Imagine if back in 2010 some director had made a film about a monster attacking New York City in the wake of 9-11 (actually in 2008, someone did!). A film like that would be extremely unsettling to people who had lived through 9-11.
Now imagine that instead of making that movie nine years after flying some planes into three buildings and a field in one isolated part of the country, someone makes that same movie with a radioactive monster, nine years after large swaths of your nation have been bombed into submission, and two of your larger cities are still not rebuilt after taking hits from nuclear weapons.
Gojira (aka “Godzilla”) is often viewed as some kiddie monster film, but if you think about the context of its release, it was far from it. Gojira was in fact one of the first Japanese films to even discuss the topic of nuclear weapons and radioactivity, and as you might guess, this was a pretty controversial and serious film. The sequels it spawned may very well have descended into Saturday afternoon kiddie faire, but the original was a pretty serious piece of art.
Before going further, there are two films that often get confused here. Gojira, the film I will be talking about, is the Japanese original. This film is also often translated as Godzilla. When it came over to America, the idea of a film featuring no white Americans was unacceptable, so they filmed a few scenes with Raymond Burr as an American reporter covering the devastation, and literally spliced those scenes into the film. This bastardized American version is usually called Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I prefer to watch the original version with subtitles so I can hear what the director (Ishiro Honda) wanted us to hear without any further distraction. My discussion here is strictly about Gojira.
The story: A Japanese fishing boat comes to harm off of a small island, and experts from Tokyo are sent to investigate. The villagers inform them that they have not been having successful fishing lately, and mention it might be an old island god, Gojira, who might be the culprit (they haven’t been sacrificing the recommended allotment of virgins of late). That night, there is a storm … and something comes ashore and destroys part of the village. The group returns to Tokyo, and advises that experts go check this out. One of them is an archaeologist named Yamane. Upon arrival they find a living trilobite, and large radioactive footprints (spoiler: Gojira is pretty big). There is sudden commotion, and suddenly a large reptilian creature appears coming over the mountain. There is a brief fight (the humans don’t do to well), but Gojira eventually heads out to sea.
Yamani’s team returns to Tokyo with a “you’re never gonna believe this” story. Then things get real: Yamane is convinced that Gojira might be the product of radiation released by the nuclear testing of some country which is not named. This ignites a political debate in the government in which some people want to hold said unnamed country to task for creating gigantic monsters, while the others demand restraint (considering unnamed country is now an ally and might be tempted to go back into the nuclear weapons dropping business). In the end, Gojira’s existence is announced to the public as the coast guard is sent to depth charge the beast. This doesn’t work. The politicians plead with Yamani for help in killing the creature, but he doesn’t want the creature dead … he would prefer to study it.
Meanwhile … the love triangle subplot begins to take off. Yamani’s daughter is engaged to Yamani’s not so mentally stable colleague, Serizawa. She has decided to break off her engagement to dad’s mad science partner to marry the dashing young ship captain, Ogata. Before she breaks off the engagement (and good thing she held off for the sake of exposition), Serizawa demonstrates to her his latest mad sciencey invention: an oxygen destroyer! The device is dropped in water, and it removes the oxygen in the water, which somehow also strips away the flesh and internal organs from any organism too. SCIENCE (fiction)!!
Finally, it is time for Gojira to take his first stroll through Tokyo, but it is a short attack. The army sets up a barrier of electric cables, as civilians are evacuated from the city and stowed in bomb shelters (something that likely brought back some real feeling of anxiety for more than a few people in the film’s audience). The next night, Gojira is back, and as he approaches the electric barrier, he lets loose what looks to be a spray from his mouth that is actually a highly radioactive breath … it melts the wires, and Gojira is free to stomp through Tokyo. The army and air force have little effect, but after destroying much of the city and killing/wounding thousands, he retires to Tokyo Bay. The film spends a great deal of time showing the destruction of Tokyo, and the patients overflowing hospitals, some with radiation burns.
Emiko is overcome by the devastation, and tells Captain Ogata about the oxygen destroyer. The two of them find Serizawa, and try to convince him that this oxygen destroyer might be the key to saving Japan. Serizawa is furious over the betrayal of his secret, and fights Ogata. After Ogata is wounded, Serizawa apologizes but explains that if the secret of the oxygen destroyer is made public, that it would only be a matter of time before the nations of the world turned it against each other (hmmmmm ….). Serizawa relents after seeing the city in ruins and the people dead, dying, or frightened of what the next night will hold (absolutely a hold over from World War II). As a precaution, he burns his notes to make sure another can never be made.
Ogata and Serizawa take a ship out into Tokyo Bay, and the pair dive down with the device where they find a resting Gojira. Ogata and Serizawa plant the device, but Serizawa realizes that as log as he lives, another device could always be made. He cuts his own air hose as Ogata returns to the surface. Gojira rises to the surface a final time, before descending beneath the waves and is skeletonized.
Emiko is overwhelmed that the man she had rejected turned out to be far braver than she could have thought, while Yamane laments that further nuclear tests may result in more monstrosities.
For those who have never seen the film, you can now see the importance of the story. This film actually delves into some extraordinarily sensitive political and sociological material for the people of 1954 Japan. The monster is a literal symbol of the nuclear fear that the people of Japan felt like no nation on Earth.
The original concept of the film was not so much inspired by Hiroshima, but by Bikini. During one of the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, a Japanese fishing boat wandered too close to the test range, and the sailors were stricken with radiation sickness. All six of the crew were dead within six months. While most Americans have never heard of this incident, in Japan it is an enormous part of their post WWII history (the boat is preserved in a museum … its own museum). So imagine just a few months after this incident, someone in Japan is sitting in a theater where the opening scene is about a Japanese fishing boat being exposed to radiation. That hit home with enormous emotional resonance!
In the bastardized American version, the scenes of devastation in Tokyo are mostly cut. In the Japanese version, these scenes make up a lengthy montage. Keep in mind, a huge percentage of that audience knew exactly what it was like to have to run for a bomb shelter and pray it didn’t collapse from some explosion. Seeing images like this created a true sense of dread to the audience in ways (thank God) most Americans have never had to remotely deal with.
In this sense, Honda was using science fiction for one of its most treasured uses: commenting on a topic that other genres couldn’t because of censorship or sensitivity. Making a film about the actual bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (or a film directly criticizing nuclear testing) was simply out of the question in 1954. However, replace “nuclear weapon” with “giant radioactive beast” and all of a sudden you could get away with quite a bit! Honda was brilliant in not only doing what Alien would do 25 years later by turning on the audiences’ internal fears, but he would use his story as a way of beginning the discussion that had to be had. In this sense, Gojira is not only a direct ancestor of Jaws or Alien as a genuine horror story, but it is the direct ancestor of films like United 93 where a piece of art in the wake of a disaster forces the period of “not talking about it in public” to end, and the genuine catharsis of a genuine conversation to begin.
There is no question that the actual production values of Gojira don’t hold up well.
Seriously, it looks like a cat without hair that is about to lick Tokyo to death.
Keep in mind, this film was released a little over nine years after the end of the war, and the Occupation had only ended five years earlier. the Japanese film industry had not yet fully recovered, and what little resources were available had to be shared. At the same time Gojira was filming, some upstart director named Kurosawa was making some other film that did not spin off 25 sequels like Gojira (though it did get remade later in the U.S.).
As much as films like Alien used the set to create the mood of the film, the prop work in Gojira, undoubtedly the best they could make at that time and place, was not nearly as important as what was going on when the monster wasn’t around. Thus, the quality of the effects were of secondary importance.
Akira Ifukube wins a special place in the hearts of Godzilla fans. Not only did he compose the main theme which was reused many times because of its popularity, but he created the effects of the monster’s roar and footsteps. Ifukube would continue composing for future Godzilla films for decades to come. It has a simple rhythm which conveys the idea of something coming from off screen, and that action must be fast to be ready for its arrival.
While the writing is fairly simplistic in terms of dialogue, the acting isn’t bad. Akira Takarada (Ogata) is not only still alive, but starred in a significant role as the Secretary General of the United Nations in the last Godzilla film in 2004 (he also voiced Jaffar in the Japanese dub of Aladdin). Takashi Shimura (Yamane) was one of the stock actors constantly used by Akira Kurosawa (he appeared in 21 of the grand master’s films). He had earlier appeared in Rashomon, played Kambei in The Seven Samurai, and wold later appear in Yojimbo (later remade as A Fistful of Dollars). As a side note, every year there is a big Godzillafest in nearby Rosemont, and as a part of the festival, a series of films is shown in the town I teach in at the old one screen classic movie house. For the last few years, Mr. Takarada has flown in and been a part of the festivities.
Sequels have a way of diminishing the original product. I won’t lie, while some of the later Godzilla films are fun, they are not really the statement making pieces of art that the original was, and as such, it becomes easy to lump them all together as “bad sci-fi monster movies” and shove them aside. We still do this. The Matrix was a seminal film in science fiction film history, but that is easy to forget after watching the crappulance that was the sequels. It is hard to think of Jaws as a masterpiece of film making after you have seen Michael Caine climb out of the water in a bone dry shirt. Just as you should ignore those terrible sequels, you can do the same here (personally, I love Destroy All Monsters, but I wouldn’t hold it up as an outstanding example of world cinema)
I think one of the hallmarks that many great films share is that they take risks. Gojira did that in spades. This film is one of the prime examples of science fiction as metaphor for current events (something more common on sci-fi television than in film), and I think it holds a special place in film history, no matter what its sequels have done to its reputation.
Trivia: In 2004, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the original film, the big reptile became the tenth fictional character to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Godzilla has one. Clint Eastwood and Julia Roberts do not.
“I would like to thank my agent, and all the little people ….”