Comparative Analysis Of The Films Godzilla (1954) And Godzilla (1998)

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Gojira, Godzilla, or King of the Monsters, whatever name people know it by, it is literally the largest character to come out of Japan and into popular culture. Produced in 1954 by Toho Studios and directed by Ishiro Honda, Godzilla would go on to spawn 29 films and become one of the most instantly recognizable characters in cinema history. It’s 23rd rendition was a complete reboot for American audiences, produced by TriStar Pictures in 1998 and directed by Roland Emmerich. This was the first film in the franchise to be entirely produced by a Hollywood studio, and received an enormous budget and marketing campaign to match.

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While the two films share the same name, and a similarly gigantic, reptilian, city destroying monster, the similarities stop there. While the latter sprinkled in a few references and callbacks to the original, it is a completely different film, in both genre and tone. The original is a thrilling drama full of symbolism and allegory, set on the backdrop of a nation recovering from American occupation and nuclear devastation. While the special effects may not hold up by modern standards, the human element of the film is still poignant and moving, even more so when you consider the cultural context that the film debuted in, just 9 years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla (1954) was made with a clear respect for the victims of the atomic bombs, often lingering on shots of the dead and showing how the events affected the innocent people of Tokyo. Alternatively, the 1998 reboot is an American action blockbuster, drawing more inspiration from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and Emmerich’s previous disaster film Independence Day (1996) than the original Godzilla (1954). Godzilla’s main victim shown in the 1998 version is not the population of New York City but its’ architecture, as the film makes a point of highlighting how the city is immediately evacuated. This removes much of the stakes from the film and turns Godzilla into more of a nuisance than an indestructible force of nature. The original used what was considered at the time to be groundbreaking and innovative practical special effects, while the reboot relied heavily on computer generated images to bring the larger-than-life monster to the big screen. The vast differences between the two films can ultimately be chalked up to the cultures and eras that they were produced in, the ideologies of the respective filmmakers, and the significant advancements in film technology and special effects.

In a 1997 interview for SFX magazine, Dean Devlin, the writer and producer of Godzilla (1998) had the following statement about the 1954 original: “Most of the public, used to watching the hokey Japanese Godzilla, will be thinking of men-in-suits and bad models, a kind of dinosaur hybrid who lumbers about in a semi-comical fashion trashing Lego buildings…” Here Devlin succinctly highlights the underlying discrepancy between these two films. This quote shows how the filmmakers TriStar tasked with rebooting the Godzilla franchise for American audiences clearly had a fundamental misunderstanding and blatant lack of respect for the source material, and even worse, assumed their audience would share their perspective. It is not surprising then, that their 1998 version would throw all of the nuclear allegory from the original out the window, instead opting to take an extremely literal approach and make Godzilla simply an oversized and confused animal on a rampage. Compare that mindset to that of the filmmakers behind the original Godzilla (1954).

Ishiro Honda, the director, was drafted in 1934 to serve for Japan in World War 2. Already a budding assistant director for Toho Studios (at the time called Photo Chemical Laboratory), working alongside future Toho legends like Kurosawa, he was forced to put his film career on hold. He was 23 years old. After multiple stints in the army, he was eventually captured by the Chinese and held as a prisoner of war, one year before the war would end. Honda was held captive until Japan’s defeat and surrender in 1945; however he would not be released for another 7 months after the war had officially ended. He returned to Japan a changed man, unsure if his wife and children would still be waiting for him. Before finding his family he landed in Hiroshima, where he experienced first hand the total devastation of nuclear warfare. It was in the ruins of Hiroshima that Honda made a vow of pacifism, and his anti-war sentiment and condemnation of nuclear weapons can clearly be felt throughout Godzilla (1954). With this in mind, it is apparent that the motivations for the filmmakers behind these two films are extremely different.

One immediately apparent difference between the two films is the physical depiction of the titular monster. In the original, Godzilla was a massive, upright walking bipedal, with physical characteristics drawing from the natural world, as well as Japanese mythology. This resulted in a terrifying creature which slowly rolled destruction across the land and could be seen from miles away, similar to a mushroom cloud. Even its skin was bumpy and scarred to represent radiation scarring. All of these traits were deliberate in constructing a monster who was meant to be a nuclear weapon embodied, or a “walking H-bomb” as it is referred to in the film, in case the viewer missed the subtext. In comparison, the rebooted version of Godzilla was purely based on the natural world, and seemed to have much less thought put into its aesthetic. When Toho agreed to let the American version completely redesign their iconic character, Roland Emmerich was quoted as saying he simply wanted the monster to “be able to run incredibly fast”. The rest of the design appears inspired by the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors which had previously terrified audiences in Spielberg’s massive cultural phenomenon Jurassic Park (1993). This is no surprise as TriStar undoubtedly wanted to mimic Universal Pictures’ model for success with their own prehistoric monster movie. They even opted to change Godzilla’s famous roar, an extremely recognizable and fear-inducing sound effect created by scratching gloved hands over piano strings, for a generic dinosaur sound effect. Such decisions resulted in a monster that hardly represented the iconic Godzilla at all. If the film did not have Godzilla’s name attached it could have been marketed as just another monster movie based on the design.

