Project G-Godzilla (1954)

We’re going to be doing things a little differently with this one than I’m planning on doing with all the rest.  There’s reasons for this, of course.  I never do things without reason.  Even if that reason is just ‘because I feel like it’.

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In this case however, frankly, the original Godzilla is a little bit different.  It’s incredibly different in tone from what the series would become, or even the rest of the genre it helped found.  Although it’s considered a Showa era film, it has continuity and repurcussions among all the rest of the Godzilla films of every era.  And really, this movie is a lot more serious, haunting, and downright reverent for its subject matter than what’s to come in this series.  So I’ll be treating this one different than the rest of what’s to come.  Usually, we’ll review in bulk, but here, Godzilla stands alone.  I’m planning on snarking up the place, but this film deserves more than that.  So let’s go.

Godzilla (1954)

Memorable Title: The OG Godzilla

Before we start proper, I should mention, I am horrible with names.  I’m especially horrible with names that aren’t in one of the languages I speak.  And I’m super horrible with names that only come up a few times over the course of my run with a film.  So, as will be common with these reviews, I’ll only call people by the names I remember.  If I don’t remember a name, I’m making one up.

Anyways, we’ll lead with a synopsis.  At least, as best I can remember, some time after watching the film and with a drink in hand now.  The film opens with a vaguely seen monster wrecking some boat near some island.  Another boat goes there to check it out, and the monster wrecks that too, leaving few survivors, including, if I’m remembering correctly, Some Guy.  Some Guy will be important later.  In any case, the monster proceeds to also wreck a fishing boat because it’s there, and it turns out that even when he’s not out wrecking boats, he’s still eating all the fish near an island.  This is important enough to get a film crew in the area to investigate.  They learn that the island used to sacrifice it’s nubile maidens to a sea monster named “Godzilla” in exchange for a good harvest of fish.  Godzilla decides to crush the island that night, reporters see, then everyone goes to Tokyo to ask them to do something about the giant monster breaking all the stuff.

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The government sends a mission to the island, consisting of, among others, Dr. Dinosaur, Some Guy, and for some reason the Dr.’s daughter, Daft Tart.  Seeing them off is Dr. Serizawa.  Dude’s a scientist and is really married to his job, but it’s an open relationship, so he’s also engaged to Daft Tart.  Daft Tart and Some Guy are schtupping on the fly, but Serizawa knows about it and is cool with it, because again, open relationship.  Anyways, the mission heads there, takes a look at some footprints.  Dr. Dinosaur notices some extinct creature living in the footprint, notices that it’s radioactive as all hell, and also notices that a bunch of kids have gotten a fatal dose of radiation in them.  The group continues exploring until they spot Godzilla in broad daylight, screaming at them from over a hill.  Dr. Dinosaur takes his knowledge back to Tokyo, presenting that Godzilla’s this still-living dinosaur who had been residing in an evolutionarily and biologically isolated underwater pocket until he was mutated by an errant H-bomb test.  This leads to a bit of furor as some insist that Godzilla’s existence should be hidden to prevent panic and protect Japan’s international relations, while others insist everyone has a right to know.  Either way, everyone agrees that the big giant thing that has killed tons of people should probably not be alive to kill a bunch of other people, except for Dr. Dinosaur who wants to keep the big guy alive so he can do science stuff on him.

Government sends a bunch of ships out to sea to go bomb Godzilla.  They fail to do any serious damage.  This will be a theme in future movies.  They do, however, manage to lead Godzilla back to Japan, where he destroys a train and some other stuff before heading back to the ocean.  Government gets with Dr. Dinosaur about what to do about Godzilla, who tells them that Godzilla is unkillable and also don’t shine lights at him.  Dr. Serizawa shows Daft Tart what he’s been working on, the Oxygen Destroyer, which…. destroys oxygen.  Good name, I guess.  Literally eliminates oxygen molecules from whatever it comes into contact with.  Serizawa is a WW2 vet, saw the impact of the atomic bombings, and is absolutely distraught that he’s created the world’s next great super-weapon.  He resolves to keep his discovery an absolute secret until he’s found a peaceful, truly helpful application to it, worried that if anyone else finds out about it, it’s just going to be used to kill.

 

Japan builds a giant electric fence around the country, thinking that it will stop Godzilla if he ever attacks.  Godzilla attacks.  It bothers him for a second, but then he unleashes something nobody ever expected, his atomic breath, to melt his way through it.  He then lays siege to Tokyo.

