How to Make a Monster: The Story of Godzilla

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader.

Godzilla is one of the most popular movie monsters in film history. Here's the story behind Japan's largest export.


On March 1, 1954, at the Bikini atoll in the South Pacific, the United States tested the world's first hydrogen bomb. It was 1,000 times more powerful than the A-bombs that had been dropped on Japan nine years earlier.

American ships were warned to stay out of the test area …but because the project was top-secret, the U.S. government provided little warning to other countries. U.S. officials were certain that the resulting nuclear fallout would land on an empty expanse of the Pacific Ocean and no one would be in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, they were wrong. The fallout didn't travel in the direction they expected, and a small Japanese fishing boat named the Daigo Fukuryo Maru ("Lucky Dragon") was in the area where the nuclear cloud came to earth. Within hours of the blast, the boat's entire crew became violently ill from radiation poisoning. On September 23, 1954, after more than six months of agony, a radioman named Aikichi Huboyama died.

The fate of the crew of the Daigo Fukuryo Maru made international news. In Japan, headlines like "The Second Atomic Bombing of Mankind" compared the incident to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.


While all this was going on, Japanese movie producer Tomoyuki Tanaka arrived in Indonesia to oversee a film called Beyond the Glory. It was scheduled to be the main release for Japan's Toho Studios the following year but it never got off the ground; the Indonesian government refused to issue work visas to the film's two stars.

Suddenly, Tanaka found himself with time, money, and actors- but no film to make. In addition, Toho Studios had a big hole in their release schedule. The producer had to come up with a new movie concept… fast.

On his flight back to Tokyo, Tanaka stared out the window at the ocean below, desperately trying to think of something. His mind wandered to the H-bomb tests in the South Pacific and the crew of the Daigo Fukuryo Maru …and then it hit him: he would combine an American-style monster movie with a serious message about the threat of radiation and nuclear weapons tests.


Commercially, it made sense. For obvious reasons, the Japanese public was very concerned about nuclear testing. And in theaters, monster movies were hot. The 1933 classic King Kong had been re-released in 1952 and made more than $3 million in international ticket sales -four times what it had earned the first time around. Time magazine even named the great ape "Monster of the Year." Its huge success inspired a "monster-on-the-loose" film craze.

One of the first to cash in on the fad was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which featured a dinosaur attacking New York City after nuclear tests awakened him from a million-year sleep. The film cost $400,000 to make and was a critical flop -but with $5 million in box office receipts, it was one of the top-grossing movies of the year.

Tanaka got approval from his studio to do a Japanese version. He hired a prominent Japanese science fiction writer to write a knockoff screenplay tentatively titled Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea, but he still wasn't sure what kind of monster to use, or what to call it. So to start out, the film was referred to simply as "Project G."


Meanwhile, he began assembling a crew. For director, Tanaka picked Ishiro Honda, a documentary filmmaker who had been Akiro Kurosawa's assistant on The Seven Samurai (considered the best Japanese film ever by most critics). Like many of the Toho Studios crew, Honda was a veteran of the Imperial Army. He had visited Hiroshima several months after the atomic bomb was dropped. "When I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima," he told an interviewer years later, "there was a heavy atmosphere -a fear that the earth was already coming to an end. That became my basis. Believe it or not, we naively hoped that Godzilla's death in the film was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing."

Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya.

Special effects were handled by Eiji Tsuburaya. During the war, he had made unusual propaganda films for the Imperial Army -he recreated battle in miniature, so Japanese movie audiences could follow the progress of the war. His work was so skillful that when American occupation forces got ahold of his reenactment of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were convinced that they were watching actual combat footage. Since childhood, Eiji had dreamed of making monster movies with his miniature sets. Now he would have his opportunity.


As it turned out, finding a name for the monster was easy. "At the time there was a big -I mean huge- fellow working on Toho's publicity department," director Ashiro Honda recalled. "Employees argued 'that guy is as big as a gorilla.' 'No, he's almost as big as a kujira (whale).' Over time, the two mixed and he was nicknamed 'Gojira' (pronounced GO-dzee-la). So when we were stuck for a name, Tanaka said, 'Hey, you know that guy over in publicity…?'"

