Back when I was a youngster of some variety formerly decent British TV Channel, Channel 4, set up a film sister channel called Film 4. This was back in 1998, which means the variety of youngster I was would have been a 16 year old. Early on they did a few nights of Godzilla films and it was then that I saw the original Godzilla. Before this point I had seen the 1998 abomination “starring” Matthew Broderick and a number of random Godzilla films on VHS. The original Godzilla, or Gojira as it probably should be referred to in order to differentiate itself from the previously mentioned US film and the upcoming reboot, was a very different film to the ones I had seen before. It was slower paced, darker and there was no other monsters in sight. Also it was in Japanese. At this point, if you did see a Godzilla film, it would have likely been the English dubbed versions which often edited down from their original versions. This was the first Godzilla film I had seen without it being presented through the distorted lens of a US film studio. This was the real Godzilla experience. I watched the film again last night for the first time in a long, long time. How did it hold up? Click the link below.
The plot of Gojira follows the aftermath of the destruction of a Japanese fishing boat, along with the destruction of a boat sent to search for them. The locals of the Odo town the boat came from are unsure what could have caused this destruction, believing it may have been an underwater volcano. One of the elder locals believes it may have been something a little more mythological. He suggests it is an ancient creature local fisherman would fear during his youth called Gojira. They hold rituals to ward off the creature but that night the town is attacked by what, at first, is dismissed as a hurricane. The houses that appear to have been squashed from above suggest differently though. Archaeologist Dr Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) heads to the town to investigate and discovers giant footprints, a Trilobite and a lot of radiation. This suggests to him an ancient creature, mutated by nuclear tests in the Pacific, must have come ashore. No-one believes him but when the monster appears during the day the Japanese Government have to accept that there us a very real threat to their country that was still in the process of recovering from the destruction caused by the bombings that ended World War 2. Now the Japanese military needs to find some way of killing this creature before all of Japan is laid to waste.
The ghost of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is felt almost constantly throughout Gojira. There’s no light heartedness, no bright happy moments. At the film’s mid-point Godzilla attacks Tokyo itself and there’s scene after scene of people being helpless to fight back against this force of destruction. There’s one particular moment where a mother is cowering in the street holding her children in her arms promising them that they will be with their father soon. Yes, Gojira is that dark. The shots of Tokyo left in ruins after the attack mirror similar images of a destroyed Hiroshima in the days after the bombing by the US. This works its way back into the films main narrative as a scientist named Dr Serizawa secretly holds the key to killing Godzilla but cannot bring himself to allow it to be used.
He has devised a weapon of mass destruction he dubbed the Oxygen Destroyer. The weapon would rend Oxygen molecules apart form their combined atoms an cause any living matter within its range to effectively be liquefied. He knows the bomb will work but cannot allow the device to be used through fears that, if it is used, the world’s superpowers will want control of the weapon themselves in order to have an edge in the building nuclear arms race. The fact a film feature a man stomping on buildings whilst wearing a giant rubber monster suit is willing to confront, tackle and condemn the use of weapons of mass destruction is pretty daring. This isn’t a misguided argument either. This is right on the nose and lays bare the feelings many Japanese people felt following the end of the war. That Godzilla was created by such a weapon only adds to the weight of the message that mankind is doomed to destroy itself unless we take responsibility for our destructive ways. In the end Serizawa destroys all his notes on the weapon and detonates it himself whilst under the ocean in order to ensure that he is taken with it, and so that no-one will be able to copy his work.
Gojira was a film that was never actually meant to happen. Originally the film’s producers were due to make another film entirely but when that project fell apart Toho charged them with the task of making any film at all. They were inspired by a nuclear testing incident known at Lucky Dragon, where fishermen were caught in the fallout of a nuclear bomb test that yielded a larger force than expected. The fishermen were struck down with the effects of radiation poisoning despite being in what would have been termed a safe zone. They were also influenced by the Ray Harryhausen film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The original plan was to use stop motion effects for the monster itself but when it was explained just how long the sort of stop motion effects used in films such as King Kong would take the decision was made to just chuck a guy in a rubber suit and have him kick some buildings over. The film was made for the then equivalent of $1.5 million and whilst it’s effects look very dated today, at the time they were easily equalling the sort of effects seen in US science fiction. The smart decision was made to have Godzilla mostly attack at night, hiding any weaker elements from shot. This serves to add to the film’s brooding and bleak atmosphere.
The fact Gojira exists as a film is pretty amazing considering the situation it was created within. It is also very important that this film was made. At the time Japan didn’t really go for this sort of spectacle driven film making. The likes of Yasujiro Ozu were telling family dramas (The masterpiece Tokyo Story was released a year earlier) whilst Akira Kurosawa was making a name for himself with police and detective themed and had, in recent years, made a couple of films that I believe a few people liked called Rashomon and Seven Samurai. There was certainly no-one making films starring giant monsters at this point. Whilst Gojira was not a critical success at first, it was a box office success. A sequel was commissioned almost immediately, that being Godzilla Raids again. Today Gojira is rightfully recognised as a near masterpiece. The film uses a slower pace to gradually build to the Tokyo attack scenes and the payoff is as spectacular as it is horrifying. The film’s score, composed by Akira Ifukube, has become iconic since and manages to drive the film onwards with a composition that that conjures up mental imagery of lumbering movement and impending doom.
The film may not be this perfectly crafted gem, it is showing its age and has some of the melodrama has a slightly forced feel at times. You can see the beginnings of so much of modern Japan’s culture in this one film though. From Godzilla himself to the fear of the atomic bomb to the slight extravagance of Serizawa, a scientist that is not only brilliant but also youthful and has a cool eye patch. He is pretty much an internally conflicted anime character brought to life. The film’s rough production helps lend a level of grit to the story that results in making the eventual destruction of Tokyo look all that more violent. Gojira is an important film in the history of Japanese film making and serves as a study into the mindset of a post WW2 Japan. The film almost explains the last 70 years of their culture in the course of 86 minutes. This is essential viewing for fans of Japanese cinema.