Kaiju Classics - Godzilla (1954) Review
Ever since I was a child, I've loved movies featuring giant monsters. It didn't matter whether it was a man in a rubber suit, stop motion animation, puppets where you could practically see the strings controlling them, or actual animals on miniature sets, if it was a giant monster movie of the 30's onward, I was a fan of it. One of the most famous films from this genre, and perhaps one of the most influential movies of its time, would be the 1954 movie, Godzilla.
Directed by Ishiro Honda and produced by Toho Co., Ltd, Godzilla was conceived as an allegory for the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 near the end of World War II. The green light for Godzilla came by chance, due to the production of another movie by Toho falling through, and their subsequent demand for a film to be made in a short period of time to compensate. Originally envisioned as a more campy movie, featuring a mad scientist living in a Gothic-style house as the main antagonist and the monster being controlled by him, the plot was re-imagined to what it is today, a depiction of a near unstoppable force slowly and mercilessly destroying Tokyo, with its people powerless to defend themselves.
Much like the script, Godzilla and the methods planned to bring him to life underwent major revisions. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director for the franchise until he passed away in 1970, originally suggested the idea of a giant octopus (which would later appear in the 1962 movie King Kong vs. Godzilla), and for awhile had the design of an ape-like creature with a head shaped like a mushroom to illustrate some connection between it and atomic bombs. In the end though, the decision was made to create a very dinosaur-like monster, a bipedal creature resembling a mix between a Tyrannosaurus and a Stegosaurus, thus reaching the now classic design known today.
The Cast of Godzilla
Dr. Kyohei Yamane - Takashi Shimura
Emiko Yamane - Momoko Kōchi
Dr. Daisuke Serizawa - Akihiko Hirata
Hideto Ogata - Akira Takarada
Godzilla - Haruo Nakajima
News begins to form around Odo Island in the Pacific as two ships sink after being attacked by a flash of light. These attacks, and the poor fishing that have plagued Odo in recent months, are blamed by an elder to be caused by a sea monster that their legends call "Godzilla". In the past, the people of Odo Island would sacrifice girls to the sea in order to appease the creature, but the practice hadn't been performed in years due to their deviation from these older ways. In an attempt to stave off Godzilla's impending wrath, a ritual ceremony is performed long into the night, featuring dancing performed by Tengu mask wearing priests.
That night, amidst a raging storm, Godzilla makes landfall on Odo, destroying the wooden buildings of the village under his feet before returning to the ocean.
The next day, famed paleontologist Kyohei Yamane, his daughter Emiko, and Hideto Ogata, a representative of the company that lost the two ships, make their way to Odo Island to investigate the destruction. Upon arriving, Yamane discover several gargantuan three-toed footprints, yielding high radioactive readings from a Geiger counter as well as a living trilobite, a creature thought to have died out hundreds of millions of years ago. The uneasy calm of the investigation is suddenly broken as the village lookout signals an alarm, causing the villagers to take the mountainside armed with makeshift weapons. Their courage soon turns to fear as they see the monstrosity looming up from the other side.
Godzilla has appeared.
Emiko, in a panic from seeing this towering creature coming up over the mountainside, trips and collapses, and would have snatched up by Godzilla if Ogata didn't quickly come to her rescue. Godzilla then soon leaves as soon as he arrived, slowly making his way down to the shoreline before returning to the depths of the ocean.
Dr. Yamane quickly returns to Tokyo to report his findings to a committee of scientists and government officials, concluding that due to finding traces of Strontium-90, a radioactive isotope associated with nuclear fallout, amongst Godzilla's footprints, that the creature was awoken and mutated by recent hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific. Some at the committee believe that news of Godzilla's existence needs to be kept from the public in order to avoid a general panic, while others feel that the news needs to be spread so they can prepare for an impending attack, but they all agree that Godzilla needs to be destroyed. Yamane, seeing Godzilla as a living relic and an enormous scientific discovery, feels that destroying him is wrong, and that he should be studied instead.
