The idea of Godzilla was first conceived by producer of the film Tomoyuki Tanaka in early 1954, one year after the release of The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms. The film had not yet opened in Japan, but Tanaka was at the very least familiar with its story — and the concept of a giant monster linked with nuclear weaponry resonated with him. The core idea of the project was thus that of a creature that represented a physical manifestation of the atomic bomb — a ghost of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Tanaka recalled in retrospect: “the theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
The premise of the film was also inspired by the incident of the Dai-Go Fukuryu Maru, a fishing trawler whose crew had been killed by radiation poisoning caused by Operation Bravo — an atomic bombing test performed on the Bikini Atoll, and the seventh most powerful atomic bomb ever detonated. Newspaper clippings of the Fukuryu Maru incident were used by Tanaka to pitch his story to executive producer Iwao Mori, who displayed immediate interest in the idea. Tanaka was thus redirected to special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya to establish whether the ambitious project was feasible or not. Tsuburaya — who had long desired to make his own creature feature using the same kind of stop-motion that had brought the original King Kong to life — immediately accepted the challenge.
Ishiro Honda — who had collaborated with Tsuburaya on two war dramas which made consistent use of special effects — was instead attached to the project as director. At this point, the original pitch title of The Giant Monster from 20.000 Miles Beneath the Sea was shortened to G-Sakuhin — with the ‘G’ being an abbreviation for Giant. Brainstorming about the specifics of the atomic monster began shortly after writer Shigeru Kayama was hired to craft the film’s storyline.
The beast was first given a name — Gojira (ゴジラ) — a portmanteau of the Japanese words for gorilla (ゴリラ, gorira) and whale (クジラ, kujira) — later anglicized to Godzilla by the Toho foreign sales department for the international market. This name reflected the first description that had been given to Kayama — that of “a cross between a whale and a gorilla” — as well as the initial concepts devised by cartoonist Kazuyoshi Abe, which depicted a gorilla-like being with a mushroom cloud-like head.
Other ideas followed: Tsuburaya suggested a gargantuan octopus-like creature (a concept taken by a short story he himself had written) whose shape would evoke the mushroom cloud caused by an atomic explosion. An entirely whale-like monster was also suggested by Tsuburaya and screenwriter Takeo Murata. Ultimately, Tanaka decided to take another cue from Beast — establishing that Gojira should be a reptilian monster, feeling that such idea “was more suited to the time period.”
Realizing stop-motion was too expensive and time-consuming for the project’s budget and schedule, Tsuburaya decided that Gojira would be brought to life using a performer in a suit. With that in mind, another design phase started with art director Akira Watanabe and sculptor Teizo Toshimitsu, who worked under Tsuburaya’s supervision. Abe’s initial designs were immediately discarded — being deemed as too humanoid.
Researching illustrated dinosaur books and magazine articles of the time, the design team decided to base the anatomy of the creature on now-dated life restorations of Tyrannosaurus and Iguanodon — then imagined as upright-walking reptiles. Another species, the Stegosaurus, served as the inspiration for one of Gojira’s most distinctive features: three rows of dorsal plates lining the spine from neck to tail, reaching their top length on the lower torso. The creature’s facial features were also influenced by Japanese folklore monsters, such as dragons and onis — fangs, round eyes, and an arched browline.
Based on the selected concept art, Toshimitsu sculpted a clay maquette of the monster with a proportionally large head and small limbs, and scale-covered skin — in an attempt to visually convey the fact Gojira is a sea creature. This iteration was rejected by Tsuburaya as “not dinosaur-like enough.” Toshimitsu next experimented with proportions, making the head smaller, as well as skin texture — endowing it with a smooth surface and round bumps, inspired by amphibians. While said texture was rejected, the changes to the proportions were inherited by the next configuration. Ultimately, the third design — approved by Tanaka, Honda, and Tsuburaya — had a proportionally small head and large limbs, and a body texture inspired by keloid scars found on bombing victims — representing physical scarring on the monster’s skin caused by the H-bomb. Gojira’s size was also established as around 50 meters of height in order to be taller than Tokyo’s biggest buildings of the time.
Once the design was finalized, construction of the 1:25th scale Gojira suit began. Toshimitsu began work aided by a team that included Kanji and Koei Yagi, and Eizo Kaimai. In translating the maquette design, its proportions had to be altered in order for a performer to fit properly inside the suit. An interior frame for the suit was devised using bamboo sticks and wire. It was then covered in a layer metal mesh and additional fabric cushioning — to better support its structure — and external coats of latex. The creature’s skin was essentially fabricated — with its texture and details being directly carved onto the surface and additional strips of latex being glued on it. The performer could enter the suit via an opening along the dorsal side, which was held together by a series of hooks, or wiring.
With the suit’s weight being around 220 pounds, two athletic men were chosen to portray the creature: Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. Nakajima’s first test fitting proved that the costume was impractical to work in: the essentially immobile and cumbersome structure prevented the actor to take more than a few steps before falling over. He recalled: “when I was inside the costume, I could hear someone saying, ‘yeah, this looks like it’s going to work.’ But it was so rough walking in that thing. I knew then that the job wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought.”
The suit was thus repurposed: it was cut in half and fitted with rope suspenders. Wearing it, Nakajima performed close-ups of Gojira’s legs and tail stomping on the streets. The upper half was instead reserved for certain head shots, such as when Gojira’s head emerges from the water in Tokyo Bay. Full body shots of Godzilla were instead achieved with a second, improved costume — made with a lighter latex that would be easier to maneuver — and slightly altered body proportions. The minimal head movement as well as the tail movement was wire-maneuvered by Kaimai.The suits were filmed in appropriately-scaled miniature sets devised by Tsuburaya and crew, or composited with background plates of the real Tokyo.
The suit was intercut with two insert hand puppets. The first puppet was fitted with a mist-spraying nozzle in its mouth to portray close-ups of Gojira unleashing its atomic breath, whereas the second was mechanized and able to ‘bite’ and move its arms — for scenes such as Gojira’s head rearing from the Odo Island mountain (an effect that originally included a bleeding cow inside Godzilla’s maw, but was deemed unconvincing and had to be reshot). A smaller-scale tail puppet was also devised for the film’s only stop-motion shot. Late in production it was decided that Gojira’s back plates would glow when it uses its breath. Hand-drawn cells created the illusion of the plates glowing, as well as long shots of Gojira’s breath weapon. Gojira’s death scene was achieved in a dry-for-wet environment; footage of the suit faded into that of a small-scale model of Gojira’s skeleton.
Shooting of the various creature effects sequences was no easy task; accidents frequently occurred on set, and Nakajima had to input considerable force while inside the suit to correctly destroying the miniature buildings. The long working hours led to an in-joke among the crew — according to which Gojira’s name rhymed with goji (5 AM). Despite the improvements in the second suit, the inside of it was still hot for the performer — to the point where the sweat-soaked suit had to be dried after filming, and during filming it frequently took internal and external damage — which had to be repaired either between takes or after shooting sessions.
Nakajima concluded in retrospect: “In the end, the Godzilla I played remains on film forever. It remains in people’s memory, and for that I feel really grateful.”
For more pictures of Godzilla, visit the Monster Gallery.