Project G • Development of Godzilla 1952-1954

Although the true beginning of Godzilla's development began in 1945, as this article is concerned with the direct development of the first Godzilla film (and some pre-Godzilla projects), and that begins in 1952.

- 1952 -
The Ghostly Whale Who Came from the Sea to Attack Tokyo

King Kong
    In 1952, King Kong was reissued internationally, and counted among its enormous audiences Eiji Tsuburaya. Beyond it's importance as a film itself, King Kong is one of the most influential films in history. In the west, stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen famously was sparked into action by Kong, and his enthusiasm led him to a collaboration with Obie himself, which in turn launched his own career, one that is remarkable for being actually worth watching despite the creative and technical black hole that consumed most western monster films between the end of the Universal "horror" films and the first Alien movie. More than that, a succession of re-releases in the era before home entertainment where that sort of thing was necessary meant that it continually influenced multiple waves of future monster makers. While there is a storied history of monster movies prior to King Kong, there is probably no other single film - other than Godzilla, of course - which carries more responsibility for spreading the monster movie to all corners of the globe.

So to, is Godzilla's inspiration. Although there are plenty of rumors and internet hoaxes about a probably mythical "Japanese King Kong" (sometimes called "King Kong in Edo," and sometimes the two are said to be different creatures entirely), up until then Japan had never entered the monster movie gambit. And really, how could they? The French, German, and American cycles of monster movie history all revolved around a handful, or sometimes just one, exceptionally talented and visionary individuals. Film itself, the very language of cinema, in the ways through which actual stories can be told, weren't really established for the first few decades the technology existed. So naturally the possibility of special effects necessary to bring fictional creatures to life was too far-out to fathom for simple folks just trying to make a silly train movie. Each decade and country where these few pioneers sought to make monsters real had to essentially create their own filmic language and style distinct from dramatic one. Consider Melies' The Haunted Castle from 1896, where his photographic trickery is easily the most technically complicated aspect of the film, which otherwise consists of some doofus bumbling around in a single room in one continuous wide shot.

Eiji Tsuburaya
Eiji Tsuburaya was one of these technical geniuses, but circumstances led him to forgo applying those talents to start the next great wave of special effects and monster films. He entered into the film industry in 1919 as a cameraman, and remained as such throughout most of the inter-war period. When the tides of war came rushing back, his workload consisted of nothing much more than propaganda films, and while it was here where he first honed his miniature and photographic effects skills, it wasn't in an environment conducive to trying to pitch a monster movie. More so, during the occupation, Tsuburaya was blacklisted for his involvement with the genre. So it really wasn't until 1952 when he would have any kind of opportunity to pursue such a thing.

The end of the occupation and the re-release of King Kong made Tsuburaya willing and able to make his own monster film. Now back at Toho, Tsuburaya pitched the fantastically long-winded The Ghostly Whale Who Came from the Sea to Attack Tokyo, presumably a film about a... a ghostly whale... who came from the sea... to attack Tokyo. The two most interesting things about this proposal are the "ghostly" part (化け物のよう or bakemono no you), similar to a bakemono - ghost - in some way, skynet's translator somewhat hilariously defaults to "spooky" in this regard, but presumably not an actual ghost? The other thing is that for all of Tsuburaya's much publicized love of cephalopods, his earliest attempt at bringing a monster to Japanese screens was actually a whale, more directly ancestral to Godzilla than the beast that eventually became Oodako.

- 1953 -
"A giant octopus attacks Japanese whaling ships in the Indian Ocean"

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
    Following the successful run of King Kong was the first real Harryhausen picture, itself inspired by Kong. While The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is utterly typical for the period, a dismal, stupid, and annoying bit of hopelessly bankrupt 50's sci-fi crap, it does have a few things going for it. First, and most obviously, are the impeccable special effects and animation, which are already clearly on par with O'Brien's work, if their earlier collaboration on Mighty Joe Young hadn't already made that clear. Second, there's Eugene Lourie, the director, a Frenchman from an arthouse background who for some reason or another transitioned into making horrible nonsense, who will eventually find his way out of this bag as he completes a sea monster trilogy, the next of which is the far superior O'Brien (and his assistants) animated The Giant Behemoth which is something of an unintentional remake of The Beast but with better everything (and the third one is, of course, Gorgo). Finally, there's an interesting angle in the film about the monster (really just a normal animal) - due to it quite literally being in suspended animation for actually millions of years - carries bacteria with it that is totally alien to the immune systems of Cenozoic animals. It's an interesting and often overlooked element to the "suspended animation" set-up that you don't really see anywhere else, although it does raise the question of why current pathogens aren't making the monster equally sick.

