Godzilla: Everything you need to know about the original

Kaiju expert reveals all you need to know about Godzilla beforeGareth Edwards’ reboot

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson with director Gareth Edwards on the set of Godzilla
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson with director Gareth Edwards on the set of Godzilla
Godzilla expert Ed Godziszewski
Godzilla expert Ed Godziszewski

Ed Godziszewski is the writer-producer of the ace documentary Bringing Godzilla Down To Size: The Art Of Japanese Special Effects, and the author of The Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Godzilla.

In addition, Godziszewski has long published the Japanese Giants fanzine and, thanks to his legendary collection of 16mm and 35mm prints, the man has been at the forefront of numerous cinematic events relating to the filmic fiend (he even contributes an audio commentary to the US Blu-ray of the original classic).

We caught up the kaiju obsessive for the following little chat that will – hopefully – appeal to both the novice of all things related to the atomic-breathed behemoth, and the more seasoned connoisseur of the titanic Tokyo-trampling terror.

Either way, hopefully this conversation will succeed in breeding more anticipation for Gareth Edwards’ upcoming epic and encourage some less-familiar Godzilla fans to check out the Big G’s older opuses…

The original 1954 Godzilla
The original 1954 Godzilla

Here’s a simple first question: Why do you think something so indigenously Japanese, complete with the atomic fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki for instance, took off in America and other parts of the world?

To be honest, I don’t know that Godzilla was something so uniquely Japanese to foreign audiences – I mean, atomic radiation and science fiction went hand-in-hand back in the 50s and 60s. Countless films of that era had that connection, so for audiences, it was a very familiar and relatable idea.

If anything, that element probably helped to sell the film in the Western world. Outside of Japan, Godzilla was probably seen just like any other radiation-themed science fiction film, only the actors were Japanese and the voices were dubbed.

Although when the first film, entitled Godzilla: King Of The Monsters in the USA, was unleashed in America the nuclear subtext was played down and new footage with an English-speaking B-movie actor – Raymond Burr – was shot and added to the movie. So it was definitely Americanised…

When the Godzilla films were first released in the United States, they did well but not much better or worse than other, similar films of the times. In my view, though, they would never have had the chance to do this if it hadn’t been for the producer Joseph E Levine taking a chance on Godzilla and Americanising it in the way he did.

Now, I do not think the American Godzilla is, dramatically, in the same ballpark as the original Japanese version, but at the same time I do not consider it an abomination either.

The core story is still there and most of Ishirō Honda’s powerful imagery is still there – in fact, I find it a huge stretch to think that the anti-nuclear message was intentionally watered down in the editing for political purposes. Honda’s message is not anti-American in the first place, and I doubt the people who Americanised it cared about anything other than trying to make the film more marketable to their own audiences.

What are your thoughts on Godzilla being given a little child in 1967’s Son Of Godzilla (怪獣島の決戦 ゴジラの息子, Kaijū-tō no Kessen Gojira no Musuko)? Some fans strongly dislike this factor of the original films. What are your feelings?

Well, given how things were trending in the film industry, and how Toho wanted their films to appeal more to kids, it seemed like an inevitable step. I can’t say that I am thrilled about the decision since it was signalled the move from Godzilla being a monster to a more humanised and fatherly character. Still, Son Of Godzilla is actually a pretty good film with a solid story…

1975's The Terror Of Mechagodzilla was the final film in the original series
1975’s The Terror Of Mechagodzilla was the final film in the original series

Why do you think that, after Terror Of Mechagodzilla (メカゴジラの逆襲 Mekagojira no Gyakushū), in 1975, the Godzilla character was put on a hiatus for almost a decade?

It was obvious… The audience was dwindling rapidly, and people could get their fill of monsters for free on television at the time. Financially, it just didn’t pay to keep making these films – and creatively, they had run dry as well. It was the right decision both financially and artistically. Giving Godzilla time off was a smart idea.

How do you rate the second period of Godzilla movies? I have to admit that I really like Godzilla 1985, it is a really fierce little monster movie…

At the time the new series was happening, it was pretty exciting. New Godzilla films and lots of new merchandise, lots to be excited about [laughs]. What I liked the most during this period was that they delved into Godzilla‘s biology, which allowed Toho to come up with a plausible explanation for his invulnerability and, more importantly, gave the humans more realistic ways to attack and try to defeat him.

While I always enjoyed the military trying to fight against Godzilla, it was also a futile effort, one which seemed to be a needless waste of lives once you figured out that it just wasn’t going to work. But I found Godzilla 1985 to be a rather uneven effort. Even worse – when they released that film theatrically in America the prints that were made by the distributor, New World Pictures, were terribly grainy, making the film look like it was projected through a screen door!

Roland Emmerich's much-reviled 1998 Godzilla
Roland Emmerich’s much-reviled 1998 Godzilla

What are your feelings towards Roland Emmerich’s American version of Godzilla from 1998?

I might have liked it a lot more if it had been called something other than Godzilla [laughs].

At best, it’s a below average monster-on-the-loose film. But aside from the title of the movie, it has nothing to do with Godzilla. I had no delusions that they were going to keep everything the same as the Japanese version of the character… I mean, of course they should do their own thing and in their own way. But if you are going to call it Godzilla, then you should at least retain some basis of the original character.

That was their fatal flaw—they discarded everything except the name. Instead of a somewhat invulnerable dinosaur-like creature with dorsal fins, aggressive and destructive, equipped with his signature atomic breath and distinctive roar, and a symbol of the nuclear threat, they gave us a radiation-mutated lizard with no special ability who runs from conflict and destroys things by accident. In the end he is easily killed by a single shot of conventional weaponry.

There’s no discernible subtext to the film other than ‘let’s make money!’

Godzilla: Final Wars (ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ, Gojira: Fainaru Wōzu) – the final film for our favourite fiend to date. It also really split the fans. What are your thoughts?

The negative response this film garnered has been well earned. It all starts with director Ryuhei Kitamura who was handed the largest budget ever allotted to a Godzilla film in honour of the 50th Anniversary and squandered it on a self-indulgent product which was conceived with utter contempt for its subject matter.

I don’t begrudge any director for trying to tout his approach as being a good one, but that was not nearly enough for Kitamura, who from the start said that there never had been a good Godzilla film before his and that Godzilla was just supposed to be ‘bad’.

Godzilla is due in cinemas 16 May 2014. You can buy the 1954 Godzilla on DVD for £10.83 at Amazon.co.uk