A tale told by an dinosaur, full of sound and fury, signifying everything…
It is a simple matter to understate the importance of the original Godzilla. Reduced to the level of cliché here in the West in recent years and for a time during the 70’s in Japan, the character and concept of Godzilla in its first incarnation is sometimes forgotten amid smog monsters and three headed space dragons. An amazing marriage of post war cultural analysis and Harryhausen-ian homage, the film is both the best example of the series and last one you should watch if you’re a fan of some of the series’ more outlandish efforts. Put succinctly, the opening chapter is a terrifying look at the evils of science unchecked and rampant military foolishness. While there are good people working with science to end the threat posed by Godzilla, they are up against the aftermath of men playing God. This coupled with the need to deny the fact that such a creature could exist, means the carnage to come was avoidable. Using Tokyo as a crucible, director Ishiro Honda shows just how small we actually are against nature and how little our efforts to defend ourselves count toward in the big picture.
People tend to forget that Gojira was the first time that a Japanese studio had attempted to peer into the madness of the end of World War II. Censorship imposed by the victorious American occupying forces which should have been to break down the military mindset that Japan had cultivated during the war now was stifling creativity. Think about it: how could you talk about the atomic bomb someone dropped on you when the same people are dictating what you’re allowed to talk about? By early 1952, some of the restrictions surrounding the depiction of American forces and US decisions made during the war were relaxed. So here was a chance to show how they felt about The Bomb after living with it and its effect on their country. Moreover the atomic tests in the Pacific ocean after the war sent a lightning bolt through the country again. The tragic deaths of the crew of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) fishing boat in March 1954 added a new element for storywriter Shigeru Kayama and screenwriters Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata. After hammering through revisions that got rid of a mad scientist, Godzilla being a wild beast and other pieces, Honda and Murata were ready to unleash their creation on the world.
It is the early 1950’s and a small fishing boat off the coast of Japan is destroyed after seeing lights in the water. Another fishing boat from the same company is sent out and it is promptly destroyed too. Soon after, reports come through that a small island off the coast has been attacked by something. The government sends an archeologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his team and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) to investigate. They find a destroyed village, frightened villagers and evidence of a creature of a vast size and strength. While there, the team comes into contact with the creature, a huge dinosaur like lifeform that the villagers had named Gojira (a portmanteau of the Japanese words for Gorilla and Whale). Once the creature leaves and heads back to sea, the team rushes back to Tokyo to warn the mainland. After some bitter arguments, the government elects to tell the public about the lifeform and decides to depthcharge the creature. At the same time, Emiko is shown a new chemical formula by her fiance, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). The formula is so monstrous in design that Serizawa swears Emiko to secrecy for fear of what would happen if it were made public. After no sign of the creature, the authorities think that the creature has retreated. What they don’t know is this creature is not like other animals and doesn’t take kindly to being attacked. On a quiet night in Tokyo Bay, the stage is set for a terrifying holocaust between the people of Japan and the creature.
Ishiro Honda pulls together the fear of nuclear annihilation, a distrust of government officials and humanity’s arrogance and hubris for a spectacular showdown. Building on Dr. Yamane and his team following the breadcrumbs left by Gojira, the film shifts to show the coming horror by clearly demonstrating that Gojira simply isn’t like other creatures. A child of nuclear testing, it can almost be seen as a Japanese shinto god come to lay waste to a undeserving humanity. Neither good nor evil, the film uses the animal as a subtext for an atomic bomb, leaving death, destruction, scarred landscapes and fallout in its wake. The people can only really stand and watch as their lives, their city and their notion of safety is torn from them by an uncaring and unfeeling reptilian god. That said, they try and deal with being human in an inhuman scenario. Emiko wants to break up with Serizawa and be happy with her true love Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage boat captain. But Serizawa is only engaged to her because he thinks that’s what she and her family want. Ogata doesn’t know how to say how he feels to Emiko’s father and Dr. Yamane has a terrible feeling that the destruction on the island and at sea is just the tip. Time and again, Yamane is the voice of reason but nobody listens. I felt watching the movie that Yamane might be an analogue for the government of Japan before the warmongers came to power in the 1930’s but that could be me projecting where there isn’t subtext. The kitchen sink drama between the three young people is understated and never veers into melodrama until the very end of the film and by that point it doesn’t hurt the film. All the while Honda keeps showing a population that can’t cope with this force of nature that won’t forgive them for having helped create it. Children are sheltered from the truth until literally everything is burning, adults go from shelter to shelter in the vain hope of avoiding the animal that did this to them. The nighttime scenes of Tokyo’s destruction are visceral and unflinching; buildings reduced to cinders, people being snuffed out, mothers and children being burnt or crushed. All of this while Gojira goes from point to point without feeling being tickled by the army’s attempts at killing it.
