ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part Three: Evolution - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part Three: Evolution

Gordon Hopkins goes beneath the suit.
“On Page 79 (On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin) Darwin gives some fanciful reasons for believing that man is more likely to have descended from the chimpanzee than from the gorilla. His speculations are an excellent illustration of the effect that the evolutionary hypothesis has in cultivating the imagination.”
William Jennings Bryant, 1925, in closing arguments of the Scopes Monkey Trial

Modern science accepts that the human species evolved from smaller, hairier primates. But did you know that a certain famous lizard also evolved from a smaller, hairier primate?

The “official mythology” goes something like this: Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was flying back to Japan after a attempt to negotiate a movie deal with an Indonesian film company went south, the result of rising political tensions between the two countries. The unrealized film left a hole in Toho's release schedule. One that needed to be filled quickly. The dejected filmmaker was staring out the window of the plane, down into the ocean and, if Toho's marketing gurus are to be believed, imagined a giant sea monster beneath the choppy, azure surface.
A monster movie! Of course. That was the solution. Monster movies were hugely popular in the States at that time, yet there hadn't really been a Japanese-made monster movie. So Tanaka decided to crank out a monster movie, fast and cheap. But Tanaka was clear from the beginning. This was not going to be simply an American monster knockoff. This monster was going to be Japanese through and through, with a very Japanese origin.

It is a great story, to be sure, but even if we accept it at face value, it does leave a lot out. Most notably, the contributions of a man named O'Brien.

O'Brien? That doesn't sound like a very Japanese name.

Well, no, of course not. I'm talking Willis O'Brien, the man who gave the world King Kong. O'Brien was a film pioneer who worked with Thomas Edison in the earliest days of the medium, when he created some stop-motion animated dinosaurs for a series of short subjects, several years before he adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, The Lost World, about the manic, bearded Professor Challenger's journey to a mysterious land where dinosaurs still roamed. Released in 1925, the flick culminated in a brontosaurus rampaging through London.

Of course, The Lost World was only a warm up for the big one: King Kong. The film first hit movies screens in 1933. Box office was as huge as the titular ape. The film was re-released in 1953, a year before Godzilla, and was an even bigger success the second time around. This had to be in the mind of Tanaka when he decided to make Godzilla.
If you need more evidence that Godzilla is King Kong's illegitimate son, just look at his original, Japanese name. Gojira is, allegedly, a portmanteau of two Japanese words: gorira, meaning “gorilla,” and kujira, or “whale.” At one point, in the very early days of development, Godzilla was described as “a cross between a gorilla and a whale.”

That King Kong was an “inspiration” (some folks less generous than I might use the term, “rip-off”) is apparent, but not the only one. Willis' protege, Ray Harryhausen, provided the special effects for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which also came out in 1952. This film bears an even stronger resemblance to Godzilla than King Kong, at least plotwise. Allegedly adapted from the Ray Bradbury short story, there is really just one scene of the beast of the title and a lighthouse that links the two. The onscreen story is about a frozen dinosaur awakened by an atomic blast and then heads to the Big Apple, where it knocks down some buildings and squishes some hapless New Yorkers. Sound familiar?

On the surface, the big difference between these films and Godzilla is immediately evidence. As already stated, Toho needed something quick and cheap. Stop-motion animation was neither of these things. With no other options, the filmmakers had to resort to a guy in a rubber suit, stomping on a miniature Tokyo.
The image of the man in the rubber suit, jokingly dubbed “suitmation,” is the bane of those artists who wish their creations to be taken serious. The widely held notion that a movie with a man in a monster costume is somehow a lesser effort is not entirely fair. Sure, there are plenty of examples of embarrassingly bad monsters, especially in the fifties. Still, that it was done cheaply does not mean it was done without care or even reverence. The model work done for Godzilla was painstaking and remarkably detailed. Then there is Haruo Nakajima, the poor actor in the suit for Godzilla and eleven sequels. He reportedly lost 20 pounds during his first stint as the big lizard. Say want you want about the final product, but despite the need for “fast and cheap,” the people behind Godzilla clearly cared about what they were doing.

Up next: Godzilla comes to America...but forgets his passport.

Is Godzilla a Dragon?
Unlucky Dragon

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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