Godzilla (Gojira)

Rating *5*

Directed by Ishirô Honda

Written by Ishirô Honda and Takeo Murata from a story by Shigeru Kayama

Starring Akira Takarada, Mokoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura

I had never seen the original ‘Godzilla’ (or ‘Gojira’, to give the film its proper title), until now. A free DVD was given away by The Guardian newspaper in its 19 April 2008 Saturday edition.

Many years ago I did see the appalling version that had been “re-cut” (featuring the actor Raymond Burr) for American audiences and given the title ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters!’ It was not until 2004 that the original Japanese version became readily available in Britain through the efforts of the British Film Institute.

Alongside ‘King Kong’, this is surely the greatest of all monster movies. It tells the story of a gigantic aquatic beast from the Jurassic period that is awakened from its deep ocean slumber following H-bomb tests. The beast, capable of breathing radioactive flames, attacks shipping and then comes ashore, ultimately destroying Tokyo.

As has been written about in detail on countless occasions, the film deals with the Japan’s attempts to reconcile what happened at Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945), horrendous events that took place less than ten years before the film was made – it was released in Japan on 3 November 1954.

It has also been suggested that the film was influenced by the blanket firebombing of Tokyo that took place on the night of 9 March 1945, in which half a million incendiary cylinders were dropped on the city, killing approximately 100,000 people. The destruction of Tokyo in the firebombing (see the picture on the right) is visually almost identical to the destruction caused by Godzilla in the film.

The film is imbued with an aura of melancholy and paranoia throughout as it tries to find some rationale for a world in which weapons of ever increasing power and destructive capability were being created and tested as the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union escalated. No reference is actually made to those two superpowers, although there is a reference to Nagasaki. The film deals exclusively with Japan’s efforts to reconcile its own culpability. Japan was, in the first half of the 20th century, a nation of extremes; a complex culture responsible for great beauty and artistic endeavour, but also capable of horrifying brutality.

Films with similar themes were being made in America during the same period; for example, ‘Them!’ the first of the “nuclear bug” monster movies, also made in 1954.

There are numerous memorable scenes to be found in ‘Godzilla’. During the attack on Tokyo an apparently homeless woman is seen cradling three young children in her arms. As Godzilla gets ever closer, she tells them, “You can see your father soon. We’ll join him in heaven.” I was struck by the brief image of a small child, sitting in an over-run hospital in the aftermath of the attack, impassively staring at the dead body of her mother. The underwater scenes during the final portion of the film are strange and eerie.

In the end, as the character Dr Kyouhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) says, “I don’t think that was the only Godzilla. If they keep experimenting with deadly weapons… another Godzilla may appear.” Those words are as relevant now, some 54 years later, as they were then.

In his 2004 review of the film, the respected American film critic Roger Ebert writes, “In these days of flawless special effects, Godzilla and the city he destroys are equally crude.” I would disagree with this assertion. It is true that the special effects used in ‘Godzilla’ are primitive, but they are also very effective. I don’t think CGI special effects are “flawless” and I would point to the 2005 remake of ‘King Kong’, comparing it unfavourably to the miraculous 1933 original. The special effects in ‘Godzilla’ have an impact that is often lost in films today where the effects attempt to dazzle and blind the audience and often do battle with the film rather than being fully integrated into it.

Hollywood made its own big-budget version of ‘Godzilla’ in 1998. As Xander Harris was to comment in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, “Matthew Broderick did not kill Godzilla. He killed a big, dumb lizard. That was not the real Godzilla.”

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