The name Gojira would turn out to be a great choice, but in the beginning it was very confusing. "Very few people, even the cast, knew what Gojira would be," says actor Yoshio Tsuchiya. "Since the name was derived from kujira (whale) and gorilla, I imagined some kind of giant aquatic gorilla."


Since the scenes using human actors were filmed separately from the special effects monster footage, Honda didn't have to wait for Tanaka to work out the monster details before beginning to film. And he didn't: "Honda would direct me to act surprised that Gojira was coming," recalled actor Yu Fujiki, who played a sailor in the film. "But since I didn't know what Gojira would look like, it was kind of weird. So I asked Honda what Gojira would be like, and he said, 'I don't know, but anyway, the monster is coming!'"


It took the model department three tries to come up with the right design for Gojira. The first model had fishlike scales for skin and a line of pointy spikes running down its back. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka liked the spikes, but thought the head was too big and the scales too "fishy." Next they created a "warty" Gojira with a smaller head and large rounded bumps on the skin. Tanaka didn't like this treatment either, so they came up with "alligator" Gojira, this time with much smaller, linear bumps arranged in rows like bumps on an alligator's back. Alligator Gojira got the nod.


Now Tanaka had a name and a look for his monster -but what kind of special effects would he use? Stop-motion animation (e.g. claymation) used tiny, moveable clay models, and was filmed frame by frame. It produced excellent results -King Kong was filmed with stop-motion animation- but was time consuming and expensive. Plus, it limited the amount of detail that could be shown -a big problem, since so much of the script involved the monster knocking down buildings. (It's almost impossible to make a building collapse realistically when filming frame by frame.)

The alternative: use a man in a monster suit. That could be filmed at a larger scale, making higher levels of details possible. And because the footage would be filmed in "real time" instead of frame by frame, it could be finished in a few weeks instead of several months. The problem with such a low-tech technique was that if the filmmakers weren't careful, the man in the monster suit would end up looking like …a man in a monster suit.

In the end, it was scheduling that decided the issue -a monster suit was quicker, and Toho Studios had only a year to produce the film, so Gojira became a man in a costume.

The special effects crew built a full-size Gojira model, which they used to create plaster molds for the monster suit. Then they poured latex rubber into the molds to make Gojira's skin. The skin was then attached to a cloth "inner skin" made of cloth stuffed with polystyrene foam and bamboo to provide the monster's bulk. The fully assembled suit weighed more than 220 pounds.

The actor entered the costume via a zipper that ran along the dorsal fin; he was (barely) able to see out of the costume through four tiny holes in Gojira's neck. The monster's head was then mounted on a brace that rested on the actor's head; an offscreen technician used a radio-controlled mechanism to open and close the mouth.


Gojira's action sequences were filmed at a high speed so that when it was slowed down for viewing, the buildings crumbled more realistically. But this meant that the set had to be lit twice as bright as when filming at normal speed, and the hot lights caused temperatures inside to suit the climb as high as 120°F, with the only ventilation provided by the eyeholes in Gojira's neck.

Under these conditions it was nearly impossible to film for more than a few minutes at a time. Typically, the actor inside the suit would spend 7 to 10 minutes rehearsing a scene in costume with the studio lights turned off. Then the lights came on and the scene was filmed for about three minutes, which was all the actor could take before he risked passing out from heat prostration and suffocation. Collapsing mid-scene was not unusual, and two actors who alternated as Gojira (Haruo Nakajima  and Katsumi Tezuka) sweated so profusely that the crew drained as much as half a pint of sweat from the suit at the end of the day.

The onscreen result of filming in such difficult conditions was a slow, lumbering creature who shuffled and lurched across the tiny cityscapes …but that was just the look that Tanaka wanted: in the 1950s, paleontologists incorrectly assumed that most dinosaurs were huge, slow-witted, slow-moving creatures, and Tanaka's quest for dinosaur accuracy dovetailed nicely with the limitations imposed by the heavy suit and hot studio lights.


Entire city blocks of downtown Tokyo were reconstructed in elaborate detail for the film. For the scene in which Gojira destroys Tokyo's famous Ginza district, special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya's technicians reproduced a three-square-block section of the district in miniature, complete with interior floors and walls to make sure the buildings would crumble realistically when Gojira smashes them. Tsuburaya also insisted that the tiny automobiles, buses, and trains be hand made from cast iron to ensure that when Gojira stepped on them, the sturdy little vehicles would crush realistically.


