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 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 so seriously. Many of them involve grand speeches and some even tackle heady themes, but Americans have trouble seeing them as more than accidental comedies, especially when Godzilla teams 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 Gojira, a “bad film.”

Gojira wafts in off a cold sea to offer a nightmarish alternative to these other films. It creates a reality in which a puppet show, seemingly out of an ancient tradition, lays waste to people (children among them) and to all that they know. 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 a joke, by a soldier's sassy quip, or by a self-knowing snicker. This should be read in mourning, at least, in reflection.

Of course Gojira has none of Spielberg’s adventurous comraderie, but there’s an even greater difference between them. At some point, Gojira turns away from the easiest implication any monster movie can make, which is that its monster is the worst threat to ever exist. It's what most of them rely on to create their illusion of tension. 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, whose power is at least known to him, and uncontrollable by men. He fears the potential disasters to the future, introducing a weapon strong enough to kill Godzilla 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 devastating creation 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 meditation in the film’s conclusion leads me to an interpretation that I haven't heard before but which I think is essential. 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, as though to say: this is what a greater country might have done, instead of destroy so much. 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 in order to end the destruction. I'm not making any comment on WWII, or justifying any actions taken to end it: I'm just wondering if these Japanese artists knew more universal truth about what happened than we still do. They put it in Gojira.

I can’t think of another monster movie that takes the monster off the pedestal of his plot to allegorize him like this. 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; the action heroes still win. 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 even the very feudal barbarism that made such a weapon necessary to begin with. He's not just the Japanese' sense of mourning and anger: he's also their regret.

Even the conscientious, thoughtful people in this movie have to destroy and conquer to solve the problems they made, and pass 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 an animal. Godzilla is a symbolic monster in his first film, a demon with no origin except in war, invention, creation, and remorse.

The nightmare of his destruction is a product made entirely of new 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, which is what he wanted. The invention of the rubber suit monster was a culmination of all his talents, particularly in model-making and pyrotechnics, which he had perfected to the point that only he could see the potential in a scale city and a suit performer, because only his cities could be built so well. 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 idea 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 one in which Godzilla towers 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, a propensity for overacting is here to some extent, which has resulted in a lot of parody (Momoko Kōchi particularly can't seem to wrap her mind around how to cry). There's also some rigidity in how information gets to us, such as in the unnecessary scene in which scientists explain how Godzilla was made and also in many conversations in general. It's a classic B-movie monster scene, I'm sure, but do you see how in this instance Godzilla needs to remain a mystery? A force of nature and spirit is more uncanny than a radioactive T-Rex.  But its images still reflect the power  which cannot be ignored any more than Serizawa can ignore the child’s prayer over the radio, calling him to give up his self-worry and fight destruction with destruction. The scene in which he goes down into Tokyo Bay is the most somber and elegiac in all 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. It has never been equaled.

Why use a choir of children, except to remind us that Godzilla is the greatest monster ever conceived, because he stands in for every disaster passed from old men to the future? Why, except to remind us that the only person in all of history to lose every single war, is named Mother?

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

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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