Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gojira, a.k.a. Godzilla (original version) (Toho, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie last night, and for the second time in as many days we got to watch an obscure movie that turned out to be absolutely riveting entertainment and way better than its reputation: Gojira, the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I had heard Gojira was considerably better than its extensively re-edited U.S. release (with additional footage shot by ex-Warners “B” director Terry Morse, featuring Raymond Burr as reporter “Steve Martin” — I remember when the 1990’s U.S. Godzilla came out that they should have done an in-joke casting of Steve Martin and had him play a character named “Raymond Burr” — added to the Japanese original directed by Ishirô Honda) but I was not expecting how much better. Both Charles and I were blown away not only by the sophistication of the 1954 Gojira (according to, it was the most expensive movie ever made in Japan to that date, and it was nominated by the Japanese version of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Picture, only to lose to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai — another “Trivia” note said that the burden of financing those two films at once nearly drove Toho Studios into bankruptcy, though no doubt the profits they got from them bailed them out!) but its depth and richness as a story.

Gojira was ostensibly inspired by an incident in which a Japanese fishing vessel called the Lucky Dragon strayed too close to a U.S. H-bomb test in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in the boat, its crew and its catch all being radioactively contaminated, but it was also clearly driven by the U.S. bombing attacks on Japan in 1944 and 1945, both the incendiary “conventional” bombs that had incinerated most of Japan’s major cities and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the very end of the war. (One of the grim ironies is that the U.S. generals who launched the atomic-bomb raids had a problem finding virgin targets, since virtually every Japanese city of consequence had already been targeted by the incendiary raids and the generals and their civilian bosses wanted to demonstrate the power of the A-bomb by using it on cities that hadn’t been bombed before. The only city in Japan that wasn’t attacked either by incendiaries or nukes was Kyoto, which was spared because it’s Japan’s most revered cultural center and essentially the Vatican of the Shinto religion.) Anyone who thinks they know this movie from seeing the 1956 U.S. release with Raymond Burr doesn’t know jack about what it really is; the basic story is the same in both versions — U.S. H-bomb tests in the South Pacific blow a prehistoric monster out of its underground home beneath the Pacific and, needing food, it starts targeting Japanese fishing vessels and eventually comes ashore and starts destroying Japanese cities and eating people, and Japan’s scientists have to come up with a way of killing the beast — but the drama is way more intense in this version and the anti-nuclear commentary far more explicit. Not only does one woman riding on an elevated train that’s about to be attacked by Gojira specifically reference the U.S. A-bomb attacks on Japan — she laments that she survived the Nagasaki raid only to be threatened anew by this — the Japanese mind-set towards airborne disaster is vividly shown by the calm way with which the people flee from the monster’s advance. Instead of the wild, panicky flight one would have seen in an American monster film from 1954 (or since), they move away from danger in a chillingly ordinary, almost shell-shocked manner that seems to say, “We’ve been through this before and we know what we must do.”

The film is rich in detail that gives it a wrenching emotional quality, from the scenes of family members of sailors anxiously awaiting on shore for word of the missing ship their relatives were on — a scene that must happen a lot in a country like Japan, which is a bunch of islands whose major source of dietary protein is fish — to the political, social and emotional conflicts between the characters and the moral dilemmas faced by the two scientists in the dramatis personae. The central (human) characters are middle-aged paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) — who, like Robert Cornthwaite’s character in the 1951 version of The Thing and Cecil Kellaway’s in the 1953 American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (a film that influenced Gojira, largely in Honda’s decision to make the titular monster a dinosaur-like creature instead of a hybrid of a gorilla and a whale — the name “Gojira” is actually a mash-up of the Japanese “gorira,” meaning gorilla, and “kujira,” meaning whale), wants to keep the monster alive and study it; his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kôchi); the man her dad has arranged for her to marry, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihito Hirata), who goes around with an eye patch because he lost an eye as a pilot during World War II (another reference to the most traumatic event in Japan’s recent history when the film was made!); and the rather nebbishy but considerably more down-to-earth “normal” guy she’s actually in love with, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). But the soap-opera complications of the romantic triangle are drawn considerably more carefully and movingly than they would be in most American movies (one U.S. film that is comparable in this regard is the 1936 film The Invisible Ray, in which heroine Diana Rukh [Frances Drake] genuinely admires her husband, Dr. Janos Rukh [Boris Karloff], but is torn between her sexless awe of him and her genuine love for Ronald Drake [Frank Lawton], whom she marries in an outrageous bit of Code-bending thinking Dr. Rukh is dead, when he isn’t), and like Karloff’s character in The Invisible Ray Dr. Serizawa has on his shoulders the weight not only of his service in the war but also his invention of the so-called “Oxygen Destroyer,” which the subtitles explain turns oxygen atoms into “fluid” (I suspect the term writers Honda, Takeo Murata and Shigeru Kayama were thinking of was “plasma”) and thereby instantly destroys all life in the vicinity of its explosion.

