Gojira: Deluxe Collector’s Edition
August 30, 2006
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai, Toranosuke Ogawa, Ren Yamamoto, Miki Hayashi, Takeo Oikawa, Raymond Burr,
As Steve Ryfle’s excellent liner notes point out, Godzilla is more than just some guy in a cheesy rubber suit terrorizing badly dubbed Japanese actors and stomping miniatures, but the original film, made in 1954, is actually a tragedy of epic proportions, a potent warning of an escalating nuclear arms race. Of course, Gojira (as it was known in Japan) works as an entertaining monster movie too.
When a 7,500 ton freighter is mysteriously lost in the South Seas off Japan, the authorities are baffled. Soon afterwards, a fishing boat is destroyed in the same manner: from an underwater explosion. It is a mine? An underwater volcano? There are only a few survivors and one of them claims to have seen a creature in the water. Some elder citizens immediately claim that this is Gojira, a creature that lives in the sea and occasionally surfaces to feed on mankind when food in the ocean is scarce.
Sure enough, late one stormy night, something destroys several houses in a village in such a way that it could not have been the result of natural causes, like a hurricane. Director Ishiro Honda wisely prolongs the first actual appearance of Gojira for 21 minutes, cleverly employing traditional horror film techniques to create tension and build anticipation. We never actually see the monster in the initial attacks – just a hint of him but nevertheless his presence looms large, much as was done with King Kong. When we finally do catch a good glimpse of the creature, it is little more than a head but it is a fantastic shot that effectively establishes his massive scale and is more than enough to send the locals running for their lives.
The country’s leading scientist Professor Yamane (Shimura) theorizes that Gojira is the result of atomic testing, a mutation that exists to punish his country for dabbling in the dangerous waters of atomic energy and radiation. Naturally, the Japanese government wants to destroy Gojira but Yamane respects the beast and wants to study him. Yamane represents a sobering humanistic voice that mirrored Honda’s own beliefs and acts as a sharp contrast to the government’s foolhardy shoot first, ask questions later attitude.
Look past the guy in the rubber suit and the obvious miniatures and you’ve got atmospheric black and white cinematography by Masao Tamai that is haunting, especially the night scenes with an almost silhouetted Gojira destroying Tokyo that is a devastating site to behold.
Gojira was born from the ashes of A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the fallout of which Honda witnessed first hand. In fact, the film’s opening scene, where a freighter is destroyed by an explosion from under the water was a reference to an incident in which a tuna trawler got too close to an H-bomb test and its crew became sick with radiation poisoning. With this knowledge, it’s hard not to see Gojira’s swath of destruction through urban Japan as a metaphor for the A-bomb and a powerful critique of the dangers of atomic radiation. This is what elevates Gojira above countless other monster movies from the 1950s and has inspired countless sequels that have transformed the giant monster into a pop culture icon.
American movie producers acquired the North American rights and promptly Americanized the movie, renaming it Godzilla, and inserting a reporter played by Raymond Burr with only 60 minutes of the original film intact, the rest cut and new footage shot. Gojira is the way this film was meant to be seen with all of the stark footage of the dead, maimed and shell-shocked and numerous the A-bomb references – something that is missing from subsequent sequels that turned into admittedly entertaining battle royales.