But while The Beast's merits as a film are severely lacking, it did manage to create a significant buzz. Although Obie would personally make two more films and Harryhausen's career was just beginning, ultimately their animation began to be featured in progressively shittier and shittier films, lost in a sea of outright horrible trash. But in 1953, the world had been starving for monsters ever since the end of the Universal series, and with Kong being re-released so near to it, the triumphant animation in The Beast certainly elevated it not only above the almost non-existant competition of the time, but the circumstances of its release and the immediate impact it had on audiences made it stand out more readily than most of following pictures.

Because of this, much has been made of the connection between The Beast and Godzilla. There are certainly similarities, for sure. We've got a prehistoric... diapsid, of some sort, spurred into action by atomic weapons testing, who starts sinking ships en route to a major metropolitan area, which it proceeds to smash up, which in the end is killed by a marvel of modern science. On the surface it seems like Godzilla owes a fair amount to the earlier film, especially when you know that the gamble Toho took on Godzilla wouldn't have happened if it weren't for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms' success, and indeed some of its formula probably intentionally found its way into Godzilla. But the differences here are profound, and the two wildly different ways of presenting vaguely the same story really highlight exactly why it was Godzilla, and not the "Rhedosaurus," who went on to change the entire genre - and post-modern culture as a whole - drastically.

Last I'll say about the matter is that Ray Harryhausen, who is, and I can't stress this enough, a fantastic artist who gave monster movie history plenty of milestones, a pretty horrible human being. Not to get too into it here, but let's just say the guy is "from a different time" if you know what I mean. A Japanese monster movie, especially one that used his own works as a stepping stool, was simply not a thing to be celebrated, but rather reviled. In Harryhausen's eyes, Godzilla was a rip-off of his unassailable classic. It reads like a joke, but Harryhausen wasn't laughing.

Oh, the octopus thing? Yeah, so Tsuburaya's next submission wasn't even pretending to be a long title, it was a sentence long story seed dropped off in the writer's room to try and get the ball rolling on Japan's monster movie. Of course nothing came of it, but it is important because this is the earliest Toho monster ever conceptualized that actually appeared on-screen, Oodako. Some accounts have it that as "Project G" was underway, Tsuburaya did his part to champion his giant octopus for the role of the monster, but while it seems like a thing that probably had to have come up at least once, so much of those first few months is shrouded, much of it intentionally, in rumor and legend. For a monster that technically doesn't have a name, this particular giant octopus has one of the most storied careers in monster movie history, and it actually pre-dates Godzilla's. Think about it.

- 1954 -
The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Under the Sea

In the Shadow of Honor
    As the legend goes, Godzilla was born on a plane. Tomoyuki Tanaka was on his way back to Tokyo from Jakarta, sweating bullets after failing to save the politically challenged production of In the Shadow of Honor, a Japanese-Indonesian co-production that was supposed to be one of Toho's big releases that year. Now, with no time left to spare, he had to come up with a new big project that would keep the whole studio up. There's more, too. Tanaka rarely mentioned this in interviews, but the stakes were actually even higher, as it turns out that a radical group of Indonesian terrorists had kidnapped his children, and had secretly hidden a bomb on-board the plane. There was no more money in his savings for grandma's operation, and he was about to lose the farm as well. With no options left, Tanaka reluctantly used his ancient bronze flute handed to him by an ancient sorcerer by the name of "Don Bruhaha" which could only be used once, to summon an enormous ghostly whale from the depths of the Marianna Trench to grant him a single wish in return for possessing his body and using it like a puppet for the rest of his mortal days to enact his terrible plans on the surface world.

Well, so goes the legend. But what is the reality? The chronology of events seems a little confused, in that what's been written doesn't allow for such a plane trip to have occurred. On February 16th, Tanaka and Senkichi Taniguchi, the would-be director of Shadow of Honor, left for Jakarta. With things going along smoothly, they then headed to Hong Kong on the 25th to meet with the star, and then returned to Tokyo on the 28th with the expectation that filming would begin in a few weeks. Telegrams from Jakarta relayed the news of first the postponement of filming, and then the cancellation of the project, on March 20th. Tanaka offered to fly over and try to save the project, but nothing came of it and the studio moved on. This is likely where you'd expect the story to take place, but it doesn't seem to have played out that way.

