CINEMA CLASSICS: Gojira (Godzilla, 1954)

Does the “King of the Monsters” still cut it sixty years later?

Who made it?: Ishirô Honda (Director/Co-Writer), Takeo Murata (Co-Writer), Tomoyuki Tanaka (Producer), Toho Film Co. Ltd.

Who’s in it?: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Haruo Nakajima.

Tagline: “A monster of mass destruction!”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

Like just about everyone I’ve ever spoken to, I somehow missed seeing Toho’s original Godzilla (or Gojira) my entire life. It wasn’t until the recent American reboot was announced just in time for this 1954 classic’s sixtieth that I finally decided to give the originator a go. Surely this creature feature was nigh-on unwatchable by today’s standards, right? Wrong! Though it is obviously primitive now and occasionally goofy, I was absolutely floored by Ishirô Honda’s film for being as pessimistic and adult as it is. In fact, as a piece of entertainment, this is probably more compelling for contemporary audiences than 1933’s immortal King Kong, a film that very much led the way for the self-styled King of the Monsters (a title ironically given to him by the West).

Relating the importance of Honda’s film means dredging up some horrible history, though. It’s hardly a well-kept secret that the idea for this big rampaging lizard was quite literally birthed by the notion of nuclear war. Only a few scant years removed from those horrifying days at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beast of Godzilla was a clear embodiment of Japan’s fears, with the country even suffering decades of natural disasters as well as man-made ones. The director was defiant in his need to convey the country’s suffering, but amazingly, he never points the finger at the US for inadvertently creating this atomic terror. If Oppenheimer became the “destroyer of worlds,” then nature dutifully replied in kind.

The plot follows those who witness this elemental beast out at sea. Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) leads a party to the fictional island of Odo to investigate these stories, discovering some time-honoured giant footprints. It isn’t long before the titular badass is revealed, and what’s that coming over the hill but Godzilla’s massive noggin’ (this scene is quaint now, but you have to imagine how amazing it was at the time). Yamane manages to get back to Tokyo to debrief the higher-ups and, after revealing the hulk’s existence to the public, a plan is set in motion to destroy it via depth charges in the ocean. Naturally, this fails and it isn’t long before the creature is protecting his own ass by ravaging Tokyo.

Amid all of this, we also follow Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kōchi), her proposed fiance  Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), and her true love Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). The characters’ stories and how they react to this apocalyptic scenario forms the basis of the picture, really, and you’ll be surprised at how long Honda holds off the man-in-suit carnage. It’s a slow build-up of suspense that Gareth Edwards promises to incorporate into his big-budget Hollywood redo (a film that is clearly linked with Ken Watanabe’s character baring the name Serizawa). Unlike all of the sequels or re-imaginings, the humans get full weight here.

But you really came for the scenes of Godzilla stomping through buildings and merrily slaughtering everyone in his path, and when the film finally hits that point, it remains a glorious sight six decades on. Like Kong, there’s a real rush and a sense of cinematic history to these scenes of miniature sets being mowed down. You might not be able to take it entirely seriously anymore, but Honda’s action beats are still a real joy made when filmmakers were thankfully limited by technology. Seeing this monster come to life in-camera is far more charming than many of today’s CGI-driven blockbusters which will arguably date faster than this film did. Yes, Zilla’s a guy in a costume (the ultimate good sport Haruo Nakajima) but damning a film for being a product of its time is ridiculous. In fact, a fair amount of the special effects – disguised by Masao Tamai’s black and white photography – only became obvious to me when I saw a making-of documentary. That’s incredible for a flick of this vintage.

Six decades after he first ascended out of the watery depths to wreak havoc, the original Godzilla still deserves his monolithic place in the pantheon of over-sized monster movies. You’ll also marvel at how such a simple creature feature could pack in so much emotion and historical resonance. There’s little chance of this year’s iteration failing to top it, but Toho’s longstanding mascot and his importance to Japanese culture can’t be underestimated.

Best Scene

Perhaps not the ultimate scene but a good example of the film’s visual effects and aesthetics. Thankfully, the recent Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD is leagues ahead in picture quality.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The film received a Japanese Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, but naturally lost that year to Seven Samurai. However, the film did win the award for Best Visual Effects. It is the only Godzilla movie to receive a nomination for Best Picture.
  • During Godzilla’s rampage through downtown Tokyo, one of the buildings he destroys is the Toho Theater. In fact, some fans who were watching the film in that theater actually thought the theater was being attacked and tried to run out of the theater.
  • The sound department tried numerous animal roars for Godzilla but felt they were unsuitable for an animal of such immense size. Akira Ifukube came up with Godzilla’s roars by rubbing a coarse, resin-coated leather glove up and down the strings of a contrabass (double bass), and reverberated the recorded sound. Also, Godzilla’s thunderous footsteps were made by either beating a kettle drum with a knotted rope or tipping over an amp.
  • The first made Godzilla suit weighed around 200 pounds, making it rather difficult for the performer to move around in.
  • Stop-motion animation in the style of King Kong was rejected because of the time it would take and the subsequent cost. Also, according to special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, there was simply no one in Japan who was skilled and experienced in doing that kind of animation.
  • The initial American release of the film shot new scenes for Western audiences starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason himself) and was titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1965).

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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