Godzilla (1954)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (4.5/5)
June 17th, 2009 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Though often seen as a simple 50s B-movie, Godzilla is not just a standard monster-on-the-loose film like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or Them. Like King Kong before it, it's a true milestone: a film that would lay the foundations for the tokusatsu (special effects) industry in Japan and has continued to inspire future generations to the present. King Kong, however, was but a simple adventure story; Godzilla chose to take it in a deeper direction. The film's monster is not a giant ape taken out of his home and made to suffer in captivity; it's an enraged, atomic explosion-created mutant dinosaur out to repay a society that created it for its pain. As a child, the original Godzilla was never a favorite of mine. I liked it, but I thought it was too grim and serious for my taste and much preferred the colorful hijinks of the 1960s films. At an older age, however, the film resonates far clearer and has its own unique quality few of the later films possessed.

The Eiko-Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, is destroyed at sea by a mysterious force. Later, a rescue ship, the Bingo-Maru, is also obliterated. A group of reporters are sent to the nearby Odo Island for an investigation. On Odo Island, the villagers live in fear of “Godzilla”, a giant monster who lives in the sea. One night, something comes ashore and causes massive destruction. Not long after, the Japanese government orders another investigation and sends a group of scientists there headed by Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura). He finds a lot of radioactivity in a footprint left by the creature. Suddenly, the creature comes ashore again and the villagers race toward the hills to try to fight it off. However, one look at the creature: a mutant dinosaur hundreds of feet tall with a deafening roar is enough to send everyone fleeing in terror.

The Japanese military soon tries to defeat the creature with depth charges, but as soon as the Japanese public begins to rejoice at the creature's “death”, the monster rises from the sea and briefly attacks Tokyo before going back under the sea. The Japanese government builds a gigantic barrier of electric towers around Tokyo to repel the creature, but when it resurfaces, these have little effect and seek to only enrage the monster. Godzilla then cuts a swath of death and destruction through Tokyo as it levels the city completely. The next morning, Tokyo is in ruins and countless thousands are dead or maimed. Yamane's daughter, Emiko (Momoko Koichi), remembers something her ex-fiancée, the tormented Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), had shown her. He has invented a compound that can remove oxygen from water but kept it a secret because of how terrible a weapon it could be in the wrong hands. Emiko convinces her boyfriend, patrolman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), to confront Serizawa about using his “Oxygen Destroyer” weapon against Godzilla. Serizawa reluctantly agrees, but can even a force of that power destroy Godzilla?

There is no denying the cultural impact Godzilla would have, as a genre film, it would be as iconic to the Japanese film industry as Jaws or Star Wars would in Hollywood afterward. Before Godzilla, the Japanese special effects industry didn't exist and Japan, as a culture, had no contemporary “pop culture mythologies”. The tale of Godzilla's production is story of remarkable craftsmanship and luck. Who made Godzilla what it was and still is in the minds of both Japan and the world? Was it Tomoyuki Tanaka: who looked down at the ocean on the plane ride home after unsuccessfully trying to produce a film in Indonesia and got the idea to make a monster film when he pondered what forces of the unseen may exist beneath the waves? Was it Ishiro Honda: the humanistic filmmaker who served in World War II in the Japanese army in China, saw the horrors of war first hand there and lent his own experience to give the film a visceral feel? Was it Eiji Tsuburaya: the special effects man who is now as famous as Walt Disney to the Japanese and was every bit as pioneering, always thinking of more efficient and better ways to shoot his footage? Or how about Haruo Nakajima, who suffered the tortures of the damned inside the hot and heavy Godzilla suit? Or could it have been Akira Ifukube, whose heavy, militaristic music has an almost androgynous cultural marker: it sounds just as Western as Eastern and lent a very distinctive sound to the film? The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Everyone who worked on Godzilla gave it their all and their collaboration led to one of the most iconic Japanese films ever made. Honda's direction, while not as artsy, deliberate or controlled as the likes of his friend Akira Kurosawa, is clear, concise and full of purpose and Masao Taimi's cinematography and lustrous use of monochrome gives the film a grim edge, reminiscent of the newsreels of World War II, that few of the sequels and follow ups, often shot in vibrant Eastman color, would share. The script is well written and accomplishes its aim nicely. The characters, if not particularly deep or well developed, all serve the story, from Takashi Shimura's Dr. Yamane, who sees the scientific purpose in a creature like Godzilla to Akihiko Hirata's tragic Dr. Serizawa, a war-scarred man tormented by his invention of the most horrible weapon of destruction to date and crushed by his fiancée Emiko's rejection of him, both of which lead to his eventual suicide. These characters, who are portrayed earnestly by all involved, are people who survived and weathered the storm of World War II's horrors only to find themselves face to face with yet another incarnation of this a decade later. Ifukube's music is, as said before, very unique. Like John Williams, his style is recognizable just by hearing it. It sounds neither Asian nor Western, but completely “Ifukube” and his score, equal parts haunting and rousing, helps lend the film its effective feel as much as its look. Tsuburaya's special effects work is truly revolutionary and changed Japanese filmmaking forever. While perhaps clunky by today's standards, it is no less "real" than Willis O'Brien's work. Do Tsuburaya's men in suit monsters and miniatures really look “less realistic” than the beautiful but jerky and obviously “unreal” stop motion creatures of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen? If anything, I'd say they look closer to reality.

