Book Review: Shigeru Kayama’s Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again

    The making of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla has been extensively documented for English language markets—in books such as Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, in Issue #10 of Godziszewski’s magazine Japanese Giants, in bonus features on various home media releases, etc. Through these studies, much attention has been granted to the film’s main creators (director Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, composer Akira Ifukube, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya), though other talents, while frequently acknowledged, haven’t received equal exposure. Among these collaborators is Shigeru Kayama, the prolific science fiction author Tanaka hired to cultivate a narrative from the concept of a monster besieging civilization.

    A former economics student and bureaucrat, Kayama (1904-1975) had several poems and fiction pieces to his credit when Tanaka recruited him for Godzilla and throughout the remainder of his life published hundreds of short stories and novels. That said, his international obscurity remains unsurprising: a mere sample of his output’s presently available in English; and while his story established much of Godzilla’s structure and ideas, the actual shooting script was penned by Honda and scenarist Takeo Murata. For all these reasons, he’s remained a marginalized figure in the west, even among entrenched fans of Japanese science fiction.

    But now, University of Minnesota Press and translator Jeffrey Angles have delivered a small remedy via the two-novella volume Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again. Published in Japan in July 1955—shortly after the first Godzilla sequel, Motoyoshi Oda’s Godzilla Raids Again (for which Kayama also penned a foundational story), premiered in theaters—the text consists of Kayama adapting the films, with increments of his imagination sprinkled throughout. In what might be of disappointment to some, the author’s original stories for both projects aren’t included, but his novelizations capture the postwar science fiction framework that made the movies fascinating; and for genre fans there’s the pleasure of seeing familiar material reinterpreted (to varying degrees) by one of Godzilla’s overlooked creators.

    Of the two novellas, Godzilla is the most engaging. While the narrative structure remains largely the same, Kayama changes up the dramatis personae and, in some respects, improves upon the film. For all its nightmarish imagery and emotional power, Honda’s Godzilla fell short of masterpiece status due to its prosaic lead, Ogata (played by Akira Takarada, whose truly memorable genre roles emerged when Japanese science fiction flourished in the 1960s). More often a witness to crucial scenes than a dramatic participant, Ogata paled against the conflicted people around him—namely Emiko Yamane and the forlorn Dr. Serizawa, whose trust the former betrayed to save Japan.

    In Kayama’s novella, however, Ogata’s demoted to a supporting role, with protagonist reins granted to Shinkichi, the islander orphaned by Godzilla. By placing one of the monster’s victims at center stage, Kayama creates a more engaging hero whose response to continuous assaults on Japan—and whose qualms with hopes of preserving Godzilla for science—emotionally resonate, as there’s personal history involved. The author likewise does a better job emphasizing Shinkichi’s hatred for the monster (a logical character beat that seemed oddly wasted in the movie) and develops a more well-rounded relationship between his hero and Emiko (introducing them as childhood friends who met during a wartime evacuation).

    In writing the script for Godzilla, Honda and Murata consciously attenuated Kayama’s political content, which more explicitly indicted the United States and their atomic tests. Allowed to tell the story his way again, Kayama devotes plenty of page space in his novella to Cold War paranoia. Characters speculate early-narrative shipping disasters are the handiwork of “an airplane or a Soviet submarine”; others suggest that, were these calamities the start of a new war, “enemy forces” would be targeting American military craft stationed in Japan. Kayama likewise goes further in detailing social responses to Godzilla; one subplot concerns a cult whose founder deifies the creature and actively torments the monster’s victims. All the while, the author keeps physical descriptions of Godzilla to a minimum (though noting his skin glows from radiation exposure), and admittedly fumbles in contextualizing his behavior.

    Godzilla makes a grand reveal gnawing on livestock and plucking a woman from the ground—suggesting his rampages are driven by hunger (as in Kayama’s original story, wherein the beast attacked Tokyo to devour zoo animals and civilians). In the novella, however, this apparent motive’s swiftly abandoned, replaced by the film counterpart’s insatiable urge to destroy. Godzilla’s city rampages feature him vaporizing people rather than devouring them, plowing through buildings instead of scouring for their fleshy occupants; and when confronted by the military he puts up a fight before returning to the ocean. The results combine the best parts of two distinct visions of Godzilla—one as a ravenous carnivore, the other a walking embodiment of destruction—even if his intent becomes muddled along the way.

    That said, Kayama retains the most crucial part of Godzilla’s original persona. As one character so eloquently states in both film and book, “Godzilla himself is the hydrogen bomb hanging over Japan right now.” Throughout, the characters compare the creature’s wrath to wartime events such as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki: a metaphor carried along by scenes of radioactive contamination and survivors dying of it. Director Ishiro Honda had witnessed Japan’s devastation returning from war service; and as Kayama admits in his opening prologue, he too felt concern over the proliferation of nuclear technology, fearing that should such weapons be used again “it wouldn’t just be big metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka that would be destroyed. The entire Earth would likely be laid waste.” This passionate stance—this use of monster as metaphor—renders Godzilla both a captivating read and an excellent companion piece to the Honda classic.

    Sadly, Godzilla Raids Again, while a diverting piece of entertainment, is weaker on all fronts, taking its source film’s awkwardly structured narrative and doing little to improve upon or even distinguish it. On the positive side: Kayama recycles the movie’s depiction of working-class people rebuilding their lives after a (war-like) calamity and on that level is worth acknowledging as postwar literature; however, the author fails to deepen the characters or remedy narrative mistakes—e.g., introducing the spiky quadruped Anguirus as a rival monster and killing it off well before the drama ends. Changes this time are inconsequential (e.g., Anguirus can shoot atomic rays, but doesn’t use this ability to influence his scenes’ outcome), giving Godzilla Raids Again a coldly predictable feel. Jeffrey Angles’s concluding essay in the book notes that Kayama refused involvement with Godzilla following this project, claiming the monster living on constituted “a tacit approval of the hydrogen bomb.” One also suspects from this slavishly faithful second novella that he’d simply run out of ideas.

    The remainder of Angles’s essay is tremendous, packed with details on Kayama’s life and early Godzilla media—including a little-discussed radio adaptation that preceded the 1954 film in release. He also delves into the challenges of converting the original Japanese into English (e.g., excessive onomatopoeias; we learn merimeri, for instance, originally stood in for the sound of crumbling buildings) and throughout the book provides informative footnotes delineating cultural observations and Japanese writing techniques. Notwithstanding one historical error in his essay (claiming Godzilla was the most expensive Japanese film at the time of its release, when its budget in fact was usurped by two other 1954 releases: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Musashi Miyamoto), Angles’s contributions will be immeasurably useful to those interested in Shigeru Kayama and the beginnings of a pop culture icon. In an age where the vast majority of fandom clamors aggressively for overpriced plastic, Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again is a treasure not to be missed.

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