Tomoyuki Tanaka
Tanaka's grand idea to save the day was a pitch with the dissapointingly-not-as-long-as-Tsuburaya's-titles The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Under the Sea. Because so much of what Godzilla is is Ishiro Honda's doing, it's hard to separate the two and really try to get an understanding of just what Tomoyuki Tanaka's pitch really was at that point. According to Wikipedia, the exact pitch was "a dinosaur sleeping on the Bikini Atoll seabed awakens under the influence of hydrogen bomb experiment, and attacks Japan." The core of the legends and sometimes just simple confusion about the earliest stages of Godzilla typically revolves around whether or not Godzilla was originally a dinosaur, or this was picked out from a group of competing ideas (such as an Octopus or literal Gorilla-Whale, both of which have been reported in various sources, both primary and secondary). It's not impossible that alternative ideas for the monster were brought up later, of course. Given how The Beast is thought to be a direct spark, and the popularity of dinosaurs in fiction at the time, I'd have to agree with that.

The thing that gets me, though, is the nuclear aspect. While Tanaka has always maintained that it was there from the beginning, this has seemed suspicious to me, like a lot of bold-faced credit hogging. His story does check out though, and the Lucky Dragon #5 incident was reported a mere four days before the cancellation of Shadow of Honor. Rather, this sort of gut reaction I have to the claim is probably an artifact of what we got. Godzilla is so through and through an Ishiro Honda movie that it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the story being told any other way. If we attempt to do so, we might end up with something more of a carbon copy of The Beast, using radiation scare as a cheap exploitation gimmick rather than giving the bomb the amount of gravity it deserves. Tanaka may not be lying, but just because the monster was always supposed to be the product of the Castle Bravo test doesn't mean the story was always supposed to be handled with tact and skill. Tanaka was, after all, a producer first and foremost.

The Lucky Dragon #5
On March 1st, 1954, the United States commenced their most powerful nuclear weapons test to date. The weapon was so powerful, in fact, that they woefully underestimated the area and intensity of the effects it would have. The bomb, given the oh-so-hilarious ironic nickname "Shrimp" (who's the asshole in charge of naming these things?) was dropped at 6:45 and by 6:46 the mushroom cloud had reached 14km in height with an 11km diameter. The explosion vaporized part of the atoll, leaving a 2km wide crater.

As the little fishing trawler watched the sun come up in the west, a strange, sticky powder began falling from the sky. The "death ash," as the crew called it, was so foreign to their collective experience they didn't know what to think of it at first, one of the crew members even elected to taste it. The following day, everyone was in such poor condition that they immediately went back to port, and all hell broke loose.

The Lucky Dragon incident changed everything. While the threat of the bomb was well known since nearly the beginning, this information belonged to a handful of individuals carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders and slipping classified documents back and forth. Truman, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and apparently Stalin knew what was going on, and we're fortunate that they chose to take the matter so seriously, but with the radioactive fish scare, the simultaneous liver failure of the fishermen, and the indication that even the government didn't understand the power they were weilding, this marked the beginning of the anti-nuclear movement as we know it today. The cat was out of the bag, as it were, and the people of the world were justifiably terrified of being eaten by a god damned tiger.

Although it wasn't until 1963 when the first real progress of the anti-nuclear movement was made, the immediate reaction, both in Japan and the United States, was bold and pronounced. Again, it's hard to imagine Godzilla without Ishiro Honda, but without the "death ash," who's to say if anyone would have even listened to what Honda had to say? The importance of the film and the character are rooted in this outrage, something real, tangible, and dangerous. The threat that the bomb posed to all of humanity would set Godzilla apart from what, in the States, might have been just a monster that wanted you to wait in line for toilet paper.

Before the project was officially greenlighted, Iwao Mori, Tomoyuki Tanaka's boss, told him to talk with Eiji Tsuburaya first to see if such a thing was even feasible. Now that's a little odd, isn't it? If Tsuburaya has been spending the past two years dropping hints about wanting to do a monster movie, don't you think maybe he was already certain that he could pull it off? What a weirdo to pitch a series of monster movies, BE the special effects guy, and then not have the ability to actually MAKE the monster itself. Well, maybe Mori didn't know about Oodako and the whale thing. Of course Tsuburaya was all-in, and so Tanaka needed one last piece to bring it all together. Senkichi Taniguchi had already found another project, so a new director was needed, and Honda had a personal stake in it.

