Cinema and Media Studies Godzilla
by
Kathryn Page-Lippsmeyer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0298

Introduction

The 1954 Godzilla (Gojira) is a landmark monster film, and the film franchise has made the monster Godzilla one of the most globally recognizable figures of Japanese celebrity. The original Japanese film is remarkable for its melding of concerns about scientific progress, environmentalism, and for its use (at the time) of excellent special effects. In particular, the monster Godzilla (actor Haruo Nakajima in a rubber suit) rampages across small villages and through power lines, flattens planes and ships alike, and finally destroys Tokyo. It is the first of the live-action Japanese film genre tokusatsu (special filming) and is also part of the kaiju (monster or strange beast) genre. Gojira is an amalgam of gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). However, in order to export the film to the United States, Toho Studios used Godzilla, a portmanteau of god, lizard, and gorilla. Rather than invading foreign countries (and invoking colonial narratives by locating the foreign, other, or monstrous in former colonial spaces), this monster is terrorizing the nation-state itself. Godzilla’s origins and subsequent defeat are articulated through sophisticated scientific analysis and discovery. Dr. Yamane determines that Godzilla is the product of irradiated nuclear testing that penetrated the ocean’s depths, and Dr. Serizawa developed a weapon he called the “Oxygen Destroyer” that can dematerialize Godzilla and destroy all life in the body of water where it is deployed. The government sends naval vessels to drop depth charges in an attempt to destroy the monster, although neither the Japanese Coast Guard nor the land-based military succeeds in stopping Godzilla. Scenes of Japanese people running to air raid shelters coordinated by soldiers and the flattening of major cities recall the destruction rained down on Japan in World War II. The film closes with a somber note. Although the young lovers Emiko Yamane and Hideto Ogata reunite and Serizawa’s sacrifice saves them all, Yamane suggests that if nuclear testing continues another Godzilla may rise in the future. Godzilla did return, of course, in subsequent films, first as a rampaging monster and later as a defender of Japan, beginning in 1955 and continuing in the 2000s. Scholarly interest in studying the franchise began in the late 1990s with news of a new US film from TriStar Pictures starring Matthew Broderick, and much of the scholarly attention to the series flourished in the 2000s. The franchise remains active with the film Shin Gojira (Godzilla: Resurgence), produced in 2016 by Toho Productions and Cine Bazar, that drew inspiration from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.

General Overviews

Many of the books on Godzilla are a mix of formal academic and fan scholarship. However, some, such as Tsutsui 2004, straddle the boundary of fan and scholar and include theoretical speculation and extensive research, as well as behind-the-scenes stills and information on the production, cast, and crew. Almost all works go beyond the 1954 Japanese film Gojira and discuss many of the films in the franchise. Ryfle 1998 and Lees and Cerasini 1998 are often referenced for background information and early analysis of the franchise, although the most often cited is Kalat 2010 as it contains particularly exhaustive details of film history, reception, production notes, and interviews. Galbraith 1998 discusses major aspects of kaiju monsters in Japanese cinema, speculates on why they were so popular, and includes cultural and historical information about Japan in the 1950s through the 1970s, in addition to reproducing a number of stills and promotion posters. Inuhiko 2008 summarizes the theoretical ground presented in depth in other works and is an excellent overview of the film’s production, critical issues, and legacy as a franchise. Napier 1996 is one of the earliest critical works to tie Godzilla to other disaster films and speculate on Japanese science fiction. Barr 2016 is the most comprehensive critical exploration that brings together multiple theories of Godzilla in one volume.

  • Barr, Jason. The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

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    Comprehensive critical exploration of the kaiju eiga (monster film) genre. Barr situates Godzilla films in their myriad cultural contexts and suggests their popularity is partly due to their depiction of contemporary anxieties that often exceed national concerns. Links monster films to earlier Japanese supernatural tales, explores monsters as representations of disasters, articulates the film relationship of science to the military, and the constructions of gender throughout the genre’s history.

  • Galbraith, Stuart, IV. Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. Venice, CA: Feral House, 1998.

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    Galbraith’s collection of materials on fantastic cinema of Japan acts as a kind of oral history as it contains mini-biographies of the actors and technicians, as well as interviews with the cast and crew of Godzilla (and other monster films), including an interview with Ishirō Honda (p. 22).

  • Inuhiko, Yomota. “The Menace from the South Seas: Honda Ishiro’s Godzilla (1954).” In Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer, 102–111. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    An overview of the film’s production, critical issues, and legacy as a franchise. Succinct yet thorough summary of all of the ways in which Godzilla represents different traumas, as a symbol of Japanese traditions, a metaphor for the nuclear bomb, a victim of nuclear attack, and finally, as the embodiment of ghosts of Imperial soldiers. Great for a college course assignment.

  • Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

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    Annotated critical account of the Godzilla franchise as a whole. Focuses on comparing American and Japanese film culture within the respective industries and the discrepancies between American and Japanese Godzilla films. It features detailed filmographic data for both the American and Japanese versions of each film, including plot synopses, cast, credits, and detailed production notes.

  • Lees, J. D., and Marc Cerasini. The Official Godzilla Compendium. New York: Random House, 1998.

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    Lees, editor of G-Fan magazine, and Cerasini, author of 1990s Godzilla youth-novels, worked with Toho Studios on an official English-language guide that concentrates on the monster’s characterization from film to film. Outlines twenty-two films—including behind-the-scenes notes, “monster profiles,” stills, and promotional materials—and details Dark Horse Comics and Random House’s Godzilla publications. Has short essays ranging from “Godzilla as a Parenting Tool” (pp. 107–110) advice for fans with children to “A Dinosaur Paleontologist’s View of Godzilla” (pp. 102–107).

  • Napier, Susan. “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira.” In Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture. Vol. 1. Edited by John Whittier Treat, 235–264. London: Curzon, 1996.

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    Proposes that one common thread in Japanese science fiction films is the “dystopian/disaster movie” in which the visual vocabulary is a “particularly appropriate vehicle” for interrogating the wartime and postwar Japanese experience, from rapid change of social and technological capability, to ideologies of progress, to economic success that was built on the ruins of wartime failure. Napier uses Susan Sontag’s notion of the “imagination of disaster” (see Sontag 1965, cited under Monster Theories) to consider the Godzilla series.

  • Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star (The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G”). Toronto: ECW, 1998.

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    Extremely detailed, clearly and competently written example of movie reportage, includes Ryfle’s critical opinions and reviews of all the Godzilla films. Unauthorized work that covers the films through time of publication, including American productions. The informative appendixes incorporate an extensive bibliography; interviews with Japanese and American directors, producers, and actors; discussion of obscure Godzilla connections by Jay Ghee, including a write-up of Frankenstein vs. Godzilla; and movie trivia, including good descriptions of Gojira’s special effects (pp. 26–30).

  • Tsutsui, William M. Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

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    Based on scholarly research using Japanese- and English-language sources, qualitative survey data, and personal interviews, the author explores the power and history of the film and the franchise with an enthusiastic and conversational style. This often-cited work of scholarship on Godzilla includes chapters on “The Birth of Gojira” (pp. 13–42) and “The Godzilla Franchise” (pp. 43–80) and carefully draws together a wide range of research to locate Gojira in its industrial as well as cultural history.

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