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Inarguably, one of the most influential giant monsters films out there, as much for the incredibly destructive nature of the film and iconic monster design as for its social and political commentary towards nuclear bombs and their ecological impact on mankind.

GODZILLA or GOJIRA (its original title) is the story of a monstrous creature, 165 feet tall and resembling a mixture of a lizard, a dinosaur, and a hideously scaly reptile of some kind who is awakened by American nuclear testing a bit off the coast of Japan and is not very happy. The creature, once awoken, continues to go on a vengeance-driven quest of unparalleled destruction with the city of Tokyo being its end target.

There are many reasons why a Japanese film from 1954 about a dinosaur-like giant monster, or daikaiju, tearing up boats out at sea, a small fishing village, and the highly-populated modern metropolis of Tokyo is relevant to film viewers, or even a film to take seriously when at its base is just about a really pissed off monster that just wants to destroy every building, creature, or solid structure of any kind in its way. To find out what drives Godzilla, and its creators, let’s go back and look at the circumstances in the history of Japan and WWII to see exactly what were some of the factors for a giant monster created by nuclear radiation to be created and why it would be pissed off after being awoken.

Aside from the obvious fact that man, or monster, never relishes being awoken before they, or “it”, are ready to wake up, lets move beyond this obvious point to some real-life events that were happening between the U.S. and Japan during one of the more memorable wars in the planet Earths war-plagued history.

The United States was bombed by the Japanese and completely taken surprise at Pearl Harbor, a lagoon harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii—-just west of Honolulu. It was a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy and due to it, the U.S. got involved in World War II. Basically, the mighty military force that the United States was, is, and may always be got their asses handed to them for not being on guard, paying heed to subtle warnings, and overall just acting like a superior force does when believing no military power would dare “whack the giant hornet’s nest with a stick” and thereby awakening the hive with a fervor of angry and pissed hornets looking for payback.

The events after Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 (2.403 Americans killed and 1,178 others wounded), led to the U.S.’s involvement in WW II and towards the end of WW II the atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Why is it worth mentioning some dates and specifics in WW II when talking about Godzilla? Well, because to get to the root of the giant monster’s genesis one must know how the radiation that created the scaly creature came about.

After WW II ended and the Pacific War continued to rage on, more massive acts of war and high numbers of casualties continued to rage on as well. The firebombing of Tokyo occurred, killing over 100,000 people and destroying a 16-square mile radius of the city, and this was followed later by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroshima lost 70,000-80,000 people as a result of the bombing (about 30% of the total population) and another 70,000 were injured. At Nagasaki, a more powerful bomb was dropped and

due to being confined to hillsides, only 40,000-75,000 were estimated to have died immediately, but as many as 80,000 may have been the final death count by the end of 1945.

As devastating and catastrophic as all these ugly events of war were, and still are, director Ishiro Honda (who had visited Nagasaki after the war) decided to make a film that is Science Fiction in nature, but in reality tip-toes very lightly over some very brutal and harsh truths about atomic warfare and the effect it directly had on the Japanese, and ultimately, mankind. GODZILLA is so much more than just a “monster movie”.

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The massive dinosaur-like creature, Godzilla, is the worlds first Kaiju riga, or Japanese monster movie. The film came out during the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema generally considered to be around the 1950’s (1945-1965) and the film Godzilla is ranked among such notable films such as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Tokyo Story and one important component to all these films is how each director, including Honda, dealt with the the effects of war and eventually, the occupation of Japan by America.

Personally, I think Ishiro Honda dealt with it in the most unique manner.

Some think Godzilla is just another monster movie, one of the first to come from Japan, but before Godzilla there were a couple of lost Japanese films from the 1930’s: Japanese King Kong (Wasei Kingu Kongu) (1933) and King Kong Appears in Edo (Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu: Henge no maki) (1938). Both films were obviously highly influenced by, as well as “borrowing” the entire concept of the giant ape and idea from Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), as well as the inspiring and extraordinary ground-breaking special effects created by Willis O’Brien. In fact, along with The Lost World (1925) and some more revolutionary SFX by O’Brien, Eugene Lourie’s film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was one film of major influence to the creation of Godzilla because producer Tomoyuki Tanaka felt that along with the details from the events and results of the U.S. testing hydrogen bombs in the Marshall Islands and Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) and its crew getting a bath in nuclear ash, it would make for a pretty interesting concept for a monster movie.

