Gojira. Godzilla. King of Monsters. Whatever you call him, he arguably remains the most prominent pop culture icon Japan has ever produced. Boasting of a history worth 29 feature films spanning 60 years; it seems Godzilla has never left the hearts and minds of viewers since his first appearance in 1954.
Commonly passed off as just another monster movie, “Gojira” (1954) in fact deals with some intense socio-political conversation under the mask of a creature feature. The early 50’s were a tumultuous time for Japan and its people. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hadn’t yet worn off, and the post-war occupation of Japan by the United States was anything but comfortable. As the United States tried to sculpt a new Japan on democratic foundations, they also enforced strict censorship of all media. The censorship was largely arbitrary as anything that was deemed disruptive to a peaceful transition to a democratic society was censored.
In the past, censorship has been indirectly responsible for some of the greatest works of art since The Late Renaissance. In a post printing press world, censorship was an important catalyst for helping transform Art from being just aesthetically pleasing to a medium of conveying thought and philosophy, hidden away from words that could bring censorship and prosecution. Renaissance artists lived in an era of scientific and philosophical progress and were yet only making ends meet by the grace of their religious patrons. They were able to use their canvases to convey provoking ideas, which would only show itself to only those who seek it. The tradition has since carried on to other art movements and mediums including photography and film.
The director of “Gojira” – Ishiro Honda, was drafted in World War II and served time as a prisoner of war in China. When he returned to Japan, he made it a point to visit the ruins of Nagasaki after hearing so much of it. What he saw there shook him and disturbed him greatly. A humbled Honda since declared himself a pacifist. Honda had been wanting to make a film about the effects of nuclear devastation ever since his trip to Nagasaki, but the political climate in Japan at the time wouldn’t permit such a film to be made.
After working as an assistant for Akira Kurosawa (his neighbor and old friend) and after directing a couple feature films of his own, Honda saw an opportunity to finally realize his apocalyptic nuclear themes on screen in a monster movie that a major movie studio (TOHO) was planning. Toho was inspired by the imagery and financial success of ‘The Beast from 20,000 fathoms’ and wanted to re-create the success at home. Honda had always envisioned the monster to be a physical metaphor for nuclear power; he intended the monster to demonstrate its attacks with the power and scale of an atomic bomb, but slower. He also insisted on loosely matching the texture of the creature’s skin to that of radiation scarring. After a few discussions and re-works, the final design of Godzilla was approved as he’s seen in the film.
One incident that aligned the producers at TOHO with Honda’s vision was the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, 8 months prior to the film’s premiere. Out of the 76 nuclear devices tested on the nearby Marshall Islands, the biggest detonation had then made some serious news. On March 1st, 1954, a hydrogen bomb with a yield of 15 megatons was tested at Bikini Atoll, whose fallout reached a nearby fishing boat called “Lucky Dragon 5”. The chief radioman of the boat died seven months later from radiation poisoning. This is important because we see Honda open the film referencing the Lucky Dragon 5 incident. Tensions were high and the delicate diplomatic relations with the United States didn’t leave much room for discussion, which is where the film came in.
The opening scene of Godzilla was very effective, because it dared the convention from the very first scene by mirroring what happened just few months ago in real life. It addressed months of political unrest among the Japanese that the Lucky Dragon incident caused. It defied expectations and demanded itself to be taken seriously and resonated on a personal level as characters questioned the authorities as to why more is not being done to address the situation. It is worth noting that the film directly pays special attention to the radio operator of the boat. He’s seen again one last time on Odo Island (the first place to be attacked by Godzilla in the movie) before his fate is sealed. Besides referencing the real radio operator of the Lucky Dragon 5, Honda used the radio operator character as a parallel to the effects of radiation in real life – wherein, once you are exposed to radiation, death becomes inevitable. The Odo islands also establish Godzilla as a force of nature, both visually and through deft exposition when the islanders have to testify in court that the typhoon was not the sole cause of destruction on the island. The movie takes it’s time to reveal Godzilla to us, his first appearance clocks in at roughly 22 minutes. Honda spends a lot of time building up suspense and anxiety before the reveal and it is no co-incidence that the research team was studying the footprints of Godzilla along with the village ruins at Odo Island before the reveal. This was Honda’s way of wetting the audience’s appetite and giving us clues to imagine the scale of the creature that could have caused this. This is somewhat less effective today partly because of the popularity of Godzilla, and mass familiarity of what Godzilla is supposed to look like.
