Directed By: Ishirō Honda
Release Date: November 3, 1954
Starring: Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Godzilla
If you happened to have read my review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters back in 2019, you may recall that I discussed in length that I have never been a huge fan of Godzilla, not because I don't like the franchise, but rather due to the fact that I simply haven't experienced enough of it to confidently say that I have a firm grasp on the ins and out of its history in order to fully appreciate it. Of course, I know many of the basics, like a number of Godzilla's friends and foes from Mothra to Rodan, and the fact that Godzilla, at least in his initial debut, was a post-WWII metaphor for nuclear power, but ask me to rattle off a list of the series’ best films from a run that has spanned three dozen features across almost seven decades and I'd be at a complete and utter loss.
With the arrival of Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong this week, however, the fourth film in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse that kicked off with 2014's Godzilla, I decided there was no better time than now to go back to where it all began for both of the marquee monsters. At first, of course, I started with the original King Kong, a film that felt more like a trip down memory lane as I've seen it a number of times, and then followed up with Ishirō Honda's Godzilla – or Gojira, more appropriately, if you're so inclined – which was, at least compared to Kong, a fresh experience for me, as, like most of the franchise's films that I have seen parts of, I'd never seen it in full from beginning to end.
To be clear, I did not watch the American edit of the film, which was edited and released two years after the original's debut as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (not to be confused with the 2019 film) and famously starred Raymond Burr via newly-shot footage that was inserted into the pre-existing version of the film. I've seen moments from that cut of the film in the past, but I could honestly tell you nothing more about it, and as such it will have no bearing on this review of Honda's film, which – and I will wholeheartedly admit – took me by surprise in the best of ways.
Godzilla begins nearly a decade after the conclusion of World War II, with several sea-faring vessels being mysteriously destroyed off the coast of the fictional Japanese locale Oda Island, dozens of people losing their lives in the process, only for a major disaster to strike the island and destroy an entire village soon after. While many try to chalk it up to various things – mines, a volcano, a tsunami – the true cause behind the events is quickly revealed to be Godzilla, a 165-foot-tall radioactive dinosaur that has emerged from its underwater sanctuary, dislodged into the world above due to hydrogen bomb testing. As the creature continues to wreak havoc and unconventional means of destroying it fail, an even more alarming issue is raised: What greater horror than Godzilla must be unleashed upon the world if the monster’s reign of terror is to be brought to an end?
Now, as I referenced at the outset, it's no secret that the character of Godzilla as initially conceived was the living embodiment of Japan's anxiety in a post-WII era, one of social, geopolitical, and nuclear fallout. In the real world, the nation's actions during the war and the resulting bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still open wounds on the hearts and minds of the people, and to refer to the bombings as something that altered the course of history would be an egregious understatement; even as we inch ever closer towards the end of a century since the bombings and the closure of WWII, the arrival and display of nuclear warfare in the war’s final weeks is something we as a world are still feeling the effects of today, and will continue to indefinitely.
After a research team led by paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and sent to Oda Island by the Japanese government lays eyes on Godzilla, we are treated to one of the film's most fascinating scenes within the context of that post-WWII climate, one of political debate that boils down to what to do with the knowledge of the monster. On one hand, it is argued, people deserve to know, because they will find out sooner or later, while on the other, politicians insist that to reveal Godzilla's existence to the world would be to undo any semblance of healing the nation had begun to do with the rest of the world. To expose Godzilla would be to open Japan up to more ridicule (and blame) after their actions during the war; to hide him would only make things worse when he himself is inevitably going to beat them to the punch.
It is an interesting debate simply because both sides are valid, underscoring the nation’s real world delicate social tightrope walk, and though the decision is ultimately made to make Godzilla public knowledge, the presence of the scene within the film is one example of many of how heavily the film emphasizes consequence over action. I would argue that the franchise as a whole is often viewed through a pop culture lens of being about monster fights and spectacle, which makes this film all the more engaging for being about something more, something human, even in the face of a prehistoric monster with atomic breath, and how Japan had to reconcile their post-WWII reconstructionist thoughts and actions with the consequences of their indefensible thoughts and monstrous actions during WWII.
For his part, Dr. Yamane is saddened throughout the film at the thought that the government – and the Japanese people as a whole – want to see Godzilla destroyed, even if it's clear that they want to get it done with so they can continue to move on as a nation. For him, Godzilla is a historical opportunity to study, particularly as Godzilla's resistance to nuclear fallout is something worth exploring in a world where nuclear power had been let out of the box. In contrast, his own daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) and potential son-in-law Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) echo the widespread sentiments that Godzilla's threat needs to be ended by any means necessary, with Ogata at one point directly stating that, even if Godzilla is a living, breathing being, he is, in essence, little more than another hydrogen bomb.
