The eternal cool of Godzilla
The King of Monsters is bigger! Badder! Back! But is he cool? “Very cool,” says James McMahon.
With Godzilla vs. Kong opening globally this week, cinema will once again ask which of the two monsters is the dominant threat.
The new American production – never a sentence that Godzilla fans look forward to reading – marks the “King of The Monsters” 36th outing to Kong’s 12th.
When the pair last met, in 1962’s schlocky King Kong vs. Godzilla, director and Godzilla co-creator Ishirō Honda swerved the issue of dominance by having the two fall off a cliff mid-kerfuffle into the Pacific Ocean. After a brief wait, Kong resurfaces and swims back to Skull Island. There’s no sign of Godzilla, and yet the Japanese military speculates that the creature may have survived.
For decades, King Kong vs. Godzilla was rumoured to have alternative endings: one for the Japanese market, one for the US. Despite the rumour being repopulated in Trivial Pursuit, there isn’t. But it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
The two monsters hold an important place in the psyche of each nation that birthed them. First seen in 1933 in his eponymously titled stop-motion debut, few Hollywood icons have endured like King Kong. Then there’s Godzilla, a Japanese icon unlike any other.
Taking inspiration from Eugène Lourié’s stop motion creature feature The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms the year prior, Godzilla’s own titular debut – Gojira on home soil, a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale” – is scarcely disguised allegory for the horrors of nuclear war.
Released 3rd November 1954, only two years since the post-war American occupation of Japan has ceased, “the theme of the film,” said producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, “was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb. Now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
The spectre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident of 1954, in which the 23-man crew of a Japanese tuna fishing boat was contaminated with the nuclear fallout from the US’s atomic testing on nearby Bikini Atoll – hangs ominously over Gojira.
Surprisingly for a lizard, Godzilla doesn’t have scales, its uneven skin a nod to the keloid scaring worn unwillingly by survivors of the 1945 bombings. Designed by Teizo Toshimitsu and Akira Watanabe, the creature could have been even more overt in its inspiration. Kazuyoshi Abe, who eventually helped storyboard the film, was originally hired to design the kaiju [Japanese parlance for monster, but ultimately translating as “strange beast”]. Abe’s early sketches saw Godzilla sporting a head shaped like a mushroom cloud.
In the time between the rights to the creature’s debut feature being acquired by the TransWorld Releasing Corporation and released in the west, Gojira had been heavily retooled. Released in 1956 as Godzilla, King of The Monsters!, nearly all of the philosophy and introspection of the Japanese release – the central message that nuclear testing was bad – had been cut. New footage was inserted, principally of Raymond Burr, an American reporter covering the destruction of Tokyo and now the film’s leading man. Unofficially, the uncut 1954 film remained unavailable in the west until 2004, when the Criterion Collection released it commercially, 50-years after its original release. Japan’s Gojira and his brother Godzilla grew up an ocean apart. Same genetic code, different characteristics.
This is important to couch when considering Godzilla’s gargantuan impact on pop culture. Kong is no slouch when it comes to his own influence – the giant simian can boast songs in tribute written by Frank Zappa, The Kinks, ABBA and the late, great outsider singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. Spend a week in New York, and you can barely think of the Empire State Building without thinking of him fending off fighter planes while ascending it, while Kong is as crucial to the construction of what we know as Hollywood as Charlie Chaplin or Dracula. And yet the influence of Godzilla is an altogether different beast. Bigger. Better – “makes King Kong look like a midget!” roars the strap in outdated language across the top of 1956’s King Of The Monsters poster.
Godzilla is… cool.
But the Godzilla that Eminem spits bars about alongside Juice Wrld in 2020’s Godzilla – “I can swallow a bottle of alcohol and I’ll feel like Godzilla” – has almost nothing to do with nuclear angst and everything to do with a big lizard smashing stuff up. Godzilla’s 1956 rebranding for Uncle Sam was a short stride to animation giant Hanna-Barbera acquiring the rights to the creature. Their Saturday morning staple bore Godzilla a son, Godzooky. Godzilla no longer had atomic breath but breathed fire.
“The problem with the show was this,” said studio head Joseph Barbera. “When they start telling you in Standards and Practices, ‘Don’t shoot any flame at anybody, don’t step on any buildings or cars,’ then pretty soon they’ve taken away all the stuff he represents. We managed to get a fair show out of it. It was OK. Godzooky kind of got the kids going.”
In some ways, the supersized lizard now made more sense existing within a nation that valued largesse more than the inward-looking land of its creation, certainly after the aforementioned modifications. Loud and impossible to ignore, Godzilla was a perfect fit for advertising, being used to shift products as diverse as Dr. Pepper, the Fiat 500L, Konica camera film, Honey Nut Cheerios and Snickers.
To be fair, this wasn’t a practice limited to American ad agencies. In 1976, Hitachi used Godzilla to market its home karaoke systems. Godzilla was once a symbol of national trauma. Now it’s an official tourism ambassador for Toyko’s Shinjuku ward. The region’s Hotel Gracery even sports a to-scale fibreglass Godzilla towering above it.
