Monday, February 17, 2014

Editorial: Godzilla and the dinosaurs of Toho

Today we’re not going to do a movie review, but we are going to look at a popular movie figure that has represented dinosaurs in his own way for decades. Yes, Godzilla. I’m a big fan of the Godzilla series-yes, only the first and maybe Godzilla vs Destoroyah can be taken with an iota of seriousness, but they’re entertaining sci-fi/fantasy movies that I enjoy watching. I’m an attendee at the largest Godzilla convention, G-Fest in Rosemont, Illinois, and I always have fun going.

The question always comes up; is Godzilla a dinosaur? Well, sort of. You see, the Godzilla script from Tomoyuki Tanaka’s first story outline to Ishiro Honda’s shooting screenplay never clearly defined Godzilla as a dinosaur. The name Gojira comes from the idea of the monster being a sort of gorilla-shaped whale. Godzilla, was in fact, very much inspired by King Kong as a monster itself. Tanaka, Honda, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya all were huge King Kong fans, and simply made Kong bigger and a metaphor for horror of war and the devastation of nuclear weapons. So ultimately Godzilla has more to do with his gorilla archnemesis (at least in 1962) than with the dinosaurs Kong fought.

It was only a few weeks before the suit was made before Godzilla was defined as a dinosaur. In the film itself, Dr. Yamane describes Godzilla as a prehistoric sea monster mutated by atomic testing. Tsuburaya did use dinosaurs as his models for the final suit, however- the overall look was inspired by the big carnivore Tyrannosaurus, already a popular favorite, the dorsal fins were inspired by the unique Stegosaurus, both instantly familiar and very alien-looking, and the posture of the hands, tail and body were inspired by Louis Dollo’s still-unopposed reconstruction of Iguanodon as a kangaroo-shaped biped.  Thus, while no one in the film sees Godzilla as a dinosaur, everyone in the audience can.

Other Toho monsters (daikaiju is the preferred term) are both explicitly or implicitly dinosaurs or prehistoric reptile. While the giant flying reptile Rodan is not only named after Pteranodon but also identified as such in the film, the gliding amphibious monster Varan is never clearly stated as anything but some prehistoric beastie. Varan comes from the scientific name for monitor lizard, itself coming from the Arabic word for the big fierce lizards of North Africa. Anguirus, the second prehistoric Toho Ltd monster and Godzilla’s first enemy, is not only said to be a mutant Ankylosaurus but the name Angiras is a corruption of Ankylosaurus the same way Radon is for Pteranodon.  Baragon, the villain of the Toho film Frankenstein Conquers the World (in which the title event does not happen but a mutated, giant Frankenstein monster does run around Japan) is not clearly described and is named only very late in the  film, is supposed to be a dinosaur that survived the mass extinction by burrowing underground. The name is never explained and the monster is never associated with any dinosaur in particular. In the film King Kong Escapes, Kong kills the requisite theropod, never named on film but promotional material identifies it as Gorosaurus (presumably named after the tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus). Rodan, Varan, Anguirus, Gorosaurus and Baragon appear as supporting roles to Godzilla in 1968 classic Destroy All Monsters. Finally, in Godzilla’ last film before the gap between 1975 and 1984,  Godzilla confronts not only his rebuilt mechanical duplicate, but also a mind-controlled sea dinosaur Titanosaurus. Titanosaurus is a poorly known Indian sauropod from the late Cretaceous, but the Toho Titanosaurus is a biped with a long dorsal fin stretching from the head down the back and a tail that springs open to unfurl a wide fan that the monster uses to create hurricane winds. In the more sci-fi oriented films since 1975, no new dinosaurs have appeared with Godzilla.

Godzilla and friends have interesting traits of both real life animals and completely fictional monsters. Godzilla himself, in an entertaining, tongue in cheek paper by paleontologist Ken Carpenter, has been identified as a ceratosaur. Ceratosaurs are theropods initially common worldwide in the Jurassic period but went extinct in North America and Asia in the Jurassic extinction. Godzilla is classified as a Ceratosaur for the distinctive traits of a short, deep head, an overbite, dorsal plates (albeit much bigger proportionally than those of real ceratosaurs), four-clawed hands, and a deep tail. In fact, Robert Bakker has come to the conclusion that Ceratosaurus itself may have been semi-aquatic to avoid competing with the big predator Allosaurus, and likewise Cretaceous ceratosaurs (The Abeliosaurs) like Rugops and Kryptops  have been found in swampy areas.