For those of you that know nothing of the hydrogen bomb testing in the Marshall Islands, it is time to crack open a history book. A very brief recap: The U.S. told the Japanese (during the U.S.’s occupation of Japan after WW II and the Pacific War) that they were not to go within a certain “off-limits” area in the Pacific by the Marshall Islands. The boat, Lucky Dragon No. 5, sailed outside of the danger zone in hope of getting ahead of the other fisherman and reaping some great catches. The U.S. fucked up in guessing the effect and size of the blast and it was twice as big. The crew saw the blast, heard the blast a handful of minutes later, and realized that they were probably going to be fucked. They packed up their nets and grabbed the fish they caught, taking a few hours to do so, and as a result of the size of the explosion’s blast and not leaving immediately, crew were exposed to nuclear radiation. This boat was not the only boat exposed to the blast, but it is the most famous because the boat’s chief radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama, died less than 7 months later. He suffered from acute radiation syndrome and considered the first victim of Operation Castle Bravo. The test was conducted on the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. One would think that after the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they would quit with the nuclear bombs, but no.

I guess if there had been no nuclear bombs created, dropped, or radiation poisoning and sickness as the result of nuclear bombs there might not be any Godzilla. I doubt it though. I just think the way Godzilla was created just might differ in origin. Along with the commissioning of award-winning mystery fiction writer Shigeru Kayama writing the story treatment for Godzilla, Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata wrote the screenplay for the film. Murata went on to write scripts for several of the Godzilla sequels and other daikaiju (giant kaiju or larger variety of monsters) like Rodan (1956). But where did the original idea come from? That credit would go to producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, whom came up with the idea while flying over the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, being reminded of the crew being infected with radiation poisoning while looking down upon the ocean water. 67 nuclear devices were detonated in the Marshall Islands, literally at Japan’s back door. Keeping all this in mind, a pretty imaginative individual does not have to have his thinking cap on too hard to take bits and pieces of these facts and history to whip up an idea about a creature becoming radioactive and to start growing to great heights and size, eventually being awoken and disturbed and extremely pissed off and ready to destroy a city. On a side note, Tanaka is also a producer known for producing more sci-fi/fantasy films than any other producer with more than 200 credits as producer under his belt, most of which are sci-fi or fantasy films.

As with many monster movies, the creature tends to be the villain in the film, doing evil destruction and responsible for many people getting killed and murdered, but when watching Godzilla, I felt that the people deserved much of what was coming to them and I was rooting for the giant, green lug the whole time. That is not to say that there was no character development within the whole film, because there was. There was quite a bit of character development and quite a bit of good acting, but not very surprising given some of the cast involved with the film.

A familiar face playing the role of Professor Yamane is the Japanese character actor Takashi Shimura, some calling him one of the finest actors of the 20th Century and a leading member of the stock company of legendary director Akira Kurosawa. He is an actual descendent of the Samurai warrior class, playing samurai roles for various studios and signed a long-term contract in 1943 with Toho Studios. He performed in more than 20 roles for Kurosawa, including portraying a dying bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952) and the memorable leader of the seven samurai in The Seven Samurai (1954).

Shimura’s role as the ever inquisitive doctor, sympathetic to Godzilla and eager to learn how it came to be how it is and learn its origin. Even as mankind is getting its ass kicked and much of its city demolished, one can’t help feel compassion of the ol’ doc and the creature it is trying to learn and study from. The doctor treats Godzilla as a victim of mankind’s stupid involvement with nuclear energy and the hydrogen bombs. If mankind had not been messing with nuclear power and warfare, than Godzilla would not have even existed. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters in the film are determined to stop Godzilla and destroy it, especially Lt. Hideto Ogata, portrayed by Akira Takarada, known as Japan’s Cary Grant.

Lt. Ogata is a young and ambitious soldier who, along with the rest of the military, are sent to help protect the town and city from the creature. Ogata, upon meeting the Professor Yamane (Shimura), also meets his pretty daughter Emiko, played by newcomer Momoko Kochi (who along with actor Akira Takarada was discovered in Toho’s sixth annual New Face Contest in 1953) and after her solid portrayal of the professor’s daughter and the key love interest in the movie. Kochi also reprised her role Emiko in 1995’s  Godzilla vs. Destroyer, before dying of intestinal cancer in 1998.

There are many dimensions to the characters in Godzilla, much more so then one would think or should think there be in what many may perceive as just a silly monster flick. For instance, the young Dr. Serizawa who was played by the young Akihiko Hirata (Sanjuro (1962), Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)) was a very troubled and distraught character. A love triangle between him, the beautiful Emiko, and the ambitious Lt. Ogata shortly ensues and with Serizawa sporting a very cool, yet dark and sinister eye-patch pretty much solidifies his look as the awkward, dark, mysterious, and possibly sinister scientist. Come on—what scientist wearing an eye-patch does not come off as evil?

