Godzilla: The Nuclear Monster
On the 25th of January 1970, Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese special effects director, died in Sukagawa, Fukushima, Japan. Known for his immaculate experimentation in the field of cinematic special effects in his time, Tsuburaya brought new quality into the Japanese science-fiction genre.
He began his career in filmmaking as a cinematographer at the Nippon Cinematograph Company in Kyoto. In 1926, he joined Shochiku Kyoto Studios, where he started experimenting with innovative filming techniques, including the first use of a camera crane in Japanese film. But it was not until 1938 when, after becoming head of Special Visual Techniques at Toho Tokyo Studios, he took part in the production of films that would attract worldwide attention to Japanese cinematography. One of the most significant films he co-produced at Toho was Godzilla (1954). The major inspiration for the sci-fi film about the gigantic prehistoric creature, mutated by hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific, came allegedly after seeing the American silver screen hit – King Kong. An indication of such influence can be noticed in the productions original title – Gojira, derived from a combination of two words: ‘gorilla’ and ‘whale’.
One of the techniques Tsuburaya used for the creation of special effects in Godzilla was stop-motion, even though for economical reasons he had to use it sparingly. “When Tsuburaya began planning the effects for Godzilla, he knew stop-motion would be prohibitively expensive. Some wrong-headed and ill-informed sources asserted Tsuburaya did not understand how O’Brien brought King Kong to life, and therefore was unable to duplicate it. This is disproven by the two (albeit brief) stop-motion shots Tsuburaya animated for Godzilla: a speeding truck careening onto its side and a swipe of Godzilla’s tail…” (David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series).
As an alternative to costly stop-motion, Tsuburaya used the technique called ‘jerkiness’ or ‘strobing’. This phenomenon relates to the perception of individual still images in a motion picture. “To understand strobing, consider what happens when a speeding train is filmed. The film runs through the camera at twenty-four frames per second, so for every second there are twenty-four separate pictures. During that second the train was in constant motion, so each of the twenty-four pictures of the train is somewhat blurred. This blur may not be noticeable when the sequence is projected, because human eyes interpret the series of blurred pictures as an image of a well-focused, moving train.”(Kalat). Therefore, strobing allowed a much more realistic final effect to that achieve by stop-motion, which would involve taking pictures of a non-moving train. Another problematic aspect of the production was the issue of scale. “The use of a man-sized monster supposedly 50 meters tall allowed Tsuburaya’s team to construct their miniature Tokyo at 1/25 scale, which was small enough to hamper detailing somewhat but vastly larger and more detailed than would have been possible with a stop-motion miniature.” (Kalat). In the 1950s, these kinds of effects were mind-blowing, which was testified by the film’s huge commercial success, leading to the production of a series with the same title, and other monster movies such as Mothra or Rodan.
Godzilla, metaphorically speaking, is a symbol for nuclear holocaust. The film is a chronicle of a prehistoric monster, which, awakened by American nuclear testing, reduces Tokyo to rubble. A reclusive scientist whose body and mind are scarred from WWII service invents an ‘Oxygen Destroyer,’ then fears his discovery will be as dangerous to the world as Godzilla. In a sombre conclusion, the scientist descends to Godzilla’s ocean lair, annihilates the creature, his device, and himself.
“The film can thus be seen as operating on a number of ideological levels. First, it demonizes American nuclear science in as obvious reference to the atomic tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Second, it allows for the traditional happy ending (another important convention in the traditional science fiction movie genre), by allowing “good” Japanese science to triumph against the evil monster. The film thus offered its immediate postwar Japanese audience an experience that was both cathartic and compensatory, allowing them to rewrite or at least to reimagine their tragic wartime experiences.” (Susan J. Napier, The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira, Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer 1993).