Oh boy, here it is. The big one. The 1954 horror classic that started it all. Gojira, a horror movie? Oh yes. True, Godzilla doesn’t whisk a screaming maiden off into a haunted castle or lurk in the shadows with a machete and an irrational hate for horny teens, but the atmosphere of apocalyptic dread throughout this movie absolutely evokes the kind of life-ending doom you’d get from any traditional thriller. Gojira didn’t quite invent atomic horror outright, but it’s easily the best example of it. While other entries in the Godzilla franchise get goofed on for hokey plotlines, hammy or wooden acting, and primitive special effects, the original seems to rise above it all. Others have written whole books on how Toho’s creative dream team brought the iconic monster to life and his impact on the world, so I’ll hit the highlights, compare it to the Americanized cut Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and make some stupid jokes along the way. Put your sunglasses on over your eyepatch, drop an Oxygen Destroyer in the fish tank, and grab Raymond Burr because I’m talking about Gojira!
As always here’s a little mood music by the legendary Japanese film composer Akira Ifukube. What’s that? OH SHIT IT’S THE GODZILLA THEME, SON. BOOM. BOOOOOOM. Here’s the full soundtrack if you want more. While everybody knows (and has awesomely remixed) the classic main theme, the whole score is incredibly powerful, and set the standard for giant monster movie soundtracks. Though part of that is probably because Ifukube would go on to score many of the best ones for years afterward himself. Ifukube’s score for Gojira pushes emotional buttons you do not expect to have pushed during a monster movie. I’m looking at you, “Prayer for Peace” and “Ending.” Fuck, man.
The movie starts with the thundering sounds of Godzilla’s footsteps and his raw, pealing roars. The blackness is finally cut by ghostly, almost glowing white credits in Japanese. The theme comes up, accompanied by more screaming roars and stomping. These are simply some of the spookiest Goddamn opening credits I’ve ever seen.
Shortly after that we see Godzilla’s first victims, aboard a fishing ship and enjoying some downtime. Without warning we see a blinding white flash, hear screams, then see a sinking ship, and sailors desperately tapping out Morse code before drowning as boiling water rushes through the windows into the cabin. I noticed that not a single word is spoken in this sequence. Gojira is a pretty swift flick, and it generally doesn’t waste any time. This scene is a direct reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident that happened just a few months before the film was released. Lucky Dragon 5 was a fishing boat that was bombarded by radiation from a nearby H-bomb test. Several people reported radiation sickness, with one reported death. The real-life people of Japan and the characters in the film fear that irradiated fish could already be contaminating their food supply.
We see a second ship eerily get engulfed by white hot glowing water followed by the families of the lost sailors swarming the headquarters of the company responsible for the two lost fishing boats. The family members are demanding answers, and the company seems just as lost trying to figure out what the hell is going on. As a fan of Alien and Robocop I am always onboard with corporate scum getting cast as mustache-twirling villains, but in this movie it’s refreshing to see that the people in charge of this company are just as scared and confused as anybody else Seeing both sides of the tragedy ramps up the human drama, and just makes everything feel more grounded in reality.
Next we’re taken to the remote fishing village on far-off Odo Island. With it’s weird old exorcism rituals and legends of a tyrannical god-monster, it’s hard not to compare Odo Island with Kong Kong‘s Skull Island. Especially when you consider that King Kong’s successful re-release to theaters in 1952 was likely one of the reasons Toho wanted a giant monster of their own. While Odo Island isn’t crawling with dinosaurs and giant bugs and apes and Fay Wray, it does give us some great special effects sequences and our first peek at Godzilla. For now he chooses to visit Odo Island in the middle of the night during a terrible storm, smashing a house on his way out. The house collapsing is awesome, because we experience it from inside the house as it happens. Walls shake, the roof caves in, and we see a huge tail sweep by the open front door before the whole thing comes down.
In the wake of the Odo Island disaster, another team is sent out to investigate. We get our first glimpse of Dr. Serizawa as he sees off our other protagonists, and it’s probably not a big surprise that he’s the most interesting human character in the movie. Look how bad-ass he looks:
Blazing hot-ass summer day, everybody cheering and goodbye-ing with big smiles on their dumb faces, wearing colorful summery clothes, and here comes Serizawa in an all-black three-piece suit with an eye-patch and Ray-Bans over it. He doesn’t say a fucking word.
