GOJIRA - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Godzilla, King of the Monsters!)

Japan, 1954

Director: IshirĂ´ Honda; U.S. additions, Terrell O. Morse

Production: Toho, Jewell Enterprises, Embassy Pictures, Transworld Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 98 minutes (Japan), 79 minutes (U.S.). Released 3 November 1954 in Japan; released 27 April 1956 in United States with English dubbing; filmed in Tokyo, Japan. Cost: $1 million.

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka; screenplay: IshirĂ´ Honda, Takeo Murata, from a story by Shigeru Kayama; cinematographer: Masao Tamai; editor: Yasunobu Taira; music: Akira Ifukube; production design: Satoshi Chuko, Takeo Kita; sound: Hisashi Shimonaga; special effects: Eiji Tsuburaya, Kuichiro Kishida, Hiroshi Mukoyama, Akira Watanabe, Teisho Arikawa (uncredited), Fuminori Ohashi (uncredited); stunts: Haruo Nakajima.

Cast: Akira Takarada ( Naval Salvage Officer Hideto Ogata ); Momoko Kouchi ( Emiko Yamane ); Akihiko Hirata ( Dr. Daisuke Serizawa ); Raymond Burr ( Steve Martin [U.S. version only]); Takashi Shimura ( Dr. Kyohei Yamane ); Fuyuki Murakami ( Dr. Tabata ); Sachio Sakai ( Reporter Hagiwara ); Toranosuke Ogawa ( President of Nankai Shipping Company ); Ren Yamamoto ( Masaji Sieji ); Miki Hayashi ( Chairman of Diet Committee ); Takeo Oikawa ( Chief of Emergency Headquarters ); Seijiro Onda ( Mr. Oyama, member of Parliament ); Toyoaki Suzuki ( Shinkichi Sieji ); Kokuten Kodo ( Gisaku, Oto Island Patriarch ); Kin Sugai ( Miss Ozawa, member of Parliament ); Tadashi Okabe ( Reporter Killed in Tower ); Ren Imaizumi ( Radio Operator ); Junpei Natsuki ( Power Substation Engineer ); IshirĂ´ Honda ( The Hand that Throws the Switch ); Kenji Sahara ( Man aboard Ship ); Ryosaku Takasugi ( Gojira ); Katsumi Tezuka ( Hagiwara's Editor [Japanese version only]; Gojira ); Haruo Nakajima ( Gojira/Newspaperman ).



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Gojira (better known in the English-speaking world as Godzilla ), though based on American models, is a thoroughly Japanese production. Though it achieved world-wide success, becoming perhaps the most popular science fiction film in cinema history, Godzilla is a significant construction of Japanese popular culture that resonates with themes specific to that country's postwar experience. In fact, it seems to confirm what sociologists such as Siegfried Kracauer have said of mainstream cinema, that, especially in times of profound social crisis, its offerings often screen the fears of disaster and hopes for deliverance that are deep in the unconsciousness of its eager spectators.

Released with great popularity into a Japan just unwillingly liberated from secular and religious authoritarianism, the film traces the depredations of an angry sea monster, a sort of fire-breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex, whom all civilian and military efforts, except the in extremis plan of a brilliant scientist, cannot defeat. Godzilla's sudden, inexplicable appearance, or so one of the film's scientist heroes opines, reflects the disturbance of the natural order effected by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. It was these inconceivable weapons—Emperor Hirohito had less than a decade before emphasized in his public proclamation of surrender—that forced him to think the unthinkable and bear the unbearable. This unanticipated and total capitulation brought about an irreversible turn of fortunes in the nation's political life that is recalled by the sudden advent of the monster. The radiation produced by the bombs, moreover, continued to exact a toll of deformity and disease that many Japanese felt shameful, often shunning its victims. This violation of the national body is figured by Godzilla's assault, which fills hospitals with the mutilated and dying, many of whom are beyond the power of medical science to treat. Furthermore, like the bombing campaign directed with fearful results at the Japanese homeland, Godzilla vents his destructive urges on the nation's capital, leveling the same Tokyo that had been devastated only nine years earlier by a massive firebombing that incinerated more than a hundred thousand of its citizens.

Moreover, a culturalist reading of the film might see in the army's inability to halt this monstrous threat a post-militarist fear of being overcome by a foreign invader. This nightmare had already come true, of course, in the ongoing American military occupation, one of whose results was the transformation of the once powerful Imperial army into a lightly armed defense force. However, invasion was once again threatened at the time of the film's release in 1954 by Communist expansionism in Southeast Asia—just barely and inconclusively halted the year before in Korea—which was a traditional sphere of Japanese influence and occupation. Finally, the resigned helplessness of Tokyo's populace in the face of Godzilla's assaults expresses, perhaps, a collective dread at having violated, through the failure of the war effort, the submissive spirit of traditional culture, which had been largely abandoned in a society now devoted to capitalist self-aggrandizement. Denied the opportunity to die honorably in an apocalyptic defense of the home islands, the Japanese people of the postwar era had survived in the face of an ethical imperative demanding self-annihilation before any acceptance of national dishonor. Godzilla comes, perhaps, to expiate this failure, threatening an apocalypse that is finally averted but only after unspeakable death and destruction.

