaka scrapped this. He helped evolve Godzilla into a T-rex-Stegosaurus-dragon hybrid. Bamboo stakes and chicken wire with urethane and latex overlaid and copious bulky padding, a suit with zero ventilation was created.
During filming, stuntman Haruo Nakajima fainted inside the suit, crushing city miniatures before cue. The crew wrapped in August with sizzling lights. Three minutes was the max the actor could take inside Godzilla. During breaks, grips unsuited Nakajima and poured out a cup of his sweat. He lost twenty pounds during filming.
Before shooting, Nakajima worried about how to play his part. How does one portray a lumbering monster who is half dinosaur and half nuclear evolution, part myth and part human foible? How does one become a beast who, like a child, seems to crave destruction but is yet not fully responsible for his monstrousness?
For inspiration, Nakajima visited the Ueno Zoo where he sat outside bear pens and watched grizzlies lumber around. These natural monsters confined, twisted by their human habitation.
I visited this same zoo when I lived in Japan as an English teacher, and I remember the bears well. I was struck by one who paced his cage, bellowing non-stop. The size of the bear’s life rippling before my eyes snapped my brain. A part of me did not think bears were possible from watching them on televisions, they looked to be filmmaker creations.
It was because I had been conditioned since I was six by Godzilla, the films mushrooming bears into radioactive monsters and setting them loose upon my imagination. Godzilla evolved the way I look at life. Why I go to zoos and want, on some level, the animals to be bigger, to be ferocious, and why I want them to escape.
For 2016’s Shin Gojira , Toho Studios didn’t hire a sweaty man in a suit, but rather a green room and motion-capture technology. Toho abandoned stuntmen and chose a fifty-year-old Noh actor to play the beast.
Noh theatre is an 800-year-old masked theatre tradition, a slow, rhythmic, patient shifting of the limbs in yoga-like dances that can last for hours. Actor Mansai Nomura morphed Godzilla from lumbering beast to ponderous dancer cutting a methodical path through Tokyo.
In an interview, the actor said, “[Noh] isn’t even human. It’s god-like, ghost-like, even monster-like . . . [it’s] heavy and lumbering. For the role, I even used a Godzilla mask just to understand how . . . When Godzilla stomps Tokyo, I could really see him acting the Noh.” After sixty years, Nomura helped update the beast. Like any creature who survives for long, Godzilla keeps evolving. A human product born from animal impulses, lying beneath the surface but also lumbering through the art of creation.