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Commentary: How Godzilla Trampled Over Whitewashing To Become A Global Icon13 min read

11 January 2021 9 min read


Commentary: How Godzilla Trampled Over Whitewashing To Become A Global Icon13 min read

Reading Time: 9 minutes

In recent decades, Hollywood’s long-standing habit of appropriating and whitewashing Asian stories have been rightfully called out. Adaptations of Asian films often turn out to be less than desirable and even derivative, especially when they are unable to capture the spirit and cultural sensitivities of its original. Non-Caucasian characters or themes are often not spared from whitewashing in Hollywood, denying valuable opportunities for representation and work for minority actors.

One of the earliest examples of Hollywood’s bastardisation of an Asian story comes with Ishirō Honda’s 1954 film Gojira. With the film’s distribution rights acquired for USD 25,000 (a small figure even after adjusting for inflation), the 1956 American version, known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, is notorious for its insertion of a Caucasian actor in the lead role and the numerous cuts that downplayed the original’s anti-nuclear message.

More recently, pundits were quick to decry 2014’s Godzilla as the then-latest example of Hollywood’s exasperating trend of whitewashing. After all, the 2014 film, again, underplays the original film’s intent while only having one Asian actor in a starring role. 

However, if we were to examine the world-famous Kaiju’s legacy as a whole, Godzilla may be able to make the case that cultural appropriation and whitewashing isn’t just a straightforward examination. 

Gojira vs Godzilla

Japan 1954. Although economic recovery was well underway, the scars of war were still fresh for its people. Japan had emerged from American occupation just two years prior. However, the Western superpower’s looming presence echoed — heard most deafeningly in an early March morning off the coast of Japan.

The crew of Lucky Dragon No. 5, a deep-sea tuna fishing vessel, were on the last day of their voyage before returning to the port city of Yaizu. Still rolling out of their beds, they saw the sky light up before being rocked off their feet by a shockwave. Unbeknownst to them then, they had witnessed the detonation of a nuclear bomb thousand times more powerful than the ones that levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Shortly thereafter, the 22 crew members started showing symptoms of severe radiation poisoning. Their catch — and countless more from similar vessels — were found to be irradiated and had to be buried. The event sparked a nation-wide anti-nuclear movement in Japan. For visionary Japanese director Ishirō Honda and his team, it would inform the formation of one of cinema’s greatest icons.

Director Ishirō Honda (left) and trailblazing special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya on the set of “Godzilla” (1954) / Photo credit: Toho Pictures

While the idea for Godzilla could be better attributed to the film’s producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, it would be Honda’s vision that would mould the monster into a cultural hallmark. Honda himself was no stranger to the brutality of man, serving on the warfront for six years in World War 2. During his return home, he witnessed the frightening power of the nuclear bomb as his train passed by the ruins of Hiroshima.

There were Japanese films made during the American occupation that reflected the collective anxiety and trauma of being the victims of a nuclear bomb. Yet, arguably none would be as resonant as 1954’s Godzilla.

Released seven months after the events of Lucky Dragon No. 5, the film opens by directly referencing the tragedy: a bright flash of light bringing out the crew of a ship to its decks before being devastated by a thunderous blast. This becomes the central mystery of the film’s first act. The allusion to nuclear weaponry is thinly-veiled, with one eyewitness describing destroyed houses and helicopters “as if they were crushed from above”.

Once investigations reveal that the culprit is Gojira, a mythical sea monster awakened by underwater nuclear testing, the film then focuses its attention on the morality of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Questions on if Godzilla should be understood instead of being feared are raised. Serizawa, the creator of the Oxygen Destroyer, the weapon that would eventually defeat Godzilla, kills himself after its use — in fears that he and his weapon will be part of an even more destructive arms race. 

“Godzilla” (1954) opens by mirroring the tragedy of Lucky Dragon No. 5 / Image credit: Toho Pictures

Godzilla was a box office hit domestically. With its story steeped in sombre conversations regarding nuclear weapons, it has been theorised that the film’s success can be attributed to how it allowed the Japanese to work through their trauma. There were no qualms in acknowledging the horrors with scenes of a city ablaze, countless civilian deaths, and a monster’s roar that sounds like bombers swooping overhead — all soundtracked by a score that both inspired awe and fear. Godzilla remains a serious drama and a technical marvel.

