GOJIRA (1954)

  • Director: Ishirō Honda
  • Writers: Screenplay by Takeo Murata and Ishirō Honda, Story by Shigeru Kayama
  • Starring: Akira Takarata, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Haruo Nakajima, and Katsumi Tezuka
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Apple TV

This week marked the release of Godzilla vs. Kong, the thirty-sixth total movie to featuring the giant lizard monster Godzilla. I was thoroughly unimpressed, honestly. I told my wife “there were some parts I was into, but it wasn’t even good in an Independence Day kind of way.” Those are not my feelings about the original Godzilla movie (originally called Gojira in its native Japanese), which I thoroughly enjoyed on the same day we watched the new movie. As an action movie, it’s a deeply nihilistic product of a society where everyone had just lived through losing World War II. Yet it was such a big success in Japan that an “Americanized” version, with much of the barely-subtext-subtext about nuclear weapons excised and the actor Raymond Burr, playing an American reporter, edited into random scenes, was released two years later in the US as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Until fairly recently, this was the only version widely available in the US. However, the Criterion Collection has now released all 15 of the original Japanese versions of the “Shōwa Era” Godzilla movies, spanning 1954 to 1975, and they are all highly enjoyable, though over time they were pitched more towards kids and started to make Godzilla the good guy, fighting off other, worse monsters. No such watering-down can be found in the original Gojira.

This “origin story” has been remade so many times, and influenced so many knock-offs over the years, that its outlines are likely well-known to all our readers. Ships start disappearing, attacked by some sort of huge creature. Eventually it appears on a remote, Okinawa-esque island, where about twenty minutes into the movie we get our first good look at the monster. It is basically a big dinosaur/lizard thing, except as tall as a mountain. Godzilla also has “radioactive breath,” which he puts to frequent use in this movie, leaving a burning trail in his wake. After destroying the island, he disappears again, but it seems only a matter of time until he arrives on the Japanese mainland.

There is then a fairly lengthy expository sequence in which a scientist (played by the great Takashi Shimura, who honestly doesn’t get much to do here except bring gravitas, like Morgan Freeman in like seventy movies) gives a presentation to the Japanese legislature, or Diet. This is where the Godzilla-as-metaphor-for-atomic-bombs becomes clear, as the scientist explains that the monster was likely awoken by atomic testing. The scientist insists Godzilla is the greatest scientific discovery of all time, and should be studied, but the government just wants to know how to kill it. The rest of the human characters are the scientist’s daughter (Momoko Kōchi), her boyfriend (Akira Takarata), and another weirdo scientist with an eye-patch (Akihiko Hirata), with whom the daughter sorta/kinda gets involved in a love triangle. 

Dr. Eye-Patch (his actual character name is “Serizawa,” but that’s what I’m calling him) has, while “studying the oxygen atom in every way I could,” discovered the “Oxygen Destroyer,” a terrible weapon that can remove all oxygen from seawater, liquifying the flesh of any living creatures in the process. He demonstrates this for the girl in a scene where he turns all the fish in a fish tank into skeletons, which honestly as a kid freaked me the heck out and gave me multiple bad dreams. I don’t know why that is the thing in the movie involving destroyed cities I fixated on, but it was. Dr. Eye-Patch insists his weapon is too terrible to ever be used. Meanwhile, Godzilla appears in Tokyo Bay and, in the movie’s most famous and memorable sequences, lays the beat-down on Tokyo. After much of Tokyo is destroyed, Dr. Eye-Patch burns his notes and agrees to use his weapon one time, to kill Godzilla. The climax of the movie features Eye-Patch refusing to come back to the surface after placing the Oxygen Destroyer bomb to kill Godzilla, dying along with, apparently, the creature in order to take his invention to the grave with him. The elder scientist, on shore, intones that as long as atomic testing and research continues, there may be more Godzillas waiting to be awakened.

The thing to understand about this movie is that it’s not a fun romp, it is a story about national trauma. We hear one woman, as part of a conversation about the approaching monster, comment, “First I barely survived the atomic bomb at Nagasaki, but now this!” In its first review of the movie, The New York Times commented that it was “extraordinarily solemn, full of earnest discussions[,]” and they’re not wrong. Godzilla is presented here as an implacable force of nature, free of the kid sidekicks that would populate some of the later movies (including, weirdly, Godzilla vs. Kong). He is the atomic bomb, in the sense that he has come to punish Japan for its war-time transgressions. A much later New York Magazine article said about the monster:

He is the symbol of a world gone wrong, a work of man that once created cannot be taken back or deleted. He rears up out of the sea as a creature of no particular belief system, apart from even the most elastic version of evolution and taxonomy, a reptilian id that lives inside the deepest recesses of the collective unconscious that cannot be reasoned with, a merciless undertaker who broaches no deals.

Director Ishirō Honda had served in the Japanese Army for a decade in China during World War II, and was a protégé of Akira Kurosawa. He had planned to director a war film about Kamikaze pilots for his second feature, but legendary Japanese film studio Toho, after the success of a re-release of the original King Kong, as well as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (a very fun, if much dumber, movie about a giant squid thing attacking San Francisco, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen), decided that a monster movie was more likely to be a success. Honda accepted the assignment after several other directors turned it down as “stupid,” stating that he had “no problem taking it seriously.” Honda said that he saw the themes of the movie as, “Mankind created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” He fully admitted filming the scenes where Godzilla destroys wide swaths of Tokyo, burning skeletons of buildings in the foreground at his feet, to consciously mirror the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings of those cities. Whether this is what Toho had in mind is unclear, but they didn’t complain after the movie was a big success and spawned a franchise.

All of those movies, including the original, have a reputation for particularly cheesy special effects, but I’ve never had an issue with them. I love this stuff. In all of the “Shōwa Era” films, Godzilla is played by a guy in a rubber suit. Here, there were two primary actors in the suit, Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. Neither of these actors was able to stand more than three minutes in the suit before passing out from the heat, so suffice to say there are no long shots of the monster. Under the eye of special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, the suited actors then walked around on large sets built entirely to scale. How this worked can be seen in the production still below:

Not just in a fun, cheesy way, I find this a much more fulfilling method of filming this kind of thing we get now, where Godzilla and King Kong punch each other through the Hong Kong skyline, skyscrapers disintegrating beneath them. Even if you know intellectually it’s a guy in a suit doing it, watching an actual, physical thing tearing down actual, physical buildings requires far less from me in the suspension of disbelief department, honestly. Nor does there seem to be anything approaching a “theme” in Godzilla vs. Kong, all the best parts are just monsters punching each other. Here, the people involved actually have stakes and relevance to what’s going on. More than that, and this may be a strange or inaccurate thing to say as outsider, so let me know if that’s true, this feels like Japan dealing with the trauma of World War II on screen in a way it had not done before. Pretty good for a dude in a rubber lizard suit.

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