Friday, January 13, 2012

Classics Revisited: Gojira (aka: Godzilla)

(1954) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Ishirô Honda, Shigeru Kayama (Story) and Takeo Murata; Starring: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada and Momoko Kôchi; Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming

Rating: *****

What’s It About?

Gojira, or Godzilla as it’s known in the States, is an indisputable landmark in monster films, and serves as a sobering condemnation of the atomic age.  Until fairly recently, the original version wasn’t widely available outside of its native country.  For several decades, most American audiences were only aware of the heavily edited 1956 version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!  New footage starring Raymond Burr as a reporter was inserted into the American cut, which was also significantly shorter.  Another major difference was that references to the atom bomb and its effects were omitted from the 1954 version.  This only served to dilute Ishirô Honda’s original subtext-laden cautionary tale into a standard popcorn flick.

While it’s easy to accept that the name “Gojira” is a combination of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” it’s not so clear who came up with the name in the first place.   Different stories have circulated about the monster’s name, attributing Gojira to a studio contest, or a nickname for a burly Toho stagehand, or even the head of the film company’s advertising department.   In the early planning stages of the film, it wasn’t even certain what type of creature would be labeled Gojira.  The filmmakers went through numerous conceptual drawings until settling on the dinosaur/dragon-like monster that’s so instantly recognizable today.

Although the title monster is prehistoric, its awakening and subsequent rampage were clearly modern in origin.  The exact cause for Godzilla’s appearance is not explicitly stated, but all signs point to atomic testing.  In the opening scene, a small ship is destroyed by an unseen force.  According to DVD commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, this scene was likely influenced by an unfortunate 1954 incident involving the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon #5), which was in the vicinity of an American nuclear test on Bikini Atoll.  One of the biggest influences for Gojira, however, is undoubtedly the devastation that Japan experienced at the end of World War II, as the direct result of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Prominent zoologist Professor Tanabe (Fuyuki Murakami) visits Odo Island to learn more about a legendary creature that has been sighted in the vicinity by members of the indigenous population.  He detects radioactive contamination in the village – a direct result of the monster’s appearance.  In the next scene, he catches a first-hand glimpse of Gojira.  The other major players in Gojira are a love triangle consisting of Tanabe’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), her childhood friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), and her new boyfriend Ogota (Akira Takarada).

Serizawa carries an enormous burden on his shoulders in the form of a dangerous new invention, the oxygen destroyer.  He’s compelled to keep it under wraps, troubled by the implications of letting his secret fall into the wrong hands.  The oxygen destroyer might be the only weapon capable of defeating Godzilla, but it could also potentially doom humanity. He entrusts his friend Emiko with his secret, but as Godzilla continues to leave a wake of destruction across Japan, their friendship, and his resolve to keep his invention locked away, become strained to the breaking point. 

Godzilla is brought to life, thanks to Eiji Tsuburaya’s groundbreaking effects work.  He admired the stop-motion work in American films such as King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but deemed this technique too expensive and time-consuming to duplicate for Gojira.  Instead, Tsuburaya employed a combination of suit effects (His first attempt at creating a latex rubber suit was far too rigid to walk in.) and puppetry amidst detailed miniature buildings to create the illusion of an immense reptilian creature wreaking havoc on human civilization.  Many of the effects appear primitive by today’s exacting standards, but they reflect a different aesthetic that values artistry over realism.

Akira Ifukube’s memorable score is appropriately somber.  In one of the most haunting segments of Gojira, we hear a plaintive girls’ chorus, accompanied by images of the human toll exacted by Godzilla’s wrath.  His main theme, initially used to signal the arrival of the military, would continue to appear in one form or another throughout the many subsequent films in the Godzilla series.  Ifukube also contributed greatly to the film’s sound effects, with the innovative use of musical instruments (Godzilla’s distinctive roar is one notable example.).

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Gojira not only stands favorably in comparison to its 1950s American contemporaries, but surpasses many of them in terms of social relevance and allegorical storytelling.   Simply put, Godzilla is an unstoppable force of nature.  Only our hubris makes us think that we hold all the cards, but the natural world always has the stronger hand.  The terrible devastation brought on by Godzilla reminds us that the threat of nuclear obliteration is still a salient concern.   The original film achieved something that none of the other sequels managed to do – transcending pure entertainment and becoming emotionally engaging.  There are no generic crowds here.  You’re right down on the ground with the population as their city crumbles in front of their eyes.  No other Godzilla film has made the wholesale destruction appear so personal.  Honda has successfully linked human faces to the ensuing tragedy.  In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, a mother tells her children that they will soon join their (dead) father.  In another scene, Emiko weeps as she surveys the casualties in a disaster relief center.  These moments, and many others, help lift Gojira above many other genre films of the period, and establishes it as a significant work in any genre.

The Japanese import Godzilla has become a ubiquitous component of American culture.  In William Tsutsui’s amusing book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, the author observed how Godzilla has entered our popular lexicon to denote something of gargantuan proportions.  Godzilla has become so embedded in our collective unconscious that most people are probably aware of him on some level, even if they haven’t seen a single Godzilla movie.

When he completed Gojira, Ishirô Honda couldn’t foresee that he would be creating a legacy that would continue many decades later (The original film has spawned 27 sequels to date.).  It’s surprising to note that Honda, whose name has become synonymous with the Godzilla franchise, was actually not the first person chosen to direct Gojira, or that the film was not planned as the first in a series.  Perhaps Honda and Godzilla were just in the right place at the right time.  Whatever the reason, the Godzilla movies (much like the title monster) refuse to go away.  Plans are in the works for another American film (hopefully better than Roland Emmerich’s misguided attempt).  It’s also unlikely that Toho has closed the door on future productions.  If there’s one thing that’s certain; we haven’t heard the last from the big “G.”


  1. Good review. It's interesting that the very same year Takashi Shimura appeared in Gojira he also appeared in Seven Samurai. You probably could not find two more different kinds of films.

    I completely agree with your points on the impact of the atomic bombs on Japanese culture and this film. I saw the Oxygen Destroyer as a big metaphor for the atomic bomb, too.

  2. Thanks! This is one of my personal favorites. I think it surprises everyone who sees it for the first time, expecting a lighthearted monster romp. Good point about Takashi Shimura too!