12:04pm

Fri May 2, 2014
Author Interviews

The Making Of 'Godzilla,' Japan's Favorite 'Mon-Star'

Originally published on Fri May 2, 2014 2:23 pm

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

We're celebrating Godzilla's 60th anniversary today on FRESH AIR. When the film was first shown in America, about 40 minutes were deleted from the original Japanese version to make it shorter and to make way for new footage that was added to make the movie more marketable to American audiences. The new footage featured an American wire service reporter whose reports provided the narration for the story.

The reporter was played by Raymond Burr, who went on to play TV lawyer Perry Mason. Here's how Burr opened the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GODZILLA")

RAYMOND BURR: (As character) This is Tokyo, once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force, which, up until a few days ago, was entirely beyond the scope of man's imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown, an unknown, which, at this very moment, still prevails and could at any time lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could have told of what they saw. Now there are only a few.

BIANCULLI: Our guest, Steve Ryfle, is the author of a book about the making of "Godzilla" and its many sequels. It's called "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star," spelled M-O-N-S-T-A-R. Terry interviewed him in 2004 on the film's 50th anniversary, which was the first time the original Japanese version was released in America. She asked him why Raymond Burr's character was added to the American version and why some of the film's message was changed.

STEVE RYFLE: Well, this was, you know, the mid-'50s, a decade or so after the end of the war. I don't think there was a lot of sympathy for Japan. So the underlying message of the film may not have resonated so well with American audiences at that time. That having been said, I don't know that the distributors of the film in the United States had purely political motives. I think they were driven more by capitalism than anything else.

And what they did was essentially disguise a Japanese film as an American one, and if you think about it, what they did was rather ingenious. They rented Raymond Burr for one day. The story goes that they paid him for one day's work, and they kept him at the studio for 24 hours in order to film all of his scenes, and they filmed everything in a little - on a little soundstage on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.

They hired Asian actors, some of whom posed as essentially body doubles for the Japanese actors. They used over-the-shoulder shots and whatnot to kind of pretend that Raymond Burr was actually speaking to members of the Japanese cast. And they rather effectively, if crudely, incorporated him into the Japanese film.

And what it did was it created a very marketable, giant monster movie of the variety that was so popular at that time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Now the ending is really changed. In the original "Godzilla," the Japanese version, the movie ends with a paleontologist saying I can't believe that Godzilla is the only survivor of his species. If we continue testing H-bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear somewhere in the world. What's the ending in the American version?

RYFLE: Well, you know, giant bug, giant reptile, you know, atomic monster movies were extremely popular in the 1950s. I mean, I could run down a list of really wonderful titles like "Tarantula," "Them," "Black Scorpion," "Giant Claw," "Giant Gila Monster," "Giant Behemoth," "The Amazing Colossal Man," "The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" and on and on and on.

And what was the normal pattern in those films, essentially in the American atomic monster movies, the monsters were stand-ins for Cold War invaders. And at the end of the movie, there would be much celebration, as the American military ultimately defeated these warriors, these monsters with new and more powerful military might.

Often there would be, you know, a new version of an atomic weapon that obliterated the monster, and the message was clear that no matter what the threat, you know, never fear, the American military is strong and will defend you. And what the American distributors of "Godzilla" did was essentially, if not completely, attempt to create an ending of that type. Raymond Burr's last line of the film was, you know, the menace was gone, but the whole world could wake up and live again.

I think even in the Raymond Burr version of the film, the rather downbeat and poignant ending still shines through, to a point. But in the original version, as you said, it's much more pessimistic. If we continue to test these H-bombs, another Godzilla is going to appear somewhere in the world someday.

To me what that essentially means is in our world that someday, you know, one of these bombs is going to be used again. And if you look around us today, I mean, it's never been more true. I mean, we're just, you know, one accident away from a nuclear tragedy. And incidentally, the scientists' prediction was correct, wasn't it? Godzilla came back again and again and again and again. That's why we're here talking about this today.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, watching the movie as an adult, I was thinking, well, you know, it's the H-bomb that's responsible for Godzilla, but it's the atomic bomb that was actually dropped on Japan. Why is it the H-bomb that the movie is so concerned with?

RYFLE: Well, the H-bomb testing program was in full effect at this time, and there was an incident in early 1954, the Lucky Dragon tragedy, and this is really the incident that may have been, you know, the most responsible for the creation of Godzilla. The Lucky Dragon was a Japanese fishing boat that set sail from its home port in Yaizu in January of 1954, and its voyage was ill-fated from the beginning.

They were originally set to tuna fish in the waters off of Indonesia, but at the last minute the owner of the boat ordered the fishing master to set sail instead for the waters off of Midway because he'd heard that there was great catches of albacore tuna to be had there. So in late February, they began fishing there, and the morning of March 1st, 1954, in the predawn hours, a few crew members were standing on the deck when they thought they saw the sun rising in the west.

And what it turned out to be was an H-bomb test. Now the crew of the boat had not been warned that they were drifting dangerously close to the Pacific Proving Ground, the H-bomb testing zone at the Marshall Islands. And even if they had known that they were close to the testing ground, they certainly did not know that a test was going to occur on that date.

