Godzilla (1954)

Author: Patrick Galvan
November 9, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

Ishiro Honda's remarkable 1954 film Godzilla puts a dagger clean through the heart of the numerous and ignorant western biases which, to this day, remain geared toward the Japanese monster movie genre. Six decades since its original release, Honda's picture remains one of the most poignant and intelligent and harrowing films ever to tackle the subject of a nuclear disaster. Audience members who dismiss Japanese science-fiction as meaningless B-movie junk would do themselves a favor by experiencing this incredible postwar masterpiece. Now is a good enough time as any, with Criterion's Blu-ray in the market and the occasional re-release popping up here and there in western cities. Godzilla is not only an absorbing story with compelling human-level drama; it is also a first-class example of how familiar material can be revamped to form something unique and special.

In terms of a surface-level plot description, the film sounds rather typical. It begins with a Japanese fishing boat cruising through calm waters before suddenly becoming engulfed in a massive explosion. The ship becomes wrapped in flames and is subsequently dragged into the gulf. All passing vessels meet the same fate. Only one survivor, a fisherman from the remote Odo Island, lives long enough to see land again, and he meets his end too when his house—and much of the island's village—is obliterated during a nightmarish thunderstorm.

A subsequent investigation, headed by Dr. Kyohei Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and a young coastguard officer named Ogata (Akira Takarada), discovers a mass of evidence including: gigantic cavities in the ground resembling footprints, a prehistoric arthropod known as a trilobite, and most perplexing of all, traces of atomic radiation. Later that same day, the culprit responsible for the destruction reveals itself, rising over the hills of Odo Island. The villagers and investigation personnel flee in panic as an enormous prehistoric monster bellows in defiance before returning to the ocean.

From the evidence gathered on the island, Dr. Yamane hypothesizes the monster, christened Godzilla according to an Odo Island myth, originated in the deepest pockets of the ocean. It remained there, undisturbed for ages, only to be awakened by the detonation of H-bombs in the Pacific. Despite absorbing an unfathomable amount of radiation, the enraged animal survived and returned to the surface world. Despite the Self Defense Force's best efforts to destroy Godzilla, they only succeed in driving it closer to the Japanese coast...

It sounds like a standard 1950s monster picture. And, again in a very superficial sense, it is. But ironically enough, this is one of the very things that makes the original Godzilla so unique. Even though many of its key elements draw material from previous movies, Honda's picture does not simply repeat the generic monster movie formula. Instead, the film takes all those clichés and conventions and reworks them to fit into allegorical context. For Honda wasn't simply interested in flooding the screen with special effects. The director, a World War II veteran and witness to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was out to make a statement against the advancement of nuclear weapons, and the monster movie formula was the vessel for his message.

To start, let's consider the opening scene. Even though Godzilla was not the first picture to feature a giant monster attacking a ship at sea, what happens here is eerily reminiscent of the Second World War. A powerful white light erupts from the water, startling the crew, and the entire vessel is struck by a blinding explosion, with hot vapors billowing over everything. We never see the monster. Now the plot-wise explanation, as we learn later on, is Godzilla's ability to spew atomic flames from his mouth, but it is absolutely clear, from this beginning sequence, that Honda still had World War II—underwater mines, constantly developing atomic technology—on his mind.

Throughout the remainder of the picture, he draws numerous other references, some subtle and some explicit. Here are some examples of the explicit. After Dr. Yamane announces his theory of Godzilla's origins—"baptized in the fire of the H-bomb," as he puts it—we see a group of ordinary civilians discussing the news on a train. The characters bring up bomb shelters, contaminated fish, and one woman laments that she barely escaped from Nagasaki with her life. All direct references to Japan's memory of the war. Just then, the people on the train start talking about having to seek out shelter anew. One of the passengers sighs; he is tired of running.

Earlier in the film, there is another great scene where two people debate whether or not Yamane's theory should even be published. Because, as the film wisely points out, postwar diplomatic relations between Japan and the western world were fragile enough; citing nuclear weaponry as the source for another horror falling upon Japan could only make matters worse. America is never called out by name, but this scene is the closest Honda ever comes to pointing fingers. The restraint is refreshing.

An example of a subtle reference: the fisherman who survives an attack at sea, only to die a short time later. His death is not merely a means to shock us. As history has demonstrated time and time again, even survivors of a nuclear disaster usually end up losing their lives to the consequences—radiation in real life, Godzilla's attack on the island in the film.

