Friday, May 6, 2011

Gojira (1954)

Title: Gojira (1954)

Director: Ishiro Honda


This is my first real incursion into the world of Godzilla films, and I find it fitting that I start at the very beginning, with the first Godzilla movie ever made. I’d also seen Godzilla 1985 many years ago, but that was it, I don’t remember it that well, so I feel as though I’ve never really seen it. Truth is, I never really swam down to the depths of the many Godzilla films that have been produced over the decades. Yeah, I’d seen the American remake directed by Roland Emerich, and truth be told, I didn’t hate it as much as everyone else did. I mean, it’s a giant monster movie and that is exactly what we got; a giant monster rampaging through the city, fighting the military. I think what pissed people off with that movie was the fact that Godzilla didn’t look like the classic Godzilla from the Japanese films, so people immediately disconnected. Or was it that the film didn’t take itself too seriously? Or was it the baby Godzilla’s that people didn’t like? Was it that it was a souless showcase of special effects? Whatever the reason that ignited people’s hatred towards that 1998 Godzilla remake, I haven’t seen it in years; chances are that there are many other reasons why people didn’t like it. I seem to remember thinking that it felt too much like a Jurassic Park movie towards the ending, and because of that it felt too much like I’d been there and done that. But whatever, we are here to talk about THE classic Godzilla movie from the 50’s, the one that started it all! Gojira! How was it?

The story starts out with a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. A flash of blinding light that emerges from the depths of the ocean obliterates the entire ship! And it’s happening to every ship in that area! To top things off, fishermen are complaining that the fish are disappearing from the ocean! What could be causing all this? Well, if you ask an old man who resides in the Island of Odo, this is all happening because of ‘Gojira’, an ancient creature that the elders of the island used to feed virgins to in order to appease it. But who’s going to believe a crazy old man? Well, it doesn’t matter if they believe him or not because Godzilla shows itself anyways and lays waste to the island before quickly disappearing into the ocean once again. Now, Gojira is headed towards Japan itself! The military tries to stop the creature, but with no success! Apparently nothing can kill it!

First time we see Gojira, it looks something like this

In the film, a scientist explains how the ocean floor still has many unexplored depths that could easily harbor such a creature. On top of it all, he mentions that there is radiation on the sand that Gojira leaves behind, which let’s us know that Gojira is actually a mutated prehistoric creature. The fact that Gojira is a mutation caused by the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki let’s us see that Gojira is a film that comments on these nuclear attacks and the damage that it inflicted upon the thousands of Japanese people who died during the actual nuclear explosion or where affected by the radiation that was left behind. Any intelligent individual can see that Gojira represents the U.S. coming to annihilate the Japanese with its weapons of mass destruction. If you are still uncertain of this, just remember that Gojira fires a ray from its mouth that burns and disfigures the people horribly, same way the radiation from a nuclear blast would.

Watch out for those rays!

The whole nuclear fallout angle goes even further with this film. Yes, the film is commenting on the attacks on Nagasaki and Horishima, but it also comments on another nuclear event that happened on the same year that the film premiered. The film opens with a three fishing boats getting wiped out by Gojira’s radiation blasts, this opening sequence is actually a reflection of a series of nuclear tests that the United States conducted near Japan in 1954. This nuclear test was called ‘Castle Bravo’, basically, this secret military test consisted of the U.S. blowing up nuclear bombs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. government thought that the explosion would yield a 4 to 5 megaton explosion, but instead, thanks to a theoretical error made by the designers of the device; the bomb actually yielded a 15 megaton explosion! Castle Bravo ended up being the most powerful nuclear explosion ever detonated by the United States. It contaminated a large part of the Pacific Ocean; in fact, Castle Bravo went down as the most powerful accidental radiological contamination ever caused by the United States. Sadly, the nuclear fallout (aka radiation dust) that came as a result of the explosion contaminated people in nearby islands with large amounts of deadly radiation. The crew of a local fishing boat called ‘Lucky Dragon No. 5’ was fishing in the area (which had been declared safe by the U.S. government) but since the explosion was so huge, it ended up affecting the crew members of the ship, including the ships captain who died seven months later due to acute radiation syndrome. So as you can see, this film has a lot more reality laced into its story than people believe. It’s more then just a film about a giant monsters, it’s a film commenting on the results of mans obsession with trying to control nuclear power.

Castle Bravo in action

But all that aside, was it a good monster movie? Hell yeah it was! What I enjoyed most about it was how the director chose to handle most of the scenes where we see Gojira the same way you would handle a horror film. Most of the time we see Gojira, it during the night, beneath the shadows, which instantly makes the creature look more menacing, even if it is just a man in a suit. And speaking of the ‘man in a suit’ angle, this is the kind of movie where a healthy dose of 'suspension of disbelief' is suggested in order to enjoy the movie. So what if it’s a guy in a suit, you have to believe it’s a monster destroying the city in order to enjoy the film. If not, you wont have any fun. The director does his best to hide the monster in the shadows,  for example, when Gojira first attacks an island, it happens during a storm, and so everything looks spooky, like a horror film, which for all intents and purposes is what Gojira is: a perfect marriage of sci-fi and horror that leans a bit more towards the sci-fi angle of things. The makers of Gojira were inspired by various films similar to Gojira, the two that first come to mind are King Kong (1931) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which by the way had been released only a year before Gojira. One could say that Gojira is actually Japans answer to King Kong. This makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that Gojira actually ended up fighting King Kong in one of its sequels called King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). Kong and Gojira's first films both have similar storylines that include virgin sacrifices, mysterious islands, and massive destruction of public property.

