Like most North Americans, my introduction to Godzilla (aka Gojira) came later than the first (original) film. For me, it was the 1956 American edit of this film (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, with Canadian actor Raymond Burr; review to follow), watched sometime in the late 1950s. I didn’t actually see the unedited, Japanese original until fairly recently, although I’ve known of its existence since the 1960s. After it was first released for North American audiences in 2004 (now on DVD and Blu-Ray), I’ve watched it thrice. As I wrote previously, this is the first of many posts about the franchise.
If anyone asks me which are my favourite Godzilla films of the 36 or so in the franchise, the 1954 original always tops my list (followed closely by the 2016 Shin Godzilla; review coming). This is a tokukatsu — special effects — film that features suitmation (also called suitamation). While that technique may seem camp today, it was state-of-the-art when the film was made. This was a big-budget film for its day; those 1/25th scale models of Tokyo were expensive and time-consuming to create (and destroy). the cast included many well-known, experienced, and respected actors. And it was the first Japanese big-spectacle film. Who could have imagined how it would generate a whole subculture and become an international icon?
If your knowledge or experience of Godzilla is based on the later, often kitschy, comical, and sometimes cringeworthy films shot in the 1970s, you really need to watch the original to appreciate how the film company (Toho) envisioned its first monster (kaiju) movie. And you might better understand why the franchise became such a long-running hit over the next 70 years.
Watching it again still gives me goosebumps when hear I the score written and conducted by Akira Ifukube. He was to Godzilla films what John Williams was to Star Trek and other Hollywood blockbusters. That opening number remained the signature theme for many later Godzilla films. Ifukube also created Godzilla’s signature roar.
First, the film is shot in black and white, and much of it in a very dark B&W, too. It’s almost early Hitchcockian in its use of shadows and night (or Fritz Laing’s gripping movie, M). That lack of colour creates a powerful atmosphere of gloom and tension that was lost when the franchise went to colour. Much of this version appears to have been filmed at night (although I suspect filters created the effect). You get the same sort of effect in the earliest Frankenstein and Dracula movies, from the 1930s. I really hope no one ever colourizes any of them (I have an appreciation of B&W films).
And the film has subtitles, not dubbing (dubbing is provided many later Godzilla movies). I prefer subtitles because you also get to hear background sounds that dubbing often loses (and sometimes soundtrack music gets lost). I never understood why some people are adamantly opposed to subtitles and prefer badly-dubbed voice-overs.
There are a lot of scenes that show daily life in Japan, on the streets, in houses, and in offices. It’s interesting just to watch them carefully to see the nuances of the culture. Some seem subtle, because they were commonplace in Japan, but others, like Emiko and Serizawa’s arranged marriage, are quite noticeable to Western audiences.
Spoiler alert: I describe and comment on numerous scenes, below.
The film opens with an unexplained scene of sailors on a fishing boat (the Eiko Maru), relaxing at night while some of them play guitar and harmonica. Suddenly all are killed by a blast of light (and radiation, we learn later), and the boat sinks. Boats sent to the rescue also get destroyed for no evident reason. It looks more like a maritime drama film than a monster film. But the audience knows better: this soft opening is meant to build tension and introduce the cast as they deal with the puzzling disaster. No reason for the destruction is given.
This first scene isn’t incongruous: the movie was released less than a year after the Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryu Maru, accidentally sailed into the danger zone for the American secret hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. This poisoned the crew, eventually killing one of them. More than 400,000 people attended his funeral that fall. This event was still vivid in the filmmakers’ memories and it inspired their work.
It may be difficult for younger viewers to appreciate how the fear of a nuclear holocaust was present in our lives in the 1950s. The atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan less than a decade before Gojira was released, and the first hydrogen bomb had been tested on Enewetak Atoll only two years earlier (the island is still not fit for human habitation, despite massive and expensive cleanup efforts). A nuclear arms race between the USSR and USA was in full swing. The USA tested its most powerful A-bomb to date in November 1952, at Enewetak Atoll, about 3,500 km southeast of Japan, and the USSR tested its most powerful A-bomb to date in August, ’53.
Only after the American Occupation ended, could Japanese filmmakers tackle the effects of the atomic bomb. A year after Gojira was released, director Akira Kurosawa would release his film, I Live in Fear, about Japan’s national “atomophobia.”