In any event, the angry giant reptile, who rises from his pelagic home to attack those who have unwittingly aroused him yet is accorded something like religious awe, is unlike the monsters brought to destructive life by nuclear testing in American science fiction films of the same period, the international series to which Godzilla otherwise belongs. The giant aggressive ants in Them (l954) and the huge carnivorous grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End (1957), among other similar threats, find their origin in radiation-caused genetic changes. In these extinction scenarios may be glimpsed a profound terror at the uncontrolled destructiveness that this new weapon has visited upon American culture. Godzilla, in contrast, is no product of a new and terrifying scientific age. Instead, he is an ancient creature come to destroy those who have brought this new age into being. Significantly, however, the guilty party is not the American invaders and occupiers, the bomb droppers who, in an antirealistic gesture, are not to be glimpsed or even mentioned in the world of the film. Instead, the monster's target is the Japanese people themselves and their national, religious capital.

Though its contemporary cultural symbolism is both rich and undeniable, Godzilla actually owes its origin to the long-held desire of special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya to make not a new and potent myth, but rather his own version of King Kong , Hollywood's most impressive monster film to date. In addition, an obvious intertextual influence was the outpouring from Hollywood's "B" producers of similar science fiction films in the American market. This trend was well established when Tsuburaya received the go-ahead from the executives at Toho Studio to make something quite similar. Many of these Hollywood films had been produced on very low budgets, yet had earned proportionally large profits from exhibition to, largely, youthful American audiences, most notably the customers of the thriving drive-in outlets. Tsuburaya read this contemporary popularity accurately, but modeled his production carefully on King Kong , made some two decades earlier. On a very tight budget, however, he did use a man dressed in a rubber suit instead of miniatures for Godzilla. Haru Nakajima, who played Godzilla with talent and subtlety in this and many subsequent productions, became one of the country's best known actors. Tsuburaya's monster film not only did well in the domestic Japanese market, but Embassy Pictures picked up the American rights at a time when few Japanese films, outside the art cinema of Kurosawa and others, enjoyed a release in the United States.

The Hollywood version of the film, released in 1956, was every bit as effective as the original even though it was partly re-produced. Director Terrell Morse shot English language sequences that matched the photographic and compositional style of the Japanese version incredibly well. Raymond Burr, playing an American newspaperman, became the main character and narrator, replacing the Japanese reporter; the other sequences were dubbed, and a new music track added. Significantly, the casting of Burr (a familiar heavy in crime melodramas) as well as an artful use of chiaroscuro effects and voice-over flashback narration connected Godzilla to native film noir in the manner of several other sci-fi films of the period, most notably Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Interestingly, these noir stylizations effectively matched the tone of helpless resignation in the Japanese original.

Godzilla proved an outstanding success in the United States and, indeed, in its world-wide release. Significantly, the advertising campaign in the United States featured comparisons with King Kong , which, until the time of Godzilla 's release, had been the most successful film of this kind ever exhibited in America. Though King Kong is gunned down by attacking airplanes, Godzilla is ultimately destroyed by the invention of a reclusive scientist, reflecting the film's connection to the contemporary Hollywood monster film.

Played by Takashi Shimura (a familiar presence in the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa), the esteemed Dr. Yamano is a kind of Japanese Einstein whose theoretical work has enabled him to perfect a process that fundamentally alters water. His weapon removes its dissolved oxygen, thereby depriving the monster of what he needs to live. Like other sea creatures, Godzilla requires gills to breathe (though, like an amphibian, he seems also to have lungs and thus can survive on land as well). Dropped into Tokyo Bay, where he has retreated from the ineffective attacks of the Japanese army, this oxygen destroyer reduces Godzilla to a stripped skeleton. This ending proved unfortunate when the film's popularity made a sequel an attractive possibility. Even so, a sequel was soon produced by Toho: Gojira no Gyakushyu , literally "Godzilla's Counterattack" but, strangely, given Godzilla 's popularity, released in the United States as Gigantis the Fire Monster. In this rather uninspired imitation, Godzilla is found alive and returns to the mainland (his target this time is Osaka), where he meets with another reawakened denizen of the Jurassic period named Angurus. After winning a titanic battle of monstrous reptiles, Godzilla flees the mainland and is destroyed once again. Short on plot and with somewhat inept special effects, Gigantis did not receive the same enthusiastic reception from the world's filmgoers as the original Godzilla. As a result, the series of Godzilla remakes that was to prove popular in Japan and abroad for more than two decades did not derive directly from the original film and its tepid remake. It was the 1962 release King Kong vs. Godzilla that soon became a kind of mini-genre, in which the originally terrifying monster became ever more sympathetic, eventually evolving into the protector of the home islands against the attacks of resurrected pterodactyls, giant wasps, and flying turtles as big and fast as jetliners.

—R. Barton Palmer

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