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Absolute siege.  I feel I can’t understate it enough.  By the modern day, we’ve seen Godzilla go on a rampage tons of times.  Even compared to that, the destruction he inflicts on Tokyo in this film is absolutely brutal.  And you see it all from the people affected by it.  Those fleeing.  Those hiding.  Those who can go no more, and know that they’re going die.  Moreover, the military is absolutely ineffective against him.  There is nothing they can do that is not futile.  Yet they keep trying, because they have to, and they die by the ton for it.  A big theme in this film is the consequences of the atomic bombing, and you see it heavily here.

The day after, every single place that can care for the injured is absolutely flooded with the wounded survivors.  Daft Tart sees this, and tells Some Guy about Dr. Serizawa’s new potential superweapon.  They confront Serizawa about it, expressing the need to kill Godzilla before he does this again.  Serizawa begins destroying his work at this, leading to a confrontation with Some Guy in which Some Guy gets bloodied, and Serizawa hates himself for the violence.  Then he watches TV, sees what’s going on, and agrees to turn his invention into a weapon, but still destroys all his work so it can never be replicated.

Even with the knowledge that the Oxygen Destroyer is going to wreck the local ecosystem, the government’s behind the plan.  Some Guy and Dr. Serizawa head out to sea, where the military has tracked Godzilla.  Contrary to his previous appearances, here, Godzilla is completely peaceful, and makes no move against the two.  Serizawa plants the Oxygen Destroyer, sends Some Guy back up, then severs his own ties to the ship and his oxygen line, taking the only surviving knowledge of how to create the Oxygen Destroyer with him and keeping it from being unleashed on the world.  The Oxygen Destroyer goes off, and strips Godzilla to the bone.  With Godzilla dead, and Serizawa with it, those above have a bittersweet moment, remembering the heroic scientist and the potentially tragic beast, while also realizing that, if the world keeps on the path it’s on, more Godzillas may well be created.

And let the credits roll.

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Godzilla could have just been another of the stupid fun monster bash movies that I’ve gotten so hooked on, exactly what the series became.  The original film, though, is far, far deeper than that.  You can’t enjoy this film the same way you enjoy the rest of the Godzilla movies.  Overall Godzilla fans may not enjoy this film, and fans of this film may not enjoy the rest of the franchise.  It’s very, very different.  In particular, it’s the themes of this film and the mindset of the people who made it that makes this special.  This is a film about war, about destruction, and about the atomic bomb created by the survivors and veterans of World War II who were witness to its most devastating events and lived through the aftermath.  This type of film could only have come from this creative team and at this time, and it offers a unique perspective into the mentality of the Japanese populace in the years they spent recovering from the end of World War II.

I don’t see any way around this.  Let’s set the scene here.  Pre-WW2, Japan was one of the most vicious, cruel, and inhumane nations on the planet.  World War 2 was the cap for them on at least 30 years of continuous aggressive action and numerous war crimes against China, Korea, Russia, and beyond.  Active and expansive slavery, comfort women, the Rape of Nanking, the Asian Holocaust, the list of horrors that they committed goes on and on.  As the war turned against them, they turned against their own citizens as well, committing to the use of kamikaze pilots long after they ceased being any sort of effective, aggressively encouraging families in soon-to-be Ally-controlled territories to commit suicide in order to keep their populace from finding out that life under Allied occupation is not near as horrible as they’ve been saying, or press-ganging millions of their civilians into military service, arming them with suicide weaponry, and telling them to make their deaths count.  Nazi Germany may be getting the most focus for WW2 horrors, but Imperial Japan was right there with them.

And the atomic bombs hit them so hard they turned into a nation of pacifists.

Granted, there was a lot more involved in their societal change than just that.  Saying it that way makes for a way more dramatic picture, though.  And it’s really hard to understate the impact the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japan.  The film Godzilla gives you a bit of a glimpse of it, though, wrapped up in a much more palatable fantasy horror shell.  Yes, you’re watching a movie about a giant monster terrifying Japan.  But, the monster Godzilla is the atomic bomb.  And that takes things to a deeper level here.

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Director Ishiro Honda, if memory serves, was in the Japanese military during World War II, and returned to see the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima.  He drew from those images in creating Godzilla, and I imagine a fair bit of the feelings of the time, too.  The military is helpless against Godzilla, much like they were against Fat Man and Little Boy.  The aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage sees hospitals overcrowded, medical staff overwhelmed, and even the immediate survivors aren’t safe, as radiation poisoning grabs hold.  As was common following the atomic bomb.  Godzilla, who, as the film points out, was mutated by the H-bomb himself, has skin that’s scarred and warped much like that of real-world survivors of the atomic bombings was.  It is not subtle in its metaphors.