A lot of ink was been used to discuss the allegorical nature of the film; the threat of the atomic bomb and science unrestrained by the oversight of morality or ethics. Less has been written on the subtext about bureaucracy and how governments respond poorly and hesitantly to both emergencies and the unknown. As the franchise evolved, the nuclear threat parable submerged while the themes of “the wrath of nature, human hubris and dark immutable forces rather than science gone awry” came to the fore.
The name Godzilla doesn’t even get mentioned until just shy of 11 minutes into the film when an aged fisherman in an isolated village on a distant island uses it when blaming the loss of the community’s catch of fish. Then it becomes the subject of an angry back-and-forth between the older fisherman and his younger daughter, about tradition and, of course, male dominance. There’s a scene about 0:11:13 where the villagers look up at the sound of a helicopter and stare at its arrival; a juxtaposition of the old, low-tech fishing village culture and the modern. Again, this is a subtext that carries on through the film: the old versus the new. The old fisherman warns that Godzilla will eat all the fish in the sea, and then come ashore to eat all the people.
Accompanying this dire prediction are scenes of traditional Japanese ritual dances, followed by a sudden, and unexplained storm that batters the fishing village and destroys 17 homes (although we don’t see all 17 destroyed; just the one, which serves as the metaphor for the rest). The first deaths happen in this scene; although not directly attributed to Godzilla, the implication is that he was somehow involved. In this film, people die.
(Digression: there’s theology in Godzilla films. The villagers in this one treat Godzilla as a god, like the villagers treated King Kong on their island, including sacrificing a young woman to appease it. And why shouldn’t they? G is superhumanly powerful. He’s wrathful, but at times he’s also protective of humanity (later films). His attacks are not explained, merely accepted as his divine, arbitrary whim, like the flood of Noah’s god, the plagues of the Babylonian god, Enlil, or the destruction of Sodom by Lot’s god. He’s also like the gods from old Norse, Aztec, or Greek religions (several of whom were later subsumed into the characters of American comic book heroes and then into the Marvel pantheon) in that he personally intervenes in human life. Equally, Godzilla is like the ancient Japanese kami, or nature spirits, as this site explains. And, as the franchise progresses, we see more and more fantastic kaiju that bear a striking resemblance to those kami, including King Caesar (Kingu Shisa), a restored protection deity who appears in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. The later American Godzilla films show him as much more godlike. Godzilla is like the Leviathan in the Book of Job (41):
Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
Can you make a pet of it like a bird
or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
Will traders barter for it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?
Can you fill its hide with harpoons
or its head with fishing spears?
If you lay a hand on it,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
Any hope of subduing it is false;
the mere sight of it is overpowering.
No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me?
Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.
And while I can’t find a reference to people praying to Godzilla, there was the ritual/ceremonial dance in the first film, plus a “prayer for peace” sung in the 1954 film which, while not sung to G, was certainly sung about ending his actions against Tokyo. And like many gods, Godzilla is resurrected more than once, suggesting he’s immortal.)
At 15:30 we get a glimpse of the political process in action. Or inaction. Parliament in session listens to the island’s survivors recall the deaths and loss of livestock (important for a small, rural village). The failure of bureaucracy to respond effectively to something challenging is a theme in several Godzilla films, but the best portrayal is in 2016’s Shin Godzilla).
The last witness (around 0:17:00) is Prof. Yamane, a respected paleontologist who represents both science and reason (vs superstition). His testimony results in a research vessel being sent off with great fanfare to visit the island. Here again, we see the contrast between the modern, science-based visitors (several incongruously wearing transparent raincoats) using Geiger counters, and the rural, backwater villagers. And around 0:19:50 the footprint of the monster is shown.
Just before 0:21:00 the paleontologist finds a dead trilobite in the footprint. He will later (at 0:25:40) say they went extinct “two million years ago,” but that’s way, way off: trilobites went extinct after 270 million years of evolution, at the end of the Permian, roughly 250 million years ago. He also says it “belongs to the crustacean family” which is sort-of correct, although they’re generally described as arthropods (I wanted to be an invertebrate paleontologist when I was a kid…).