While critically acclaimed Japanese films from the period like Seven Samurai (1954) or Tokyo Story are works of auteur filmmakers and Godzilla is but a simple studio programmer, it's a far better film than most give it credit. The film deals with Japan's then recent cultural wounds (the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and conveys its fears. The film was made at a time that the Japanese as a people had every reason to be afraid, a concept that would be tackled by Kurosawa's I Live in Fear (1955) a year later. Not only was the country decimated by fire bombings and two nuclear bombs but a decade earlier, but the Japan was now surrounded by communist enemies in Southeast Asia such as China and North Korea. Japan had invaded much of Asia in World War II only a decade prior and the wounds of crimes committed against Chinese, Philipino and Korean civilians by the Japanese Imperial Army were still very fresh and driving the hatred and anti-Japanese sentiment in most of the area. By all accounts, Japan was and to some degree still is sitting near a political volcano. The idea that the communism in China and nearby wars in Korea and later Vietnam could infect Japan and cut it down from its economic prosperity was very deeply imbedded in the minds of the Japanese people. The Japanese, though they may have an aggressor during the war, had also seen the full horror of it: the memories of hiding in a bomb shelters during fire bomb raids by American planes and seeing footage of the nuclear devastation at Hiroshima was also still fresh in the minds of all but the youngest Japanese.

From the opening sequence, in which a ship is obliterated by a mysterious, almost supernatural force, Godzilla makes its motives known. The scene recalls a then recent incident involving a fishing vessel called the Lucky Dragon No. 5. The ship strayed too close to an American nuclear test site, the crew members were sickened and Japanese tuna was nationally recalled after some of the contaminated product reached the market. This caused a massive scandal and Tanaka decided to use the incident as a basis to give his upcoming monster film more social relevance. The films that came after Godzilla, with only a few exceptions, frequently were aimed more and more toward children when Tanaka began to realize that children loved Toho's monster menagerie. They would depict the monster attacks as entertaining and very seldom show the true devastation that such an attack would bring. The original Godzilla is the only Godzilla film to go that route: showing mothers with children begging for death, children hysterically crying over their dead parents and hospitals filled to the brim with the maimed and radiation poisoned. In that essence, it is a fine anti-war film and Ishiro Honda truly brings a level of conscientiousness to his film. This is not a warning just for Japan; it's not a nationalistic and angry condemnation of America's atomic bombings of Japan, no. Godzilla is a message and warning for all of mankind: stop foolishly making war or face the consequences. Honda only uses his home country of Japan as a relevant example. His true message is much broader. Indeed, in today's world, with conflict and human hatred still brewing the world over, this message is still more relevant than ever. Godzilla, in its true essence as a character, is simply a personification of war itself.

When Godzilla came to Western shores two years after its release in Japan, US producer Joseph Levine, with the services of B-movie director Terry Morse, shot new sequences featuring actor Raymond Burr and added them to the film while shortening the Japanese sequences by about two reels. What resulted was entitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters and was a big hit in the American drive-in circuit. The film features Burr as an American reporter named Steve Martin who stops off in Japan on his way to an assignment in Egypt and accidentally ends up in the middle of Godzilla's attack on Tokyo. Naturally, most of the film's more overtly anti-war and anti-nuclear sequences were cut. America, only a decade prior, was interning Japanese Americans and making documentaries like Know Your Enemy: Japan in which the Japanese were depicted as inhuman monstrosities. Burr was thus a necessity so American audiences could have someone to identify with. Godzilla, King of the Monsters, if viewed separately from the Japanese version, actually works quite well. Yes, it's taken down to the level of a more typical 50s atomic horror film like The Giant Behemoth or It Came From Beneath the Sea, but it's still a very workable film, with a degree of care utilized in the shooting of the American sequences and editing of the film that has been seldom seen on full scale “Americanizations” since. However, to me it's become much harder to appreciate Godzilla, King of the Monsters since I have seen the Japanese Godzilla, since the latter is a much clearer film in its aim.

When the box office receipts were turned in, Toho knew they were onto something. Almost at once, they rushed a sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), into production. Eiji Tsuburaya soon had his own permanent special effects unit and he, Honda and Tanaka continued to make these films together. After Godzilla, the Japanese special effects film became an industry and an institution. Dozens of films would follow and a legend would begin!