When Nike wanted to sell sneakers in 1992, they squared NBA star Charles Barkley against Godzilla. The pair shoot some hoops – the “O” in Tokyo – topple some skyscrapers, while Barkley obliquely references LA Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who’d abruptly retired a year prior (“The Lakers are looking for a big man!”). It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that hip-hop – so often hung up on the big and the bold – has so often provided a playground for Godzilla to reap havoc within. While the soundtrack to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American produced atrocity featured the usual alt-rock guff (Foo Fighters, Green Day), it’s hardly surprising that the record chose to lead with Puff Daddy’s Come With Me as a single.
No-one within hip-hop embraced Godzilla more than the late, great MF DOOM. Always a connoisseur of the detritus of the cult, the pulpy and the strange, DOOM’s 2003 classic, Take Me To Your Leader, was recorded as King Geedorah – a bastardisation of the name of perhaps Godzilla’s greatest ever foe, the three-headed space lizard King Ghidorah.
DOOM, like so many creative souls in the west, had grown up on the American Godzilla, then ventured out to find the hard stuff. The cool cache that the now cult Japanese films provided were a bonus. King Geedorah was the same alias that DOOM had used in the New York hip-hop collective release Escape From Monsta Island!, a record infused with samples from the Toho catalogue. Founding member MF Grimm operated under the pseudonym, Jet Jaguar, the heroic mecha that featured in the 1973 Godzilla joint, Godzilla vs. Megalon.
What’s cooler than a big lizard with radioactive breath? Ask Pharoahe Monch whose 1999 hit Simon Says liberally utilises a sample of Gojira Tai Mosura by series composer Akira Ifukube as its principal hook.
This was a creative decision that embodies Godzilla’s eternal cool – and the big lizard’s refusal to fuck around. Upon the single’s release, the Queens rapper – real name, Troy Donald Jamerson — and label Rawkus, fell foul of Japanese cinema giant Toho – Godzilla’s producers, as well as the home of Studio Ghibli and the Pokémon films. Rawkus – shuttered in 2007 – paid the price for failure to clear the sample.
“I was cutting grass,” says Jamerson, “and some man says to me, ‘Troy Jamerson?’ and slides me a paper. It said we owed $14,000. I said we weren’t paying. Next we hear we owe $375,000. At the time, the album [Internal Affairs] had only sold about 300,000 copies. Then it started getting licenced to films and television shows. The people who owned the sample were like, ‘what the fuck bro?’” Rawkus pulled the song from the record and destroyed all remaining singles. In a Reddit AMA in 2015, the MC wrote simply of the situation; “My life hasn’t been the same since. LOL.”
And yet the pulse of Godzilla runs throughout vast swathes of hip-hop and electronic music. A (cleared) sample of Gojira Tai Mosura gives Justice’s 2007 stomper Genesis its pulse. It also features in Big Sean’s The Baddest. There’s Andre “A.G” Barnes’ Dancin’ With A Shifter, which liberally dips into Kilaak Aliens, No. 1 from the 1968 movie Destroy All Monsters. Dump The Clip by Philadelphia collective Army Of The Pharaoh, meanwhile, smartly samples 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan (the group sport a song called Godzilla and a member named Zilla).
Godzilla’s influence on rock music makes equal sense. Heavy metal pioneers Blue Öyster Cult released their single Godzilla in 1978, Siouxsie Sioux vehicle The Creatures released a song by the same name in 2003, while Biotech Is Godzilla, written by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, is the essence of Godzilla encapsulated in sound (this despite containing a lyric falsely claiming that biotechnology is responsible for the creation of AIDS).
The franchise even gave progressive metal titans Gojira a name. It’s no coincidence that the French band write music almost exclusively about the destruction, and subsequent preservation, of the environment.
“We were aware from the off that there was an environmental message to Godzilla,” says singer Joe Duplantier of his band’s origins. “Me and my brother [drummer Mario] would watch as kids and we understood on some level that this was about the terrible things that happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I’ve refined my answer over the years to the question ‘Where does the band name come from?’ because I just didn’t think it was very impressive to say, ‘we think he’s cool…’”
Back in Godzilla’s homeland, after decades of silly shit – the “suitmation” battles of the ’70s and ’80s amply delivering the east Asian kitsch beloved by the west – the creature is lumbering back to its socially conscious origins, too.
Released in 2016, Shin Godzilla quickly became the highest-grossing Japanese produced film in the franchise, receiving 11 Japan Academy Prize nominations and winning 7, including Picture of the Year and – for Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi – Director of the Year. The first film in the franchise in 12 Godzilla free years, film 31 returns to its nuclear themes. The movie contains obvious nods to 2011’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster as well as environmental ones too. As Godzilla rampages through Tokyo, it’s impossible not to recall the calamity of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that same year. It’s a serious film with a serious message. Japan loved it. America didn’t.
At the time of writing, it’s unknown who comes out on top in Hollywood’s latest adaptation – though the smart money is on popcorn.
Godzilla vs. Kong is out now (whatever that means these days)