Friday, 16 March 2012

IT!....Came From the 50s #1: Gojira (1954)

Gojira is a 1954 kaiju (giant monster) film produced by Toho studios. Originally released in Japanese with English subtitles, the film was re-released in America in 1956 with English dubbing and additional scenes under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. Directed by Ishirō Honda and starring Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura, the film follows the rampage of a giant radioactive lizard through the city of Tokyo. The film spawned a whopping 27 sequels spanning a 50 year period and remains one of the most iconic characters in Japanese culture.

The film opens (as many Godzilla films do) with a small fishing boat being attacked whilst out at sea. After another ship is sunk, mainland authorities and scientists soon flock to the small island of Odo to investigate. Amongst the investigators is Dr Yamane (Shimura) his daughter Emiko (Kochi) and her fiancé, and fellow scientist, Dr Serizawa (Hirata). Not long after the arrival of our protagonists, Odo island experiences a massive storm, at which point Godzilla reveals himself to the characters and the viewer. After some quick research, the official scientific opinion reached is that Godzilla is a giant lizard that has been mutated by nuclear radiation.

Comparitively, the folklore angle is that Japan is being punished by the Gods for meddling with nature, and experimenting with nuclear bombs. Either way Godzilla makes a break straight for Tokyo and, over the course of two nights, lays waste to the city (despite an ingenious electric pylon fence). Luckily Dr Serizawa has developed the deadly "oxygen bomb", an aquatic weapon designed to destroy the oxygen atoms in water and suffocate any nearby creatures. After seeing the destruction caused by the monster, all three characters head out to sea to confront a submerged Godzilla and put an end to the destruction.

A lot of people's impression of the Godzilla franchise is the inherent silliness of watching two men in rubber suits wrestle each other whilst smashing tiny buildings. The tone of the original film couldn't be further from that. A bleak and poignant allegory of nuclear technology, a mere 9 years after the events of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Godzilla is punishment for man inflicting suffering on his fellow man. A particularly sombre moment occurs when Dr Serizawa is refusing to use his oxygen destroyer for fear of reprisals from the monster. However, he is convinced by seeing a news report on the television documenting Tokyo's devastation set to the eerie sound of a children's choir. When he uses the oxygen destroyer, he insists that all knowledge of the device be erased and Dr Yamane's final anti-nuclear monologue chills the viewer to the bone.

The design of the monster is absolutely timeless. The look of the suit, the atomic breath and the iconic roar all contribute to the impact of the film and the franchise's longevity. The action sequences are as impressive now as I'm sure they were in 1954. It's certainly quite obvious that the buildings and vehicles are miniatures, but the grainy black and white style and epic classical score are more than enough to help you suspend your disbelief. The film also paces itself well and firmly establishes the moral of the story by the time Godzilla unleashes his fury on the city, which makes it all the more dramatic. As with most foreign films, it is advisable to watch it subtitled to get the most engaging experience, as dubbing only has the ability to make the film seem like a parody of the genre.

I've only seen around a third of the 28 Godzilla films, and only in the last few years which makes me somewhat of novice with the franchise. I started with the original and it's still one of the best of the series and of the 50s science fiction era. Whilst the other films can be a lot of fun, none were able to deliver such a harrowing fable whilst simultaneously featuring a giant monster smashing up the landscape. Most of the Godzilla films have never gotten a DVD release in the UK but this one has, so go check it out and see where the legend began.

5 Stars *****

How many Godzilla films have you seen? Have you seen the original?


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