Written by: Ishirô Honda, Shigeru Kayama (story), and Takeo Murata
Directed by: Ishirô Honda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, and Akihiko Hirata
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I can't believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species... But if we continue conducting nuclear tests... it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again."
If you want a quick glance at how World War II changed the world, just run a double feature of King Kong and Gojira. Only 21 years separated the two, but it may as well have been a lifetime, as those intervening years introduced an age that put the world on the brink of destruction. In 1933, Kong represented modern civilization creeping up on the last outpost of untamed nature and sending it tumbling from the pinnacle of human excess. Gojiria is the retaliation, the unvanquished spirit of the natural world come roaring back to life, as if it were spit up by hell itself to punish humanity for its nuclear sins.
Ishiro Honda’s masterpiece is an atomic age fable that could only be delivered from a country that experienced those horrors first-hand less than a decade earlier, and it’s no wonder that its take on giant monsters (a genre itself reawakened in the U.S. a year earlier with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) would dispense with the spirited jauntiness of its predecessors; indeed, Gojira is a full-bore plunge into a nation’s anguished soul looking for a sense of direction and recovery from one of the world’s darkest chapters.
Later films would revise Godzilla’s origins, but it’s important to note that his first appearance imagines him as a beast of legend that’s been dormant for generations. When an elderly fisherman begins to recount tales of the old days, where the village once sacrificed girls to placate the beast, he may as well be talking about Kong, or at least what Kong represented as a vestige of an old world long gone. Godzilla’s re-emergence plays like a twisted revenge tale for that old world, now ravaged by the steamroller of progress. The film presents Godzilla as comeuppance for specifically nuclear transgressions, but there’s also a meta-textual element to his returning to a cinematic landscape that had repressed monsters for so long. After being submerged in deference to real-life horror during the 40s, those old myths and legends become a twisted, distorted shade in Gojira, which arrives with a solemnity that escapes many of its peers.
Forget spectacle here. Unlike Kong, which was driven by a sense of awe and wonder and didn’t linger after its destruction, Gojira is soaked in darkness from the outset. Even when confined to the opening credits, Godzilla’s roars provide a foreboding eeriness that especially pervades the opening sequence that see him reemerge (of camera and hidden in shadows, of course) and attack some boats before making landfall at a small fishing village. It’s at this point that the human element also emerges to untangle the mystery and sketch out the film’s moral concerns: Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is a respected archeologist who proposes that Godzilla has been awakened by a nuclear explosion, while his daughter Emiko (Momoko K&訅chi) has found herself in a love triangle. Initially betrothed (via arranged marriage) to her father’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), she instead becomes engaged to ship captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Their presence seems a bit perfunctory and their positions a bit obvious (the two scientists are not in favor of killing Godzilla, while the other two are a bit more conflicted), at least at first—after all, this is a monster movie, so surely the title character’s romping and stomping should be a spectacular sight to behold.
It is and it isn’t. While Eiji Tsuburaya's effects are top-notch and still marvelous, Godzilla’s raid of Tokyo inspires anything but awe. Instead, the sheer carnage is exhaustingly horrifying as it proceeds with a sheer disdain for the two-fisted, adventurous tone that defined Kong’s romp through New York. There are times where it feels wholly authentic, as if it were a glimpse at an actual news broadcast. Not bad for a film that famously features a guy in a huge rubber suit stomping around on miniatures. As the sequence wears on, the screen is populated with images that would have been especially searing to Japanese audiences: buildings crumble, leaving everyone—including women and children—left among the rubble. Any attempt to slay the beast is futile, and nihilism and despair mount with every roar and explosion. Disaster films have since become much more sophisticated (so much so that many of them have graduated to sheer disaster porn), but few have captured the raw, horrifying power of Gojira’s centerpiece sequence because it never forgets that there’s people soaked in the ashes of all the carnage.
The film also refuses to make Godzilla too cool; despite being a giant, mutated dinosaur with the ability to spit fire, there’s nothing really appealing about him. While he couldn’t escape the fate of other movie monsters in that the sequels demystified him and even turned him into a mascot, there’s not a hint of that in his first appearance, where he’s an almost soulless force of nature. Devoid of any personality, he trudges through Tokyo in almost mechanical fashion, an appropriate gait considering he’s somehow both a specter of a bygone age and a reflection of mankind’s progress; in a world where men have built machines to destroy with maximum efficiency, Godzilla feels like mother nature’s best retaliation: a relentless weapon that can similarly destroy with surgical precision. He’s like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator on a grand scale, and another comparison to King Kong again reveals the depth of the world’s change. Whereas Kong is a simian, anthropomorphic character that invites pathos, Godzilla is completely inhuman, a reptilian obelisk bent on engulfing an entire country in flames.
Most importantly, he forces humanity to confront those atomic sins. His raid through Tokyo isn’t even the film’s climax, as Gojira lingers heavily and forcibly on the aftermath, which finds Tokyo shelters teeming with people left injured, homeless, and even parentless (a child weeping for its dead mother is among the more affecting moments in the film). The most potent and haunting moment features not Godzilla but a choir of children singing a prayer for peace, a moment that reveals the film’s unusually placid soul. Once Godzilla recedes to the background, the quartet of human characters take center stage, and Gojira evolves from a nature-run-amok fable to a soulful rumination on retaliation and vengeance. Godzilla himself immediately seems to represent retaliation himself, nature’s reminder that you can’t fuck with it and not expect repercussions; however, on one level, he also represents The Bomb himself for his Japanese victims. Not even a decade removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the country was force to relive its anguish, despair—and its rage.
That’s ultimately what makes Gojira so compelling. The interplay between its human characters feels like a one-act play that explores and encapsulates the moral implications of the Atomic Age and the Cold War. We learn that Serizawa (who bears an eye-patch concealing a scar from the war) has developed a solution, but it, too, is another weapon of mass destruction that he’s loath to unleash on the world. Hirata’s torment is palatable, and his arc captures what was really lost in the wake of The Bomb: idealism. Godzilla might lay waste to an entire city, but he also manages to completely break the spirit of a country. Their intonations with peace might be noble, but they’re also impractical, and the film’s most sobering moment is Serizawa’s resignation that he’s living in a world where his scientific endeavors undoubtedly will be twisted into weaponry. Such realizations can’t result in a completely happy ending, even if the beast is ultimately obliterated because the true beast—built on the backs of geniuses and under the guise of progress—lurches on, demanding its own pound of flesh. Whereas the world once offered up virgin lambs to keep its beasts at bay, it now offers up the best minds of its generation, here destroyed not by madness but by creeping inevitability. Essential!
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