Finding a suitable roar for Gojira was one of the trickier aspects of creating the monster. The film's sound effects team tried numerous actual animal sounds: grunts, growls, roars, and other noises. They played them backward, forward, individually, and in groups, but nothing seemed to work. Then composer Akira Ifukube tried rubbing the strings of a bass violin with the fingers of a resin-coated rubber glove, and reverberating the sound. That did the trick.


Finally, after 122 days of filming, Gojira premiered in Japan on November 3, 1954. The film had cost a fortune to make- the final tally was 60 million yen (about $65 million in 1999 dollars), about 250 times the average cost of a Japanese film at that time.

But it turned out to be a good investment: Gojira was one of the most popular films of the year and earned a fortune for Toho.

Gojira was also a critical success. "While American monster-on-the-loose films used radiation to get the monster up and running around," David Kalat writes in A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, "Honda saw his monster as a narrative device to discuss the terror of the nuclear age." Less than a decade after World War II, Japanese critics understood and appreciated the implicit message.


Gojira's box office success in Japan caught the attention of American movie studios; in 1955 Joseph E. Levine of TransWorld Films bought the film's U.S. rights for $25,000. The spelling of the monster's name was changed to Godzilla, an approximation of how it was pronounced in Japanese (GO-dzee-la), and the title was changed to Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Levine knew that if he released Godzilla with Japanese dialogue, it would appeal only to art-house film crowds -and he wouldn't make back his investment. A subtitled film would miss the youth audience entirely, since many kids were too young to read them. So Levine adapted the film for Americans by dubbing it into English.


It wasn't the only change Levine made.The plot was revised, scenes were rearranged or removed entirely, and brand-new scenes were filmed to insert an American character into the perviously all-Japanese film. The American, played by Raymond Burr (of TV's Ironside and Perry Mason), is a newspaper reporter named Steve Martin who happens to be on assignment in Japan when Godzilla goes on the attack.

Burr couldn't appear on screen at the same time as the Japanese actors in the original version of the film, but numerous scenes of Japanese actors talking to one another were re-edited to make it look like they were talking to him.


The effect of Levine's changes was to turn what had been a polished, serious film for adults into a monster movie made for drive-in theaters and kiddie matinees. But that was precisely what he wanted: In the mid-1950s, the American film industry was in a slump. The advent of television, combined with laws that had forced the studios to sell off their theater chains, caused a dramatic drop in movie attendance and movie profits. Major studios became extremely cautious, making fewer A-films than they had in the 1940s.

As a result, several companies sprang up to make cheap B-movies for drive-ins and faded downtown movie palaces. Then, along came Gojira. "Though a big budget, major studio film in Japan," Stuart Galbraith writes in Monsters are Attacking Tokyo!, "the Americanized Gojira was released [solely] as an exploitation feature." Because it was intended for the B-movie market, the changes were done on the cheap, which lowered the quality of the American version of the film. The poor dubbing and sophomoric dialogue made it difficult for Western filmgoers, already used to cliched American monster movies, to take the film seriously. And they didn't.

(YouTube link)


Say what you will about the changes Levine made to the original Gojira, he knew his audience. Godzilla, King of the Monsters opened in the U.S. on April 26, 1956, and made more than $2 million at the box office, an astonishing sum for the 1950s. The American version did so well that it was exported back to Japan under the title Monster King Godzilla (Raymond Burr's dialogue was dubbed into Japanese), where it added to the profits already made by Gojira. And Burr's character was so popular with Japanese audiences that reporter characters became a staple of later Godzilla movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Enthused by the success of the first Gojira film, Toho ordered up the first of what would become more than 20 sequels. Gojira's Counterattack (the U.S. version was called Gigantis the Fire Monster) was released in 1955. Toho made nine non-Gojira monster movies between 1955 and 1962, featuring such monsters as the Abominable Snowman, and a robot named Mogera. But as J.D. Lees write in The Official Godzilla Compendium, the release of King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962 made Godzilla a superstar. "The pairing with the famous ape elevated Godzilla from the swelling ranks of interchangeable atomic monsters of the fifties and placed him among the classic pantheon of cinematic creatures."