So as they stood there wondering what the heck this was, a few of the men who had served in the war started to get an eerie feeling, and the captain said let's get the heck out of here. And by the time they reeled in their nets, they were being rained on with this sticky, white ash that - this radioactive fallout. And by the time they got back to Japan, many of the men were sick. The radio man later died of leukemia that year. It became a huge international incident.

And in mid-March, after the boat had returned to port and was starting to be - this incident was starting to make waves in the press, Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the film eventually, clipped a newspaper article and went to the head of production at Toho Studios and said what if these nuclear tests, what if these H-bomb tests, awakened an undersea creature that came on land and destroyed Japan. And that's really the genesis of "Godzilla."

BIANCULLI: Steve Ryfle, speaking with Terry Gross. Ryfle is the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Japanese monster movie "Godzilla." A new digital restoration of "Godzilla" has just been released to celebrate the anniversary. Our guest is Steve Ryfle, the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star."

GROSS: There are amazing scenes of destruction in "Godzilla." You know, Godzilla in the movie, he's not just a victim of the hydrogen bomb, a victim in the sense that he's become bizarre and radioactive as a result of this, but he also is a kind of like metaphor for the force of hydrogen and atom bombs. And, you know, he breathes fire, and he sets Tokyo ablaze.

And the scenes of Tokyo burning are really disturbing, especially if you're a child watching it. Can you describe how those scenes were shot?

RYFLE: Well, the miniature sets of Tokyo in some cases were so large that they had to be built outside to accommodate the width and the dimensions of them. They were basically shot using, you know, miniature buildings, constructed in one-25th scale, and of course Godzilla, as we all know, is a man in a Latex costume who tramples through the set.

You know, for instance when Godzilla destroys the clock tower in the Ginza, that is a very, very accurately detailed model. You know, often people will deride these films for being, quote-unquote, cheap simply because they do not use the stop-motion animation technique that other giant monster films before they did use. That being said, the amount of care and detail that went into the construction of the miniature Tokyo is just amazing.

When you witness Tokyo on fire, there's a great shot during the middle of Godzilla's long rampage. There's just amazing the destruction, the death toll is sort of unparalleled onscreen.

GROSS: One of the things that really intensifies all the effects of "Godzilla," the sense of danger, the sense of destruction, is the score. It's a fantastic score. And worked into the score are the sounds of the monster growling and the really frightening sounds of the monster's footsteps reverberating. Tell us something about the composer of the score.

RYFLE: Well, Akira Ifukube, boy what can I say? I think the score for "Godzilla," of course I'm biased, but I think it's one of the greatest film scores of all time. And of course the motifs in "Godzilla" were reused and reworked continually throughout the golden age of the series in the '50s and the 1960s.

Mr. Ifukube is a highly regarded classical composer in Japan. He scored many, many, many, many films, including several classics. And, you know, without Ifukube's music, I don't think "Godzilla" would have made the impact that it did. The music is synonymous with "Godzilla," as is Godzilla's roar, which by the way Mr. Ifukube created through the manipulation of musical instruments and sound effects.

GROSS: Why don't we hear part of the score? And we'll hear the monster's footsteps and the monster's roar worked into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of "Godzilla." How was the monster's roar created?

RYFLE: The monster's roar, boy, isn't that one of the greatest sound effects in movie history? Every kid knows it. I remember when I was a child, we used to try to imitate it, not to much success. It was created by rubbing a gloved hand, a leather gloved hand, over the strings of a double bass, recording that sound and manipulating it, changing the speed. And that's what they came up with.

And Godzilla's roar basically was created using the same sound effects, even up until now. Now it's digitally altered, but it basically sounds the same. If you recall during the 1960s, Godzilla's roar became more of a high-pitched whine, but it's more or less the same sound.

GROSS: Do you think that the director of "Godzilla," Ishiro Honda, saw it as a monster film or saw it as, you know, a parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons?

RYFLE: I think it's a little bit of both. Mr. Honda had served in the Japanese military during World War II, and upon his return home after the war, he had visited Hiroshima and witnessed the aftermath of the destruction there, and he was deeply affected by that, and he said so on several occasion.

"Godzilla" is Mr. Honda's most personal film by far. And you can see the imprint that the war left on him. He worked personally on the script, you know, and he spoke many, many times over the years about how his desire for this film, while it was an entertainment film, by and large, but his desire was to send a message, not an indictment of America, the monster really - that's another difference between "Godzilla" and American monster movies of the same time period.

The American monsters usually are stand-ins, as I said, for Cold War enemies. Godzilla is not really a stand-in for America. It is more of an indictment of the nuclear age. And Honda's hope was that somehow this film would inspire people to think about disarmament. I think today if he were still alive, he'd be very disappointed that, you know, nuclear weapons are possessed by more nations than ever before.

GROSS: Well Steve Ryfle, thanks so much for talking with us.

RYFLE: Well, thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Steve Ryfle, speaking with Terry Gross. Ryfle is the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star." A new digital restoration of "Godzilla" has just been released to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.