This story ran
Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in the online edition of The News Daily (Dallas,
The Lure of Terrible Lizards: Why We Love Godzilla
October 15, 2015
DALLAS - Godzilla, the fictional, Tokyo-destroying sea
monster, is actually a dinosaur dreamed up by the film's producer, Tomoyuki
Tanaka, who let his mind wander during a flight back to Japan across the
The 1954 film was a hit. Now, 30 movies later, people still
flock to see the radioactive giant in theaters - likely because Godzilla
reminds them of their childhood love of dinosaurs, said William Tsutsui, a
professor of history and president of Hendrix College in Arkansas, and author
of Godzilla On My Mind: 50 Years of the King of Monsters (St. Martin's Griffin,
Tsutsui spoke about Godzilla's historical roots to a crowded
room here at the 75rd annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference Tuesday
(Oct. 13). [Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology]
Now is as good a time as any to reflect on Godzilla, Tsutsui
said. What’s the deal with this overgrown radioactive lizard that seems to love
nothing better than destroying Tokyo? How did his global icon emerge from the
[imagination] of postwar Japan? Why do fans like myself still enjoy watching an
actor in a rubber suit stomping the heck out of toy cities?
Moreover, is Godzilla a dinosaur, and does that help explain
its lasting popularity?
Godzilla emerged during Hollywood's heyday of
science-fiction horror films. King Kong was re-released in Japan in 1952. Other
films, such as Them! in which radioactive ants attack mankind, and the Deadly
Mantis, which tells of a gigantic prehistoric preying mantis striking the U.S.
military, were inspired by mounting Cold War tensions and middle-class
America's countless anxieties and neuroses of the time, Tsutsui said. [Making
Monsters: Images of Spooky Special Effects]
Godzilla is also a monster movie influenced by superpower
politics and atomic-age fears, he said. In March 1954, a Japanese fishing
vessel strayed into a U.S. nuclear bomb-testing area near the Marshall Islands.
The crew received huge amounts of radiation, and one person died. Some of the
irradiated tuna made it to market, and the Japanese media called it the latest
atomic bombing of Japan, following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of 1945,
The movie has some eerie parallels. In the original November
1954 film, Americans zap Godzilla during an atomic bomb test. The beast then
ravages Tokyo before a scientist develops a secret weapon to destroy it.
The original movie was serious and somber, Tsutsui said. It
was full of implicit criticism of the United States and unfettered nuclear
Many Japanese moviegoers left the theater in tears, but they
also called it cathartic and therapeutic, he said. The movie rewrote the end of
the war: Instead of using a secret weapon to destroy Japan, scientists in the
movie deploy it to save Tokyo, Tsutsui said.
However, Godzilla's creators took a different perspective.
They said Godzilla represented the souls of the Japanese soldiers killed during
the war, yearning to come home and be acknowledged by a nation that seemed eager
to forget them, Tsutsui said.
A dinosaur emerges
Tanaka called the movie character - a nickname given to a
hapless man at the movie studio that combines (gorilla) and (whale), Tsutsui
said. Americans simply called it Godzilla.
A heavily edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters charmed
American audiences in 1956, and the franchise took off, with Godzilla
reflecting the changing demographics in Japan.
By the 1960s, the Japanese economy was booming and people
were optimistic, increasingly affluent, and not so interested in seeing their
nation destroyed by giant monsters, Tsutsui said. So the movies became more
lighthearted and Godzilla was repositioned as a defender of Japan rather than
as a vengeful monster intent on destroying the country.
(Interestingly, many of the filmmakers were from the
pornographic film industry, because the studio figured that if there wasn't
action every 60 seconds, the audience would leave the theater, Tsutsui said.)
Godzilla was originally a dinosaur, although that isn't
explicit in later movies. In the first movie, a scientist calls Godzilla a
transitional creature somewhere between the marine reptiles and the evolving
terrestrial animals, Tsutsui said.
The 1954 film crew used dinosaur illustrations from Life
magazine to help them design Godzilla. But they had to give it larger hips,
since it was actually a latex suit worn by an actor, Tsutsui said. Furthermore,
many of the creatures Godzilla fights in the later movies also look like
dinosaurs, Tsutsui said.
Perhaps Godzilla is so popular because it brings back
childhood recollections, when people felt the joy and wonder of learning about
Godzilla brings back memories of childhood, of an age when
one could innocently enjoy movies with latex monsters beating on each other, Tsutsui
Godzilla also fascinated paleontologists. The terrible
lizard captured the imagination of Ken Carpenter, the director and curator of
paleontology at Utah State University, who named a new genus of bipedal
dinosaur in 1997. A number of scientific papers also explore the movie-screen
beast: Godzilla from a zoological perspective (Mathematical Geology, 2000) and
The Science of Godzilla (Tetrapod Zoology, 2007).
Godzilla is the outrageous guy that breaks all the rules and
gets away with it; the walking disaster who leaves a trail of devastation
behind him, Tsutsui said. [It] inspires not just fear and loathing, but also
admiration, awe and an odd tingle of delight.