The miniature work on this film was decent. Gojira works its way through Japan, destroying buildings, train tracks, electrical towers, you name it and Gojira destroys it. The creativity involved in this film is amazing, especially when we take in consideration that this was the first time that Japanese cinema attempted to make a giant monster movie. That’s right; this was their first big monster movie! After this film, giant monster movies would become a norm in Japanese pop culture. Making the film was a trial and error thing. A monster suit of this kind had never been created, so they went through various suits and designs before they finally came to the one we know. The actor who wore the Gojira suit could only wear it for three minutes at a time or else he would risk passing out from heat and dehydration! There are more interesting anecdotes to the whole making of this film, which can all be seen in the making of featurette that comes with the dvd. I highly recommend checking it out after you see the movie. It was a real pleasure seeing everything these guys had to go through in order to make this grand daddy of monster movies.

An actor shooting footage of Gojiras feet destroying Japan

On a final note, the film offered up some moments I never thought I’d see. For example, I never thought I’d see Godzilla walking through the depths of the ocean like some underwater God or something! That was a cool image! Also, the ending, when the good guys decide to go down to the depths with a bomb called ‘The Oxygen Destroyer’ brought to mind the ending in James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989). Actually, after seeing the ending for Gojira, I was convinced that Cameron stole that whole sequence and used it on The Abyss. The similarities are just too obvious! So anyways, that’s my review for Gojira, a grand old monster movie that has a lot more going for it than most give it credit for.

Rating: 5 out of 5

P.S. If your hunger for more info on older sci-fi movies like Gojira, then head on over to The Celluloid Highway where my good buddy Shaun Anderson is conducting a month long sci-fi themed series of articles, he's been writing some really interesting and informative articles about sci-fi movies from the 50's, go on over and check em out, you wont be dissapointed!  


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review old buddy! - Before you dip heavily into the highly inconsistent world of Godzilla I'd suggest checking out some of Ishiro Honda's non-Godzilla films. THE MYSTERIANS is great fun and pretty easy to get hold of, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE, RODAN and MATANGO are also well worth experiencing. This is the key film, and I personally dont think any other GODZILLA film will add much to your life, other than lockjaw from all the yawning...Hey man thanks for promoting my 50's sci-fi month...I really do appreciate it :-)

Franco Macabro said...

No problem Shaun, I've been enjoying your articles, I need to catch up with my 50's sci-fi! I will try and check out those other Ishiro Honda films you mentioned, the titles sound interesting.

I imagine the Godzilla movies are mindless fun, but every once in a while, thats exactly what I need!

Thanks for commenting!

Manuel Marrero said...

Godzilla Is always fun to watch; it has always been a big part in my childhood. We should watch Godzilla v.s Megalon, my personal fav. Oh yea it also has the famous Ultra megaton Godzilla kick in it.

venoms5 said...

Great movie, this one. Personally, I feel it's one of the best movies ever made for taking a monster movie and transcending the typical conventions of the style. There's more than a few poignant and powerful moments here. Things you wouldn't expect to see in a film of this sort--the doomed old woman clutching her children as Godzilla approaches them, the love triangle between the three main participants, the aftermath and the song of hope and the ending. Akihiko Hirata would play a similar troubled scientist in TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA in 1975. Serizawa is the epitome of martyrdom here. He's the modernist representation of the Bushido Code in some ways.

It wasn't all a man in a suit, though. MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964) and MONSTER ZERO (1965) are two big favorites of mine, Fran. GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1970) is another, even though that one generally is derided by fans. If you were ever a latchkey kid, or were predominantly left to your own devices as a kid, you'll find it of special interest.

The US cut of GODZILLA isn't too bad, either. It's actually surprisingly effective in its own right. RODAN is another one that's on par with GODZILLA, but marginally lesser. The element of horror is still there and the ending is quite powerful, too. The Japanese had an uncanny ability to instill humanist traits into their monster movies.

Bob Ignizio said...

This is definitely the best of the series if you're looking for a serious film. Of the rest, only 'Godzilla Raids Again' even tries to approach that tone. But there is definitely a lot of fun to be had with the later films. My vote for best later film is 'Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster'. This is the first time where Godzilla moves towards becoming essentially a superhero, teaming up with Mothra and Rodan to defeat the titular menace. If you can't have fun with that, there's something wrong with you.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I completely agree with regards to the 1998 American version of Godzilla, it was one of the most incredibly entertaining films i`ve ever seen and quite possibly the most ludicrously under-rated movie of all-time, i also thought that it was better than all the Japanese made Godzilla movies put together ! ! !. By the way, i seem to remember "Destroy All Monsters" (1968) being absolutely hilarious (although still garbage obviously).

Franco Macabro said...

@Manuel: I'm sure we'll end up seeing another Godzilla movie soon.

@Venom5: As always, I thank you for all those great suggestions man, I remember it was after I'd read your review for Gojira and a few other Godzilla movies that I finally decided to check this one out, I was not dissapointed! I want to see more Godzilla movies, so I will take your suggestions and watch them! Thanks again bro!

@Bob: *Writing down Godzilla Rides Again on my must watch list* I love fun movies, so I will definetly be checking these out, I'd love to see how Godzilla turns into a hero instead of a menace.

@Jervais: I've seen a lot of people talk negatively about Destroy All I'll leave that one for last, though it sounds like it could be one of those "so bad its good" movies.

Thanks to all for commenting!


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