Godzilla would become one of the earliest and most profitable instances of Hollywood Westernisation in cinema. The theatrical and TV rights to Honda’s film in the US was purchased for USD 25,000, adding up to about USD 240,000 once adjusted for inflation today and a meagre sum for what would start a cultural phenomenon. 

Rebranded as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the film was released in America in 1956. Numerous edits were made for its Western release. The most prominent of which was the insertion of footage starring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. It is through his character where the film’s events are told. 

Instead of references to Lucky Dragon No. 5, the film opens with the reporter recounting Godzilla’s destruction; the fear of the unknown and of complete destruction so immediate to Honda’s film is achingly absent. References to nuclear weapons, radioactive contamination, and of Nagasaki were cut, turning the American version into just another monster flick. 

Instead of the original’s parting statement about the dangers of continued nuclear experimentations, it is replaced with a nonchalant comment from Burr about the defeat of a “menace”. Serizawa’s hesitance about the use of his Oxygen Destroyer is completely nullified; subtly doubling as a message that weapons of mass destructions (WMD) are fine and even necessary — as long as they are on the Right Side.

The Success of Godzilla and the Complicated Path Getting There

“We weren’t interested in politics, believe me. We only wanted to make a movie we could sell. At that time, the American public wouldn’t have gone for a movie with an all-Japanese cast. That’s why we did what we did. We didn’t really change the story. We just gave it an American point of view.” — Richard Kay, one of the producers and distributors of Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956)

Through today’s lens, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is certainly a textbook definition of whitewashing. In an interview with CBS in 2014, Haruo Nakajima, the man beneath the monster’s suit for 12 films, described Godzilla as “a creature of the Americans”. For some fans, the version is an egregious error, especially when the edits could be seen as shorthand for America shunning from their responsibility of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, what has echoed since the Western version’s release opens up an interesting “chicken and egg” discussion.

It was the perfect storm for Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1950s America. Crowds were already familiar with large-scale monster flicks, such as the works of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Roger Corman. However, these films were largely associated with being schlocky, unsophisticated ‘B’ films — a far cry from the drama and heaviness of Honda’s film. 

The official poster of 1956’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters!” which led to a generation believing that Godzilla is green / Image credit: Hershenson-Allen Archive

It could be argued that the edits made to Honda’s original were not made to censor the original subtexts but to make the film more accessible and successful with this domestic crowd. What subtexts there were in the Western version, such as of American exceptionalism, could be seen as an appeal to America’s own Cold War-laden fears of the Atomic Age. A case could even be made that the Western version flowed better than the original, which suffered from uneven pacing.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters was a spectacular success; the first Japanese feature to become a commercial success in the States. The version saw a wider distribution than the original ever did. Honda’s film would only see a wide theatrical release in America in 2004. Still, the Westernised version inspired generations of filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton.

Its success led to 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, which was the first Godzilla movie launched in partnership between Toho, the studio behind Godzilla, and an American company. For Toho, these partnerships, with access and distribution in a massive film market, would bolster Godzilla’s presence abroad — an overall boon to the fledgeling Japanese film industry. Without the popularity of the flawed version, Godzilla may have been relegated as just another peculiar piece of Japanese culture to outsiders.

Director Ishirō Honda on the set of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962) / Photo credit: Toho Pictures

Honda was an idealist and truly believed that his creation would lead to worthwhile change regarding nuclear armanents. Even as Toho studios engaged different directors for several subsequent editions, Honda was against the studio’s ‘dumbing down’ of his creation to make the monster and film series more palatable to children.

Still, even when Honda’s films of the series were amongst the best (notably Destroy All Monsters and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster), they would never be as serious-minded as his original. In fact, the goofy tone of King Kong vs. Godzilla, which was directed by Honda, would inform the tone of subsequent kaiju films — both for better and for worse.

