Ishiro Honda’s Gojira, known to those outside Japan as Godzilla, is a masterpiece. The scaly star of the film has so far appeared in 26 films, and is one of the enduring icons of Japanese cinema. Godzilla bootstrapped the kaiju (giant monster) genre in Japan, and there’s now a huge pantheon of enormous supernatural monsters littering the landscape, be they armoured, flying, metal, three-headed, alien, or some combination of several of these.
The film was made in 1954 and is almost a straight horror/catastrophe film, shot in stark, chilling black and white and given an equally atmospheric, occasionally military score. It opens with the seemingly inexplicable destruction of several ships in the Pacific, with very few survivors — those rescued can’t say anything more coherent then that the ocean “just blew up”. A boat is sent by the Japanese to some outlying islands to investigate… and this boat sinks as well. The local islanders have a folktale about an enormous monster, named Godzilla, who would come from the sea to feed on humankind, but this is dismissed as just an old man’s tale.
Nonetheless, soon a great hurricane hits the island and brings with it a monstrous visitor, or so one man hysterically says. Some of the storm damage is strange, though — houses and a helicopter look as if they were crushed from above, rather than by the wind. A fact-finding team, headed by famous paleontologist Prof. Yamane (played by Takashi Shimura, who’ll be familiar to Kurosawa fans) is sent to the island to investigate and discovers a number of anomalies, including high radiation in large depressions in the ground, before catching sight of Godzilla’s enormous head rearing about the mountains.
Cue mass panic. Running around. Screaming and waving one’s arms about. For everyone except Prof. Yamane, anyway, who is fascinated at the thought of such a relic from the past surviving, and withstanding the massive dose of radiation that it obviously has encountered — it’s suggested that this is the result of American nuclear testing. Yamane is aghast that the military want to destroy the creature without studying it and working out how it’s survived.
A number of other characters are introduced as well: Prof. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi); Emiko’s boyfriend, Mr. Ogata (Akira Takarada), who works for an ocean salvage company; and the man who Emiko is supposed to marry, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Serizawa has an eyepatch and a brooding demeanour, and refuses to talk about the nature of his research. We watch as the military try everything, from tanks and aircraft to a giant electrified fence, and only serve to make Godzilla more annoyed as he stomps his way towards Tokyo…
This is an amazing film, especially given the time it was made. The story has a strongly anti-nuclear message (even an anti-American one, in the Japanese version), a sensitive topic to broach less than ten years after the end of World War II. It shows scenes of the destruction of a model of Tokyo, just like when it was shelled during the war — there’s even a point where a character on a bus complains, “Not the shelters again!” The film was shot primarily with an actor in a very heavy rubber suit playing Godzilla, stomping on (er, scenery chewing?) an intricately detailed model of Tokyo. Sounds terribly archaic when compared to modern techniques and CGI, but at the time it was a completely new approach, entitled “suitmation”. Up to now, Hollywood had generally used stop-motion animation in their monster films (such as King Kong). Suitmation with miniature models looks good, too — there’s a visceral punch to seeing the models being actually destroyed by a creature that moves with purpose and articulation. The scenes of destruction are really the most impressive part of the film, watching the monster’s trail of carnage as the city burns around him. There’s a real atmosphere of horror to these scenes, and they’re visually really powerful.
Eastern Eye’s DVD actually has two films on it: the original Gojira and the American version, released two years later as Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The USA release has been re-edited, cut to a shorter 78 minutes, dubbed, and had a new character inserted, Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr, no similarity to the other Steve Martin) who’s a reporter who finds himself in Japan during Godzilla’s attack. He narrates most of the film, but it still works surprisingly well. I did find that I preferred the Japanese version, though, without the narration and with more subtext and buildup to the attack on Tokyo. Also on the disc are the original Japanese trailer, a trailer for the Godzilla console game, and some trailers for other Eastern Eye releases. Both film prints are good, given their age.
Thoroughly worth watching for anyone with an interest in monster films, Japanese cinema history, or large invulnerable radioactive lizards.