The nuclear allegory is used effectively throughout. The army can’t destroy Gojira: how do you kill a bomb? Their efforts are laughable in the face of such power. The creature isn’t a bomb but it can walk through a city laying waste as it goes, doing far more destruction and putting in mind the firebombing of the city during the war by allied forces. Tokyo was spared the horror of the bomb but it must now pay a blood toll for ignoring the dangers of war and of the tools used in war. The people think that since the government and armed forces are in control, what’s to worry about? Your answer is written on the faces of the actors in the civilian ferry boat scene where Gojira surfaces and takes its revenge on humans who tried to drop depth charges on it. Long before it became a cuddly mascot for Japanese school children, Gojira is shown as an elemental force who reacts in the way every animal does when it is threatened: it wipes out whatever it is in front of it. There’s no avoiding it, no bargaining with it. It is an animal and human delusions of morality and argument don’t factor in here. The only thing to do here is simply try to survive. The final act where the horror of atomic energy is brought into a headon collision with a more destructive man made force in the form of Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer formula. The irony of destroying an evil we have used on ourselves with an evil that we could use on ourselves probably won’t be lost on you.
The film itself is shot as a mixture of detective noir and kitchen sink drama. The scenes of Gojira running amok are coupled with swelteringly hot nights where people try to keep their sanity while the coming veritable storm blows in from the sea. Quiet to the point of being pastoral, the silence as actors take their time in scenes designed to show the uselessness of being human is shattered by unhuman roars as the city burns in a deafening cacophony of music and sound effects. By the time the film is over we know, given man’s capacity for common ignorance, that is going to happen again if we don’t learn from this attack on our way of life. I can think of no better way to dissuade people from being in favour of war than movies like this. For all my love of the series’ sillier efforts, this is my favourite take on Gojira. A monumental anti-war and anti-nuclear weapon film, it’s cheap effects can be viewed as a product of their time and the performances of the cast are where the true heart of the film lies.
ADDENDUM – GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956)
I can’t talk about the original film without mentioning the Americanised version from 1956 starring Raymond Burr. Using the original film as its starting point, the film uses Burr in the role of US reporter Steve Martin who is visiting Japan for an unrelated matter. While there, he picks up on the story of this animal nicknamed Godzilla that had been spotted off the coast and follows the story. The film unfolds exactly the same way except that Martin reports on everything for his editor, narrating the film in the form of dictating notes into a tape recorder. Along the way, he meets his good friend Dr. Yamane and his daughter Emiko and encounters them during the attacks by Godzilla. The best way of describing it to people is that it is almost like a companion piece to the first film. You don’t have to see it but it adds to your appreciation of the ‘54 version seeing through a foreign person’s eyes. One thing of note: the nuclear angle and its role in Godzilla’s creation is downplayed for obvious reasons.
Godzilla (2014) is available now on UK 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download from Warner Bros.
Home media details
Distributor: Criterion Collection (US)
Edition: Blu-ray (2012)
After having various releases, Godzilla got the Criterion blu ray treatment in 2012 when the original version was restored along with Godzilla: King of the Monsters! from Toho’s primary negatives. The film looks amazing for a 50 year old Japanese film and most problems inherent with films from that era are eliminated if nor reduced. While we only get LPCM 1.0 tracks, they are nice and clean with lots of depth for the effects laden scenes and crispness for the dialogue. For the record, Criterion provides a Japanese track for Gojira and an English track for Godzilla: King of the Monsters! and has separate English subtitle tracks for both. Godzilla expert David Kalat joins us for two commentaries for both versions of the movie.
An audio essay detailing the story of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru is included along with various interviews with Akira Takarada (Ogata), Haruo Nakajima (Godzilla performer), Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai (Gojira film technicians) and famed composer of the series Akira Ifukube. A video essay on the film’s effects wrap it up and trailers for both versions round it out. There is an included printed booklet with further information with the film.