The follow-up scene in the parliament again evokes some real life sentiments that the Japanese audiences identified with. In the scene, the parliament seeks to come to a decision whether or not Godzilla’s existence can be revealed to the public. One half of the parliament is against it, while the other insists that the people have the right to know. The underlying theme here being: Censorship vs The Truth. The dilemma was very much real during this transformative phase in Japan’s history, following the Bikini Atoll incident. Japan was perplexed between the growing Anti-American sentiments which called for the end of nuclear testing vs Pro-Alliance groups who were concerned with the peaceful transition of Japan as a democracy and the sensitive diplomatic relations with The United States. This scene also helps ground the film in a much more realistic environment. Instead of focusing merely on the action, the film treats it as a real life occurring, which calls from some serious decision making. This is something we take for granted now in contemporary films, but during the time scenes like this helped this movie make the leap from fantasy to a science-fiction drama.
Legendary actor Takashi Shimura plays the role of a paleontologist by the name of Dr. Yamane. Shimura had been recently named “Best actor in the world” by New York Times at the time, he does that title justice in his portrayal of Dr. Yamane as a calm, pragmatic, elderly pacifist who provides the film with a voice of reason. His character is a far cry from the mad scientist stereotype which was common place in the genre, Dr. Yamane was written as an integral driving force to the story and its philosophy. Dr. Yamane is one of the few characters in the movie who was against the attempts to kill Godzilla. He wished to study it and understand how it survived the nuclear bombs and intended to use that data to mankind’s benefit. On the other end of the spectrum, the Japanese government and the military were busy readying themselves for the impending attack. Through this clash of ideologies Honda introduces the theme of duty vs morality. A theme which is played out in detail, as important decisions concerning Godzilla are made.
A few scenes prior to the Tokyo attack; we see a group of commuters in a train, discussing the depressing events surrounding Godzilla. They even mention Nagasaki, and the frustration of having barely escaped one devastation to potentially having walked into another. These commuters are later found again on a cruise ship which Godzilla attacks on his way to Tokyo bay. In retrospect, we were only introduced to these characters so that Godzilla’s victims are not anonymous. Honda does this repeatedly throughout the film to give the film some gravitas. Every death counts and the film wants us to remember these faces when they die. The film presents the human suffering as an argument to Dr. Yamane’s idealist wishes to study the creature, where not counter-attacking the creature will only lead to loss of more human lives. Presenting both sides of the argument with equal weight is very rare occurring in cinema, Honda uses this to his advantage to further befog how the story will ultimately play out.
The evacuation scene that takes place soon after Godzilla’s arrival at Tokyo is presented with stark realism as these images were guaranteed to trigger wartime memories. The scene plays out with a sense of urgency as these characters prepare themselves to the possibility of never returning home. The evacuation section of the scene is treated with respect and no music is cued to the images, even though it is edited as a montage. The only sounds we hear are of the people in panic, which gives the scene more weight. The music picks up once the montage shifts to the military setting up precautionary measures in anticipation of Godzilla’s return. There were strict limitations on military imagery after the production of propaganda films was criminalized. American censorship had flat out banned military images. Even after the post war occupation had ended, the Japanese constitution laid out strict rules in how the military could be depicted. Limitations included showing the military react only in defense, but for a movie like this, the military could be depicted carrying out pro-active heroic duties in order to protect Japan against the monster without worrying about the rules in place. The audiences enjoyed this too, as they could root for the Japanese military in this situation without any guilt.
As Godzilla returns again to Tokyo, we are treated to a spectacle of special effects. Many of the special effects may seem dated today, as these days we are spoiled with hyper-realistic effects laden movies every year. Our eyes have grown more demanding and even then Godzilla manages to wow. The amount of work that went into crafting this sequence is mind boggling. At the time, a typical film production would last about 50 days and Godzilla spent 71 days shooting only visual effects. Forty carpenters toiled for a month to make the miniature sets of Tokyo which Godzilla would destroy. The film uses almost every technique available at that time, including but not limited to double exposure, miniature effects, optical printing, hand drawn effects, and matte paintings. Some of the most difficult shots involve humans and Godzilla in the same shot, which was achieved in-camera. The humans and Godzilla were shot on two separate sound stages by two different crews, but all the elements had to match just right, so the same reel of film to be used to fuse the two images together. The result is a very convincing composite that would have otherwise been less effective, had any other technique been employed.