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Hirata’s portrayal of Dr. Serizawa, some say, is the “best remembered and most admired in all Japanese films, inside Japan and out. Hirata was also chosen to announce the monster’s return in 1984 (w/ a major role), but he died of lung cancer before shooting began (Ken Watanabe is playing the character of Dr. Serizawa in the upcoming Godzilla (2014). Hirata is also the only actor to appear in the premiere efforts of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla. Godzilla made a star out of Hirata, as well as all of the younger actors lucky to be able to have starred in the film. Hirata was the best known of all the actors to appear in the Godzilla movies. After all, he did turn up in 6 sequels. He was a favorite of directors Ishiro Honda, Jun Fukuda, and Hiroshi Inagaki. Although, he did have more 2nd leads and characters parts in the films he was involved with.

One of the most intense scenes of the film is the scene in which Dr. Serizawa is showing Emiko his latest experiment he has been working on. The viewers hear screeching violins courtesy of Akira Ifukube and see an aquarium full of fish, soon to be getting cloudy in the water, and realize something awful is happening. We see the horrified look on Emiko’s face, full of terror, and then the piano keys come crashing down in a doom-like manner. Emiko was about to tell her love-interest of a new-found love interest (Lt. Ogata), but can’t bare to. After all, Serizawa has confided in her by showing her his newest experiment. Viewers are not shown exactly what the results of that experiment are, but we get the idea that had a very dark outcome and was a very powerful one.

As I said earlier, Honda chose to develop his characters a bit, even the ones that may be killed off later in the film. Honda also chose to not show the viewers what Godzilla looks like until 22 minutes into the film. In doing so, quite a bit of suspense and eager anticipation builds up, especially if you have never seen Godzilla (or any of the other films, for that matter) or know anything about the films. Sadly, who the hell does not know who Godzilla is? One has to be living under a rock not to know anything about the monster and its movies.

The interesting thing about the Godzilla creature in the movie is that early on after it destroys the fishing boat and most of the crew, including the radio operator of the Eiko-maru (the 7,500 ton freighter), only a few crew survive the destruction and live to tell about to the villagers. Then villagers find no fish in the sea, a couple more ships disappear, and one of the old men in the village barks at his daughter and the other girls mocking his ritual before fishing saying,

“If you ridicule our traditions, I’ll feed you stupid cows to Godzilla!”.

Seriously, how can one not love this movie!!?!?!

More allusions to the U.S. and our bombing Japan and its neighboring areas are slipped into the Japanese version of the film as Dr. Yamane goes on to say in regards to the recent attacks by Godzilla,

“It was probably hidden in a deep sea cove providing for its own survival, and perhaps for others like it. However, repeated underwater H-Bomb Tests have completely destroyed its natural habitat.”

He goes on to say, “To put it simply, Hydrogen bomb testing has driven it from its sanctuary.”

After watching Godzilla, I feel there is a very anti-atomic message in the film, as well as a statement against war, bombs, and tools of destruction. This is one of the film’s components that I feel make it stand out from the rest of the films in the monster movie genre and make it much more than simply a “monster movie”.

In another scene some commuters are on a train, obviously inhabitants of a major city in Japan, probably Tokyo and are talking about where it will strike next (before it does indeed strike next and the target being the city of Tokyo) and says, “I barely escaped the bomb in Nagasaki and now THIS!”

The film is a fictional story about a giant monster created by nuclear radiation, but the references to real-life scenarios surrounding WWII and the Pacific War are too glaringly obvious to those that know their history.

Once Godzilla appears and everyone knows exactly what they are up against, there really is nothing anyone can do to stop, understand, or destroy this monster. Or so Honda leaves viewers to believe this. Godzilla, in reality two different men taking turns in life-size rubber monster suits played by Jiro Suzuki, Haruo Nakajima, and Katsumi Tezuka, is full of innovative and unique special effects orchestrated by Tsuburaya include models of Tokyo and all its architecture. The miniature buildings, bridges, trains, and vehicles really look remarkable, even pretty realistic to this day, and must have really looked cool back in the ‘50s. At times, some scenes do look awfully like what they really are—miniatures, but for the amount of technology in 1954, I think viewers should let this slide.

Along with the creative visual effects, the incredibly dark and edgy score by Akira Ifukube is totally iconic and its roar is introduced to viewers as the opening credits are rolling. I believe “epic” is the word I am looking for. From the get-go, Godzilla alludes to viewers that something grand is going to occur while watching this film.

We mentioned the director and writers of Godzilla, but one of the most important individuals who worked on the film, as well as being instrumental in the creating of Godzilla, is Special Effects Director and extraordinaire Eiji Tsuburaya, co-creator of the Godzilla series, as well as having directed many special effects scenes in Japanese Science Fiction movies and the main creator of Ultraman. Quite honestly, if there had been no Tsuburaya, there may not have been a monster nearly as memorable as Godzilla is.

