GODZILLA (GOJIRA) (1954)
This is a review of the uncut Japanese version without the U.S. release inserts with Raymond Burr…
Godzilla is a film classic and sits along with the original King Kong as one of the greatest giant monster flicks of all time and introduced us to one of the most famous characters and names in pop culture history. Whether you like these movies or not, most of the civilized world has, at least, heard of Godzilla. Most people associate him with the goofy monster fests that he appeared in later in his career, but more serious fans know that the original film uses the creature as a metaphor for the atomic bomb and the horror and death it caused when unleashed on Japan during WWII and was devoid of the campy-ness and goofy humor later entries in the series would have.
The story finds a series of ship disappearances in an area off the Japanese coast that is causing much mystery and concern. What few survivors are found report of the sea ‘exploding’ and catching fire. The people of the remote fishing village of Odo Island say the cause is a gigantic creature of legend known as “Godzilla”. Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is dispatched to the island and makes the horrifying discovery that not only does this legendary creature exist, but it is highly radioactive. Yamane theorizes that this species of prehistoric creature has been living peacefully in deep sea caverns in the Pacific and that it has been irradiated and it’s habitat destroyed by H-Bomb testing. Now this creature is loosed upon the world and sees Japan as it’s new hunting ground. Efforts to destroy the creature at sea prove futile and soon it wades ashore and lays waste to the great city of Tokyo causing untold damage and death in it’s radioactive wake. But there is hope. A Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) has created a weapon that destroys oxygen and it could be the key to ending both the destruction and Godzilla’s reign of terror, but only if he agrees to use it, something he is reluctant to do.
Under the skilled direction of the legendary Ishirō Honda from his script with Takeo Murata…from a story by Shigeru Kayama…Godzilla is a dead serious and sometimes very grim allegory of the horrors of the atomic bomb, horrors the people of Japan know all too well. The film starts off with Honda slowly building the mystery and tension and doesn’t give us our first quick glimpse of Godzilla till almost a half hour in and once we know what we’re in for, it is almost an hour before Godzilla launches his devastating attack on Tokyo which, unlike future installments, is not a fun city stomping romp, but an act of destruction where we are treated to horrifying images of death and those trapped in the creatures path or, victims of it’s radioactive fallout. It is a somber and heart wrenching sequence and meant to illustrate what Japan went through when the U.S. used the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And Honda pulls no punches and shows us from a perspective of the embattled citizens what the horrors of such an event have on the innocent. His Godzilla here is no cute superhero or even anti-hero, he is a destructive force and one that causes horrific carnage, a true symbol of man’s irresponsible meddling with destructive power and the effect it has on those it’s used on. The black and white cinematography by Masao Tamai creates stark and powerful imagery especially when the camera movies through the destruction caused by the behemoth and it really gives the film such rich atmosphere to accent Honda’s taunt direction. The SPFX rendering Godzilla and his wrath are well executed by legendary FX master Eiji Tsuburaya and while they may be primitive by today’s CGI standards, they are very effective for the time in presenting the beast’s power and the grim results of his attacks. The film would also mark suit-mation actor Haruo Nakajima’s first portrayal of Godzilla, a role he would play till the last Showa (original series) Godzilla film Terror Of Mechagodzilla in 1975. And wrapping it all together is Akira Ifukube’s brilliant and moody score which would become Godzilla’s trademark theme till this day.
Honda had a good cast and when watched in the original Japanese with subtitles, without the sub-standard dubbing, we get some very good performances from actors who treat the material with the seriousness and respect it deserved. Shimura’s Yamane is a humble man of science who sees the lesson to be learned in Godzilla and despite his destructiveness, thinks he should be studied not destroyed. Momoko Kochi gives a strong emotion-filled performance as Yamane’s daughter, Emiko who is engaged to Serizawa, but falls in love with shipping company owner Ogata (Akira Takarada) and gets caught between those two men. Akihiko Hirata gives a simmering portrayal of Dr. Serizawa, a reclusive but brilliant scientist who has created a weapon with the destructive potential of the H-Bomb and knowing that, refuses to use it even to save his country. And as the man who steals Emiko’s heart, Akira Takarada is effective as Ogata, a working man who rises to hero status when his loved ones and country are in danger. Having lost many ships to Godzilla’s attacks, Ogata tries to convince Dr. Serizawa to change his mind and save his country and people. And as the title creature, Nakajima gives the beast a serpentine menace and an aura of great power. Had his work inside the suit not been effective, the film would not have worked and we wouldn’t still be seeing Godzilla films decades later. A solid cast who give strong performances and are sadly not given the credit they deserve due to being judged by ineffective dubbing which does not honor their work.
Not only is this one of the greatest monster films of all time, it is a great film period. The horrors of war and the devastation of the atomic bomb metaphorically portrayed by the attack of a creature created by meddling with nature and powers best left alone. The film is entertaining, yet also humbling as it never shies away from the result of such overpowering destructive force personified by one of film’s most iconic and famous characters. If he didn’t directly cause death and destruction, his radioactivity did. Something that would be lost in future films. Godzilla would slowly become a monster bashing superhero and sometimes, depending on the era and film, an anti-hero who we still cheer, despite him not being a good guy. But in his first movie, Godzilla was a horror and a devastating one at that and his first feature was a grim story of the negative aspects of science when it’s applications are used to destroy not improve life. And it is a message that is still completely resonant today. A true classic unfairly judged by the sillier films that came later on.
MONSTERZERO N.J. TRIVIA: Godzilla, or more appropriately, Gojira’s name comes from a combination of the Japanese words ‘gorira’ meaning gorilla and ‘kujira’ meaning whale. There are tales that it was a nickname taken from a large and strong Toho Studios employee, but it has never been confirmed and may only be an urban legend. While the Godzilla in future films is acknowledged to be another irradiated animal of the same species, I have an interesting theory…SPOILERS…When Dr. Serizawa demonstrates the oxygen destroyer to Emiko on a fish tank, the fish all dissolve. But when Serizawa is convinced to use the weapon on Godzilla by Emiko and Ogata later on, Honda pans over to a fish tank now filled with fish. Were they replaced?…or was he trying to tell us the effects of Serizawa’s weapon were only temporarily and Godzilla would return? Whatever the answer, Godzilla is now in his 60th year and about to return in a new big budget production. Whether this was the intention or not…Godzilla is a legendary film icon that, like in his films, continues to live on and become known to each new generation.
MONSTERZERO N.J. PERSONAL TRIVIA: I had the wonderful opportunity in 1994 to meet Godzilla himself, Haruo Nakajima and my signed 40th anniversary edition laserdisc box set of the original 1954 Gojira is one of my most treasured possessions.