Looking deeper than simply its physical appearance, Godzilla’s motivations and actions change drastically between the two films as well. In the former, Godzilla is awakened by Japanese H-bomb testing in the Pacific ocean. While sinking multiple boats along the way, it comes to Tokyo and begins killing without remorse or reason. Again, to harken back to nuclear weaponry, Godzilla wreaks havoc indiscriminately. It does not pick and choose its targets, it merely lays waste to everything in its path. It is a force of evil incarnate as it leaves the city of Tokyo in flaming ruins. Long shots of the devastation recall the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the wake of the atomic bombs. Attempts by the military to combat Godzilla are rendered completely ineffective, as it is seemingly unmatched in power. Only by turning to a lone scientist does Japan have a chance at defeating the monster. Even the weapon used to fight Godzilla is a representation of the power of nuclear weapons, as the scientist is hesitant to use his creation for fear of it falling into the wrong hands and being abused. When the weapon is finally deployed against Godzilla, its death is treated mournfully, and the dying monster who had represented nuclear bombs throughout the film changes to represent a fallen Japan. After commiting horrors and violence across the land, a weapon so powerful that it should never be used again is employed as a last effort to put an end to the monster. In this way Godzilla serves as a catharsis for the Japanese audience in their time of mourning, as well as an acknowledgement of shame for the crimes committed by their flag.

In the American version, Godzilla is a sexually frustrated hermaphroditic reptile looking for a place to reproduce. After being mutated by French atomic bomb testing, Godzilla swims from French Polynesia all the way to New York City looking for an island to lay its eggs. Apparently, Manhattan was the closest and most attractive island to the giant animal. When it eventually comes to the city, most of the destruction it causes is inadvertent. It is not malicious: it is simply a scared and oversized animal that can’t help but knock buildings over and trample vehicles as it moves around. On more than one occasion throughout the film, Godzilla is presented with a chance to harm a human and seemingly chooses not to. When confronted by the military the creature chooses to run and hide rather than fight back. It is only when continuously provoked that Godzilla retaliates, which comes across more as a defensive measure than aggression. In order to defeat the monster, the Americans do not have to resort to using any sort of specialized weapons. They simply lure Godzilla on to Brooklyn Bridge, where it gets tangled up in the suspension cables, allowing the military to shoot it. As the beast dies it shares a moment of mutual respect with Matthew Broderick. This version of Godzilla is not a metaphor for anything, it is just a misunderstood rabid animal that had to be put down.

The two films are also drastically different in their special effects. Much of this is due to the eras they were produced in, of course, as significant advancements in computer technology occured in the 44 years between the two. In the original, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya pioneered a type of special effect he called “suit-mation” in order to bring the gigantic monster to life. Honda initially intended to use stop motion to shoot Godzilla, but after realizing the time required for it, Tsuburaya had to come up with something more time-efficient. The suit was made from hand-stirred latex, which was so hot and uncomfortable for the actor inside that it could only be worn for a few minutes at a time. Tsuburaya also constructed a miniature set of Tokyo, meticulously designed to 1/25th scale, for which the suit would demolish. While they had the set and the suit, getting Godzilla to move realistically took an in-camera effect. Using high-speed cameras, they shot the Godzilla scenes at 240 frames per second. When projected at 24 frames per second this gave the illusion of Godzilla moving at a realistically slow speed for such a massive creature. Understandably, the American reboot chose to forgo practical effects for a computer generated version of Godzilla. Emmerich is a director who had made a name for himself with big budget special effects intensive films, so it is no surprise that he chose to use similar effects with Godzilla (1998). This difference between the two films is more to do with the advancements in film and computer technology than any artistic choice.

The differences in how each film addresses the nuclear element that is the catalyst for Godzilla cannot be understated as well. In the original, the filmmakers continually draw attention to the horrors of nuclear warfare. Godzilla literally breathes a beam of radiation down upon Tokyo. Dying people are shown suffering from the effects of radiation and children without their parents are shown grieving. The focus of the film is primarily on the victims. There are more deaths in the 1954 version than in any of the following films in the franchise. The connection to real world events could not be more obvious. The characters also comment on how they are partly to blame for awakening Godzilla by meddling with nuclear weapons. It would be hard to walk out of this film without grasping the clear anti-nuclear message. By contrast, the American version uses nuclear testing as a minor plot point at the start of the film, and never addresses it again. The former was a film made for audiences who had atomic bombs as a legitimate fear fresh in their minds. The latter was a popcorn flick made for an audience that luckily never had to consider something so horrific.

Ultimately the stark differences between these two films can be deduced down to the fact that the motivations behind each film were completely different. While both were made to enjoyed, the 1954 version was made with the intent to comment on real world events of the time. The 1998 version had no comparable events in recent memory on which to comment, and was thus enabled to be a film purely meant to entertain. Both of these films are examples of how the cinema landscape changed from the 50s to the late 90s / early 2000s. One was a film chock full of symbolism that used special effects in order to convey a specific message, while the other was a bombastic action film which used special effects simply to wow audiences. These films also show how Godzilla was able to evolve with the times. Initially created as a metaphor only Japanese people could appreciate, it was able to adapt into something American and Japanese audiences alike could celebrate.

Bibliography

  • Brothers, Peter H. Atomic Dreams and the Nuclear Nightmare: The Making of Godzilla (1954). Scotts Valley, CA: Creative Space Publishing, 2015.
  • Caro, Mark. “If Size Matters, ‘Godzilla’ is Really a Monster.” The Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1998.
  • Husley, Ken. Godzilla!. SFX Magazine, October, 1997.
  • Ragone, August. Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2014.
  • Ryfle, Steve, and Ed Godziszewski. Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017.
  • Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010.  
16 December 2021

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