Partway through the film, once the knowledge of Godzilla has gone public, a character laments that she barely escaped Nagasaki only to have to live through Godzilla, a single line that encapsulates everything about what the monster represents on and off screen and goes hand in hand with Ogata's comparison. When the "tsunami" hits Oda Island early in the film, the sounds of inclement weather punctuated with the deafening boom of Godzilla's footfalls, the focus is not on the monster, but on a family trapped in a house, the roof crashing down in upon them, buried alive within what should be their refuge, all while a young boy named Shinkichi (Toyoaki Suzuki) watches in frozen horror from outside as he becomes an orphan in the blink of an eye.
And when Godzilla eventually sets his sights on Tokyo, the military failing to stop him, showcasing the monster's capacity for carnage in full, the film focuses not entirely on, say, military characters attempting to regroup and take him back on, but instead on the citizens on the ground. At one point, Godzilla tears down a building, his actions intercut with a mother watching on nearby, holding her children close, hopelessly shielding them, with nowhere to run, and comforting them not with words of hope but a promise that it will be over soon. "We're going to join Daddy," she says. "We'll be where Daddy is soon."
Civilians are crushed underfoot and set on fire. Reporters resignedly work to tell the world what is unfolding right up until their lives are extinguished. The scene is not presented as a slick, fun action sequence; it is pure and unbridled terror, a waking nightmare that turns Tokyo into a burning hellscape, and even once Godzilla has retreated to the sea, the film underscores this idea in the scenes that follow. Hospitals are flooded with the dead and dying in every available space. Small children burst into tears as their deceased parents are carried away by staff. Doctors and nurses grow heartbroken as Geiger counters reveal that many of those same children test positive for radiation exposure.
Like the hydrogen bomb, Godzilla is unreasonable and untenable. There is no equivalent to King Kong's Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) here to temper his wrath. There is no distinction between the guilty and the innocent, because – to Godzilla – everyone is at fault. Interestingly, the film never once directly acknowledges the United States and the Allies; there's never a condemnation of any one party for what has happened. Instead, this is a reflection upon our collective culpability, our damnable ability as a species to escalate and escalate until we do something that can never be undone. In that way, Godzilla is at once a force of nature and overwhelming karma come calling, the natural result of humanity's perpetual meddling, and a victim in his own right simply lashing out because – like Kong two decades before him – he has been forced into a world he did not choose to be a part of.
And yet, to defeat Godzilla, something must be done, and so that notion of inevitable escalation enters into the picture in the form of the Oxygen Destroyer, a device built by Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Oftentimes the worst decisions are made and horrible things are created with the best of intentions, and the Oxygen Destroyer is one such thing, something Serizawa refuses to make public because he knows that even if it will save lives in the short term, someone, someday, somewhere will use it to end lives. To him, it will become, as he states, "another terrifying weapon in humanity's arsenal," and it is impossible to disagree with him.
Ultimately, without spoiling it for anyone reading this that has not seen the movie, his arc within the film brings with it a sense of hope, but it is still tempered by a moment in which Yamane laments that – so long as nuclear testing continues – Godzilla will always be around in some form. And it is that core statement, that Godzilla is a natural response to or the big consequence of mankind's actions, that the memory of lessons learned and prices paid throughout history are fleeting, which makes it so easy to see why Godzilla became an remains and icon to this very day, one so easily adaptable to the times. Nowadays, for instance, one can swap out the post-WWII anxiety of nuclear fallout for the modern day fear of climate change and the metaphor that Godzilla represents is just as powerful.
Of course, as to be expected from a film that is nearly seventy years old, certain elements of the film show their strain under the weight of time. Some of the science is egregiously laughable, like when Dr. Yamane states that the Jurassic era ended two million years ago or picks up a radioactive Trilobite with his bare hands, and the usage of miniatures and the famous suitmation work bringing Godzilla to "life" look unavoidably dated. At times, too, particularly early on, the editing can also be a bit jarring, such as when a reporter steps out of a helicopter onto Oda Island only for the film to hard cut to the middle of an interview, something that lasts for a few seconds before abruptly cutting hard yet again to a ceremony conducted by the villagers.
It certainly adds a frenetic pace to the film, which works in favor of its tone of urgency, but the rapidity does have the unfortunate side effect of keeping characters and scenes from being fleshed out, slightly unbalancing the narrative as a whole, before we're on to the next thing. The character of Ogata, for example, could be cut entirely from the film and have his role folded into Emiko’s and little would be lost; that’s how little of an impact one of the film’s supposed major characters makes due to the nature of how the story is presented.
Despite all that, however, there is nothing present within the film that compares to, say, the overt sexism that I discussed in my review of King Kong, and I have no real qualms with stating that time has been more than kind to Godzilla in comparison to Kong as a result, the film aging with remarkable grace. From the moment composer Akira Ifukube's infectious march opens the film, accompanied throughout by Godzilla's roars – an incredible piece of sound design iconic in its own right, to say the least – I was on board. Franchise it spawned aside, as a film standing on its own two, scaly feet, Godzilla remains a solid piece of work that finds strength in contemplation and a fundamental message with everlasting prescience that transcends its monster movie conventions.
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