* Godzilla Raids Again (1955). The first cheesy Godzilla sequel, it was brought to America in 1959 as Gigantis the Fire Monster, to avoid confusion with the original. Plot: "Yearning for a change of pace, the King of Monsters opts to destroy Osaka instead of Tokyo, but the spiny Angorous is out to dethrone our hero. Citizens flee in terror when the battle royale begins." Director: Ishiro Honda (Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever)

* King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963). Developed from an idea by Willis O'Brien, creator of the original King Kong's stop-motion animation. O'Brien's story was about a fight between Kong and "the Ginko," a monster made by Dr. Frankenstein's grandson. But the only studio willing to make the film was Toho -and they insisted on using Godzilla. The Japanese played it as a satire, with the two monsters wrestling in Tokyo (where else?) and on top of Mt. Fuji. King Kong wins. Director: Ishiro Honda (A Critical History of Godzilla)

* Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964). Released as Godzilla vs. the Thing. "When the egg of giant monster Mothra is washed ashore by a storm, a greedy entrepreneur is quick to exploit it. Meanwhile, Godzilla reappears and goes on a rampage… Godzilla, who seems to be really enjoying his reign of destruction, shows more personality than in previous appearances… Excellent in all departments." Director: Ishiro Honda (Cult Flicks and Trash Picks)

* Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965). "Novel Godzilla adventure with the big guy and Rodan in outer space. Suspicious denizens of Planet X require the help of Godzilla and Rodan to rid themselves of the menacing Ghidra, whom they refer to as Monster Zero. Will they, in return, help Earth as promised, or is this one big fat double cross?" Director: Ishiro Honda (Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever)

* Godzilla vs. Sea Monster (1968). "This exercise in cardboard mayhem stars the saucy saurian as a crusty critter suffering a case of the crabs when he's attacked by colossal crustaceans (notably Ebirah, a giant lobster) and does battle with the Red Bamboo bad-guy gang." Director: Jun Fukuda (Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again)

* Godzilla on Monster Island (1972). "In this harmless, toy-like movie, Godzilla talks, and he and spiny Angillus battle alien-summoned Ghidra and new playmate Gigan, who has a buzz saw in his belly." Director: Jun Fukuda (Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide)

* Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1972). "A Japanese industrial city has an ecology woe; its bay of waste and rotting animal life breeds Hedorah, which shoots laser beams from its eye pods and flies at will… To the rescue comes flat-footed Godzilla to indulge in a duel-of-the-titans." Godzilla flies in this one, and it looks really cheap- "the army consists of about ten guys." Director: Yoshimitsu Banno (Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again)

* Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). "The 400-foot-tall green lizard is aided by a jet-packed robot in fighting off Megalon (a giant cockroach with Zap Killer Beam), Baragon the stomper, and a race of underground Earthlings, the Seatopians." Director: Jun Fukuda (Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again)

* Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (1974). "Japanese sci-fi sukiyaki with the King of Monsters battling a cyborg Godzilla controlled by aliens bent on conquest. A huge rodent creature said to embody Asian spirits comes to the real Godzilla's aid when the languid lizard squares off against antagonistic Angorous." Director: Jun Fukuda (Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again)

* Godzilla 1985 (1984). "After 39 years, the Big G recovers from his apparent death …and returns to destroy Tokyo all over again. Disregarding the previous 14 sequels, (most of which were set in "the future" anyway), the plot marches along much like a '70s disaster film." Director: Kohji Hashimoto (Cult Flicks and Trash Picks)

* Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). "Genetic Scientist Surigama uses cells from Godzilla's body to create hardy new crop strains, while also splicing the cell's DNA to that of his dead daughter, using that of her favorite rose as a catalyst. His experiments result in the giant plant/animal monster Biollante, a nightmare of creeping vines, snapping teeth, and corrosive sap." Director: Kazuki Ohmori (Cult Flicks and Trash Picks)

* Godzilla (1998). Charmless big-bucks travesty starring Matthew Broderick. Bad career move.

* Godzilla (2014):

(YouTube link


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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