I mentioned in my review of Godzilla 2014 how much I love the trope of “scientists exploring radioactive environments,” and Gojira basically invented it. While none of our heroes don haz-mat suits, we do get to see them poking around with Geiger counters and assessing exactly how fucked the residents of Odo Island are. First we get the grim realism of a thoroughly irradiated drinking well, then the crazy horror-fantasy of a gigantic radioactive footprint crawling with reanimated prehistoric bugs! And of course, shit gets hectic when Godzilla (literally) rears his head:
Just to give you an idea of how old-school the villagers on Odo Island are, a bunch of them are carrying Katanas when they go to check out Godzilla. No joke! It’s a really fun detail and gives the villagers another little splash of personality.
Another stock monster movie scene Gojira invented is the “science press conference/slide-show.” These I am less in love with. Usually the best you can hope for is some hilarious pseudo-science horseshit, but the worst offenders really stop a movie dead with exposition and jargon that doesn’t add anything to the story. Gojira’s science conference has plenty of loopy quasi-facts: dinosaurs living 2 million years ago, evidence of yetis living in the Himalayas, good stuff. But we do get one of the only origin stories for Godzilla: that he was a deep-sea creature living his life at the lowest depths until he was blasted up to the surface by H-bomb tests. It’s all pretty grounded, especially compared to a later origin story that involves World War II soldiers encountering a live dinosaur and time travel.
Anyway, what this science conference scene has that the others sorely lack is drama and conflict. After noted paleontologist Dr. Yamane gives us the slideshow and speculation on what the fuck Godzilla’s deal is, the government officials all start harrumphing and decide that covering up Godzilla is the best way to go. This super pisses off the citizens in attendance (cool/interesting note, the citizens are almost all women) who loudly and awesomely ream out the government douchers, who harrumph back before the whole thing devolves into a borderline violent shitshow. Seriously, any giant monster movie that isn’t a light-hearted goof-fest should be required to have a scene like this. People can’t agree on pizza toppings, let alone how to handle a nuclear monster that defies the laws of physics and biology and seems to be all about turbo-murder.
So not surprisingly everybody does agree that “Hey, we have to kill this 200 ft tall murdersaurus before he personally A-bombs planet Earth to fucking death.” Everybody except Dr. Yamane, that is. Following the announcement to kill Godzilla, we see him sitting alone in his darkened study, staring off into the middle-distance, a huge model of a stegosaurus on his desk. This is when we find out he’s the father of our female lead Emiko, because she goes in to check on him, and he quietly asks her to leave him alone. It’s a scene that really is just a grown man pouting, but because Takashi Shimura is a fucking legit actor, you really feel for Dr. Yamane. His dreams aren’t being crushed in a metaphorical way, they’re being publicly put down like a rabid dog.
Now obviously he is not happy that the powers-that-be have decided that the single most important discovery in the history of paleontology is going to be executed like a criminal, but I have a theory that there might be more to it than that. We see Dr. Yamane, we see his lovely daughter Emiko, and if I remember right there’s a little brother too, but we never see Mrs. Yamane. This is total speculation, but given the nature of the film I don’t think it’s much of a stretch: Mrs. Yamane was killed either in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or indirectly by radiation poisoning. My theory is that Yamane wanted not only to study the last living dinosaur, but to harness Godzilla’s ability to metabolize radiation and find a cure for radiation poisoning. Whatever his motivations, he gets one more awesomely brutal scene: after depth charges do nothing to stop Godzilla, government officials desperately ask his professional opinion on how to kill the monster. Yamane points out that Godzilla has absorbed ridiculous amounts of radiation and kept on trucking, and then simply asks back:
This is another powerful little moment that I really love. The only other time I’ve seen it in a monster movie is Invasion of Astro-Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). One of our heroes, an astronaut from Earth asks the leader of Planet X, the ruler of a civilization hundreds of years more technologically advanced than us: “can’t you drive [King Ghidorah] away?” The Xian leader point-blank asks back “If you have an idea how to do it, won’t you tell us?” It’s truly scary when the experts throw their hands up in the air and say “shit, you tell me, man!”
