My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The 1954 horror-science fiction classic Gojira, aka Godzilla, is the original film that launched a film franchise longer than any other in the history of cinema as well as spawning numerous spinoffs around the globe, particularly the United States. The film directed by legendary filmmaker Ishiro Honda, written by Honda, Takeo Murata, and Shigeru Kayama was released during the “golden age” of Japanese cinema after the Post-WWII Occupation which along with the atomic bomb plays a background theme of the theme.
Japanese cargo ships and fishing boats begin disappearing around Odo Island, for the locals it is the return of an ancient sea creature “Godzilla”. Because of the mystery around the waters of Odo, reporters arrive and begin interviewing people as well as learn about the local beliefs about what’s happening. Then that night, a huge storm arrives as well as something else that demolishes and consumes parts of the village. The resulting coverage and demand to relief results in the government sending an investigative team lead by paleontologist Dr. Yamane, who is on the island when the creature is seen for the first time in daylight proving it to be a living dinosaur affected by the testing of atomic and nuclear bombs. Though the Japanese government attempts to keep their findings secret even as they attempt to kill the monster and more ships go missing, when Godzilla appears in Tokyo Bay and does some damage on both land and sea. With the secret out the Japanese Defense Forces attempt to kill Godzilla, but only make the creature angrier which results in Tokyo getting devastated. During all of this Yamane begs that Godzilla be studied not only because of his uniqueness but his resistance to radiation even while his daughter is in the midst of a love triangle that will result in finding out the method in killing Godzilla by her former fiancé, Serizama. Using his Oxygen Destroyer, Serizama kills not only Godzilla and himself to prevent his discovery from becoming a weapon though Yamane is fearful that more nuclear testing will result in another Godzilla.
This brief synopsis of the nearly 100-minute film, gives a faint hint at all the nuance that is within the picture. The slow build up at the beginning of the film of Godzilla’s actions, though the monster is unseen, and the grief-stricken and stressed reactions of the survivors of sailors lost at sea by unknown means hearkened back to World War II and the loss of soldiers and sailors during the war. Godzilla’s rampaging through Tokyo several times causing massive damage is a painful reminder of the American bombing campaign during the war. Then there is Godzilla himself, brought to the surface because of underwater nuclear bomb tests in the film but obviously a stand-in to the long-lasting effects of radiation from the atomic bombs that were just then being understood.
Yet not everyone wants to go really in-depth the meaning of some films, so what of the face value of the film itself? Gojira isn’t perfect especially when it comes to the human-centered story and the characters themselves. Of the all the named characters with significant time, only Dr. Yamane and Serizama are the best fleshed out and only the latter shows any character development from when we first meet him in the film to his decision to die so his superweapon won’t be replicated. The reason this film has become a classic is the special effects. Using techniques the Japanese cinema had honed for decades under state control wanting war films, the industry learned to recreate real-life locations in miniature and editing techniques to make things look as realistic as a film in the 1950s could.
While subsequent ToHo films featuring Godzilla are not as high quality as the first, they do not take away anything from Gojira. This horror-science fiction classic’s use of symbolism to express the underlying currents of Japanese society and culture a decade after the end of the World War II still speaks to those viewers today that look for it. And for those who do not, the first and original film to feature Godzilla is a recommended must see given the worldwide culture impact the character has had.