Life Meets Godzilla

6 Sep

Life Magazine recently published a special issue devoted to Godzilla, which I found in the magazine rack at my local Walgreen’s. After thumbing through it, I decided to purchase it despite the excessive price of $14.99, since it seemed to be a rare instance of a high-profile mainstream American media outlet covering a Japanese pop culture phenomenon. Granted, it was timed to promote the recent Warner Bros. release of the latest Hollywood Godzilla movie, GODZILLA VS. KONG, but there were enough pictures of the original Japanese Godzilla in the magazine to pique my interest. (Last I checked, Life Magazine and Warner Bros. were both part of the same corporate empire, although that may have changed recently.)

There’s both good news and bad news about it. The good news is that more than two-thirds of its 96 pages are devoted to the 62-year span of Japanese Godzilla productions (1954-2016) and not the Hollywood versions released in 1998, 2014, 2019 and 2021. Even better are the hundreds of  illustrations, including original posters, movie stills, behind-the-scenes production and publicity shots and news photos showing events which inspired some of the Japanese films, many acquired from Japanese sources. I’ve seen practically every book and magazine about Godzilla ever published in English and a lot of these were new to me.

The photo credits on page 94 list Toho Pictures, various Japanese  news agencies, various Hollywood movie studios, and such important photo sources as Photofest, Getty and the John Kobal Collection. Special kudos to the Picture Editor for finding this material. The credits at the front of the magazine include “(2021 edition)” next to the names of the Editor and the two credited as “Writer-Reporters,” which indicates there were earlier editions of this publication evidently timed to promote one or more of the previous Warner Bros. Godzilla releases. Those editions went under my radar.

One of the stumbling blocks to any publication in the U.S. of Godzilla-related material is Toho Pictures, which has a long history of making licensing very difficult for a variety of books, magazine articles, and video and DVD releases. In the mid-’90s, I wrote an article on the “Heisei” era Godzilla films made in Japan in the 1990s that was accepted for publication in a magazine and then canceled because of a problem with Toho. Author Steve Ryfle did a whole book entitled, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G,” which had to make do without a single image from Toho Pictures, meaning whole chapters of the book without any photos at all and illustrations generally limited to shots of movie marquees in the U.S. showing Godzilla movies and non-Toho-related shots of the various actors and production personnel from the films.

When Tokyo Shock, a New York-based distributor of Japanese films, released GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973) on DVD in 2012, Toho refused to approve the already-produced special features, including audio commentary by Ryfle and Stuart Galbraith IV, and the company was instructed to release the film without them. Luckily, a mistake at the pressing plant was made and a certain number of discs went out with the special features intact and the copy I bought at my local video store that year did indeed have them.

In any event, Toho’s attitude may have softened since Warner Bros. began its franchise of Hollywood Godzilla productions in 2014, thus allowing this special issue of Life. However, no mention is made of this anywhere in the publication, nor any thank-you or acknowledgement of Toho Pictures except in the tiny photo credits.

The other good news is that two bonafide Godzilla experts were interviewed for the text and there are ample quotes from them: J.D. Lees, editor of the seminal publication G-Fan, and William Tsutsui, author of Godzilla On My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters and co-editor of In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage. Also interviewed is Peter H. Brothers, author of Atomic Dreams and the Nuclear Nightmare and sometime contributor to G-Fan.

There are quotes from books by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, authors of separate books on Godzilla and co-authors of the 2018 biography, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film from Godzilla to Kurosawa, devoted to the man who directed the original GOJIRA and several additional Godzilla entries, plus numerous other kaiju and sci-fi productions for Toho pictures. I wish Life had done interviews with both of them for this magazine. In 2018, I saw Ryfle give a lecture at Japan Society called “Directing Godzilla: The Life of Ishiro Honda,” in conjunction with the release of the biography, and was very impressed by it. (The book is quite good too, and I’ve been meaning to do a blog entry on it.)

I should add that Ryfle and Godziszewski have done audio commentaries for a number of Ishiro Honda’s films as well as non-Honda Godzilla films. I’ve liked the ones I’ve listened to and one of my goals is to listen to all of them.

There are also quotes in the magazine text from Honda and special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, both pictured above L-R, and the actor in the Gojira suit, Haruo Nakajima, pictured below. None of the quotes are attributed. Honda died in 1993, Tsuburaya died in 1970, and Nakajima in 2017. I’d like to know where the quotes came from. I did find some of them in the Ryfle/Godziszewski Honda bio.

