Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai
Words – Rebecca Kirby.
It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.
“Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.
With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had its psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with its past and future.
Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla‘s scenes of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.
The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.
Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.
The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming. Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.
Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.
When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate. Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.
After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.
Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.
After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.
A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.
Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.
The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.
It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.
Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.