Directed by Ishiro Honda. 1954. Japan.
On March 1, 1954, the American military detonated a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The test was planned for a six megaton device. What was ultimately tested however was a 15 megaton device. As the test was carried out, a Japanese fishing ship sailed in the nearby waters. Crewmen reported the western sky lighting up like a sunrise. The sound would arrive shortly after. Later that day, a substance like a fine snow began to fall from the sky, fallout from the explosion. It fell on the unsuspecting crew members for close to three hours. When the ship finally arrived at shore 13 days later, several members of the crew were experiencing symptoms of acute radiation exposure. They were hospitalized, their fellow fishermen were sent home and the catch of irradiated fish was sent to marketplaces. The other crew members eventually fell ill. On September 23, the first of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 crew would die from radiation poisoning.
It is safe to say that nuclear anxiety was high in Japan after that event, not that it had ever really gone away after the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were hardly immune in the west. Dropping the bomb unleashed knowledge of nuclear devastation. The fear of nuclear attack was bolstered by the images and reports of structural damage, horrifying accounts of bodily injury and the growing widespread information regarding the terrors of radiation. In the west, these fears were expressed in popular entertainment. The giant bug films of the 1950s were one way to deal with those terrors. These films concerned giant, mutated bugs or creatures created from nuclear energy. They must have been frightening to watch in those tense times. But in the end, there was nothing to fear. The military would protect us. Tightening of nuclear regulations would make the horrors all go away. In the end, everything would be alright. We would conquer the nuclear age, not be a victim of it. In 1954, the Japanese would show us how wrong we were.
It’s one thing to have a situation described to you. It’s a whole other thing to have lived through it. Ishiro Honda, a filmmaker and longtime collaborator of Akira Kurosawa, found himself drafted into the Japanese army during World War 2. He would spend the latter part of the war as a POW. Returning home to Japan, Honda traveled through the areas affected by the American bombing. He saw the devastation firsthand. There was no better writer/director for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s latest film, a monster movie that would be released by Toho Studios in 1954. The initial story duties went to a popular science fiction novelist, Shigeru Kayama. Many of his ideas would remain through the final shooting script written by Honda and Takeo Murata. The major changes were to the characters, removing the more melodramatic characterizations popular in the kind of pulp novel Kayama found so much success in writing, replacing them with more human, less clichéd characters. There would be a love triangle between the daughter of an archeologist, a courageous salvage ship captain and the man she was promised to in marriage, a scientist deeply worried about the ramifications of his groundbreaking work. Unusual for this kind of film, the scientist would be portrayed as a human being with a conscience instead of the clichéd mad scientist trope that pervaded the science fiction movies of the west. This would be a mature monster film, one rooted more in the dramatic than the cartoonish.
Instead of the usual stop motion used in many of these monster films, Toho’s monster would be a man in a rubber suit. The budget and release schedule wouldn’t permit the use of stop motion. The carnage would be depicted almost entirely in camera with only the occasional use of matte paintings and optical printer tricks. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects would utilize massive tracts of incredibly detailed miniatures. A mixture of low angle photography, skillfully crafted miniature sets and false backgrounds was planned to convey the sheer scale of the devastation and create a believable experience. For the first time in Japan, a film was storyboarded completely, from the opening scene to the final shot. When production began, the monster was not named. The screenplay was only called “G”, the letter standing for “Giant”. Eventually, the monster was named. A curious mix of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale”, the monster – and the film – would be called GOJIRA.
When GOJIRA was released, it was panned by Japanese critics who saw it as immature and too western. This was 1954, the same year Akira Kurosawa released THE SEVEN SAMURAI and only a few months after Yasujiro Ozu released his masterwork TOKYO STORY. Those films proved to be international hits and, moreover, represented the Japanese film industry as a mature, serious business. For critics with strong feelings about preserving the heritage and prestige of the Japanese film industry, GOJIRA seemed childish, crass, unskilled and exploitative of national tragedies. But for movie audiences, GOJIRA struck a nerve. It became one of the most successful films released in Japan in 1954. A couple of years later, an American film distributor would re-edit GOJIRA for American audiences. Removed were any and all references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki along with most of the human suffering. In their place, an American reporter, played by Raymond Burr, would describe the action in superfluous monologues. Looking at the two versions side-by-side, the Japanese film is undeniably the better film, more complex and emotional. But American audiences had no way to compare the two. The Japanese original wouldn’t premiere in America until 1982. Regardless, the film was successful and influential. Far from the gung-ho celebration of military diligence (though it would ultimately play the same “all is well” card in the end), the American edit of GOJIRA, here renamed to GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, sucked some of the camp from the giant monster movie. Even in this butchered form, GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS is a refreshing dose of horror in a subgenre of film known more for spectacle than fear.
Growing up, I was always watching GODZILLA films. It seemed like there was always one playing on television at any given time. I remember being endlessly fascinated by those films. They were undeniably stupid and laughable, but there was this cartoonish sensibility to them that I found enjoyable. To this day, I find the obvious special effects to be one of the best qualities of the franchise. There is no doubt that the planes, tanks, buildings and battleships are little more than toys. It’s obvious that the monsters are just men in suits wearing radio or wire-controlled masks. But that’s what I love about them. Everything is right there on the screen. They make no attempt at hiding the artifice. I think of that aspect as an invitation to enjoy, rejoice in and share in the process of filmmaking. You can see the seams and the fakery. If you can’t get past that, you’ll hate every single film in the franchise. If you can accept it, you’ll be able to revel in the ingenuity and creativity of the filmmakers.