On the negative side, I have to take it for granted that a mass-market publication like this is going to offer an overly simplified history of Godzilla for American readers, so it might be unfair of me to expect or want more. I may come off as nitpicky here, but as someone who actually witnessed Godzilla’s history, practically from the start, I can more readily identify the highlights and their cultural importance, so all the errors, omissions and oversights in the text seem quite glaring to me, and the sometimes dismissive critical tone seems unnecessary in a historical overview. I just wish they’d asked one of the Godzilla experts they interviewed to give the text a once-over before publication. Heck, if they’d asked me, I would have done it for free.

On the first page of text, in the very first sentence, the introduction cites the movie that GOJIRA drew partial inspiration from, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), as “a cheesy but successful American creature feature.” I hate that term, especially when applied to films that are anything but “cheesy.” BEAST was a serious film about a prehistoric beast awakened by underwater nuclear tests and directed with conviction by Eugene Lourie, the French art director best known for working with Jean Renoir, and it featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen that were state-of-the-art for their time. It was the first feature in which Harryhausen was solely responsible for the effects and credited as such onscreen and it began an illustrious career that went on to include three of my favorite movies, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Harryhausen’s work in animating the dinosaur is detailed and intricate and includes extensive second-unit work on location in New York City, creating sequences in which the rampages of Harryhausen’s “Rhedosaurus” are matted in with the streets of lower Manhattan, where the Beast stomps and chomps frightened citizens at will. In addition, BEAST was based on a short story by Ray Bradbury.

But at least the text acknowledges the role that both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and the 1952 world-wide re-release of KING KONG (1933) played in Godzilla’s creation.

For young American monster fans of my generation, we were exposed to KONG, BEAST and GODZILLA all roughly around the same time in our childhoods and I’m sure that, for many of us, all remain personal favorites.

The text in the magazine consistently refers to the original 1954 movie only by the name GODZILLA, which was the name given to the monster in the American release of the film under the title, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. The actual Japanese title, GOJIRA, is acknowledged only in two photo captions.

When Classic Media gave the Japanese original its long-overdue home video release in the U.S. in 2007 in a two-disc DVD edition that included the American edit, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, the title on the DVD case was indeed GOJIRA. Criterion later released an upgraded two-disc edition also but called it GODZILLA.

But at least the magazine gives lots of space to the creation and production of GOJIRA, one of the most important Japanese movies ever made.

I’m pleased to say that GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS also gets ample space in the magazine. A substantial re-edit of GOJIRA, it was released to American theaters in 1956 under that title with added scenes of American actor Raymond Burr, newly shot in Los Angeles, inserted into the original film, along with frequent narration supplied by Burr, who played American news reporter “Steve Martin.” (When I saw the film in 1979 at Japan Society, the packed crowd burst into laughter when Burr introduced himself to a Japanese official, “I’m Steve Martin.” The comedian of that name had just recently become famous.)

Not mentioned in the article, however, is the big splash the film made when it aired on American television in 1958. By that time, Raymond Burr had become a major star thanks to his TV series “Perry Mason,” which had premiered in 1957 and would run for nine seasons. More than one episode, in fact, featured Japanese co-stars.

Perry Mason in Japan

GODZILLA was a huge hit on TV and helped pave the way for more Japanese monster movies to get released in the U.S. The magazine refers to Burr only as a “B-list actor” and never mentions Perry Mason.  (For the record, Burr was a much-sought-after character actor at the time, usually in villainous roles, and was acclaimed for his work in such films as A PLACE IN THE SUN, THE BLUE GARDENIA, REAR WINDOW and CRIME OF PASSION.)

At least, however, there is a paragraph in the magazine on the release of the American version in Japan in 1957 with Japanese subtitles added for the English dialogue, with a nice sum-up by William Tsutsui.

In 1957, the Americanized Godzilla premiered in Japan, where it proved nearly as popular as the original. Why? “It was a different audience, and it was possible that they wanted to see a more optimistic film,” Tsutsui says. “At the time, nothing was more flattering for Japan than to be praised by the United States. The fact that Godzilla was popular in America with Hollywood talent spliced into it and was even reviewed in the New York Times—even if not positively—gave it a certain legitimacy.”