Much like the monster’s multifaceted scales, it is undeniable that Godzilla has evolved to represent more than the horrifying traumas that informed the 1954 original. 

Instead of just destroying Tokyo, Godzilla usually became a force for good. Instead of featuring heated discussions about WMD, subsequent entries highlighted the importance of cooperation and diplomacy amongst nations (coinciding with Japan’s entry into the United Nations in 1956 and with its meteoric economic rise as a peaceful nation). The main themes of these sequels moved from a focus on WMDs to environmentalism, such as with Godzilla’s bouts with Hedorah, a kaiju born out of pollution. 

Six decades on, Godzilla has lumbered along to become the longest-running film franchise in history, adapting to encompass universal issues and themes along the way despite being birthed from a raw tragedy.

From Terrorising Tokyo to Terrorising The Court With Charles Barkley 

For most, Godzilla and the kaiju genre will bring to mind ridiculous imageries of men in clumsy rubber suits. Watching Honda’s original film can be whiplash from these preconceptions. It’s this clash between perceived ‘low culture’ with arthouse ‘high culture’ that has fascinated so many. Coupled with a largely more educated mindset from today’s audience and it’s easy to see why the American remakes of Godzilla have been chastised for whitewashing and cultural insensitivity. 

It’s a claim that has always puzzled this author. Except for 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the recent 1998 and 2014 were inferior to the Toho films because… well, they were not well-made films. On both instances, the films featured too little of the titular monster and focused too much on uninteresting stock plots. 

All three films could have definitely included more Asian representation and paid a more respectful homage to the 1954 film’s intent, but it would be hard to say that the films would be any more entertaining, engaging, or meaningful. Even Godzilla’s hometown crowd were receptive of his 2014 and 2019 Western reimaginings.

Originally planned for a 2020 releases, the newest Western entry to the film series “Godzilla vs. Kong” will be making its way to cinemas and HBO Max in May 2021 / Image credit: Legendary Pictures

That’s not to say that Honda’s idealism should be discarded either. 1954’s Godzilla, the serious and terrifying allegory about the deadly consequences of a nuclear arms race, can easily coexist with 1973’s Godzilla, the defender of Earth teaming up with Jet Jaguar to dropkick an ancient beetle god (twice). Or with 1971’s Godzilla, where a strong environmental message is present in between his fights with Hedorah. Or with 1998’s Godzilla, with the titular Kaiju looking more like a malnourished escapee from Jurassic Park. And, yes, even with 1956’s Godzilla, which the Americans willfully Westernised to suit their own ends. 

Six decades on and the kaiju hasn’t stopped evolving. 2016’s Shin Godzilla, Japan’s latest theatrical entry to the series which won the top award at that year’s Japan Academy Film Prize, reimagines the 1954 original yet again. This time, the film draws inspiration from the Japanese government’s blundered response to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. However, even the Japanese would be guilty of sanitising Honda’s film, leaving out much of the macabre atmosphere that made it so urgent.

All aspects and facades of Godzilla can be celebrated, and to examine any present and future Western remakes as part of a lineage, with a lone focus on Honda’s original, would be missing out on a lot. The beauty of the series is exactly with how Godzilla has adapted to the times, where what is ‘essential’ to the monster is the awe, anxiety and powerlessness it (and the issues the series have come to represent) brings while stomping around cities. 

Godzilla — as an idea — is just way too big of a monster to not share with the world; its evolutions have shown that the monster’s original intent has never been its defining characteristic. 

Make no mistake, whitewashing remains a hugely problematic issue in Hollywood. However, there is an undeniable tinge of irony that the whitewashed version of Honda’s original has been one of the reasons why Godzilla grew to become a global icon that has inspired and brought joy to countless worldwide.

His story brings to attention the need for nuance when examining films as holistic cultural products, the need for difficult conversations on just how much the issue of whitewashing matters when profit and earnings are non-factors, and the power of characters as ideas.

Nevertheless, Godzilla may very well be an exceptional case. After all, no matter the underlying messages, the appeal of giant monsters duking it out and trampling cities in the process will likely always be universal.

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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