While Godzilla made his way towards downtown Tokyo, nothing could stand in his way, including the newly installed high voltage barriers, which he was able to melt in a few seconds with his atomic breath. On set, the towers were able to melt because they were made of wax and applying heat to them made them glow, which was a favorable effect that enhanced the illusion of Godzilla’s atomic breath. The atomic breath is an important visual device which Honda uses to show us the horrifying effects of nuclear fallout. The use of the atomic breath is edited in among other scenes of destruction, but with each use, we see how terrifyingly powerful it is. This is what Honda had in mind when he imagined Godzilla as a physical manifestation of the atomic bomb. Once Godzilla reaches downtown Tokyo, no building is spared. Every major landmark is destroyed – shopping centers, TV towers, government buildings, famous department stores, bridges, no architectural identifier of Tokyo was left out. During this destruction, Godzilla leaves behind what can only be described as a – sea of fire, as if it had been through a real nuclear attack. What started out as thrilling had now become the stuff of nightmares.
If the film doesn’t shy away from graphic scenes involving the effects of Godzilla’s atomic breath, it definitely doesn’t shy away from the severity of the aftermath of such a situation. Honda shows us the cost of war: excessive casualties, over capacitated hospitals, lost family members, patients shrieking in pain, orphaned children. He doesn’t hesitate to show us the faces of those corpses either. Little children are seen mourning for their mothers at an age where they shouldn’t have to deal with the traumatic stress of death in a family. These haunting images are the reason why Honda signed up for this project, this is the movie he had been waiting to make.
Akihiko Hirata plays the brooding and distraught Dr. Serizawa who is at the very center of the theme of morality vs duty. He has a powerful invention which he is not willing to reveal, because he is aware of mankind’s ability to take something powerful and weaponizing it. Dr. Serizawa therefore feels an obligation to keep his invention of the oxygen destroyer a secret to avoid such a situation. After being subjected to the images of the devastation and aftermath of the Godzilla attack, Serizawa must choose between his duty to use his invention to protect the people of Japan, or his morality to prevent scientific innovation to be exploited in the form of weapons and causing more damage to the world. The buildup of this theme rests upon the decision Serizawa has to make. In the end, Serizawa accepts to use his oxygen destroyer to kill Godzilla, but he also kills himself in the process, so that the secrets of building another oxygen destroyer dies with him. Serizawa’s on-screen suicide interestingly has a real life parallel with the professional career of Dr. Oppenheimer – the man credited with the invention of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had refused to work on the H-bomb after the war had ended. This was akin to professional suicide, as he was assumed to be a traitor who wanted the rivals to win the nuclear arms race, and as a result he was blacklisted. Whether or not Oppenheimer’s staunch moral stance based professional suicide was an inspiration for Serizawa’s actions or not is unconfirmed, but it is an interesting parallel nonetheless.
The film is not entirely without faults, there are many scientific discrepancies in the film, starting with the size of Godzilla, which earth’s atmosphere is supposedly not capable of supporting, Dr. Yamane’s mention of dinosaurs being 2 million years old and the concept of oxygen destroyer, which somehow works underwater without deconstructing the elements. The film is also often criticized for being a copy of ‘The Beast from 20,000 fathoms’, one of the critics being an animator who I greatly admire – Ray Harryhausen. But the truth is, ‘The Beast from 20,000 fathoms’ is a simple genre creature feature in comparison to the depth of work put into “Gojira.” “Gojira” rewards multiple viewings and detailed analysis with multiple themes and real life parallels while ‘The Beast from 20,000 fathoms’ is only enjoyable on face value.
“Gojira” was the biggest production of its time, and it had the biggest opening of all time. Audiences loved Godzilla, and many prominent filmmakers cried when he died. Godzilla as a character was so revered because he was misunderstood. He was left to defend himself in a time and place he doesn’t fit in. We empathize with that struggle of surviving against the odds. Most of all, it provided a movie going experience to Japanese audiences which was unmatched. It manifested social tensions and grievances on-screen and was visually unlike anything audiences had seen before. This movie was a cathartic romp that touched the hearts of its audiences. Even to this day, in the age of realistic special effects; “Gojira” remains the gold standard to which all creature features are compared.
P.S. Both Gojira and Godzilla are correct English transliterations from the original Japanese word.Continue Reading Issue #2
November 3, 1954
1 hr. 36 min.
Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi