Gojira (1954) is one of the longest-running series in film history. The director, Ishiro Honda, serves up a grim, visually jarring black and white masterpiece where Gojira (or ‘Godzilla’ to us language-challenged westerners) is the physical manifestation of the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bomb.
Suffice it to say, Godzilla appears from the deeps, sinks some ships and, for a cool and disturbingly visual encore, stomps all over Tokyo creating a fire-storm reminiscent of World War 2. How is the monster defeated? By a bomb worse than the one they dropped on Hiroshima – a terrifying device called the ‘Oxygen Destroyer’ capable of sucking oxygen from the sea. Yikes!
This movie is the remastered Japanese original – an angst-ridden melodrama with a funeral tone that perfectly captures the feelings of the time. Godzilla was among the first movies to combine a genre film with an overt political (anti-American) commentary:
A creature awakened by hydrogen-bomb testing is contaminated and transformed by radiation – and can breathe radioactive fire reminiscent of an atomic blast.
The unfriendly neighbourhood Godzilla has absorbed so much radiation from Pacific atomic tests carried out by those gung-ho 50s Americas, that his ‘dragon breath’ and increased size makes him indestructible to conventional weapons.
The creature special effects are a little creaky – a bloke in a suit – but the director and co-writer, himself a World War Two veteran, captured a realistic sense of war-like devastation.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is referenced almost as an aside in the movie – a brief dialogue aboard a train where a guy jokes that his girlfriend will be the first victim should Godzilla appear in Tokyo. She replies: ‘Not me. Not after I survived the bomb at Nagasaki.’ It’s not said with any sense of pathos, or drama – just ‘everyday speak’ which gives those lines a greater and more disturbing emphasis.
Dr. Serizawa has a real moral dilemma: should he use his Oxygen Destroyer to defeat Godzilla – a weapon even more devastating than the thing it’s meant to defeat? Or should he keep his weapon a secret? We can guess the answer, but unlike the ‘mistake’ of Oppenheimer (the father of the atomic bomb), he takes his terrifying secret to grave.
I did catch myself laughing at bits I shouldn’t have – in particular Dr. Serizawa using his device to kill fish in a tank – a demonstration of the ‘terrible power of his discovery’ – the horror! But despite these minor flaws, Gojira is a gem of a movie.
In the last scene, Dr. Yamane says: ‘if mankind continues to test nuclear weapons, another Godzilla may appear again… one day’. A warning perhaps, of the awful modern remakes that were to come? But I digress, this is a warning about the folly of humankind and how our invention may one day be our downfall.
Yet Dr. Yamane’s words did become prophetic. Gojira did return. The Godzilla in this movie is a destroyer, but in later incarnations, Godzilla, more often than not, comes to the rescue of Japan – even if he does occasionally stomp all over Tokyo again just for old times sake.
As a result of these sequels (both Japanese and American), Godzilla is not taken very seriously, but the monster’s very first outing must surely rank as a classic sci-fi horror on par with King Kong.
Watch if you can. A firm four stars from me.