Gojira / Godzilla (1954) – The 1st Godzilla Film – Directed by Ishiro Honda – Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, and Takashi Shimura.
If you are of a certain age and grew up in the Boston TV market, you are well aware of WLVI-TV 56’s Creature Double Feature, a back-to-back Saturday afternoon block of monster movies. Given that they ran Saturday afternoons, I was more likely to turn the antenna to pick up the Red Sox or Bruins game down the dial on Channel 38, but I still watched it enough to know who Godzilla and Mothra and Rodan were, and I always loved catching the commercials.
There was a part of me, though, that was never able to get past the Rubber Suited Monster aspect, or the less-than-stellar effects, or even the black and white. Now that I’m older, none of those things are deal breakers, and I’ve decided it’s time to educate myself and watch a bunch of Kaiju movies until I get bored with them.
There’s only one place to start this set of reviews, of course, and that’s with the first film to feature the most famous of all Kaiju monsters: GOJIRA as it was originally called, GODZILLA as it came to be known.
GOJIRA / GODZILLA is one of those movies that if you haven’t seen it, you really have no idea how good it is. Knowing the basic story of Godzilla or being partly familiar with Kaiju movies does not prepare you for how powerful this movie is when you experience it for the first time. To start with, this isn’t not a monster movie. Oh sure, there’s a monster in it and he tramples through a city and fights the military and all that, but this isn’t just some dumb B-movie that gives you a scant plot in order to get to all the stomping and screeching. GODZILLA is a serious movie, awash in national and personal guilt and serving as a warning against the dangers of nuclear testing.
Brilliantly, the movie opens at the nexus of legend and science, expertly blending in historical fears with contemporary nightmares. A fishing boat is attacked by a flash of light, and villagers on a local island start recalling stories of the legendary “Godzilla,” a sea monster in which young girls were sacrificed to in days gone by. In short order we get our first look at the 150′ tall, reptilian biped looming over the top of a hill, and all the angry villagers who went running after him with their pitchforks before they saw him, no turn and run the other way.
One witness is Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and as he testifies to the government about what they’re up against, he tells them that Godzilla is only here because of nuclear testing. There is great debate in the room (which oddly falls on gendered lines) about whether the government should let this information out to the public. Eventually it’s decided to let the public in on things, as if not telling the citizens would have made it better when he showed up to destroy Tokyo. There is plenty of action sequences with Godzilla romping the city and getting shot at by a huge variety of Japanese army weaponry, but it’s all touched with a sense of sadness and futility.
Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo is not filmed with either real menace or repelled with real fervor. There’s plenty of fire breathing and buildings getting knocked down, but the images that stand out are the victims of the violence, the people who had no say in Godzilla’s creation and no part in repelling his assault. They’re just people, living their lives … lives that get interrupted when a giant reptile and the army decide to fight each other in their city. Even when Godzilla is finally repelled (or when he decides he’s had enough knocking Tokyo around and leaves), the camera focuses on the sadness of Yamane more than the cheering corwds – we hear them but we see him as the man who argued that Godzilla should be studied instead of destroyed sees that dream fall by the wayside in the shadow of all the creature’s destruction.
It’s powerful filmaking from Ishiro Honda, amplified by a truly legendary score from Akira Ikufube.
As the army and government struggle to find a way to stop Godzilla, Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) reveals to her new flame Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) that her old flame, Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), has developed a device called the Oxygen Destroyer, which, well, destroys all oxygen underwater, forcing anything living to die of asphyxiation. Serizawa does not want to use the device because he fears it falling into the hands of people who will use it as a weapon. GOJIRA makes a powerful statement about the escalation of arms, as the only weapon that can be assured to defeat the new Greatest Weapon in the Next Greatest Weapon. The quest for power leads to bombs, which gives us Godzilla, a creature that can absorb radiation. The army’s attacks on the creature are only partially successful, so they need a new weapon, which Serizawa has, but he knows if he does use the Oxygen Destroyer, everyone will want it until the Next Greatest Weapon comes along.
It’s a crippling position for Serizawa to be in – Godzilla can only be defeated if he uses the Oxygen Destroyer, but then the Oxygen Destroyer becomes, in essence, the New Godzilla, which will cause other scientists to attempt to build something even more powerful. If Serizawa could simply trust people to not use his terrible weapon, he would use it, but he knows that the governments of the world are not going to let such a weapon be used once. Serizawa is ultimately convinced to use the Oxygen Destroyer when he hears a children’s chorus singing a lament on the radio, desiring that we live without destruction.
The final action sequence is jaw-dropping brilliant, but not because of the action. Rather, it’s emotion that carries the day. Honda films Serizawa and Ogata’s deep sea dive to release the Oxygen Destroyer near Godzilla with no joy, no speed. This is a somber attack on another living creature. Instead of coming across like Luke’s canyon run on the Death Star, Honda’s camera, Ikufube’s haunting score, and the dreamlike quality of the underwater shots make this a tragic march to a funeral. There is no joy in killing the “monster.” Even Godzilla watches them with a sense of tragic inevitability. The two men deliver the Oxygen Destroyer and Serizawa stays at the bottom of the ocean to kill himself in the process. Doing this ensures that no one will ever learn of his secrets to creating the Oxygen Destroyer.
Godzilla’s death is as somber as you will ever find for the death scene of a movie’s antagonist. There is a brief round of cheering after Godzilla dies, but all of the principals are saddened and troubled by the double death of Serizawa and Godzilla, and I’m leave feeling drained at the end of the movie instead of feeling joy or relief at the death of the monster.
GOJIRA / GODZILLA is an amazing movie.
Mark Bousquet is the author of several novels and collections, including Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.