Anguirus is only superficially ankylosaurian. Instead of a series of interlocking osteoderms (bone plates), Ankylosaurus has one large spiky plate. The tail is flexible and its spines are in no order around the circumference, unlike the symmetrical spikes (in Nodosaurs) or stiff club (in Ankylosaurs) of ankylosaurs. The head is long with a crocodile-like snout, unlike any ankylosaur. There is a crown of small spikes on the head and a stout nasal horn on the snout, both of which are more ceratopsian than Ankylosaur. The posture is splaying rather than upright most of the time, with long, clawed front legs and longer back legs that are used for bipedal lunges and leaps.  Finally, and most significantly, the jaws are full of sharp teeth and armed with a pair of mandibular fangs, unlike anything remotely ankylosaur. If not for the horns, plate, and spikes, Anguirus looks more like a Permian or Triassic synapsid or “mammal-like reptile”

Rodan’s bipedal stance, twin horns, armored torso, short, toothy beak and grasping claws are all relics of how people used to think of pterosaurs. Pteranodon would have been a quadruped with a single long thin crest, long toothless beak (the very name Pteranodon means “winged without teeth”), a furry torso, and small flat feet. By the standards of popular culture of the 50s, Rodan is the most accurate of the prehistoric kaiju, but now is the most dated.

Baragon’s long ears, short face, nose horn, armored back and quadrupedal stance (like Anguirus, long back legs are used for limited bipedalism and long jumps) are chimerical to say the least. Some dinosaurs burrowed, some had armored plates, others had nose horns and other had sharp teeth, but none were ever combined, much less in the case of Baragon. While Baragon looks prehistoric, that combination of traits is less realistic than any other Toho kaiju. The long ears are especially hard to place.

Varan looks more lizardlike, with a short head, a line of spines going from the dead down to the tail,  aquatic nature, and standard claws and teeth. The most dinosaurian of Varan’s characteristics is bipedalism. Varan also has a skin membrane attached to its limbs allowing for long glides across the landscape. The membrane is attached like a flying squirrel, however, not like the extended ribs of the lizard Draco volans or like the wing membranes of the pterosaurs. The closest prehistoric reptile to this method of flying is the bizarre reptile Sharovipteryx, which had a skin membrane attaching its legs to its tail, a sort of reverse pterosaur.

Far more conventional is Gorosaurus, which has the same kangaroo posture given to Theropods since the 1880s. The large head and short tridactyl limbs clearly identify it as a theropod. The long, nearly triangular head doesn’t fit any theropod family in particular and could easily be either Tyrannosaur or Carnosaur. However, the intent is that he’s a Tyrannosaur, especially since he plays the same role that Maurice Delgado and Willis O’briens Tyrannosaurus did in the original King Kong movie. Amusingly, Toho took Louis Dollo’s kangaroo pose for bipedal dinosaurs (with a little bit of 19th century bouncing theropods) and made it into a battle tactic; Gorosaurus downs both Kings Kong and Ghidorah by rearing back on the long, muscular tail and kicking out with both legs.

Titanosaurus is an interesting case. The fully aquatic habit and long fin-ears are reminiscent of the British Godzilla knock-off Gorgo, but the musculata breastplate is pure fantasy, and the long narrow head, long neck, and fins are all new and creative.  Ironically, Spinosaurus turned out to be sauropod-sized, with a long narrow snout and a tall dorsal fin and was most likely semiaquatic, so you could easily argue Titanosaurus as a Spinosaur.  Of course, in the 1970s, Spinosaurus was only thought of as a carnosaur with a back fin, so it proves to be complete coincidence.

I think it says something when no original dinosaur kaiju have been made since, and the most popular of Godzilla’s prehistoric co-stars, Rodan, has only appeared twice since 1968. Dinosaurs have recovered under the Dinosaur Renaissance, but not kaiju movies and not in fiction. That’s the interesting thing-dinosaur fiction has revived, but only in a few contexts. I think next week I’ll cover that trend.

Tetrapod Zoology did a fun little article on the physiology of Godzilla

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