I didn’t see the original GOJIRA when I was a kid. I didn’t even see GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. It wouldn’t be until the Good Times Home Video release in 1995 that I saw the Americanized version. At the time of the home video release, word was already out that Tristar had purchased the rights to the Godzilla property with the intent on releasing a new American Godzilla film. It made sense for all the Japanese films to hit home video. I rented GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS at the local video store and sat down expecting yet another Godzilla film. I didn’t get one. This was different. This was darker. And even though I could tell where the edits were, where the “American bits” clashed with the “Japanese bits”, I found it entertaining. Godzilla was more frightening, more raw and cruel. This wasn’t the superhero Godzilla I was used to. I was honestly struck by the film even though it felt like something was off. In 2006, I finally got my chance to watch the Japanese original. I suddenly knew what was missing and my appreciation for the film grew immensely.
GOJIRA is, to this day, the best monster film I’ve ever seen, but that has relatively little to do with Godzilla. What resonated most with me when I first saw the film were the characters and the handling of the devastation of Tokyo. Unusual for this kind of film, GOJIRA often puts the monster on the backburner and spends time with the human characters. Some of the impact of the love triangle is lost in translation. Arranged marriages were still reasonably common in Japan at the time the film was made. The scenes between the three actors (and especially the scenes between the daughter Emiko and her father Kyohei, played by the great Takashi Shimura) are restrained and lacking in any kind of false emotionalism. It is obvious that these scenes must have carried great weight for Japanese audiences and though the cultural implications were lost on me, it’s these quiet scenes that helped me relate to this group of characters. In virtually any other monster film, the hero of the piece would have been Hideto, the handsome, brave sea captain that has captured the heart of the leading lady. Though he does figure heavily in the film, the hero role goes to Serizawa, the scientist, one of the film’s most intriguing deviations from the norm.
Serizawa is the most interesting character in the entire film. He has constructed a device with enormous and deadly potential. This device, known as the oxygen destroyer, is capable of disintegrating all oxygen in its immediate vicinity, even the oxygen inside the bodies of men and animals. Realizing the dangers of what he has created, Serizawa is conflicted. He is driven by his scientific impulses but restrained by his conscience. What would happen if this device were used as a weapon? It’s clear that Serizawa represents Oppenheimer, Fermi and the other great minds that would create the perfect weapon of genocide, but Serizawa’s reluctance to use his weapon and the terrible burden of conscience it puts on him is clearly meant to draw a line between Serizawa and the Manhattan Project. GOJIRA is a film littered with moments of political and social commentary. Never once does Honda make an explicit anti-American accusation but Serizawa’s characterization says it all. When the film comes to a close and Serizawa sacrifices his life to kill Godzilla by using the oxygen destroyer, his self sacrifice is not done out of heroism or humanism. It’s motivated by guilt and by a desire to make sure this new weapon of mass destruction dies with him. The Japanese film ends with recognition of Serizawa’s actions and a plea to end nuclear proliferation and testing. In typical American fashion, the re-edit ends with a reassuring statement that we can all “wake up and live again”. It’s clear the American distributors missed the point.
But that isn’t the only area of the film that was sanitized. Honda’s idea for Godzilla’s final night time raid in Tokyo was simple: Godzilla would be the personification of the explosive force of the A bomb. The scenes of Godzilla melting electrical towers, destroying countless buildings (including the famous Nichigeki Theater, the very building the audience was sitting in at the time) and blasting away with his nuclear breath are intercut with scenes of people screaming, running and in several instances dying. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, a mother cradles her young child, telling her that she will soon be with her father in Heaven, as the beast lumbers ever closer. Once the carnage is over, the camera lingers on the devastation. It looks remarkably similar to the photographs of post-bomb Hiroshima. We see patients dying from their injuries in hospitals, numerous shocked faces and children being tested for radiation. All of these scenes were removed from the American edit. Like many (if not most) of the American giant monster films, Godzilla only destroys property and military equipment. The human toll is completely ignored. In GOJIRA, the buildings are landmarks are unimportant. It’s the loss of human life that is unbearable to watch.
Time has been unusually kind to GOJIRA. Not only does the film still hold up as a drama and as a piece of entertainment, the subtext has not at all been dulled by the years. Honda envisioned GOJIRA not as a simple monster film but as a political and humanist statement, an allegory for the dangers and repercussions of nuclear technologies. While the film has gained a reputation amongst serious critics, it still feels tainted by the Saturday morning monster mashes that came in its wake. I still find the film every bit as enthralling, frightening and moving now as I did when I first saw it eight years ago. It isn’t worth arguing over the direction the franchise took over the years. GOJIRA stands on its own as an exciting, troubling and unforgettable film. It is possible to separate the film from the rest of the franchise and I would honestly recommend trying to do just that while you watch it. Because this isn’t Godzilla the superhero. This is Gojira the destroyer, the inevitable outcome of our own worst ideas.