Around this point we get some more Serizawa-time. To me, Gojira feels like an honorary member of the Universal monster movie club (see also, King Kong and the beautiful 1946 French version of Beauty and the Beast). A lot of it has to do with the Gojira’s lush, smoky, black and white photography, but also Serizawa’s home looking like a classic spooky European castle. Big stone walls, iron grates, the works. Not only that, but his lab is straight out of the classic Frankenstein movies: glass tubes, huge electrodes, walls of books, the whole nine. What sets Serizawa’s lab apart is the cloudy, smoky fish tank in the center: Serizawa shows Emiko what he’s been working on, but we only see their horrified reactions for now.
Finally, Godzilla comes ashore, and it is awesome. The city is evacuating, and we hear his thundering footsteps before we actually see the monster. It’s eerie, and unlike later monster movies, a ton of people don’t even make it out of town before it’s too late. We see people huddled together in terror in train wreckage, watching as Godzilla PICKS UP AND THROWS A WHOLE FUCKING BRIDGE. Godzilla melts electrical towers with his atomic breath, sets the whole city on fire, and then uses his breath to fry random people. He is… not cool to say the least.
I love Godzilla’s beady, bugging out eyes in the movie. It makes him look really crazed, which according to interviews with the team behind the film, was the point. It doesn’t completely make it in to the narrative of the movie, but Godzilla not only represents the horror of nuclear war, he’s a victim of it too. Like Yamane said, he was blown up out of his normal habitat into a weird world he can’t comprehend, and his rough, bumpy hide is meant to evoke scars and burns from the radiation. The whole reason Godzilla is lashing out and rampaging through Tokyo is that he’s super disoriented and driven mad by the agonizing pain of being fried by the bomb. It’s pretty much impossible to feel sorry for him while he’s murdering everybody’s tits off, but you’d be pissy too if you got nuked into a different ecosystem.
Godzilla’s rampage continues, and it never really stops being harrowing. Director Ishiro Honda does a great job of cutting between Godzilla trashing shit, and humans having to deal with it. That human element is what elevates this movie from fun schlock to horror classic. We get a scene of a lone woman clutching her children close, watching the devastation with tears in her eyes, and telling her kids they’ll be with their father soon followed by Godzilla pimp-slapping a clock right across its face:
Eventually jets seem to spook off Godzilla, but the survivors know he’s still out there in the cold, dark depths of the ocean, and could come steamrolling back through their homes any time. For now they focus on picking up the pieces, and Honda’s camera isn’t afraid to linger on some pretty chilling scenes. Streets lined with blackened, burning wreckage, packed hospitals, people carrying off the dead, and crying children being Geiger countered. If you weren’t totally sold on the whole Godzilla=nuclear war allegory thing, this sequence pretty much spells it out in flashing neon lights.
So in the wake of the Godzillapocalypse, Emiko leaks Serizawa’s dark secret to her lover Ogata. We finally see the experiment that Serizawa showed her via flashback: The Oxygen Destroyer! Through skillful use of ear-shredding, shrieking sound effects, ghoulish fish skeletons, and the Bat-angle, it’s pretty clear that this thing is no bueno. Serizawa vowed to keep it a secret, because he fears it could be worse than the H-bomb in the wrong hands. Emiko and Ogata try to convince Serizawa to let them use it against Godzilla. Not only is Serizawa pissed Emiko spilled the oxygen-destroying beans, he figures out pretty quickly that Emiko and Ogata are an item.
But the chilling “Prayer for Peace” comes on the TV Serizawa conveniently has in his lab and was apparently on the whole time he was having a dramatic confrontation with our other two leads. The song and the stark imagery displayed with it finally sways Serizawa, but not before he makes an awesome speech about what a shit-show the inevitable global arms race will end up being.
The movie’s climax is a strange one, not just for this series, but for the genre. There’s no slam-bang monster fight finale, no heroic super-ships strafing the monster, it’s just a few dudes finding and killing a sleeping monster. Rewatching Gojira, I was reminded of Pacific Rim and its similar structure. Both have a great big gee-whiz moneyshot action set-piece in the middle of the movie, followed by a quieter, deep sea confrontation. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a conscious homage, but considering Pacific Rim’s focus on high-flying fantasy and goofy monster action, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a coincidence either.