Given that the initial American version of this film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, cut out some “anti-American” scenes, the Japanese Godzilla has picked up a bit of a reputation.  However, I didn’t really see much in the way of anti-Americanism in the original version I watched.  Granted, my copy of it is by Criterion, whom I know retranslated the subtitles from earlier versions, but given their reputation for maintaining movies in their original format, I would think it would be more accurate.  In any case, I just didn’t see it here.  It is strongly against H-bomb testing, and frankly, given that this came out shortly after the Lucky Dragon incident, I can’t blame them for that, but anything that’s really targeted at America is only by extended implication.  Hell, it’s at least as anti-Japanese government as it is anti-American, as you see some mindset to leave people vulnerable and keep Godzilla hidden in order to protect their own interests, and they lead the assault against Godzilla that ends up leading him back to them and provoking even worse devastation.  It is against the advancements of the new biggest, baddest weapons and the use of science to kill people in general, as seen in basically everything to do with Dr. Serizawa.  Even then, though, it doesn’t make a flat statement against them.  I don’t necessarily know if this was the intended statement or not, but there did hit a threshold in this movie where it was necessary to use the new big, bad superweapon to keep the nation from being wiped out, even when that did have lingering effects.  The message ends up being more “only use the superweapons in the direst peril, and even then take care that they don’t develop further” rather than a simple “atomic bombs=BAD!”

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As far as the quality of the movie, well, I know I enjoy my films very differently than your average consumer.  I had a very fine time with it, however.  It’s typical in Godzilla films to have a long time building up tension before Big G appears while they develop the human interest side of things, and that’s definitely the case here.  It’s a very different tension here than you usually see, though, building up fear and danger rather than the thrill of impending chaos.  Several of the characters have a surprising amount of nuance, moreso than was typical for this time period.  And I really have to applaud it for making you feel its themes.  This film has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and it would have been very easy for it to end up basically screaming what the developers really thought at you without any hope for absorption, as so many attempts at “thoughtful” media end up doing.  But this film doesn’t do that.  Godzilla exhibits a high level of “show, don’t tell” that makes its themes, blunt as they are, way more impactful, and really promotes an understanding of them.  This is a monster movie at its core, sure.  But it’s a monster movie that makes you think, and it’s one that has lingered with me well beyond when I finished watching it.

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4 responses to “Project G-Godzilla (1954)

  1. I always heard about Godzilla’s origin as social commentary about the atomic bomb, but I’ve never seen this first movie. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with all the other horrors of the war both perpetrated by and against Japan, were still in living memory, Japanese audiences must have had a very different feeling about the movie than American or other audiences would have.

    • Absolutely. I imagine there’s even a divide between modern Japanese viewers and Japanese viewers who saw this when it was fresh. It’s very much a product of its time and place, but that really adds a lot to it.

  2. I ended up seeing this film for the first time a few months ago. Even after hearing of how somber this film was, I was still completely caught off-guard by it. It’s interesting seeing how they played with these standard tropes before they had a chance to cement. Serizawa ends up using the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla and sacrifices his own life to ensure the knowledge of how to make it dies with him. Usually, you would just see the scientists invent the superweapon before coming through at the last minute to save the day. Mr. Honda actually explored the potential political ramifications inventing something as deadly as the Oxygen Destroyer would entail and the moment in which they kill the monster isn’t triumphant at all, but rather a remembrance of the sheer horrors of war and the impact it has on every living being. This is definitely a film that spawned from its era, but unlike a lot of examples, it has held up remarkably well (despite what Ebert had to say).

    Last year, I ended up seeing Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, both of which also deal with the aftermath of the Second World War (albeit in a much different fashion), being set in a bombed out land. If you’re looking to see some underrated Kurosawa films, I recommend both – the latter was especially great.

    • Daisuke Serizawa really made about half the movie what is was, in a lot of ways, even though he barely got any screentime. The conflict he was having over what his invention was, how to use it, and the ramifications of it, took the film from an already thoughtful creative metaphor on the devastation of the bombing of Japan and added another layer on it, something more positive, optimistic, and forward thinking. I feel the film turned on him.

      I’d heard really positive things about Stray Dog. I may pick that up when I get the chance.

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