Shortly after that, the village bell gets rung in warning and, while heavy thuds (footsteps, of course) can be heard, everyone flees into the hills. And there, at 0:22:15, Godzilla is first spotted coming over the hilltops. Everyone runs back down the hill. This delay in seeing the kaiju gave the director time to expose us to the main characters, ramp up the tension, as well as develop some of the movie’s themes. But almost as soon as we see him, Godzilla vanishes. And we get sent back to the talking heads discussing what to do.
By today’s standards, what with the amazing CGI effects, the ’54 Godzilla looks primitive; much like the monsters you see in 1950s American B-films (the giant ants in Them, or the monstrous crabs in Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters come to mind; the sort of films I grew up watching). Not very convincing: yes, we all know it was a guy in a rubber suit (well, in this film there were actually two different suit actors: Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka; Nakajima was the sole suit actor in the subsequent films until 1972), but this is almost 70 years ago… It was difficult to move in that hot, stiff suit and actors could only work in it for a few minutes at a time, but they did a great job.
It’s easy to become jaded and spoiled by today’s technology because it’s so damned good. Don’t be distracted: focus on what they accomplished with what they had to work with.
Consider that Gojira was released only 16 months after The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released in the USA, and that film was also about “a giant monster awakened/brought about by an atomic bomb detonation,” as Wikipedia notes (the 1998 first American Godzilla film would owe a lot more to this film than the original Gojira…). And the same year as Them; a movie about ants turned into rampaging giants by atomic bomb tests. The 1950s were good years for scifi films about atomic radiation.
It was the same year The Creature From the Black Lagoon was released, featuring a guy in a rubber suit playing the monster. Gojira followed closely on the heels of the massively-popular re-release of RKO’s 1933 film, King Kong, which was a huge hit in Japan, too.
At 0:25:59 the paleontologist tells the council that some of the sand from the trilobite shell comes from a “Jurassic Era strata.” This suggests Godzilla is a Jurassic-era dinosaur, but that doesn’t jive with the trilobite. The Jurassic era began 201 million years ago, long, long after trilobites went extinct, and ended roughly 145 million years ago (but at 01:03:35 we are told he’s a “two-million-year-old monster” which doesn’t explain how the H-bomb tests created him…).
We also learn at 0:27:01 that Godzilla is emitting high levels of “H-bomb radiation.” There it is: Godzilla is the manifestation of the atomic bomb.
After the professor’s report, one of the parliamentarians warns “we mustn’t rush to make this public.” Thus begins the official attempt to obfuscate and bury the facts. You’d almost think they were talking heads on Fox Nooz whinging about Trump’s fake stolen election. But a woman in the public gallery protests it should be made public and a shouting match occurs. The council member warns “fragile diplomatic relations” might be strained… of course meaning with the USA. American occupation of Japan had ended less than two years before the film was made, and officials were keen to avoid provoking American intervention in Japanese affairs again. But at the same time, Japanese people were weary of the American presence.
Meanwhile, as bureaucrats squabble, Godzilla continues to sink ships (at 0:28:30 we learn 17 have been sunk, although another report would mention more than 20). After that news, we get to see Japanese workers riding on a commuter train talking about Godzilla, so it has become public knowledge despite the desire to stifle the news. One interesting point is the discussion of evacuating if Godzilla appears, and one passenger saying he has had enough of evacuation. A “whatever” comment, then, on war weariness among the Japanese people: they’ve become blasé like New Yorkers. Even a giant kaiju can’t stir them.
In response to the ship losses, the navy gets sent in. Cue the martial music theme and stock footage. Depth charges are fired. Big explosions. More stock footage. Cue the paleontologist frowning over the news and his assistant explaining to others how a zoologist doesn’t want a specimen to be killed. Who’s the zoologist here? The professor retires to his office to brood. Okay, we’ve seen the good scientist vs the military trope in many films (he repeats his argument that Godzilla should be studied, later, at 0:34:25). But we all know G isn’t some cuddly creature to be put into a zoo.
At 0:32:20 we’re on board a luxury cruise ship where people are dining, dancing, and flirting. And who should rise out of the bay? Yep: Big G himself. Screams and panic ensue, but G dives and disappears. It’s unclear whether he damages the ship.
Next scene we get introduced to the media (newspaper editors and reporters, at 0:34:30) scrambling for stories. A scene dear to my heart. Hot off the press. A reporter is assigned to interview a brilliant researcher (Serizawa, aka the mad scientist), but in doing so exposes a love interest between the handsome guy (Ogata) and Emiko, the researcher’s fiancé. Never have a monster movie without a love triangle: the human touch makes a nice juxtaposition.
Cue the brilliant but socially awkward researcher starting the interview only to avoid the discussion about his research and brush the reporter off. The media doesn’t get much love in this movie. And then, in true Dr. Frankenstein manner, he takes his fiancé into his basement (dungeon) and shows her his secret fish-killing invention. Scream! Fish die (offscreen). Bwah ha ha ha! But keep it a secret, he warns. Fat chance…
Back at the prof’s house, things putter along as normal until 0:44:11 when we hear the thud of monster footsteps again. At 0:44:40 Big G again raises his head in the bay. This time, he’s coming ashore to wreak some havoc. Evacuations, crowds panic, running, screaming, mobs running for cover. And finally, we get to see Godzilla in his full glory: a giant stomping on land toward the city. A commuter train heads across his path, and his giant foot squashes it. A bus appear in his mouth. Chomp! More people die. More people scream.
G walks through the city and roars. Damage occurs. Then, inexplicably, he walks back into the water. Just a taste of the mayhem to come. A teaser; I’ll be back… Note his height, by the way: 50 metres. G will remain at 50m until he grows a bit to 55m, then 100m. G will have to scale up to match the growing height of the buildings he destroys. By 2014, he’s reached a towering 150m. However, some of the re-makes in between shrank him back down to his old height. And, fortunately for us, G doesn’t seem to pee or poop during a rampage. Click on the image below and zoom in to see more:
Now we see the defence forces planning to stop G with barbed wire and electricity. Ah, the optimism of the military: shoot enough bullets and we’re bound to kill it. Hardware will do the trick. Oops. G went right through it all. Civilians, meanwhile, are again fleeing the carnage (shades of WWII bombing). In fact, the scenes of G’s rampage could as easily be scenes of the city during the bombing raids, from a war movie.
At 0:50:00 the theme song comes back as the military rolls out tanks and big guns. Soldiers and vehicles appear. More goosebumps. But wait… wasn’t Japan denuded of its military by the American occupiers? So where did all the hardware come from? Is this a statement about Japan recovering its military prowess now the Yanks have left? The army waits, confident, guns lifted to meet the foe.
A line of hydro towers is shown; the vaunted defence perimeter. But we know better. The professor argues with the love interest about killing Godzilla. The radio warns everyone G is approaching. And there he is, at 0:54:47 rising out of the bay again, this time on land as he approaches the city. At 0:55:20 we really get to see the suit. It’s, well… fat. Godzilla needs to go on a diet. In later films, he would be slimmed as the rubber suit was modified for better optics and easier wear. Still, he’s an impressive monster; a sort of big, chubby, T-Rex, long before the Jurassic Park franchise made that dinosaur sexy.
G approaches the powerlines. Sparks fly; wires snap, G is unhurt, but angry at these mosquito stings. Towers topple and his atomic breath melts others. Devastation everywhere he looks. He’s the epitome of the atomic bomb now. An angry A-bomb who breathes fire like a dragon.
That atomic breath burns houses (shades of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). People die again. Firetrucks and firemen coming to the rescue also die. Giant G feet stamp fleeing civilians into smears. The film is merciless. Tanks roll forward and fire. G burns them up, too. More people die. G rampages unchecked. By 01:01:20 the city is on fire. Buildings collapse. Families are crushed (the most poignant scene at 01:02:20 of a mother trying to comfort her two children about to be mashed… then squish…).
The clock tower strikes 11 and G destroys it. Pretty much the best metaphor yet (“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” wrote Douglas Addams). Meanwhile, G continues to reduce Tokyo to rubble pretty much unfazed by the efforts to contain him. Even the command centre personnel flee (although they appear to be crushed). G destroys the parliament building (another great metaphor) then turns against a tower full of media reporting on him live. They also die in a brutal metaphor.
(During the recent revelations exposed during Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox Nooz, and the egregious hypocrisy, gaslighting, and lies coming from the company, its hosts and executives, I often wished we could release a modern Godzilla on them in the same way… but I digress).
The Japanese air force attacks at 01:07;20 (what were they doing until now? haven’t they heard of combined arms missions?) in a reprisal of the main theme music. Big G seems bored; he’s done all the damage he wants and heads back to the water. Jets fly in, missiles are launched at the retreating kaiju. Crowds cheer from the ruined city, but G is unhurt; he bats at the missiles (missing) then sinks below the waves. We see the city in ruins, the medics carrying wounded, the refugees, the damaged. It’s all very post-Hiroshima. People have been hurt; people have died. Children left orphans cry in the streets. This is a tough film.
Flashback to the fiancé’s lab and his killing device (the oxygen destroyer), first seen several scenes ago. This time we see the skeletons of fish killed by it. Horrors? Hardly by now. But now we learn his device can kill Godzilla. In fact, it can turn “all of Tokyo Bay into an aquatic graveyard.” but, the scientist with a conscience won’t use his diabolical invention. Yet…
So back to the love triangle… the boyfriend (handsome guy) and fiancé (Emiko) meet the mad scientist to propose using the device to kill Godzilla. Mad scientist sees the couple together, does the math. Angst. Trust broken. Fight breaks out between scientist and boyfriend. The couple plead; scientist is unmoved until… the TV shows the devastation of Tokyo. Choirs sing a prayer for peace. Only you can save us, Obi-Wan. Mad scientist has an epiphany and reluctantly agrees to help. If, of course, his device is never used again. He burns his papers to avoid anyone else learning his secrets. His small fire a metaphor for the burning city..
So the end approaches. Godzilla’s location in the bay is identified. Handsome guy and mad scientist are to go into the depths together to activate the oxygen destroyer. Poignant farewell, fiancé weeping, the whole thing covered by a deck full of media and the naval crew watching. Down into the murky water they sink in their vintage diving suits to the bottom where Godzilla sleeps. Sort of. Oops. He’s awake. And coming for them.
Handsome guy flees upwards to escape, but mad scientist stays behind, underwater with his device. G approaches, and he activates it. Bubbles abound. He cuts his own air hose and safety line. “Tis a far, far better thing I do,” he sends in his last message. Both man and monster die, along with the secrets of the oxygen destroyer. The bay erupts as the dying G rises, then sinks with his last roar. Ding dong, the witch is dead. Or was it Ahab and Moby Dick?
Poignant scene of G’s “lifeless corpse” lying on the bottom. Tears are shed for the mad scientist who gave his life, etc. etc. The lovers are reunited. The paleontologist, still in his dour made, warns at 1:35:24 that while G may be dead, “if nuclear testing continues then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.” Thus endeth the lesson.
At 01:36:33 the end message rises into the screen.
At 98 minutes, the film rolls along quite quickly and tightly. The only thing that broke the spell for me was the paleontologist’s baffling attempt to explain Godzilla’s and the trilobite’s age. It’s a bit melodramatic in parts, but I don’t know if that’s not a usual part of Japanese film culture. I felt the same way watching Kurosawa’s films. Perhaps it’s due to the historical influence of kabuki theatre. The love triangle was a tad reserved, too (no kissing, no fondling, just calf-eyed looks), but again it was 1954 and Japan, so probably par for the course at the time.
While it was meant as a solo film, the success of Godzilla encouraged the company to quickly produce a second film, not a sequel, but simply a chance to cash in on the first one’s popularity, and a chance to introduce a new monster: Godzilla Raids Again came out in 1955. And thus begat a whole franchise. But for American and Canadian audiences, nothing would be seen onscreen in major theatres until 1956 when an American distributor got the rights to show the original, and made a lot of changes to it first.
Stay tuned to read about Godzilla’s American debut.
PS. I also wrote about this film a few years ago: Gojira, the original kaiju.
- Review 5: Mothra vs Godzilla – 1964 - © June 1, 2023
- Review 4: King Kong vs Godzilla – 1962 - © May 27, 2023
- Review 3: Godzilla Raids Again – 1955 - © May 19, 2023
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