Today I wathced Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954)
We kick off Daikaiju week with the film that really started it all, the immortal classic: Godzilla. A missing boat foreshadows the coming of something as yet unknown to human sciences. The ship sent to investigate also goes missing and the surviving sailors tell of the sea exploding and consuming the boats. Later a fishing boat also goes missing and it’s village of origin finds their nets empty, something has devoured all the local fish. Soon the village is crushed by a mysterious beast who is given the moniker Godzilla. The government assign paleontologist Kyohei Yamane to investigae this strange and disturbing occurrence, he believes this Godzilla to be some deep sea creature fifty meters in height that was disturbed by underwater hydrogen weapon testing. But all he knowledge in the world cannot prepare Japan for the coming of this apocalyptic monster.
The film unfolds like a noir mystery with a slow and deliberate pace and uses this breathing room to establish and flesh out it’s characters. No one in this film is defined by the events, they all have lives and desires outside of the current situation. How their lives are interrupted and disturbed by the death and destruction is an obvious analog to how war and disaster interrupts and disturbs the lives of everyone. The film builds suspense by only showing snippets of creature who only really begins his reign of devastation at around the one hour mark. The music also goes a long way to building a tense atmosphere as Akira Ifukube’s score is a slow building and cataclysmic dirge that swells with a brutal immediacy.
Originally Toho studios had wanted to use the same stop motion effects that had appeared in The Beast of 20’000 Fathoms and King-Kong but this proved to be prohibitively expensive. So instead they created a new technique known as suitmation in which a human stunt person would wear a large costume and interact with miniature sets to give a sense of scale. I actually prefer the look of suitmation as it does not stutter like stop-motion and apparently Japanese audiences agreed as this style has become something of a tradition in the Japanese industry, still being used today in Television shows like Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Super Sentai, though modern CGI is slowly replacing it. It must have really been something to see this film during it’s original release, while the effects may be dated they are put together so well that they still have a great look to them.
The basic themes of this film are fairly well known at this point, Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear destruction. But unlike an atomic weapon, Godzilla is not controlled by any world power. This to me represents just how out of control modern militarism is, as a pacifist the question of who dropped the bomb is irrelevant in the face of the tragedy of it being dropped at all. War, like Godzilla, does not discriminate, it destroys friend and foe in equal measure and achieves nothing but the perpetuation of horror and pain.
Veteran actor Takashi Shimura, most well known worldwide for his many collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, heads up a fantastic cast as Kyohei Yamane. Momoko Kochi plays his daughter and the main human plot of the film is a love triangle between her, a salvage captain played by Akira Takarada, and a troubled scientist played by Akihiko Hirata who is secretly developing a weapon perhaps even more terrifying than atomics or even Godzilla himself. Hirata’s character, Daisuke Serizawa, is integral to those aforementioned themes as he represents the well intentioned scientists who develop the withering firepower of modern armies. He is by no means a bad man and his work is the key to protecting Japan from Godzilla, he represents both the danger and need of modern science and that we should be aware of the consequences of our knowledge.
Godzilla became an icon not because it is pure entertainment and fun, but because it is that and so much more. This film is a plea to end military industrialism and the style of modern warfare in which civilians are the primary casualty, if only we had listened the world may not be suffering many of the ills it is today. The iconic roar of Godzilla, which still sends chills down my spine is not just the cry of a terrifying monster, it is an exclamation of anger and disgust at modern militarism and a cry to end the suffering forced on millions upon millions of innocents by the impotent conflicts our leaders continue to force upon us. 5/5