No. 16: “Gojira” (1954)

“If the oxygen destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course they’ll want to use it as a weapon. Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist — no, as a human being — I can’t allow that to happen!”
~~Dr. Serizawa

Time has not been kind to “Gojira,” the foreboding, chilling original black-and-white Japanese film released in 1954. There was the abominable 1956 American version starring Raymond Burr (saddled with the moronic title “Godzilla, King of Monsters!”) that polluted Ishirô Honda’s dark themes of nuclear testing fallout and human responsibility. Then came a slew of remakes — no need to keep a tally; the number changes with the tides — so nutty and crazily different in tone that none work in tandem. So Honda’s original creation, with its lack of technicolor, comical destruction scenes and English overdubbing, has faded into the background.

Fifty-five years later, it’s time to move “Gojira” back into its rightful position as the quintessential Godzilla film, and the only one that works as both an eerie monster movie and a thought-provoking drama. That hardly means, however, that “Gojira” is a faultless masterpiece; the film has its flaws, chief among them the acting (which is, with few exceptions, mediocre at best), a contrived, largely uninteresting love triangle and some heavy-handed dialogue (in fairness, translation is an inexact science) at the ending. But getting tangled up in these flaws means missing the point entirely. What Honda has done is create a haunting snapshot of post-World War II Japan, still paralyzed by fears of nuclear warfare. Moreover, he raises some important questions about the human price of scientific discovery that still feel as relevant today as they did 55 years ago.

Honda takes his time leading up to these issues. He spends many (a few too many, to be frank) of the film’s opening scenes introducting the human players in this epic-sized drama: Emiko (Momoko Kochi), her father Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), a respected paleontologist; Emiko’s fiancee Ogata (Akira Takarada); and accomplished scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Emiko’s reserved childhood companion who can barely hide his romantic feelings for her. Ogata wants Emiko to break news of their engagement to Serizawa, but before that happens a much more intriguing and meaty plot thread loops through: A 150-foot monster, resembling a giant lizard but believed to be a surviving relic of the Jurassic period, is spotted off Tokyo’s coast. Efforts to roust the beast, dubbed “Gojira,” from his watery hideout are horrifically successful, and Gojira lays waste to Tokyo in a series of brutal raids. Bullets, electricity, even missiles are useless. Emiko, however, stumbles on a possible solution: Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. The scientist’s dilemma — use the Destroyer to stop Gojira and risk it becoming a nuclear weapon, or hide his invention and watch Tokyo burn — marks the film’s turning point and its central, most powerful question. 

Where “Gojira” succeeds most obviously is the cinematography (provided by Masao Tamai), since it’s the look that creates the ominous, bleak tone viewers can’t quite shake. In black-and-white, with so many scenes filmed in the dark, Gojira looks every inch the unstoppable force of nature that he is. There’s not the faintest whiff of humor or self-conscious camp to be sniffed out anywhere, particularly in Gojira’s rampage through Tokyo. These sequences are sobering, even elegaic in their simplicity. Akira Ifukube’s score, with its dramatic crescendos, drives home the tragic feel of these attacks, and later hauntingly underscores the ramifications of Serizawa’s decision.

It is this crucial moment, perhaps, that excuses the movie’s few shortcomings — Serizawa’s personal and professional crisis. The scene, stunningly filmed, is complex and emotional. He has created something with the power to change the world, and Honda captures every gut-wrenching angle of Serizawa’s reality. He is torn between his scientific principles and his humanity; he understands the Oxygen Destroyer is not simply a means to an end, that using it means punishing a dangerous but innocent creature born out of man’s experiments on nature. Somehow, in these final moments Honda shows us, really shows us, something more terrifying than Gojira itself: The more control we believe we have, the less we ultimately do.

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4 Responses

  1. You really make me want to see it again. I first saw this film on TV in the late 80’s. I had previously seen a really bad Godzilla Vs something and had no intention of watching it but for some reason did and was actually really take with it. Had I not watched it my impression of Godzilla (I hadn’t heard the original title at the time!) would have been one of the laughable sequels. I actually think lots of peoples impression of Gojira is those crappy sequels, or even worse small clips on TV shows taking the piss out of them, or ever worse still Roland Emmerich’s debacle!

    • Glad you’re the one who brought up Roland Emmerich. Ugh. I lost what little religion I had left over that travesty he had the nerve to call a Godzilla movie!

      Yes, “Gojira” definitely merits another viewing. Like I said, it’s certainly not perfect — hammy in parts, the acting is mediocre and sometimes bad, the dialogue is too obvious — but it is the best of the series. Unlike the rest of the terrible remakes (most of which, OK, I love), it has a point. Bonus: It’s actually pretty damn scary.

      If you REALLY want to see a bad Godzilla movie, check out “Son of Godzilla.” Talk about some weird !@#&@!

      • Have you seen Gojira: Fainaru uôzu (Godzilla: Final Wars)? As a fan of Ryûhei Kitamura, I want to see it but it hasn’t been released in any format in the UK yet. I may have to bite the bullet and buy a region one copy.

  2. […] G is for “Gojira” […]

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