Gojira, Birth of a Legend

By Max

In this edition of my Godzilla series I watch and discuss the Japanese version of the original Godzilla. Originally title Gojira, the film was released by Toho in 1954 and was directed by Ishiro Honda. The film opens with a nuclear bomb testing that destroys a fishing ship and awakens and alters a prehistoric beast that a local fishing village dubs Godzilla. During the course of the movie Godzilla rampages, kills, and destroys while a cast of characters desperately attempt to stop the monster. The main cast includes the paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane played by Takashi Shimura, his daughter Emiko Yamane played by Momoko Kochi, her love interest Hideto Ogata played by Akira Takarada, and the scientist Daisuke Serizawa played by Akihiko Hirata.

I’ve seen this movie several times, so much so that as I viewed it for this article I was pointing out to myself what was going to be happening next. I don’t have the movie memorized but all the major plot points and several scenes are now hard wired into my brain. It had been awhile since I watched it last and it really throws a person for a loop when the last few Godzilla movies watched are the later ones because the original is very different. The Godzilla franchise has a lot of campy flavor to it and Godzilla is very much a hero in several films yet the original is much darker and highlights the fact that it’s a horror movie.

The movies dark tone very much plays on the fears of the original core audience. Godzilla, a devastating force terrorizing Japan, destroys villages and cities and sends thousands fleeing. One scene in particular sends a chill up the spine in the aftermath of a Godzilla attack we are shown a hospital. Dozens of refugees crowd the room, children crying, separated from their dead or dying parents, and scientists milling about checking the survivors for radiation. It’s a scene that capitalizes on the fears of Japan from what less than a decade ago happened when atomic bombs were dropped on two cities.

The over arcing theme of the entire movie is atomic power. The director himself, Ishiro Honda was inspired not only by the atomic bomb droppings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by the hydrogen bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. This in particular is seen in the beginning of the movie. The atomic theme isn’t much of a surprise for a movie coming out of the 1950s; many sci-fi films had this theme. Godzilla, in particular, had a much more somber tone than many I have seen from the time period. This makes sense considering the culture it came from is one that knows firsthand the true potential of atomic power.

As with any movie there are positives and negatives to Godzilla. One such negative really is its tone. It’s especially jarring if one’s knowledge of Godzilla stems from watching the later movies in the franchise. As I’ve stated above it’s a very serious movie. It’s a plot driven movie as opposed to the plot being a random excuse for Godzilla to fight other monsters. This difference doesn’t make the original a bad movie, it just makes it stand apart from the rest of the franchise and some may not enjoy the film for this departure.

The biggest positive I came out of the movie with is how well the effects have stood the test of time. Taking into consideration the time period the movie came out and Godzilla hadn’t been done before so there wasn’t a mark to start improving upon. Many scenes are easily known to have been filmed in parts and spliced together and they are relatively seamless. I’ve seen movies younger that do a much worse job at cutting together scenes to add the special effects. Granted the Godzilla suit and puppet are not as well done as in the later films, but the creative team tried to work around that and limit close ups, many of which are head shots. If there is one thing that I can say is reason enough to watch the movie, even if a somber, plot driven film isn’t your cup of tea, it’s seeing the original suit and knowing how it has evolved.

I give a huge amount of credit to the special effects team. The craftsmanship of the modeling is amazing. I’m a big fan of special effects, especially practical effects – not so big on CGI. Watching the early sci-fi films is a great way of seeing what I consider the true art of special effects. I won’t say that it doesn’t take skill and talent to generate computer effects, but I appreciate practical effects more.

I can’t really praise Godzilla, the movie and the franchise, enough. I’m a fanboy. It isn’t without its flaws, nothing is. The first movie stands out to me for its different tone and the good outweighs the bad with the movie. I can’t say that about all Godzilla movies, I see this one as the best acted and the best written. The effects aren’t as well done as many of the other films, but it’s smooth and works well. It’s not my favorite, mostly because I love watching the monster fights that come with the later films, but it’s not my least favorite either.

I still say go out and watch this movie.

In the next edition I will discuss the people behind Godzilla.

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