Anguirus, Godzilla’s opponent from the second Gojira movie, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), pictured above (and not from the magazine), is referred to in the text as “a mutant turtle,” when, as any Godzilla-loving kid knows, it is modeled on the Ankylosaurus, an armored dinosaur from the Cretaceous period. Anguirus, aka Angilas, later turned up in the all-star Godzilla fest, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) and even had a cameo appearance in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON.

Back to the magazine:

A number of key Godzilla movies are either passed over or get short shrift in the text despite a chapter devoted to the 40 years from 1955 to 1995. Until the filmography at the end, there is no mention of the first film to feature Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, a frequent antagonist of Godzilla right up through one of the recent Hollywood Godzilla movies, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019). That first film was indeed GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), and got a wide release in the U.S. in 1965 with the title revised by the removal of one letter to become GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.

No mention is made of the fact that an American movie/TV star, Nick Adams, starred in one of the original Japanese Godzilla productions, GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (aka INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER,1965). That would strike me as pretty important to American readers, enough to have made me devote a whole blog entry to it here in 2015: American Stars in Japanese Movies: Nick Adams in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO. Unlike Raymond Burr in GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, Adams actually went to Japan to appear alongside the Japanese cast in the original and starred in two other Japanese movies during his visit there, including one more title I covered here, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, another Toho giant monster film directed, like GOJIRA and MONSTER ZERO, by Ishiro Honda.

Adams’ participation in the Japanese original was quite historic, yet he isn’t even mentioned once in the text, although his image appears in the lower right-hand corner of a two-page photo spread on INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (Toho’s official English title for GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO).

There is only a passing reference in the text to GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, which got wide U.S. release in the summer of 1976 and was heavily promoted by a poster featuring Godzilla and Megalon on opposite towers of the World Trade Center (which never appears in the film) to capitalize on the impending release of KING KONG (1976), which does indeed feature Kong on top of the World Trade Center.

I’m happy to say I saw GODZILLA VS. MEGALON at a neighborhood theater in the summer of 1976 on a double bill with my first Sonny Chiba movie, THE KILLING MACHINE.

Sadly, Chiba passed away at the age of 82 just a few weeks ago on August 19.

One of the most glaring errors in the magazine, for me, was in listing the start date of production of the original GOJIRA as August 7, 1953. Since Japan is ahead of us by half-a-day because of the International Time Zone, August 7, 1953, in Japan would be August 6, 1953 in the U.S., my exact date of birth, which would make me and Godzilla birthday twins. I knew that was too good to be true, so I double-checked the Ryfle/Godziszewski book and confirmed that the start date was indeed in 1954. This could have been easily caught by Life’s proofreaders, since the chapter title containing this paragraph is indeed entitled, “The Birth of the Monster: 1954” and the incident involving a fishing boat’s exposure to radiation from a U.S. bomb test that first inspired the movie is described as happening on March 1, 1954.

The filmography at the end of the magazine, on pages 91-92, fails to list the American release titles for several of the films, including these:

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), released in the U.S. in 1959 as GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER

MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964), released in the U.S. the same year as GODZILLA VS. THE THING

INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (1965), released theatrically in the U.S. in 1970 as MONSTER ZERO and on TV two years later as GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO

ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (1969), released in the U.S. in 1971 as GODZILLA’S REVENGE

GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971), released in the U.S. in 1972 as GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972), released in the U.S. in 1977 as GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND

GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974), released in the U.S. in 1977 as GODZILLA VS. COSMIC MONSTER (after a title change from GODZILLA VS. BIONIC MONSTER to avoid a lawsuit from Universal, producer of the TV show, “The Bionic Woman”)

THE RETURN OF GODZILLA (1984), released in the U.S. as GODZILLA 1985, with added scenes featuring Raymond Burr.

Five of the U.S. release posters (found on IMDB, not in the magazine):

But there are lots of great pictures in the magazine and here are some more of them:

Also, at the time I spotted this edition in the magazine rack, I also found and bought this:

Two childhood icons in one trip.

And a couple days earlier at Barnes & Noble, I found this in the magazine rack, another Japanese pop culture phenomenon given mainstream treatment, covering another childhood icon, but one from my second (third? fourth?) childhood:

One Response to “Life Meets Godzilla”

  1. Brandon September 7, 2021 at 1:03 PM #

    Great post. Thanks for writing this.

    I heard that there was another Godzilla issue for the Monsterverse Godzilla vs Kong film. I picked up the previous edition that was released before Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) for Murphy. I did not buy the recent issue as I didn’t think there could be any additional information worth the purchase. I’ll show Murphy your post. Thanks again.

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