by Steve Habrat
In the land of Atomic Age beasts, aliens, monsters, and blobs, one name makes all these other radioactive creatures quiver in fear: Godzilla. Made in Japan in 1954 by Ishiro Honda, Godzilla (or Gojira, as it was called in Japan), is perhaps one of the most significant science fiction films released in the wake of World War II and the Hydrogen bomb. It is even more essential because the country that witnessed the horror and devastation of the atomic bomb first hand made and released Godzilla. Over the years, Godzilla became more of a campy character rather than one that is meant to scare the pants off the viewer. He would rise from his watery habitat and stomp into downtown Tokyo to do battle with a slew of attacking mutant monsters (and King Kong), all while poorly dubbed Japanese citizens would dart around the dueling monster’s feet. They were a far cry from the suspenseful original, where the low rumble of Godzilla’s footsteps had the viewer holding their breath and gripping the arm of the couch just a little bit tighter. When the suspense and the downright impressive action sequences don’t have your attention, you’ll be transfixed on the intelligence of the script, which finds a country still reeling from the mushroom cloud devastation they witnessed in 1945. There is a reason the Criterion Collection picked this monster movie up, folks.
Just off of Odo Island, a Japanese fishing boat is destroyed by a blinding flash of light that appears to emerge from the bottom of the sea. Another boat is sent to investigate, but it meets the same fate as the first boat. As more boats are destroyed, salvage ship captain Hideo Ogato (Played by Akira Takarada) is called in for duty by the coast guard. Meanwhile, the villagers of Odo Island have been cursed with poor fishing and they blame it on a mysterious sea monster known as “Godzilla.” In the evening, the villagers perform ancient ceremonies to keep the beast at bay. That very night, a violent storm destroys Ogo Island, but many villagers claim that there was something else in the storm. Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Played by Takashi Shimura) travels to Ogo and discovers a giant radioactive footprint. He then travels to Tokyo and presents his findings. He reveals that H-bomb testing has disrupted Godzilla’s natural habitat, causing him to emerge from the bottom of the sea and come to land. As fear of Godzilla spreads and more sighting are reported, Dr. Yamane’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa (Played by Akihiko Hirata), who is also arranged to be married to Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Played by Momoko Kochi), has developed a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, a device that disintegrates oxygen atoms causing organisms to die of asphyxiation. As Godzilla’s attacks grow more and more devastating, Emiko and Ogato plead with the reluctant Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the destructive beast.
Director Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata transform Godzilla from a simple monster movie into a surprisingly intimate human drama. We genuinely care about the characters that Honda and Murata have come up with and we especially hang on the fragile love story at the core of the film. Emiko is engaged to Serizawa, but she wishes to break off the engagement and marry the brave salvage captain Ogato. Meanwhile, as this love triangle plays out with devastating results, Honda focuses his camera on Dr. Yamane and his exasperation with the military and media, who are hellbent on killing Godzilla rather than trying to capture and study him. He continuously drives the point home that this creature has been exposed to heavy levels of radiation and lived through it. He then warns that if the world (meaning America) continues to detonate these weapons of mass destruction, we are bound to face another Godzilla-like creature. The warnings against these experiments extend to Serizawa, who fears that his Oxygen Destroyer will draw the attention of the military and they will force him to further develop another weapon of mass destruction, something he swears he will never do. It’s these meditative conversations about H-bombs, destructive weapons, and violence that pulls Godzilla out of the B-movie realm and places it firmly on the A-list.
Then there is the monster of the hour: Godzilla. At times, Godzilla is obviously a man dressed in a heavily detailed rubber suit, but he signifies so much more. The first few glimpses we get of him are effective teases, leaving us wanting just a little bit more, but fearing the terrifying wrath that is sure to accompany those longer glimpses of the legendary monster. When he is finally revealed in all of his glory, we can’t help but be awestruck by how cool he looks, even if his movements are a little jerky. He breathes down smoke (which is meant to resemble fire but this is 1954, folks) on the Tokyo skyline and produces a sea of fire that brings to mind the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. When he stomps through the buildings, he begins to resemble a living, breathing nuclear blast that is leveling everything in his path. Honda then pans over the twisted wreckage left in Godzilla’s wake, eerie images that call to mind the black and white photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla may be destructive, but he is also a sympathetic creature. He has been chased out of his home and he appears to be wandering aimlessly, simply looking for a new place to hide away from the world that wants to destroy him.
As if a weighty script, likable characters, impressive monster, and a human core weren’t enough to make Godzilla a must see, the action sequences will certainly convince you to seek it out. Sure, there are a few moments where it is blatantly obvious that rubber-suited Godzilla is stomping miniature buildings, but there are several pieces that have held up quite well over the years. Godzilla’s battle with several Japanese fighter jets will get the adrenaline pumping and his demolishing of a gigantic electric fence is a pretty nifty demonstration of his sublime power. You’re obviously not going to see destruction like you saw in Cloverfield, but you have to give Honda and his effects team credit for crafting some chilling smashing and crashing (wait for the sequence with Godzilla attacking a building loaded with press). The action sequences are made all the more effective due to the tension slowly built between each attack. Our dread really begins to get the best of us and Honda plays with this every chance he gets.
If you are one of those individuals who have written off Godzilla as a campy drive-in relic of the 1950s, you really should consider revisiting this moody monster mash. I’ll admit that even I had forgotten the power that this film wields over the years and I was very happy that I decided to both revisit and add the film to my horror/science fiction collection. If you have surround sound lining your living room, you’ll be giddy over how great Godzilla’s roar and thunderous footsteps sound. Overall, Godzilla is a haunting and influential epic that rewards the viewer with multiple viewings. It will shake your house down and bring you to your knees with one mighty roar.
Godzilla is available on Blu-ray and DVD.