Many of the primary characters also stand out as clichés reworked for symbolic purposes. Consider the character played by Takashi Shimura. How many times, before and since 1954, have we seen the obligatory scientist who wants to keep the monster alive for research? Many, many times. It remains a convention of the genre to this very day. But now consider, at a much deeper level, the motives of Shimura's character. At first, he seems to want to keep Godzilla alive simply because it's a unique specimen. But as it turns out, his ultimate goal is one which could benefit humankind as a whole. Godzilla absorbed a tremendous amount of radiation, and yet somehow, the monster lived on. If this secret of survival could be unlocked, Yamane clarifies during one of the movie's most powerful scenes, mankind could make strides in defense against nuclear weaponry and help put one of the world's greatest fears to rest. Yamane does not want to keep Godzilla alive just so he can write books about it; he believes studying the monster would do more good than bad. This is a very fresh and—on its own terms—plausible motive for an otherwise familiar movie caricature.

The man who ends up destroying Godzilla, as well as the device he uses to do it, further exemplify how Honda has brilliantly reconfigured traditional material. Again, on a surface level, it's nothing new: a scientist discovers a new weapon. But consider the way the character is written and how he responds to his own discovery. First of all, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata, giving one of his best performances) is explicitly described by other characters as a victim of World War II. The character wears an eye patch not to create the impression of a mad scientist but to confirm a reminder of war's consequences. And how about the weapon, called the Oxygen Destroyer? Instead of summoning the press, Dr. Serizawa conceals his discovery from the world. Why? Because he has accidentally created a technology that, if further developed, could replace the H-bomb as the world's deadliest super-weapon. And with international relations so fragile and tense after the war, it would only be a matter of time before the world's politicians would convert the Oxygen Destroyer into a weapon of mass destruction. At this point, Honda doesn't merely infer his message; he has his characters directly state it. This one scene, by itself, invalidates an ignorant statement (by a reviewer I shall not name to avoid granting undeserved publicity) that the postwar symbols of Godzilla were invented by enthusiasts and not by filmmakers.

There is postwar mentality expressed in the remaining human characters too. As I watched Ogata and Emiko in my most recent viewing, I became reminded of the real-life story of Akira Kurosawa and his wife, Yoko Yaguchi. The famous director and his wife married quietly and quickly in Tokyo during the war (their relatives had already evacuated) before fleeing the city. Shortly after the ceremony, the temple they wed at was obliterated in a fire raid. Of course, these were not the only two people to quickly commit themselves to one another during what could have been their final hours. As presented in the film, is the devotion and commitment between Ogata and Emiko in the face of this horrific disaster so much different? I have no idea if Honda intended this irony (then again, he and Kurosawa were close friends), but it is definitely worth noting.

But where the movie gathers its finest symbolic strengths is with Godzilla himself. As film historians have noted, the original film was inspired by the American-produced The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, released a year prior. Both films blame an atomic bomb on a monster being unleashed upon the civilized world. But here is the fundamental difference. In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the bomb was merely an excuse for creating on-screen destruction; the dinosaur's attacks were geared for generating thrills; only once was the audience signaled to feel sorry for the death of a human character. In Godzilla, the bomb is part of the allegory, and the carnage has genuine thought put behind it. In the two scenes where Godzilla obliterates Tokyo (some of the most harrowing and brutal sequences ever made), Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, director of the special effects, stage everything as an actual disaster, in which people are being killed left and right. The critic David Edelstein remarked that watching Godzilla's attack in this particular film reminded him of watching the destruction of the World Trade Center. And that's part of what's so brilliant about Godzilla. Even though it is a Japanese film addressing a topic very important to the Japanese people, the sentimentalities are universal. Watching Godzilla destroy Tokyo in this film is more depressing than exciting. Very frequently, Honda's camera cuts to street-level, watching as civilians flee for their lives and cower behind wreckage. One of the most powerful shots in the film is during the initial attack. Godzilla has knocked a train from its rails. He picks one of the cars up in his mouth, swings it around, and then lets it fall to the ground. Honda cuts to a group of onlookers. The camera toggles in upon three women, staring with horror, tears glistening in their eyes, as they witness the destruction. Throughout the second, much longer attack, Honda also presents sequences of police officers, firemen, and newscasters reacting to the monster's rampage. The aftermath of Godzilla's attack also details human suffering. Children are amongst the victims, but Honda puts plenty of emphasis on the adult casualties too. Individual details such as radiation poisoning and family members trying to comfort one another are captured. In whole, a sobering reminder of just how much physical and emotional devastation occurs in a nuclear disaster.

At no point in the picture is Godzilla given a definitive motivation for this cruelty. Is this a lapse in characterization? Not in the least. Once again, it all points to the message. Godzilla's only apparent motive is to create pain, suffering, and fear. And once we get past the talk about bringing balance to the world, just what was the nuclear bomb invented for? To create pain, suffering, and fear. For the record, now that we've reached the 21st century, has that purpose changed? Not much.

