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When Gojira (later Anglicized as Godzilla) debuted in 1954, Japan was just nine years removed from the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and the leveling of Tokyo by Allied bombings). Therefore, the idea of nuclear radiation forming a giant monster to terrorize Tokyo once again had a much different connotation 60 years ago than it does today. The general theme of the film was that nature (through Godzilla) was getting revenge against mankind for daring to create and use nuclear weapons. That approach has mostly been de-emphasized over the years, but one thing that has remained consistent for the most part has been the monster’s basic appearance (besides some slight alterations here and there, including different coloring in different films). Since his debut, Godzilla has remained a scaly dinosaur-like creature (the scales themselves were meant to evoke the radiation scars that the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had). However, that was not the original plan. Was Godzilla really originally supposed to be a giant octopus?
The key thing to remember about the first Godzilla is that it was very much put together in a hurry. You see, initially, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was working on an entirely different film for Toho called In the Shadow of Honor, about a Japanese soldier fighting in Indonesia as part of that country’s independence from the Netherlands after World War II. It was a joint production with Indonesia’s government-owned film company. Things were going well in February 1954, as casting had already begun, but in early March the Indonesian government let Tanaka know production had to be delayed due to poor weather. At the end of March, he was contacted again and informed the project had been canceled. Tanaka intended to fly to Indonesia to try to get the project back on its feet, but a top executive at Toho, Iwao Mori, said forget about it, just do a different movie. Tanaka later said he was reading a newspaper article on a flight back to Japan from Indonesia about the Lucky Dragon 5 incident when he was inspired for what his new film would be about. The Lucky Dragon 5 was a Japanese fishing boat that was operating near the Bikini Atoll when the U.S. government was testing out a thermonuclear bomb on March 1, 1954. The explosion was larger than expected and people in so-called “safe zones” were not, and that included the Lucky Dragon 5. The ship’s crew suffered from radiation exposure and one member even died from radiation poisoning.
With that idea combined with the American science fiction film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, about a hibernating dinosaur awakened by a nuclear bomb testing, Tanaka had his basic premise. However, that was all he had: a giant monster created by nuclear bomb testing. The first draft of the screenplay, “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” reflects that no one was sure exactly WHAT the monster was going to be — just that it was a giant monster. The project was soon dubbed “Project G,” for “Giant.” Ishirō Honda stepped in behind the camera after original director Senkichi Tamaguchi moved on to another project once In the Shadow of Honor fell through.
A number of ideas were then pored over throughout April and May 1954. The obvious idea would have been to simply create a dinosaur-like creature just like the one from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but it seems as though Tanaka initially wanted to shy away from taking TOO much from that earlier film. When he was hired to write the story, Shigeru Kayama recalled that the monster was meant to be a sea creature, a cross between a whale and a gorilla. And sure enough, “Gojira” is, indeed, a combination of the Japanese words gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). While the success of the original King Kong (which had recently been re-released internationally in 1952) was a major influence, by looking at the various takes on the development of the monster it seems like Gorilla-Whale was more of a reference to how BIG the creature was supposed to be rather than a specific description of a mix between a whale and a gorilla. Some early versions of the design for Godzilla even included a mushroom-like head to make the whole “nuclear fallout” aspect even clearer. However, special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya wanted the monster to be a giant octopus, based on a story that he had written the previous year in response to King Kong. Eventually, with no one quite positive what the monster should be, Tanaka decided to just go with the most obvious idea and make Gojira a giant dinosaur-like creature.
Time constraints played a major role in the look of Gojira, as well, as Tanaka would have preferred to use the stop-motion animation approach of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but that was too time-consuming, and production was set to begin in August for November release. So they ended up going with a stuntman in a suit with a scale model of Tokyo.
So I don’t think it is fair to say that there ever was an “original” design for Godzilla, so I’m going with the legend as…
STATUS: False (but with major True aspects mixed in)
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