Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gojira [Godzilla] (1954) Review

Gojira Godzilla 1954 poster
Director: Ishiro Honda
Stars: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata
Genre: Science Fiction, Drama, Giant Monster, Horror

The granddaddy of Giant Monster films, the earliest kaiju eiga, originator of suitmation, the beginning of a pop culture icon, the perfect metaphor for nuclear war, subject of a Blue Oyster Cult song; it is, my friends, of course none other than Gojira, or, as it's commonly known as to English speakers, Godzilla.

I'm sure just about everyone knows the story of Godzilla. After a nuclear explosion in the sea a monster from Jurassic times is unleashed upon the people of Japan. Fueled by nuclear radiation and armed with atomic breath and a sinister roar, the monster destroys Tokyo. That's the synopsis most people would give you, and yes it is accurate, but the story is more than that. The film is actually less about Godzilla itself and more about how people are affected by Godzilla. The focus is on the everyday people of Japan: the mother who dies with her children in her arms, comforted only by the hope that she'll see her husband in heaven (whom probably died in WWII), or the scientist who invents a way to kill Godzilla but is afraid to use it for fear that it will be used to harm others (just as the nuclear bomb was used), or the professor who believes that Godzilla should not be killed but instead studied. The story is more about the man who kills Godzilla than it is about Godzilla.

Godzilla is a product of its time, and I mean that in a good way. It reflects post-war Japan perfectly. Only a decade after losing WWII, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll, and the then newly emerging Cold War, Godzilla is indeed a very somber and deep film, not a cheesy monster movie. The director, Ishiro Honda, has been quoted as saying "When I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere - a fear the Earth was already coming to an end. That became the basis for the film."

Godzilla's atomic breath in Gojira

Godzilla is a walking metaphor for nuclear weapons. Godzilla is "radiation made visible". At the same time though Godzilla isn't necessarily evil. It's a tragic creature brought about by man's careless use of atomic power. To quote the director once again "Monsters are tragic beings. They are not evil by choice. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy, that is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend himself. After several such stories as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters, they end up caring about them." In this way Godzilla is sympathized with, and when he is defeated it is just as much a sorrow as it is a relief.

To me, Godzilla is one of the first films to use a genre (fantasy horror) that is usually looked at as mere silly and cheap entertainment as a means to present a very real and serious message. Whereas many films of the 50s used radiation as a gimmick (similar to electricity in the 30s) Godzilla used it as a warning. The ending isn't so much a set up for a sequel as it is a warning to the people. 1951's The Thing from Another World ended with the warning of "Watch the skies, everywhere, keep looking! Keep watching the skies!" But this is hardly as relevant as Gojira's ending lines: "I can't believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species... But if we continue conducting nuclear tests... it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again." If Godzilla is a walking metaphor for nuclear warfare then this warning is as direct and relevant as it could have been; it is saying that if armament of nuclear weapons continues then the horrors will continue as well. 

Godzilla on the mountain Gojira

I mentioned how the story is really about people affected by a monster rather than just the monster. This is absolutely true and at many times it feels more like a Kurosawa drama than a Monster movie. The elder professor played wonderfully by (to further the Kurosawa comparison) Takashi Shimura believes Godzilla should not be killed but studied; he doesn't see Godzilla as necessarily a curse, but rather a potential way to solve the problems of radiation (a problem the Japanese knew very well). The inventor of the oxygen destroyer which they use to defeat Godzilla, played by Akihiko Hirata, is afraid to use his weapon to destroy Godzilla in fear that it will then be used to cause even more deaths. And these are only the major characters. Ishiro Honda puts much focus on the extras as well. His films are often said to have a documentary feel to them because of the focus he puts on the everyday people. 

Takashi Shimura in Gojira Godzilla

Godzilla took heaps of inspiration from the 1952 re-release of 1933's King Kong, which is the great grandfather of the genre (along with, perhaps, The Lost World. Both featuring the wonderful special effects of Willis O'Brien). Another major influence was the year prior's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which featured the special effects of Ray Harryhausen, whom was mentored by Willis O'Brien. I'd like to focus on the film itself though, if you want to see more about Godzilla's influences see my review of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Godzilla boasts some impressive effects as well. In many ways Eiji Tsuburaya was the Japanese equivalent of Ray Harryhausen. Both were creators of extraordinary special effects, though whereas Harryhausen worked primarily in stop-motion, Tsuburaya specialized in model-work and pioneered suitmation (which is a fancy way of saying a man in a suit smashing scaled down models of buildings). Of course special effects tend to become outdated rather quickly, Tsuburaya's work can still be appreciated.

Godzilla near a bridge in Gojira

And I can't not mention the wonderful music score done excellently by Akira Ifukube, who was only given a short time to compose it. The Theme is probably one of my favorite film compositions of all time. It's magnificent; it gives off a feeling of intense and building terror, but also one of a war-time anthem. It's incredible that he composed it in such a short time and without even seeing the film beforehand. And, while we're on the topic of sound, isn't Godzilla's roar just wonderful. I think it may be one of my favorite sounds of all time. If you didn't know, it was created by running a leather glove across a violin. 

Eye patched scientist in Gojira Godzilla

I could ramble on about Godzilla for a very long time, but I doubt that it'd be beneficial to anyone involved. It's a well-made film, and though it may seem underwhelming by today's standards it's still a massively important, intelligent, and influential film, which is unfortunately often overlooked as being no more than a cheap sci-fi monster flick. Worth seeing for just about anyone, fans of the genre or Japanese cinema especially. 

3.5/5 stars

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