Gojira (1954)

*. Gojira is a movie with such a huge legacy, or long tail, that it’s hard to view today with innocent eyes. In 2015 Guinness World Records recognized Godzilla (to give the monster his American name) as the longest-running film franchise in history, and that only went up to the 2014 Gareth Edwards picture. Since then there have actually been six or seven more entries. I think the total runs to around 35 movies now, most of them produced by Japan’s Toho. More recently, however, the monster has also been picked up by Legendary Pictures for its MonsterVerse series.
*. But I want to go back to those innocent eyes I mentioned. I’ll admit I don’t have them anymore. I grew up watching these movies on television as a kid, where they were broadcast as weekend afternoon “creature features.” Today I can say I’ve seen the more recent Hollywood versions, and also read a fair bit about the films, though only a small percentage of the enormous amount that’s out there. So re-watching Gojira I have to carry all this baggage with me.
*. To put the question directly: Is Gojira, which is by any estimation a classic and among the most influential movies of its time, actually any good? Putting aside sixty-five years of Godzilla, is this a well-made movie?
*. When it was re-released in the U.S. in 2004 Roger Ebert put it this way: “Is there a reason to see the original Godzilla?” He thought there was, “not because of its artistic stature, but perhaps because of the feeling we can sense in its parable about the monstrous threats unleashed by the atomic age.” In conclusion: “This is a bad movie, but it has earned its place in history, and the enduring popularity of Godzilla and other monsters shows that it struck a chord.”
*. The idea of a giant monster being a product of the atomic age was not in itself something new. Gojira was directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which had just come out the year before. Indeed, the initial outline of the script for Gojira had the working title The Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea (or something like that; I’ve heard different versions). The two main differences here were (1) the anti-war, anti-nuke message, very much informed both by Japan’s experience in the Second World War and ongoing nuclear testing in the region, and (2) the way the giant monster took the form of a man in a rubber suit stomping around model sets, a kind of practical special effects associated with the label Tokusatsu.
*. Of these two new developments the first, sadly, has less resonance today. The monster as metaphor for atomic bombs seems an artefact of the ’50s more than of our own time. While it’s heartfelt, it’s overplayed and doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as it did in the Cold War. I’m not saying that’s how it should play, but I think it’s how it does.

*. The “suitmation” stuff should have dated even more, and it has in one sense. Such effects struck many people as ridiculous even at the time, and in the age of CGI they seem even more so. The stop-motion of King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms plays better. (Stop-motion would have been prohibitively expensive for a production like Gojira.) That said, there’s also something timeless about these effects. I think this is because they tap into childhood play so much, and the destruction of model tanks and warplanes, toy cars, sand castles, and towns made out of Lego. While Gojira isn’t really a movie for kids, that was the direction the franchise would find itself taking, and I think it was inevitable.
*. Godzilla is, of course, the star. Does the rest of the movie hold our attention? I think slightly more than the filler we find in the average giant-monster movie. Things get started on a high note with two aural cues provided by Akira Ifukube: the martial march that would be later identified as Godzilla’s main theme and the peculiar industrial sound of his roar, like metal straining (but which was, in fact, instrumental).
*. As an aside, Ifukube apparently wrote the main theme in a week without having seen any part of the movie. I think it was probably something he’d had in his head for a while and been waiting to use.
*. From there things move along at a snappy pace, with director Ishiro Honda whipping the story forward at newsreel speed, complete with lots of quick wipes. I also like the way Godzilla is introduced gradually, from his earthquake footsteps and toxic roar, to the discovery of his giant footprints, his head (a puppet) appearing over the skyline, and finally his climactic assault on Tokyo.
*. Unfortunately, the movie stalls badly after this point. The three leads and their love triangle aren’t very interesting. The political message becomes heavy-handed. The dialogue, at least if the subtitles are at all accurate, is laughably hammy. The final underwater showdown between Serizawa, armed with his Oxygen Destroyer, and Godzilla is a big letdown after the destruction of Tokyo. It is also downbeat in a way that goes beyond being merely anti-Hollywood. It’s a solemn ending, what with Serizawa’s death and the warning about how nuclear testing will only beget more monsters. Were they thinking of all the sequels? I don’t think that was the point.
*. Still, I don’t think there’s any way to judge Gojira outside of its genre, or apart from its legacy. And even at the time it came out reviews were mixed. I think it is a great monster movie, and one I’ve gone back and watched several times over the years. It has some exceptional qualities, as well as lots of primitive charm. And while it’s a movie grounded in its time and place, it’s certainly more than just a historical or cultural curiosity.

4 thoughts on “Gojira (1954)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’ve often found these films to be more fun to write about than actually watch. Godzilla is a thing for sure, but I’m not sure where the origins really hold much water as entertainment.

    Reply

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