Honda does not ask us to feel sorry for Godzilla until quite late. The only time we sympathize with the monster is at the very end, when we see its body sinking into the gloom, and we realize, then most of all, that Godzilla is really another casualty of the H-bomb—and war—as well. So it's only fitting that he and Serizawa die together.

In addition to the wrongheaded myth that all Godzilla pictures are brainless B-movie entertainment, Honda's original also crosses out that silly notion of men in cheap monster suits kicking over cardboard buildings. Even though the special effects used to realize Godzilla here are not as dynamic as those featured in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or the original King Kong, they are far from cheesy. First of all, the suit looks terrific. Its head, much larger than many later incarnations, is defined by enormous jaws and remorseless eyes. The muscle texture and skin tone are also very convincing. The tail is not as flexible as would later become the norm, but Tsuburaya does a good job at moving the tail around to further the impression that Godzilla is a living thing with control over every part of its body. And save for a single shot, the wire controlling the tail remains invisible.

In close-ups, Godzilla is sometimes realized using an animatronic model. Some have cited this as a weakness in the effects. I can understand why. The model's shape and features are noticeably different from those of the full-fledged suit: the neck is shorter, the snout wider, the arms much smaller. But in all honesty, Tsuburaya still pulls off some very scary close-ups with this model and gets some impressive motion as well. And personally, I wonder why many people gripe about the model here and give the life-sized bust of the gorilla in King Kong (complete with that awkward, laugh-inducing smile) a pass.

Another aspect of brilliance is the musical score by Akira Ifukube. Its tone and motifs fit perfectly with the images. The brass-rich theme used for Godzilla's two attacks on Tokyo is particularly disturbing to listen to. I am most partial to the music used for the underwater finale. It is slow and melancholy, never becomes too loud, and perfectly stirs our emotions. Ifukube is also due credit for one of the trickiest part of film scoring: knowing when to sound off and when to keep quiet. There are moments in this film where he correctly determines that silence was the answer. At points of the second attack on Tokyo, the soundtrack goes dead silent and remains that way for a long stretch of time. This is most efficient during scenes such as a skirmish between Godzilla and a battalion of tanks as well as when a mother comforts her children while a wall of fire advances upon them.

In reviewing the original Godzilla, mention must be made of its popular re-edit, called Godzilla, King of the Monsters! This is the version many Americans, including myself, grew up with. And even though it pales in comparison to the power of Honda's original version, it still remains an efficient monster picture in its own right.

Admittedly, the nuclear symbolism has been dimmed. Dr. Yamane's reasoning for wanting to keep Godzilla alive is reduced to a couple of poorly dubbed sentences; the many references to the war are swept away; the H-bomb is mentioned far less often; the final monologue that more nuclear tests could lead to a second Godzilla—that one nuclear disaster will lead to another until it's too late—is nowhere to be found. Like many American monster pictures of the era, this version of the film is more of a straight-forward terror fable. The dubbing is, simply put, awkward, and there are too many additional monster roars and unintentionally comical death squeals added to the soundtrack. However, it's all made up for by the magnificent performance of Raymond Burr as a journalist caught up in the disaster. The American filmmakers do a splendid job recreating sets and splicing scenes of Burr in with the Japanese footage so that he appears to be interacting with the original cast. His performance during the final attack perfectly demonstrates his skill as an actor. Burr doesn't merely gab and describe what's happening before him; we see him reflecting signs of terror and wiping sweat from his forehead; just like the Japanese cast, he's treating this all very seriously. This is also one of the rare cases where I'll praise the addition of narration. Unlike later Americanized films, the narration is actually quite good ("it turned out be a visit to the living hell of another world") and Burr's unique voice makes it even better. I also wish to commend the American version for maintaining a thoroughly somber tone. I particularly like the end credits, which reuses Ifukube's choir-heavy theme and then trails off with a series of Godzilla's thunderous footsteps. All in all, even though it is noticeably weaker than its predecessor, Godzilla King of the Monsters! is a fine accomplishment, and it is worth, at the very least, a curious look.

Brilliantly executed and guided confidently by the hand of director Honda, the original Japanese version of Godzilla is truly worthy of its reputation as one of the best science-fiction pictures ever made. It is so nice to finally have it available on an international level. I still remember to this day when Honda's cut was merely a legend for us westerners. It was something we'd heard about; it was something we longed for; it was something we waited agonizingly for. Now, with several editions in the market, I can confidently say the wait was worth it. It truly is a great film.