The ocean’s surface boils white-hot and a Japanese freighter mysteriously vanishes in the Pacific. Rescue boats meets the same fate, and the superstitious villagers of Odo Island fear an ancient legend has come true: the legend of Godzilla! Reawakened from eons-long sleep by an H-bomb test, the behemoth seeks revenge on the civilized world, turning Tokyo into a wasteland of atomic fire and rubble. Caught in the monster’s path of destruction are young lovers Emiko and Ogata, who must betray their friend Dr. Serizawa, a brilliant but tormented scientist, in order to save the world.
eyelights: the well-crafted sense of impending doom. the impressive technical/special effects work. the engaging score.
eyesores: Gojira’s first appearance.
I approached ‘Gojira’ with a certain sense of dread. Firstly, rubber-suit monster movies tend to be cheesy and frequently lame. There’s a reason why many of them have been eviscerated on MST3K. Secondly, I had already seen ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ many years ago, and it hadn’t impressed me at all. I can only remember the awkward inserts of Raymond Burr in what is ostensibly a foreign film.
But I was fully intent on giving the original, unedited version (the North American ‘Godzilla’ edit was a massive change), a chance. It is, after all, the longest, most enduring film series ever -yes, even more so than James Bond- and it has been incredibly influential both at home and abroad. So I figured that I had to see it at least once, even if my initial interest was relatively low.
The fact that I picked up a delicious Gojira boxed set, featuring seven of the most popular films in the series (in both their original cuts, as well as their North American edits), was a huge motivator. But, even then, it has taken me almost a year to muster up the courage to see ‘Gojira’ once and for all. (I think it was the recent release of ‘Gojira’ by The Criterion Collection that gave it credibility and finally settled the deal.)
And, seriously, ‘Gojira’ is well worth the time.
The original is nothing like the pathetic, kid-friendly films that permeated the ’60s, when Gojira then became a hero and wrestled other monsters to the ground in order to save humankind. This version of Gojira is a mysterious beast that has come up from the ocean’s depths for reasons unknown, and whose presence is a hazard to humanity. Whether he/it is malevolent is unclear, but one thing is sure: it leaves death and destruction in its wake.
From that point onwards we face a struggle between science and politics, as solutions to the problem are demanded and the cause of Gojira’s sudden appearance is speculated upon. The real-world issue of nuclear testing and its impact on the environment arises; there is a sense of shame and regret that permeates the film as politicians decide to hide the nature of the beast and scientists convey sober words of warning about our recklessness with nature.
The fact is that the filmmakers wanted to comment on the impact of nuclear testing on the environment and the development of nuclear weapons. In the shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this was a huge concern in Japan – the after-effects of those bombings were still being felt, and would for years to come. This is echoed in the film by making Gojira radioactive, and thereby polluting every place he goes to and harming everyone in its path. Similarly, the obliteration of Tokyo is reminiscent of the damage seen in those cities.
What’s great about ‘Gojira’ is that at no time does it feel especially gimmicky – with the exception of the Oxygen Destroyer device, which seems hokey in this day and age. The filmmakers’ focus in this case is clearly not the monster itself, but its impact. In fact, we don’t actually see Gojira for the first third of the picture and then it is often cast in shadows and is difficult to discern. What matters here is that it is decimating all in its path – nothing seems to stop it.
‘Gojira’ establishes an excellent tone from the start: it feels ominous, but not hysterically so – one doesn’t get the impression that things are out of control until much later in the film. In fact, if anything, at first there is restraint, as we mostly try to understand the inexplicable deaths of some fishermen. Before long, though, we start to realize that the cause of these deaths may be a creature so huge and so ancient that there is no record of it in any book.
Then, and only then,does the situation gets out of hand and utter chaos ensues, with rampant destruction at the hands of the all-powerful ‘Gojira’.
What’s fascinating is that the film was made on very little money (hence why there’s a guy in a rubber suit instead of a stop-motion, animatronic creature à la King Kong), and yet they pulled off a lot of quite credible sequences. Granted, some of the maquettes look like Hot Wheels, but those are the exceptions to the rule – which is truly impressive given what they had to work with, the financial limitations that they had to overcome.
I was especially surprised by the amount of work that went into creating moments in the studio instead of just going outside and filming them live. There were countless chases that were done with toys instead of actual cars, with real people. Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t, but I can only imagine how amazing this must all have looked at the time of its release. The scenes of destruction in “Tokyo” alone were quite a achievement, and still amaze today.
The picture was supported by an excellent musical score, courtesy of Akira Ifukube, a classical music composer who was only getting started as a film composer. He would end up returning to the series many times over and also scored an Akira Kurosawa as well as a Bruce Lee picture. For ‘Gojira’, he provided a more traditional score, but this gave the film exactly the right presence – especially during the encounters with the giant creature.
I really wish that I had seen ‘Gojira’ back in the day. After having seen countless cheaper versions of the same conceit (‘Gamera’, anyone?), and more spectacularly produced pictures such as ‘Cloverfield’, it’s hard to truly have perspective on this one. But I have no doubt that it must have been a stunner at the time – there’s a reason why it played well on both sides of the Pacific, and it has had such an enduring run over the years.
Even if one doesn’t like these monster movies, ‘Gojira’ should be seen: it is significant from a cultural standpoint -not just from a cinematic perspective- but also from a historical perspective: due to the impact of Hiroshima and nuclear testing on Japan. ‘Gojira’, surprisingly enough, offers sober reflections on the issues, sharp criticisms, and a poignant look at the potential dangers of unfettered nuclear proliferation. Not bad for a creature feature.
I’m as surprised as anyone else, but I am actually quite anxious to see the American version now – as well as the few sequels in my possession. They won’t all be winners, and no doubt this is going to be a case of gradually diminishing returns, but ‘Gojira’ was spectacular enough to pique my curiosity and to warrant the time and energy that I will be devoting to what initially seemed like a questionable idea.
Date of viewing: November 4, 2012