Half-way into the movie, when Godzilla finally arrives to the mainland and starts destroying the city is when things really get good and where the set design and intricate detail into the models of the buildings and city start to shine through. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the train destruction scene. It looks really cool and knowing that it is simply a model makes it that more impressive in its execution. Know that if one is watching the U.S. version, it is cut by 16 minutes and does include scenes w/ American actors in it that were not in the original. Sadly, much of the darkness within the film is lost in the American version, which I feel are almost two totally different films with very different feels to them with the deletion or addition of different footage. Another favorite scene is when Godzilla approaches a t.v. tower and in one shot seemed to mirror the footage of the nuclear bomb explosions and the mushroom cloud that went with it. Towards the ending of the film, there is a somber and sullen tone following all of the great destruction Godzilla did. The American version of the film, known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is almost an entirely different film with a very different look and feel to it. Add Raymond Burr to it and it comes off as your standard B-film full of adequate but much different dialogue, most noticeable is the lack of atomic bomb references highly apparent in the Japanese version of the film. After all, Japan was under coalition occupation from 1945-1952 and the U.S. was concerned about censoring all the facts about the Atomic Bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were strictly censored. I am sure that a fictional film using atomic fallout as the driving force in creating a giant monster that destroys a major city led to allusions of the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on cities and destroying them. In Godzilla, “atomic tuna” is even referenced. This probably hits too close to home for the U.S.A. .

One can’t mention Godzilla without mentioning the origin of the film was partly due to Tanaka combining details of Eugene Laurie’s film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and creating a new concept from it. After all, the film treatment of Godzilla was originally titled “The Giant Monster From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (Kaitei Niman-ri Karakita Dai Kaiju) and also was even given the security code name “Project G”. The “G” was for “giant”. Tsuburaya actually submitted his own outline 3 years earlier that featured a giant mutated octopus attacking Japanese freighters in the Indian Ocean (actually foreshadowing Ray Harryhausen’s It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). It was also known that Eiji Tsuburaya studied the original King Kong and wanted to learn by the 35mm reel of the film he acquired how to recreate the special effects Willis H. O’Brien created for the film. The visual effects for King Kong were that good!

The makers of Godzilla wanted the film to be set in the “real world” and wanted the film “ to reverberate with current geopolitical, national, and social concerns, as well as evoking the specter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”. Any references to actual events, after knowing a bit about the origin of the film and the history of the Japanese involvement in WWII and the war in the Pacific, now are known to be intentional and give this viewer a new outlook on the film when watching it. An interesting fact about the origin of the name of the film, Godzilla, is that the name is sort of shrouded in mystery. There is an unverified legend that goes that Toho producer Ichiro Sato told Godzilla’s producer Tanaka that there was an employee on the lot whose physical finesse was similar to a gorilla and size of that of a whale (Kujira). The man they were speaking of had a nickname among the studio’s staffers: Gojira. Oddly enough, no employee confessed to having that very nickname. I really do not blame that person, if actually existing, to not taking ownership of such a mean-spirited nickname as that of a combination of a gorilla and a whale. I tend to think that the one they speak of might have something of a glandular or eating problem in the mix.

Godzilla is one of those classic monster movies that was ground-breaking in technical execution by its use of intricately detailed models, lack of any sort of stop-motion effects like Harryhausen and O’Brien had used and had been using in their movies, and was the beginning of men in rubber suits destroying miniature models of cities, buildings, cars, trains, military weaponry, and other large structures. The film spawned an enormous catalog of sequels and variations on the original monster to create a universe of its own, spawning more films that are still coming out to theaters and in various formats for home viewing even to this day.

A film that contains no sex, nudity, gore, or even blood and whose violence is generally on a catastrophically massive level and can be the introduction to any young child’s foray into the monster movie world, and deservedly should be one of the youngsters’ first films to be viewed in that movie genre. Godzilla is a film whose creative use of camera-work, lighting (using shadows and lack of light to create moods), editing, sound, and music is some of the most memorable of all the monster movies ever made.

I cannot recommend Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic monster movie Godzilla highly enough. For me, the film is a very well-rounded masterpiece that combines a fantastic story suited for the horror and/or sci-fi genre, passionate acting from young and old actors alike, a superbly sonorous soundtrack, unique camera tricks and visual effects for its time, and all the fun that a giant dinosaur-like lizard monster destroying everything in its wake can create in one film. If one has not seen it, shame on you! See it at once and watch the original Japanese version before exploring its somewhat heavily edited American version.

Note: Much of the material researched in this review for Godzilla was found in the commentary by film historian David Kalat accompanying the Criterion Collection edition of the movie and notes taken from the highly informational book “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film” by August Ragone.

Details

MOVIE: GOJIRA a.k.a. GODZILLA

DIRECTOR: Ishiro Honda

WRITER: Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Kayama (story), Takeo Murata

STARRING: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura

DATE OF RELEASE: 1954

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