It stomped its way from the Sea of Japan to the shores of America on April 27, 1956, a skyscraper-size symbol of the atomic age that leveled whole buildings with its radioactive breath, tussled with pesky electrical towers, and plucked train cars from their tracks like hors d’oeuvres.
The creature’s Japanese creators dubbed it Godzilla. And as anyone who has sat through Godzilla, King of the Monsters can attest, that name is pretty much the only thing they dubbed well.
But despite the infamously bad dialogue synching, Godzilla would establish itself as one of the most enduring figures in pop-culture history, spawning 24 films, a Saturday-morning cartoon, toys, a series of children’s books, and a song by ’70s rockers Blue Oyster Cult.
It all started with a fishing boat. In March 1954, a Japanese vessel drifted into an area near the Bikini Atoll, a site then being used by the U.S. military for nuclear testing, and radiation poisoning gripped the crew. The incident inspired producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to create Godzilla (or Gojira, in Japan), a reflection of nuclear war fears heightened by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“In those days, Japanese had a real horror of radiation, and that horror is what made Godzilla so huge,” the late producer said in 1985. “From the beginning he has symbolized nature’s revenge on mankind.” Revenge didn’t come cheap, however. When Godzilla was unleashed on Japanese audiences in November 1954, it was — with a [yen]60 million budget — the costliest film ever made there, though it wound up making an impressive [yen]152 million (or $2.25 million).
Still, in order for the movie to work for American audiences, it had to be retooled. Producer Joseph E. Levine — who also imported Italy’s campy Hercules dramas — nabbed the rights and inserted new footage, which starred Raymond Burr as a traveling American journalist. The revised film — which was 18 minutes shorter than the Japanese cut — satisfied a State-side property-damaging-giant-beastie crowd that hadn’t been catered to since King Kong, and in the process earned a respectable $2 million.
The film was so successful that Toho — Tokyo-based home of all things Godzilla — began churning out creature features regularly, with the Big G taking on foes such as the three-headed Ghidrah, the oversized insect Mothra, and even King Kong himself.
In the late ’70s, Saturday afternoon telecasts of the films hooked new audiences, and in 1998, filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin hatched a big-budget American update that grossed $136 million domestically (and another $34 million in Japan) — inspiring Toho to get the import, Godzilla 2000, ready to stomp our shores this summer.
See? Size does matter.