Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeo Murata and Ishirô Honda, Story by Shigeru Kayama
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai
The Big One. Or rather, the Big G.
Godzilla, the first of many films starring the titular gargantuan reptile, ignited a tradition in the then-infant Japanese film industry, the tokusatsu, or special effects, film, and forced the island nation to come to grips with their unique and unfortunate history with humanity’s deadliest invention: the nuclear weapon. Godzilla still stands as a triumph above that final chapter of imperial shame, above much of tokusatsu that came after, and indeed, above most science fiction cinema in general.
Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk, the results of neither natural phenomenon nor foreign action. An expedition to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were lost, led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.
I’m sure most of you know the story by now: several Japanese fishing vessels are lost at sea, while a giant creature living off the coast of Odo Island is discovered to be at fault. An ancient reptile awakened by nuclear weapons testing, it is dubbed Godzilla by the inquisitive Dr. Yamane before it begins walking ashore towards Tokyo, bringing a trail of fiery destruction with it. What some of you may not know is just how topical and in tune with the events of the time this film was, or how unfortunately relevant it remains today. Conceived by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka after another project fell through, Godzilla is still the apex of tokusatsu, equaled by none.
Tanaka’s idea was born out of two of Japan’s biggest events of 1954. That year saw the official end of the American occupation and the return of complete control to the new republican government and the newly-established Self Defense Forces. Before Godzilla, all Japanese entertainment had to be approved by the occupation, which severely limited portrayals of Japanese military might and government stability. Watching the film proves that this was no longer the reality by the time of its release, with the valiant efforts of the SDF against the monster and the scenes of the Diet locked in fierce debate.
The other major event of 1954 was the Lucky Dragon incident, from which the film’s first act takes heavy inspiration. During the American Castle Bravo H-bomb test of that year, the fishing trawler Lucky Dragon No. 5 strayed too close to the fallout, resulting in the crew suffering radiation sickness and even one death. This sparked a chill in American-Japanese relations right after the occupation, and stunned a population who still harbored fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cue the opening scene of Godzilla, aboard the fishing vessel Eiko-maru:
In the midst of this fealty to the outside world, director Ishiro Honda presents some fairly traditional scenes of two lovers, Ogata and Emiko, trying to navigate their young relationship in the face of not only the fishing disasters, but Emiko’s father Yamane, and her fiancé Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a reclusive, scarred war vet with a terrible secret locked in his lab. Their affair quickly spirals into the background of a bitter debate when Godzilla is revealed to the world at large: Honda’s film excels at navigating the moral and ethical grey areas of the existence of such a monster, whether in the salient Diet debate over whether to publish the truth of Godzilla’s threat or conceal it to preserve order and the economy, or in Yamane’s quiet torment over being the only person to want to save the creature, seeing only its potential to unlock the secrets of radioactivity, and its resistance to it.
In this subplot is where Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata begin to truly play with the real-world consequences of the nuclear age. While the original storywriter Shigeru Kayama made Yamane a Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque cloaked figure, engaged in sabotage against the SDF to protect Godzilla, Takashi Shimura’s Yamane is much more contemplative and down-to-earth, desperately trying to salvage something noteworthy and meaningful to mankind out of its most foolish and terrible mistakes, manifest in the monster itself. Shimura becomes the easily the best performer in a strong collection of actors on screen, preserving a countenance of regret over the futility of his efforts.
So too Akihiko Hirata as Serizawa, whose secret lab is revealed to house a new and terrible superweapon: the Oxygen Destroyer, a substance capable of liquefying any organic material in water, a sure way to kill Godzilla. But therein lies his dilemma: the Oxygen Destroyer is an easy contender for a new weapon of mass destruction in the ever-escalating Cold War, and he fears that his discovery will become another tool of the superpowers against innocent people unless he can find a better, more humane use for his compound. Like Yamane, Serizawa seems to be trying to salvage a workable future from mankind’s violent past and present, although his character arc is much more reminiscent of the real life J. Robert Oppenheimer, the remorseful creator of the atomic age.
Undoubtedly, however, the main event of Godzilla to most viewers would be Godzilla himself. Portrayed by a combination of puppets and a large, 200-lb rubber suit, Godzilla, in this original film at least, remains a wholly-convincing special effect. While the puppet shots have most certainly aged poorly and don’t fit with the rest of the footage, the cumbersome suit, worn valiantly through fainting spells and buckets of sweat by Haruo Nakajima, portrays a confused and tortured beast, staggering around a highly-detailed miniature Tokyo as if it is constantly in searing pain (the presence of keloid scars across its hide does much to bolster this observation). Honda’s stark black-and-white photography captures all of the nuances of Nakajima’s performance and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, resulting in an image eerily reminiscent of wartime footage that would have been very hard to watch for those who had survived it. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s still-haunting score, the effect is palpable.
Godzilla would become a smashing success in Japan and several other markets in its original release in 1954, convincing a skeptical public that Japan was a new contender in big special effects pictures, while still telling a dark and emotional story at its core. For its wide American release, Transworld Pictures commissioned a re-edited version, starring Raymond Burr in reshoots as Steve Martin, a newspaperman on whom the altered story would center. While toning down its more anti-war and nuclear age arguments (most certainly due to American Cold War attitudes of the time), Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is still a solid Americanization of the original film, indeed, probably the best of them. Burr’s Martin, acting as a narrator to smooth the gaps in the story caused by the editing, is a fascinating character in his own right, and unlike later dubs, much of the original characters’ dialogue remain intact, creating a respectful image of the actors and their heritage. Indeed, without this version of the film, Godzilla may not be as popular as he is today, owing to the fact that King of the Monsters! was much more widely distributed across the world.
Godzilla seems to be an acquired taste, even with viewers who claim to be fans. Still thought of by the general populace as “that green dinosaur who fights aliens,” Godzilla may surprise those folks with its chilling realism and somber tone–if they manage to survive a viewing. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a film that I wish was, for in today’s world, it seems the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t taken seriously anymore. I can’t count on my hands how many times in a week I hear co-workers or passersby dismiss the Middle East or North Korea with a simple ‘nuke-em’ statement, and I can’t help but wonder if the Earth decided to regurgitate a monster born from this ignorant view to wreak havoc upon their lives, would they regret what they so often think?
This is the message of Godzilla. Heed it well.