Gojira (1954)

Gojira contains such detached terror that it transgresses monster movies and becomes a war film. Those who snicker at the rubber suit effects baffle me: the puppetry performance is regal and involved, claiming the sweat of its players and the spirit of its audiences. You wouldn’t expect such drama from an upright stegosaurus with the head of a bulldog, but Ishirō Honda films Gojira as though he’s witness to a primal evil, implacable and older than time. The devastation is so close it’s olfactory. The music travels from a tune of militant glory to a funeral dirge. The human element is so palpable amidst the destruction that certain outliers – strangely translated dialogue and awkward performances – fade into the backdrop. What is left is like the poem other monster movies have turned into music videos.

Of course I’m speaking of the Japanese original. The political decapitation of the release by international marketers is well-known enough not to repeat. I only want to clarify that the film with the tones of wartime tragedy and the one with Raymond Burr shoved up its Anguirus are too different to be compared.

It’s worth mentioning because critics still don’t see Gojira as more than a rubber suit flick, and I wonder if it’s because of the original release or the 30 sequels, none of which take the material quite seriously. And by not quite seriously I mean they sit on a spectrum, the limits of which I’ll set as “Pseudo-epic” to “Teaming up with an ankylosaurus and a pterodactyl to fight a three-headed dragon on the moon.” I can’t help but think these are seeping into Roger Ebert’s imagination when he calls the original, a “bad film.”

Gojira wafts in off a skeletal sea to offer a nightmarish alternative to these other films. It creates a reality in which a puppet show grandly lays waste to people (children among them) as for the amusement of a distant creator god. The progression may be sensible for any monster movie, but can Jaws, whose progression is almost identical, claim a scene as icy as one in Gojira, in which a woman clutches her two young daughters beneath the awning of a crumbling building, fire all around them, and whispers, “Just a little longer, girls. We’ll be with your father soon.”

This shouldn’t be broken by commercials on a Saturday morning buzzed on chocolate cereal and enclosed in footy pajamas. This should be read in mourning, at least, in reflection.

Of course Gojira has none of Spielberg’s adventurous comradery, but there’s an even greater difference between them. At some point, Gojira turns away from the easiest implication any monster movie can make – that its monster is the worst threat to ever exist. That point is when Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) reveals his oxygen destroyer, a weapon that liquefies living tissue. He fears his own work more than he fears Godzilla, a known disaster. He fears the potential disasters to the future, introducing his weapon to the climate of war and the minds of politicians. Gojira does not portray a fearful Japan penitent to American power, nor the rebellious critique of the West that seemed to burrow into the minds of international localizers at the time. Serizawa is their Einstein, and no less regretful of his invention than that real life inventor who said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.” Godzilla was made by using Einstein’s devastation to solve a problem, as Serizawa now wonders what problems will now be “solvable” if the world catches a glimpse of his own invention.

The incredible mediation of the film’s conclusion leads me to an interpretation perhaps never documented before. Observe that they use the oxygen destroyer to destroy the threat, despite their knowledge of its power, despite knowing that it may result in the worst arms race in history to recreate it. Is there in this an understanding in the Japan of 1954, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were most tragic because they were the only solution? The scientists and philosophers in Gojira do not relieve their situation by peaceful, diplomatic, or conventional means. They mirror the very American committees that distributors at the time assumed they were lampooning, as they invent a new superweapon, shudder to use it, run out of options, and unleash it on the world.

I can’t think of another monster movie that takes the monster off his pedestal to allegorize him. King Kong comes close, but the great ape is subjugated by a colonial power which in that film’s context is used justly to diffuse a disaster. Godzilla is the king of the monsters, not because he’s the most powerful or the biggest, but because he is in allegory every solution that is as devastating as its problem. He is the untamed rage of righteous killing, scarier because he is so passive and natural. He might have been merely “American aggression” if he had been more aggressive, but he washes up onto Tokyo like a natural disaster, both as the tapped potential of all our invented apocalypses and, verging on the ironic, the very feudal barbarism that made such a weapon necessary to begin with.

Thus the Japanese may know the price all too well, but still they invent the next doomsday device to avoid the present disaster, passing the fallout to their children. Their foe takes no side and so can’t really be blamed. At one point he roars antagonistically at a clock to remind us that he is only a beast. Godzilla is a symbolic monster in his first film, a demon with no origin except in war.

The nightmare of his destruction is a product made entirely of artistry. Effects technician Eiji Tsuburaya was given 2 months to create the effects for Gojira, and could not in that time craft stop-motion similar to that in King Kong. The invention of the rubber suit monster was a culmination of all his talents, particularly in model-making and pyrotechnics, elements that prevented someone from thinking of it before. With his scouts of designers crawling over the then low-hanging skyline of Tokyo, they engineered in reverse their own tiny apocalypse, one that transitions without seams and without matte lines between composite shots of Godzilla over real buildings, and actual carnage on the works of craftsmen.

To give you the first indication of Tsuburaya’s intuitive genius for model work, his war films are some of the only movies not confiscated and destroyed following the war, because his model ships and planes and tanks were taken for real war footage. Several shots should baffle the trained eye, such as: Godzilla towering over a model building that is composited with real people in its windows, who go down in the flames. A tail swish references the stop-motion that could have been, but now could not be.

Gojira is all performance. Yes, the monster film's propensity for overacting is here to some extent, as is the inability of translators to localize the dialogue into conversational English (a conversation might be translated as, “Here are the documents you asked for.” “Yes, show me what is in the documents.”). But its images still reflect the power that must be innate in the language we cannot hear, which cannot be ignored any more than Serizawa can ignore the child’s prayer over the radio, calling him to fight destruction with destruction. The scene in which he goes down into Tokyo Bay is the most somber and elegiac in all the monster movies. Godzilla is shot barely in frame, barely focused, walking on the bottom of the bay, soundless and ancient and remote. The choral prayer plays as the weapon is unleashed, with only Serizawa’s heavy breathing for accompaniment. It is funereal and operatic; there is nothing in it that seems or sounds like triumph.

Why use a choir of children, except to remind us that Godzilla is not unique, that he is the greatest monster because he is every monster passed from old men to the future? Why except to remind us that only one person in all of history has lost every war, and her name is mother?

Cast & Crew

Ishirō Honda

Takeo Murata (written by)
Ishirō Honda (written by)
Shigeru Kayama (story by)
Hideto Ogata Akira Takarada
Emiko Yamane Momoko Kōchi
Momoko Kōchi Akihiko Hirata
Daisuke Serizawa-hakase Takashi Shimura
Akihiko Hirata Fuyuki Murakami
Kyohei Yamane-hakase Sachio Sakai
Takashi Shimura Toranosuke Ogawa
Professor Tanabe Ren Yamamoto
Newspaper Reporter Hagiwara Hiroshi Hayashi
President of Company Seijirō Onda
Masaji Sieji Tsuruko Mano
Ren Yamamoto Takeo Oikawa
Chairman of Diet Committee Toyoaki Suzuki
Hiroshi Hayashi Kokuten Kōdō
Parliamentarian Oyama Tadashi Okabe
Mrs. Sieji Kin Sugai
Chief of Emergency Headquarters Ren Imaizumi
Takeo Oikawa Junpei Natsuki
Shinkichi Sieji Katsumi Tezuka
Toyoaki Suzuki Haruo Nakajima
The Old Fisherman (as Kuninori Kōdō) Yasuhisa Tsutsumi
Prof. Tanabe’s Assistant Jiro Suzuki
Ozawa-san Saburō Iketani

Official Trailer

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