#47: Gojira (Godzilla)


1954

Director:  Ishiro Honda

Cast:  Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (2/7, hot blue-white star).  This is the original Japanese film, and it brings a lot more to the table than you might expect.  It’s a serious film with an interesting story, a love triangle, social commentary and genuine human interest, as well as the movie that spawned an entire genre and gave us one of the most recognizable Japanese pop culture icons…

Introduction

Don’t confuse this film with its progeny, the kaiju films, those Japanese giant monster films which seem to be intended for children and in which the attraction is in watching the monsters attack each other.

Don’t confuse it with the inferior American release starring Raymond Burr, in which the original story is eviscerated.

Don’t even confuse it with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the film’s direct ancestor and an inspiration for it.

No, this film is something special, in spite of dated and low-cost special effects, the black and white film, and the subtitles.

You already know the setup, unless you’ve been living under a rock for thirty years.  An atomic bomb test irradiates something in the ocean, and it comes ashore in Japan.  It’s a 400 foot tall lizard with a distinctive scream-roar and atomic fire-breath, a dragon for the atomic age.  It wreaks a swath of destruction across Japan…can it be stopped?

Plot (Contains Spoilers)  (Jump to Impressions)

Short summary:  Giant monster meets Japan.  Girl’s father wants to study it.  Girl is engaged to Boy 1, but loves Boy 2.  Boy 1 tells Girl about his invention.  Giant monster rapes Japan twice more.  Girl tells Boy 2 about Boy 1’s weapon.  Boy 2 and Boy 1 fight until Boy 1 agrees to use the weapon against monster.  Weapon works, but Boy 1 sacrifices his own life so the weapon can never be used again.

(Consider yourself warned:  spoilers ahead.  If you don’t want to read them, you can skip ahead to the impressions section, though it too has spoilers and assumes you are familiar with the narrative.)

More details:  Narratively, there’s not much to the story, though it is a bit more complicated than “Giant monster attacks Japan until they find a way to kill it.”  The movie is built around the emotional ties between the characters, joining together the necessary people to move the story along.  First, there’s the sinking of a freighter, accompanied only by a flash of light, which brings Lieutanant Hideto Ogata to the head office and puts one of our main characters on the stage.

Next, there are additional lost ships, followed by a loss of fish, provoking the villagers of Ohto Island to fear an attack from a monster-deity from the sea.  They enact the ancient ceremonies to protect themselves, without the human sacrifice of an earlier era, of course.  Maybe they should have kept the sacrifices:  on a dark and stormy night, something goes horribly wrong and something destroys a good part of the village, accompanied again by flashes of light similar to that which destroyed the freighters.

In the wake of the disaster, the Japanese government sends an investigation headed up by Dr. Kyohei Yamane, a paleontologist.  He’s accompanied by his daughter Emiko and Lieutenant Ogata.  As they are leaving, they are closely watched by the sinister-appearing Dr. Daisuke Serizawa.  And now our four principal characters are on the stage.  It is clear from the outset that Emiko and Ogata have chemistry; it’s subtle (it’s a Japanese film from 1954, so of course the body language is subtle) but it is also readily apparent to the viewer.  The investigators discover radioactive strontium (an element of fallout from fission bombs), an ancient trilobite fossil, and large depressions which Dr. Yamane declares to be footprints.  And then we see it:  Godzilla’s head rising above a range of hills…

Dr. Yamane testifies to a stunned government panel that a monster—he calls it Godzilla after the villagers’ monster-deity—exists, poses a great danger, and was created by nuclear experimentation, and that the monster has absorbed a great amount of radiation in defiance of scientific law.  While the government initially considers a cover-up, three reporters (the only women other than Emiko in the scene, in fact) insist that the information be reported.  The Japanese government attempts to destroy the monster with depth charges, but of course that’s unsuccessful.

A reporter asks Emiko to visit Dr. Serizawa and talk to him about a rumor that Dr. Serizawa’s work could destroy the monster.  It is only here that we learn that Emiko is engaged to Serizawa in an offhand comment by the reporter’s editor.  Emiko escorts the reporter to Serizawa’s lab, but Serizawa puts the reporter off.  After he leaves, he shows Emiko what he’s been working on, but the film only shows us her reaction, and not the secret.  Serizawa swears Emiko to secrecy.

Godzilla comes ashore in Tokyo, wreaking a bit of destruction, but on this first visit to Tokyo, he doesn’t seem to be too serious about tearing up the city.  And that gives Japan a chance to prepare, with a full military response and a giant electric fence barring the way into Tokyo, because everyone is certain that the monster will return.

And return Godzilla does:  the jolt of electricity and the weaponry serve only to irritate the monster, and he quite literally rampages across the city, destroying everything in his path.  He uses his fire breath for the first time here, melting the fence before he really gets down to business.  And the next day, as Emiko does volunteer work in the hastily established field hospitals, we see the horrendous death toll, with the injured laid out like cordwood.  Unlike most monster movies, Gojira shows us the human cost of the monster’s rampage.

Emiko makes a decision: she tells Ogata about Serizawa’s weapon.  In a flashback, we see that Serizawa has created the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon with a silly name (maybe it’s more dramatic in Japanese) but a terrible effect: it destroys all the oxygen in a volume of water.  Serizawa demonstrates the weapon in an aquarium for Emiko: it boils the water, liqufies the flesh of the fish and reduces them to skeletons.  He comments that a single piece of the material dropped into Tokyo Bay would turn the entire bay into a graveyard.

Emiko and Ogata go to Serizawa’s lab to confront him and beg him to use the weapon to destroy the monster.  Of course it’s not simple and straight-forward, as Serizawa initially refuses and barricades himself in his lab.  Ogata breaks in as Serizawa is destroying his notes, and he and Ogata actually fight.  The fight takes place offscreen, which may actually give it more power than it would have had if we had seen it…

Serizawa finally agrees to use his weapon, but declares that it will be the only time that the weapon is used.

