Some things are simply made to be seen on the large screen and some large things are made for the same reason. The original GODZILLA or Gojira is one of these momentous beasts. I had the good fortune of attending a screening of this 1954 classic in glorious black and white at the Egyptian theatre in LA at the 2014 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL. I thought it deserved larger post then I was able to do.
I was not born when this picture came out in 1954 and it took me a number of years to see the original cut on DVD. I did see the North American version featuring those infamous inter cuts of fellow Canadian Raymond Burr (born in New Westminster, B.C.), playing American reporter Steve Martin. Gojira functions on three levels making it a more interesting picture in scope, story and execution.
Film reflects the society that produces it. The theme of atomic testing and its repercussions that were spilled upon the earth to hasten the end of the Second World War are woven throughout. It has also been written that Gojira has an undercurrent of guilt for this country leveling destruction. The creature is a metaphor for the real life annihilation that was only a few years in the past. The main difference in Gojira is the terror comes from local legend – not an outside force as shown when an Island elder recounts the story of creature to ridiculing people. This moment mirrored real life as Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu Maru with 23 crew members was caught in the radioactive fallout of a detonation off Bikini Atol. Dr. Yamane is the voice of reason in the picture, listening to the elder’s story and leading the research with an open mind. This changes as he learns more.
The initial evidence that Gojira is alive in the film begins at night on raging seas and later in a typhoon where we see footprints, lending a haunting quality to the film. Like most good monster pictures it is not the creature itself that is the real story instead it’s the effect it has on people caught in its influence. Vignette on the train at night in the rain as two people talk; one makes reference that they survived the Hiroshima blast when it is learned Gojira is on direct path to Tokyo. A weeping woman sitting near a wall, holding her baby saying that, “They will soon be with their father,” as the city is destroyed around them by Gojira are missing from the North American print. Audiences in the rest of the world did not want to put a face to what had happened. The moments showing the vista of the firestorm burning Tokyo plus the hospital with injured people being tended to are eerie reminders of a not too distant past.
The second story is that of a re-occurring theme in fifties Science Fiction film of science taking responsibility for its actions and consequences. A rogue researcher Serizawa has discovered a way to remove oxygen from the ocean. This is knowledge solemnly terrifying to him and the opposite in others when he demonstrates it in a small aquarium eliciting a horrible shriek from Emiko. Women still scream and men act stoic with an interesting exception in a city council scene in which a female councillor chastises her male counterpart for lack of action and hiding the truth from the public of the Gojira menace.
The third story is a love story involving Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko, who wants to end an arranged marriage to Serizawa in favour of sea going sailor Ogata. Serizawa is the loner; moody, physically scarred scientist, living in a large house who is tortured with the fact he discovered the oxygen destroyer formula. The traditional lifestyle meets the technological new world. Ogata respects Serizawa enough to regret inflicting this shame on him, yet the scientist is too preoccupied in his research to care that his relationship has ended. Many couples altered or went ahead with marriage plans in the face of the Second World War.
The responsibilitY of great power brings about the end of the film. The formula for removing oxygen from the oceans is thought to be the only way the destroy Gojira when conventional weapons fail. Dr .Yamane urges saving the creature to find out how it survived atomic testing, which is refreshing since it always seems we have kill the monster to re-establish the status quo.
Gojira’s demise is handled with great respect and the oxygen destroyer is deployed in a surreal sequence of floating divers. Serizawa sacrifices himself as he knows that the oxygen destroyer formula is still in his mind – something he cannot bear. The bubbles, the withering of Gojira all make a poignant end that as we know wasn’t really the end as a durable film franchise started. None of the films that followed from Toho Studios and Director Ishiro Honda had the same impact for me on as the original version. The North American Version GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, changed the story to a monster stomp epic thought to be more acceptable for the mass market.
The scenes of a proud society with dignity and ceremony are in this film along with Dr. Yamane warning that further testing will unleash more monsters. This was post-war Japan – a society on the verge of a new era of prosperity-which would go on to produce a cycle of these destruction pictures along with some of the most graphically violent films in the horror and gangster genres. The dichotomy that is both versions of the film is very pronounced. Recommend seeing GOJIRA in limited widescreen release if you can. Looking forward to the new version in 2014.