Ogata and Serizawa put on not-that-safe-looking diving suits and make their way to the ocean floor, where Godzilla is slumbering. Godzilla dozing, filmed with softer focus to evoke being underwater gives everything a weirdly dreamlike, peaceful quality. In a grotesque way, it’s almost beautiful. That crazy, contradictory feeling reminded me of the final frames of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with Leatherface flailing and pirouetting in the middle of the road in front of a setting sun. They’re both impactful scenes because they force you to reconsider characters that are undeniably gruesome monsters. Godzilla is a living thing that needs rest just like anybody else. Leatherface is a confused man-boy that mixed up murder and playtime at some point growing up.
This climax works because it’s so low-key, not in spite of it. The Oxygen Destroyer is finally deployed, killing Godzilla. Maybe it’s my inner Dr. Yamane, but even after all the terror he caused, I feel sad for the gnarly beast. He does get one last roar, scaring the shit out of everyone on the boat, which is pretty satisfying. In what would become a trope for the sub-genre, Yamane predicts that if we don’t change our nuke-dropping ways, we’ll see more Godzillas in the future. Lucky for us, he was so, so right!
Gojira was a major hit for Toho, and audiences gobbled it up. Critics at the time weren’t so enamored, basically calling it ghoulish and exploitative. To be fair it kind of is, but that’s exactly what makes it such a powerful horror film. Thankfully Toho listened to movie-goers (the critics would come around in later decades, eventually heralding it as a classic) and sold the film to a small American production company. Jewell Enterprises Inc. named their version Godzilla, King of the Monsters and made some changes to make the movie more palatable to Western audiences. Most notably they added in an entire framing story about an American journalist getting caught up in Godzilla’s rampages. Sometimes it works pretty well, other times it’s hilariously obvious that Raymond Burr’s character Steve Martin (!!!) was spliced in after the fact.
Of course the original version is the superior one, but King of the Monsters isn’t cold diarrhea either. There’s no doubt in my mind that this version is what helped Godzilla become a worldwide phenomenon, and I’ll always be thankful for that. While the anti-nuclear spirit of the original was certainly muted, it wasn’t erased all together, and ol’ Perry Mason compliments the Japanese leads, he doesn’t replace them outright. It’s actually kind of fascinating to see how they wiggled Steve Martin into the plot. We get lots of shots of our American protagonist talking to Japanese characters who just happen to be facing away from the camera.
Way back at the beginning of this, I mentioned that Gojira didn’t quite invent atomic horror. That honor would have to go to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which beat Godzilla to theaters by about a year. Beast’s plot will sound pretty familiar: nuclear weapons awaken a prehistoric monster who then decides to slap around the nearest major city before being stopped by some technological wonder. Beast features fantastic stop-motion animation by the monster-master himself, Mr. Ray Harryhausen, and is based on a short story by legendary author Ray Bradbury. And while King Kong’s successful re-release was one of the big inspirations for Gojira, you better believe Beast doing gangbusters at the box office was the other. Of course, Kong’s re-release also inspired Beast…
So then why did Godzilla go on to get sequels, remakes, and become a world-wide pop cultural icon, while Beast’s Rhedosaurus remains a bit player in the monster movie pantheon? You could argue a few different reasons, but I think there’s one in particular.
It’s King Kong vs. The Lost World all over again. Lost World’s killer brontosaurus came before Kong, but it didn’t have a personality, a soul like Kong does. Likewise, Beast’s Rhedosaurus ultimately doesn’t have as much personality or thematic weight as Godzilla. Beast does have a clever take on anti-nuclear allegory: Rhedosaurus’ blood carries a lethal prehistoric virus, so when the army wounds Rhedosaurus, his dino-herpes spreads around the city killing people indirectly, not unlike a cloud of errant radiation would. But the allegory kind of falls apart when the day is saved by… a nuclear weapon. And unlike Serizawa and his Oxygen Destroyer, no one in Beast is terribly upset about the ramifications of deploying a super weapon to stop the monster. Beast may have done it first, but Godzilla did it better. Hail to the King, baby.