Real Fears Given Fantasy Flesh
With Legendary Pictures dipping back into the giant monster pool this year with Godzilla: King of Monsters (sequel to the 2014 Godzilla and third film in the MonsterVerse, including the 2017 Kong: Skull Island, and the 35th Godzilla film overall), I thought it would be a good time to go back to the beginning.
Gojira, the original 1954 Japanese version, leaned heavy on the fears of the Japanese people. The film was created as an allegory for the nuclear destruction of Japan at the end of World War II. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka famously noted that the themes of the film were specifically designed to play on the fears of the bomb, a potent terror for the only country to suffer the direct effects of a nuclear bomb. The bomb is a central player in the awakening of the monster, and the path of destruction it creates was meant to mirror the very real devastation Japan felt.
The film starts with the mysterious destruction of a freighter, the Eiko-maru, off the coast of Odo island. A rescue ship, Bingo-maru, is sent out but also goes down. The survivors are found by a third ship, a fishing vessel, though it also sinks. Other fishing boats come back empty handed, their hauls mysteriously vanishing. One old man blames a legendary sea monster, Gojira, a monster the locals used to worship. Soon, the monster itself appears, in glimpses at first, laying waste to the countryside. It's quickly determined that the monster had been hibernating deep in the waters but had been awoken by nuclear testing off the coast of Odo. Now the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will have to find a way to stop the beast before all of Japan is destroyed.
Much of Gojira could be lost on modern audiences, but it was very much a horror story with a social commentary. Nuclear testing was still going on in the pacific at the time. Several fishing boats went through fallout with both the sailors and their haul being contaminated. Tons of fish had to be recalled and destroyed. Watching Gojira with those things in mind changed my perspective, as the film come across as more than just a simple monster movie mash-up.
That said, this is also where Gojira falls a bit flat. To make all of its points and play on its social concerns, the film leaves its primary actors behind for far too long in places. The film struggles to balance the scope of the politics, and terror, with the needs of the characters, under serving both.
Gojira does have another thing going for it, that makes it memorable enough to forgive its flaws: the practical effects. Eiji Tsuburaya has earned much deserved praise for the use of miniatures, suit action and puppetry in the film. Looking at it with a modern eye, of course we can tell a matte screen on set, or that the plane's “missiles” are bottle rockets. In truth though, I didn't care -- the practical effects were solid for the era and still had a gut-punch effect. I felt a bit sick seeing Gojira tear through Tokyo landmarks like a Michael Bay movie.
The film's parting line, a warning from Professor Yamane that continued nuclear proliferation will bring more Gojiras, may not have been true in real life, but blockbuster profits certainly brought more giant monster films. The legacy of Gojira lives on in its many sequels, remakes, and the other monster films it helped to inspire. Not all of them have managed to social commentary Gojira attempted, nor did they all have the grace of this film's practical effects. Despite its flaws, this film is a singular achievement for the era.
North American Release
For most viewers in the U.S., the first taste of the Godzilla franchise was the 1956 release, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This version was a very heavily edited version of the original film, with much of the political allegory removed. Actor Raymond Burr was hired to film additional scenes for this release, Burr acting across from body doubles of the Japanese actors to give the illusion Burr was part of the original film.
The film, of course, loses much of the gut-punch impact since all the important themes were removed. It was still a success in the U.S., though, as just about anyone can enjoy monster carnage and destruction. Still, this film is considered the inferior version of the film with most kaiju purists preferring the 1954 Gojira instead.