Gojira (1954)

Nuclear weapons aren’t the only politics that Honda and Murata bring to Gojira. The feelings of a filmmaker who was drafted three times into a war that went on to destroy his country and spent time as a Chinese Prisoner of War in the process are pretty clear here. The discussion between political leaders as to how to react to Godzilla’s appearance devolves rapidly into yelling and squabbling, as the scientists and witnesses in the hearing look on in shame. Another political point worth mentioning is that while the terror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are referenced, the United States is not. Gojira isn’t a call to point blame so much as it is a plea from Honda for nuclear disarmament.

Beyond the political, there is a heavy human element to this film. Gojira is perhaps unique among daikaiju films in that either the human plot or the monster attacks would each carry an above average film on their own. There are four main characters in addition to several recurring characters, the latter group existing to show the progression and gravity of the film as Godzilla interrupts their life (and occasionally destroys it). On the scientific end, we have Doctor Serizawa and Professor Yamane. While Serizawa’s conflict is whether or not to weaponize his research, Yamane’s is more straight forward: he is heavily against destroying this creature and is more intent to research it in order to discover how it has survived absorbing so much radiation.

Professor Yamane’s daughter Emiko, who is engaged through an arranged marriage to Doctor Serizawa, is seeing a man named Ogata Hideto, who is ostensibly the star of the film. He doesn’t have particularly more screentime than any of the other individuals, however; I always considered Kōchi Momoko, who played Emiko, to be the star as she is the bridge between the other three main characters. If anything, Takarada Akira acts as a mouthpiece for the audience, advocating action despite the protests of both scientists and ending up with the girl in the end. His existence acts as a sort of battle between East and West, the arranged marriage versus the lover, as well as adding dimensions to Serizawa’s personal tragedy, as he is well and truly in love with his betrothed.

The human story is always more than the main characters, however. There are too many characters to dwell on the contribution of each, but for purposes of atmosphere I do want to expound on one group of recurring characters. A mother and her two children are seen during Godzilla’s second attack on Tokyo. In order to comfort her children in the face of inescapable death, she tells them, “you’ll be with your father soon.” If that’s not indicative of the mood and message of this film, the trio appear one more time, in the aftermath of the attack. The children are receiving medical care. The mother, on the other hand, is in no condition to receive any kind of care.

That’s the kind of drama that this film is built around. The fact that it’s in black and white is as much for that reason as it is for the effects and the budget. The film is paced and edited perfectly for what it is, which is one of the reasons why this is the definitive cut of this movie and the pinnacle of kaiju movie possibilities. The film is filled with little moments like the reporters on the island all pulling out their cameras just in time for one of the most iconic shots in kaiju history. There are some missteps, such as “intentionally” referring to the Jurassic era as being around the birth of mankind in order to build up an association between man and Godzilla’s origins, but that is by and large the greatest problem the film has, and that’s not a bad place to be.

Gojira is one of the films with the greatest legacies of all time. Director Honda Ishirō would go on to create Rodan and Ultraman and would continue directing movies for another 21 years, fittingly retiring with the completion of the last Godzilla film of the Shōwa period. Ifukube Akira, composer of the theme that would forever be associated with the King of the Monsters, would go on to score thirty seven more films over the next quarter century. To date, Godzilla has starred in 31 films, one of them featuring a return of Yamane Emiko. The film was re-edited with new footage and released in America with a title two years later, and and in the process managed to birth a whole new genre: rubber suit daikaiju films with Japanese spirit. In the aftermath of all that, it’s almost senseless for me to reiterate that Gojira is a must-see film for anybody who can get their hands on it and knows how to read a little bit of subtitles.

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