Gojira (Godzilla) – 1954

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When most people think of Godzilla, they think of corny movies starring a man in a rubber monster suit stomping miniature cities, full of offbeat humor, bad dubbing, and silly fight scenes. They are often thought of as “Late Night Creature Feature” movies or MST3K bait, not really something to take seriously.

The original Godzilla is none of those things.

A series of fishing ships are destroyed in mysterious nuclear blasts.  The suspect is believed to be an unknown bomb or mine, but the elders of nearby Odo Island blame an ancient monster named “Godzilla”.  The belief is compounded when something unseen destroys part of the village during a storm.  Archeologist Dr. Yamane travels to Odo to study the incident, when the giant monster appears only to disappear back into the ocean.  After a bit of back and forth, the existence of the creature is revealed to a frightened public and discussions take place on what course of action to take.  During all this, Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, considers breaking her engagement to Dr. Yamane’s colleague, the reclusive Dr. Serizawa, in favor of a salvage ship captain, Ogata.  Before she can do this, Dr. Serizawa shows her his latest invention, the Oxygen Destroyer.  The Destroyer works by eradicating oxygen in water, and his demonstration reduces several fish in his fishtank to nothing but bones.  After the military attempts to kill Godzilla with depth charges and other assorted weapons, the monster appears in Tokyo Bay and attacks the city.  The military attempts to erect giant electrical towers to repel the creature, but Godzilla unleashes his radioactive breath weapon and destroys them.  In the end, Godzilla is unharmed and much of the city is destroyed.  Seeing no other option, Emiko reveals Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer and implores him to use it.  He is upset at her betrayal, but is moved by his witness of Godzilla’s suffering victims.  He burns the plans for the device and agrees to use it on Godzilla personally and never again.  The next day, Serizawa and Ogata descend in diving suits to set up the weapon.  Godzilla awakens from his sleep and Ogata resurfaces.  However, Serizawa stays behind to detonate the weapon, then cuts his air line afterward, killing himself so no one else can replicate his weapon.  Godzilla is caught in the blast, and is reduced to a pile of bones, which then fade away.

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The original Godzilla movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who got the idea after seeing a theatrical re-release of “King Kong”, as well as the recent “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”.  The concept of a monster created by an atomic bomb had its origins in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, as well as an incident in the Bikini Atoll.  The United States was testing hydrogen bombs in the area, and a Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon 5, was caught near the blast when the blast output was over twice what was expected.  The sailors on the boat, as well as military personnel and island natives, were irradiated and covered with radiation burns, and one crew member later died.  This incident was referenced at the beginning of the movie, when several fishing boats are destroyed by a mysterious nuclear blast.  Godzilla himself is meant to be a living symbol of nuclear war.  Where the Rhedosaurus from “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” was released by an atomic blast, and several giant insects and other creatures of the 1950’s were simply made larger by radioactivity, Godzilla is designed specifically to appear to be of a radioactive nature.  He is a familiar creature in ways, but his appearance doesn’t quite appear to be from any single creature found in nature, almost as if he is fused from several different species.  The scales that make up his skin evoke radiation burns and tumors found on people exposed to radioactivity.  Even his breath, while evoking ancient fire-breathing dragons, is a visible sign of his radioactive overexposure.  He literally breathes radiation.  All of these factors, combined with the monster’s portrayal by suit actor Haruo Nakajima and a tense, minimalist score by Akira Ifukube, serve to make the original “Godzilla” a striking, harsh movie.  Before the colorful lasers and maser tanks, before the space aliens and giant robots, Godzilla was actually quite frightening.

It was years before I was able to watch the original, unedited “Godzilla”, and it was quite a shock after years of seeing the “Americanized” version (more on that tomorrow). This is a dark, humorless movie, much more serious than just about everything that followed. A mother clutches her children as the building they are trapped in crumbles, irradiated bodies are lined up in makeshift hospitals, and the scores of frightened running from the indifferent city-crushing monster, despite the cliche’ nature, actually come off as unsettling.  This movie is much different from most anything that followed, and is a must-see for fans of the genre.  Even 60 years later, the movie is still striking and powerful, a true standard of the genre.

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Director Ishiro Honda wanted his monster to move more fluidly than the stop motion Kong and other such monsters, so he turned to special effects maker Eiji Tsuburaya.  Tsuburaya constructed a suit, worn by actor Haruo Nakajima, that would be filmed up close as he walked through miniature cities, thus creating the appearance of being giant.  The suit was not well ventilated, and Nakajima would faint after only a few minutes of filming under the hot studio lights.  Cups of his sweat would be poured out after every day of filming.  Tsuburaya would later found his own studio, which was responsible for creating the TV hero Ultraman and kickstarting the “Tokusatsu”, or “special effects”, style of TV show, which would later include Super Sentai and its American equivalent, Power Rangers.

Godzilla’s roar was created by dragging a leather glove over a bass string.

Godzilla’s original name “Gojira” was a combination of the Japanese words “gorira” and “kujira”, meaning “gorilla” and “whale” respectively.  There is a long-standing rumor that this was the nickname of a very fat employee that worked at Toho studios at the time, but nobody has ever been able to verify it.

Contrary to popular belief, Godzilla does not eat a train in this movie.  He picks one up in his mouth, but he doesn’t eat it.  In general, Godzilla is actually much more indifferent to people than other monsters such as Kong or Gamera, and does not often interact with humans on a personal level, though there are exceptions to this.

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~ by Chris on April 17, 2014.

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