Japan's navy is sent out to the waters near Odo, bombarding the ocean with depth charges in order to destroy Godzilla.
Due to long time that Emiko and Ogata spent with one another while making their way to Odo Island, the two of them quickly fell in love, though this put Emiko in a difficult situation, as she was betrothed to Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a colleague and friend of Dr. Yamane's. As her father met with the committee to discuss the threat of Godzilla, Emiko went to visit Serizawa in order to break off their impending marriage, but was stopped when Serizawa insisted that he show her his latest invention. Swearing her to secrecy, Serizawa demonstrates the power of his new Oxygen Destroyer, a device capable of destroying oxygen atoms in water, in a tank full of fish. In a matter of seconds, the fish died, their flesh disintegrating, leaving nothing but bones that soon faded away as well.
That night, Godzilla, undamaged by the navy's previous attempt to destroy him, made his appearance in Tokyo Bay, attacking a luxury party boat before making his way on shore. Though his attack on Tokyo was brief, it demonstrated both Godzilla's capacity for destruction and, more importantly, his intentions.
The following day, Japan's military, anticipating another attack by Godzilla, erect a series of electric towers around Tokyo capable of generating 50,000 volts of electricity in hopes that it would be enough to deter him. That night, Godzilla makes his next attack on Tokyo and proves the military's ineffectualness, effortlessly melting through the power lines meant to serve as a barrier for Japan's capital city with blasts of atomic fire from his mouth. Machine gun fire, cannons, tanks, all proved useless against the monster's hardened skin as he makes his way towards the heart of the city, destroying everything in his path in a sea of fire. A squadron of fighter jets seemingly manage to drive him back into the ocean, though their attacks were able to do little more than annoy him.
The next day, the true extent of Godzilla's attack is revealed. Thousands were dead, with even more injured and suffering from radiation poisoning. The once great city of Tokyo laid in ruins, and the survivors feared that the night would result in another attack, and their destruction. Emiko, believing that Dr. Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer is perhaps their only hope, divulges the secret to Ogata, and the two go to Serizawa's in order to convince him to use it.
Serizawa feels betrayed by Emiko and refuses to allow his invention to be used, feeling that if it was revealed what he made, that evil powers would attempt to coax the secrets of the device from him, and he couldn't bear to allow something so dangerous to fall into the wrong hands. Ogata, insistent that Serizawa has a responsibility to the world to use his Oxygen Destroyer to destroy Godzilla, tries to wrestle the device from him, and in the ensuing scuffle is injured on the head. Apologizing for his anger, Serizawa again insists that such a device cannot be used, but is moved by a broadcast on TV showing Tokyo's destruction and a choir singing prayers to the safety of the survivors. Taking up his notes and plans, Serizawa begins to burn them, saying that he will allow the Oxygen Destroyer to be used this one time.
Later, Ogata and Serizawa dive down to use the Oxygen Destroyer on Godzilla, inching closer and closer to the behemoth as it rested in the waters of Tokyo Bay as Dr. Yamane and Emiko look on. Signalling Ogata to surface, Serizawa remains to activate the device and then cuts his own oxygen line so that he would die alongside his deadly weapon, afraid that, alive, those powers he feared would take advantage of the Oxygen Destroyer would try to force the secrets from him. Godzilla rises to the surface amidst the effects of Serizawa's weapon, letting out a single scream of agony before sinking back into the water, his flesh slowly dissolving and his skeleton disintegrating.
Though Godzilla was defeated, Yamane laments at the fact that such a creature couldn't be the only member of its species to still be alive, and that, should nuclear testing continue, it's possible that mankind would face such a threat again.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
In 1956, Jewell Enterprises acquired the rights to the Godzilla film and re-edited it for release in the United States, feeling that several elements of the original, including the arranged marriage between Serizawa and Emiko, as well as very fervent debates regarding the U.S.'s atomic bomb attacks, wouldn't be very appealing to an American audience. The most prominent change was the addition of new scenes filmed starring American actor Raymond Burr as the reporter Steve Martin, replacing a more comedic Japanese reporter in the original.