Project G

    With the project greenlit, the working title changed from the absolutely ridiculous TGMF20kMUTS to the more mysterious Project G (the G is for "Giant"), and marching orders were to keep everything under wraps. In the first month, between mid-April and mid-May, there doesn't seem to be anything known about the development of the project. This could simply be because there was no progress being made, or it could also be the lingering shadow of this policy of absolute secrecy. There is a piece of concept art floating around by Kazuyoshi Abe which features an ape-like head with a silhouette reminiscent of a mushroom cloud. I've heard that this was a submission, one of many welcomed solicitations by various artists across Japan, but this sort of flies in the face of the secrecy of the project. Another unknown regarding the image is exactly when this was supposed to be submitted, as the only specification I've ever seen is "early." The existence of this clearly mammalian image is one of the anomalies of the monster's design development that contribute to rumors that Godzilla was going to be various different kinds of animals during the production.
The name was a whole other thing, with there being no less that four different origins for "Gojira." I've read that among some of the other ideas for names was "Angirasu" or Anguirus/Angilas, but that tidbit isn't volunteered often and it's hard to find a real reliable source for it. Regarding the legendary, folkloric origin of the name, the popular story is that it was a nickname for an employee at Toho, sometimes a member of the publicity department, sometimes (perhaps more logically) a stage hand. Sometimes this individual is identified with a name, sometimes not. Sometimes, the story is totally different, relating an in-house contest for employees to name the monster. Kimi Honda, probably the most sensible commenter of the bunch, stated flatly that she believes the legend of where the name came from, as well as the name itself, were simply brainstormed like any other element of the film. It makes far more sense to me, at least, that a production studio full of talented artists can come up with something as simple as a name without having to resort to a nickname for a fat guy. It also makes a lot of sense that some of the legendary tale of the making of Godzilla is a "tall tale," as Honda put it, both because of the policy of secrecy at the time as well as the importance the events have to modern culture. We, traditionally, have liked our mythmakers to be just as interesting as the myths themselves.

Shigeru Kayama
On May 12th, novelist Shigeru Kayama agreed to take the case, and worked for 11 days, turning out a 50 page "treatment" which would become the basis for Godzilla's story. Kayama's story shows the skeleton of the finished film, with a handful of notable differences, and because the monster itself hadn't been nailed down yet, was only referenced in vague descriptions other than the large ears that flap when he's angry.

 A series of mysterious ship sinkings, as each subsequent rescue ship gets swallowed up under unknown circumstances, causes chaos and panic to escalate in Japan, especially occuring so soon after the Lucky Dragon incident. When we meet our main characters, they're a tad different. Emiko and Ogata are engaged, with Serizawa merely being a friend and the love triangle aspect of the story non-existant, although all three have the same roles in the plot. Dr. Yamane is drastically different, being a somewhat sinister character who lives in a spooky mansion and wears a cape. He doesn't even go to Odo Island, and his exposition about Godzilla's origin theory isn't given to parliament but rather on television, where he hammers home his point that Godzilla should not be killed because he's a rare specimen. This motivation, while somewhat less noble than that of his movie counterpart, is still pretty compelling. Even if it was just an ordinary, non-radioactive Godzillasaurus, that's still kind of a huge deal, right?

Yamane's characterization goes even further down this road, however. When the plan to build a giant electric fence around Tokyo goes into action, firstly, it's kind of a major plot point. This is nothing more than a montage in the final film, but in Kayama's story the fence takes several weeks to build, with a steadily increasing sense of tension as to if it will be built in time, as the costs build up as well. And as a counterpart to the dread, there's also a question of whether the monster will reappear at all. When Godzilla is confronted with a finished fence, however, Yamane steals away into the night to sabotage it himself, a last vestige of his fanatical efforts to prevent the monster from being harmed.
Cover of what I believe is the 1976 re-issue of "Godzilla: Tokyo and Osaka Edition," which collects Kayama's original story for both Godzilla films he wrote. Here called "Tokyo Destroyed by Godzilla" and "Godzilla and Anguirus."
And that's the character that probably changed the most, even more than Yamane. Godzilla, rather than being a personification of the bomb's devastation, an unstoppable wall of indescriminate desctruction that belches pestilence and flames, is really just an animal. Although the conclusion of the film still revolves around the Oxygen Destroyer and Dr. Serizawa's sacrifice, during his attack on Tokyo the military don't really do anything to him, so it isn't entirely clear if this monster is the same irresistible force from the film, but it certainly doesn't seem likely. Godzilla is a simple animal motivated purely by hunger and instinct, and in fact actually eats during the course of the story. Like, eating food. Think about it. The radioactive ray or beam or fire or whatever, being Honda's invention, was also not a part of the story at this point.

The conclusion of Kayama's story again mirrors the film, with the sacrifice of Serizawa, but without the focus on him that is apparent in Murata and Honda's rewrites, the scene only works as a symbol of protest moreso than an ultimate dramatic beat of a mercilessly melancholy movie. Regardless, the pieces were now all in place, with Tanaka's topical monster gamble, Tsuburaya's big chance to make Japan's first real monster movie, and Kayama's story of a prehistoric sea monster, all that was left was for Ishiro Honda to actually go ahead and make Godzilla. 

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