After some famous set-pieces that are familiar because they were highlighted in the U.S. version as well — Gojira’s assault on the elevated train (obviously inspired by the similar scene in King Kong, from which the filmmakers also cribbed the idea of a native dance and the sacrifice of a young virgin to appease Gojira) and his destruction of electrical towers and powerlines with a breath that, at the monster’s choice, can blow either hot or cold — Dr. Serizawa yields to the others’ pressure and agrees to mount an underwater version of a kamikaze attack on Gojira, killing him with the Oxygen Destroyer and taking his own life with it after first having burned all his notes so no one can reconstruct his invention after he takes the only working prototype with him. Gojira is also a stunningly produced film from the technical point of view; Honda’s direction and Masao Tamai’s cinematography are dark, rich, Gothic, full of red-filtered daytime exteriors and night scenes in an almost noir-ish half-light, and though a few of the effects have the endearing tackiness that became a hallmark of later entries in the series (notably a fallen model helicopter that looks like effects technician Sadamasa Arikawa’s crew picked it up that morning at the Tokyo Woolworth’s), most are utterly convincing. Gojira’s believability is helped by the way Honda and his writers avoid showing too much of him; those who complained that the recent Godzilla reboot directed by Gareth Edwards had too little Godzilla in it (about 10 minutes’ worth of a two-hour film) will be surprised that there’s not much more of the monster in this one either. (In the 1956 U.S. re-edit, Terry Morse and company kept the big monster scenes but cut the human conflicts so much to the bone Charles found himself wondering if the U.S. version — which neither of us have seen in years — contained any of the original’s scenes not involving Gojira/Godzilla.) What is most remarkable about Gojira is the sense of pain that runs throughout it; one gets the impression Japan was a country that had experienced a sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder over World War II and in particular how much of it was literally burned down before it finally surrendered (indeed, I suspect some of the sequences showing Tokyo burning down after Gojira’s attack were newsreel clips from the aftermath of the U.S. incendiary raids), and what gives this film its wracking emotional power is the way it’s haunted by Japan’s real-life fate at the hands of the U.S. just a few years earlier.

Even the epilogue — Dr. Yamane watching over the roiling waves that signal Gojira’s demise and warning, “I can’t believe that Gojira was the only surviving member of its species … But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Gojira might appear somewhere in the world again” — is neither a cheap out-line like the “Watch the skies, keep watching the skies!” finale of The Thing nor a blatant set-up for a sequel (I doubt if anyone from Toho was anticipating that this film would become first a national, then an international, institution and the character of Gojira/Godzilla would become a perpetual cash cow for them!), but an expression of the lingering pain of being the first (and so far, blessedly, the only) country actually on the receiving end of nuclear weapons and a concern that the arms race would result in Japan’s obliteration. (It’s worth noting that Dr. Yamane’s motive for wanting to keep Gojira alive for study wasn’t a Thing-like belief in the monster’s superiority but a wish to find out how it survived atomic radiation in hopes humans could learn to do the same.) Gojira is a surprisingly deep, rich movie in a disreputable genre — among giant-monster movies its only serious rival in the quality department is the original 1933 King Kong (which was also made by people with greater ambitions than just to scare — its creators, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Ruth Rose, were explorers and documentarians, and they brought a real sense of what such people go through to their fantasy and indeed based the Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray characters, respectively, on themselves) — and while it seems odd to declare that a movie which in its revised form became a worldwide cultural institution and founded a myth that is still going strong today (new Godzilla movies keep coming out not only from Toho but also from Warner Bros., the U.S. studio to which they licensed the rights to the character) is unjustly neglected and deserves to be better known, the 1954 Gojira (which wasn’t released in the U.S. at all until Rialto Pictures put it out in 2004) is unjustly neglected and deserves to be better known.