In the final scene of the film, Ogata and Serizawa descend into the depths in diving suits.  Once they  sight the monster, strangely peaceful as he goes about his business under the waves, Serizawa deploys the oxygen destroyer.  He gestures for Ogata to proceed to the surface, and watches as the weapon destroys Godzilla, leaving only a giant skeleton.  Then Serizawa sends a last message to the surface, wishing Ogata and Emiko happiness, before he cuts his own air line.

The celebration of the monster’s death is curiously muted, perhaps overshadowed by the death of Serizawa.  Dr. Yamane gives the closing remarks of the film, which further darken the scene:

I cannot believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of his species.  If we keep conducting nuclear tests, it is possible another Godzilla may appear…somewhere in the world…

Impressions

Gojira owes a tremendous debt to both The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and King Kong.  The former was released only months before Gojira while the latter enjoyed one of its periodic re-releases that year, and the two represent significant entries into the “giant monster” genre.  But Gojira takes the ideas of these two films and puts its own quite serious stamp on them.

The visuals, one must admit, were dated at the time of Gojira‘s release.  Instead of the stop motion animation which marked both of its predecessors, Gojira turned back the clock by using a man in a rubber suit, of all things.  I won’t go so far as to say you can see the wires holding up the model planes, but it’s rather obvious that the real scale of events is rather small.  In particular, the water effect of the model Tokyo Bay is unconvincing (though that is probably true of every water scene filmed using models).  The black and white film, as well as the decision to have the monster attack at night, mitigate this to some extent, but you probably won’t be watching the film for its visuals.

Gojira did improve on its predecessors visually in one significant way: we don’t see the monster for quite some time.  The initial attacks are marked by a flash of light, fire and explosions, but not by a giant lizard.  And when the monster makes its first appearance, we don’t even see it in its entirety.

Yamato’s testimony marks the point of the film where things get serious.  Up to that point, the human cost of the events is muted.  But his discussion of the beast’s origin due to nuclear testing strikes a powerful note which must have resonated strongly with its viewers, not even ten years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As ordinary citizens react to the news, one says “the shelters again…” while another comments that he survived Nagasaki.  Radiation and nuclear weapons are serious business in Japan, and the film is not about to let us forget it.

To a Japanese viewer in 1954, the destruction of the freighter might have had an added emotional resonance.  Just that year, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon Five”), a fishing boat, was exposed to fallout from the Castle Bravo test on Bikini Atoll.  Though the fishing boat was forty miles from the test site, the weapon—the first dry fuel hydrogen bomb, in fact—delivered an unexpected 15 megaton blast, more than twice the expected yield (60% of the lithium fuel was an isotope expected to be inert, but which proved to an active participant in the reaction).  The crew of the Lucky Dragon Five was exposed to a significant amount of fallout and suffered severe radiation poisoning.  The incident fueled a significant anti-nuclear movement in Japan, and it would have been very fresh in the minds of Japanese viewers.

The monster’s path of destruction and devastation is striking for the time period.  The material destruction is bad enough, but the film goes on to show the civilian casualties when Emiko volunteers in a field hospital.  This is not cartoon destruction which the audience can cheer; it is akin to the devastation of wartime or natural disaster, and the film gains a great deal of power from this acknowldgement of the human cost.  Gojira underlines this emotional moment by making it the catalyst for Emiko’s decision to reveal Serizawa’s secret…

Gojira draws its much of its emotional power from the doomed Serizawa and his personal tragedy.  He’s hardly the traditional figure of a hero:  scarred, wearing an eye patch, psychologically damaged from his participation in the last war, emotionally unavailable, and the loser in the film’s love triangle.  But Serizawa is also clearly the hero of the film.  He hopes that his work can be harnessed for the good of mankind, but he’s aware of its destructive potential should it be used as a weapon.  He goes to great lengths to hide that potential, even trying to destroy all of his written notes so no one can duplicate his work.  When Serizawa comments that his weapon will never be used again, it is clear that he already knows what he will do.  Serizawa’s sacrifice removes a terrible weapon from the game in the only truly permanant way available, and it also clears the way for both Emiko and Ogata to achieve true happiness…

Serizawa’s personal tragedy is a rather subtle thing.  He never shows any real affection to Emiko (though when she leaves for Ohto Island with her father and Ogata, he shows emotion for Emiko).  And yet he chooses her as his only confidant regarding his work and its terrible potential.  Emiko betrays him twice over by sharing that information with Ogata, his rival.

Don’t misunderstand Emiko’s action.  I use the term betrayal, and from Serizawa’s perspective it undoubtely qualifies.  And yet, Emiko acts from the highest of motives, to prevent further human suffering.  We don’t know the circumstances of her engagement to Serizawa or how she fell in love with Ogata, so it is impossible to gauge the relationship.  Ultimately, it does not matter; Emiko is a sympathetic character doing the best she can in terrible circumstances.

Wrap-up

I really liked this film.  I expected a fairly light romp where I cheered on the ambiguously dangerous monster I remembered from my childhood.  Instead, I got a powerhouse of a film with a gut-wrenching story.  Yes, the monster is an overt metaphor for nuclear destruction, and yes, the Oxygen Destroyer is a bit silly, and yes, the effects are weak.  But the love story and Serizawa’s sacrifice, as well as the seriousness of the destruction caused by the monster, make this film something special.

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One Response to “#47: Gojira (Godzilla)”

  1. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. A very nice, well-researched look at a film I love, and that I actually thought you didn’t like that much the night we watched it. Kudos.

    Thanks for that final picture, too. I love real-scale pics of the Toho monsters, and that’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.

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