The majority of the film itself is told as a flashback from Martin's viewpoint, having been bedridden following Godzilla's attack on Tokyo. The character is established as being a friend of Dr. Serizawa's, and knows Dr. Yamane and Emiko through him. For scenes when Martin is interacting with Dr. Yamane, Emiko, or Serizawa, stand-ins for them are filmed from behind, or otherwise obscured, conversing with Raymond Burr, and then footage from the original movie is edited to transition into and out of those scenes. The majority of his other scenes involved his interaction with security officer Tomo, played by Frank Iwanaga, who acted as a military liaison to him, bringing him along to Odo Island as well as keeping him apprised of current military action against Godzilla.
Though significantly different from the original, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" was very successful in the United States, and helped to pave way for further installments of the franchise to make it stateside. Though a few other Toho movies, such as "Godzilla Raids Again" "Giant Monster Varan" and "King Kong vs. Godzilla" would also be heavily edited for American audiences, later installments to the series would leave most elements of the original plots intact, with one notable exception.
The movie "Godzilla 1985", the American re-edit of the 1984 Heisei film "The Return of Godzilla", serves as a sequel to this version of the movie, with Raymond Burr reprising the role of Steve Martin to serve as an adviser to the United States military during Godzilla's attack on Japan.
The Effects and Music
Visually, the movie is amazing. Eiji Tsuburaya's skill with special effects and "suitmation" shine in helping to convey that what we're seeing isn't a man in a large, rubber suit, but an actual monster from prehistoric times wreaking havoc on a defenseless city. The miniature buildings, military and civilian vehicles, and overall set look very convincing in several scenes, and clever use of camera angles help to give a sense of scale to Godzilla.
Unfortunately, while the majority of the effects do look very good, there are some that look very fake and silly, especially in comparison to the other effects of the movie. For a number of close-up shots of Godzilla, including several when he is breathing his atomic fire, a hand puppet is used instead of the full body suit, and, in comparison to the menacing look of the body suit, the puppet ends up looking extremely fake. The movements of the jaw, especially in a scene where Godzilla is "biting" at a tower, look like someone opening and closing their hand, and all in all don't match the scale of the rest of the effects.
Composer Akira Ifukube is responsible for the music for Godzilla, and I can easily say that his contributions strongly elevated this movie from its B-movie brethren of the time. A number of themes, now staples in the Godzilla franchise, make their first appearance in this movie, and each strongly convey the mood of the scene that they appear in. My personal favorite is "Godzilla's Rampage", a slow-moving, menacing theme that accompanies Godzilla during his attack on Tokyo. The ominous tone adds to the dark and depressing feel for the scenes that it is played in, and gives weight to Godzilla's presence.
Even with its somewhat dated effects, I have a soft spot for this movie. I enjoy that, while about a giant monster attacking a city, the movie doesn't lose focus on the human element as well. We can feel a connection to Dr. Yamane and his desire to study Godzilla rather than simply destroy him, because it is human nature to be curious about the unknown. We can sympathize with Dr. Serizawa, because he is a caring, compassionate person, and would never want anyone to be harmed by something that he created, and we can relate to Emiko and Ogata, as they are, in essence, the every man, the person most like us, and how they feel and react to the events of the movie are how we would react as well.
Godzilla, himself, is still the most profound character in that he isn't a character at all. We see no signs of emotions, no sign of compassion, nothing to sympathize with him. He is a force of nature that mankind can do little against.
For those who haven't seen this movie but are fans of science fiction, I can't recommend it enough, and even if you aren't a fan of the genre, the movie is surprisingly deep given other movies of the same kind being made at the time, and is strong enough on its own to warrant a chance.