(1954) dir. Ishirô Honda
The giant rubber monster movie that started it all, Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla), was released with some pomp a couple of years ago with its original Japanese name and all of it’s orginal footage and dialog with subtitles for the non-Japanese speakers of the world. As a kid, growing up with Godzilla, we had Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) with a lot of added footage with Raymond Burr showing up to handle the narrative and the dubbing. It’s been years, but it must be said that this is a very different film.
Gojira is a striking horror film, shot with shadowy efficacy in black and white. The monster is far more menacing and strange in his looming darkness, less campy and cartoony than in his color features. The story, said to have been somewhat inspired by the Ray Harryhausen The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) (another giant dinosaur attacks the city film), is loaded with clear and eerie references to the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only 9 years prior. It’s a cultural phenomenon, this film, its legacy, and the film itself is surprisingly effective. I say that because it is far more like a horror film in and of itself than what it begat as its legacy.
Godzilla is, of course, a lost dinosaur, aroused by the atomic testing in the sea and empowered with his own radioactive breath, unleashes his vengeance on Tokyo and the people of Japan. Echoes of a legend of his origin touch back to some reckoning of tradition and nature, mutated into a new form of destruction. His footprints are radioactive. People are getting killed, but they are also getting radiation poisoning.
It’s also interesting that the scientist who creates the method of destroying Godzilla, a method more dangerous than the atomic bomb, destroys all knowledge of his massively lethal creation and commits suicide in killing the monster in the end. His awareness of the devastation that his invention can create and the fact that he only uses it to destroy the monster is in itself somewhat of a commentary on the scientists who developed the technology of the bomb, whose legacy has been one of great devastation.
But what is also interesting, and still seemingly quite representative of Japan itself, is the evolution of Godzilla from apocalyptic monster to a hero, a defender of Japan, through film after film, he becomes the good guy. And a huge cultural artifact, an international celebrity of sorts. It’s a strange and bizarre legacy, but interesting, certainly.
Going back to this original film, though, was quite satisfying. I didn’t watch it with the kids because I wanted to watch it in Japanese and to hear the language and keep the pacing. I am a little unsure of how to approach this film with them. But that said, there is an awful lot else out there for us to see.