Godzilla Goodness: GOJIRA (1954)
By Witney Seibold on April 25, 2014
Witney Seibold has seen all of the Godzilla movies. Yes, all of them. In preparation for the newest Godzilla (due in theaters May 16th), Nerdist will be giving a brief rundown on all the Godzilla films to date. #1: Gojira.
A brief rundown on the three “eras” in Godzilla history. The first continuity of Godzilla films lasted from 1954 until 1979, and are typically referred to as either the Toho era or the Showa era. The second Godzilla continuity (i.e. the first reboot in the franchise) lasted from 1985 until 1995, and was referred to as the Heisei era. The second reboot of the franchise started in 1999 and lasted until 2004. This third era was called the Millennium era. The 1998 American film and the upcoming 2014 reboot take place within their own continuities.
The thing that might strike you immediately about the original Godzilla (which is commonly referred to by its more accurately pronounced Japanese title Gojira), is how somber it is. Oh sure, the mere sight of Godzilla himself is still enough to get the little boy inside of me worked up over potential monster mayhem, but the actual Saturday afternoon giddiness is entirely absent from the Japanese classic. This is a monster film that more or less launched the entire kaiju genre, but it’s also dark, sad, and downright tragic.
To address the most famous interpretation of Gojira: It’s clearly a meditation on the Atomic Bomb. Godzilla represents the destruction at Hiroshima almost a decade previous. Fire, explosions, and completely unexpected chaos suddenly ripping through a major metropolis: In real life, it was an American bomb. In the movies, it’s a gigantic gorilla/whale – created by bomb radiation – with radioactive breath. I call him a gorilla/whale because “Gojira” is a portmanteau of “gorira,” the Japanese word for gorilla, and “kujira,” the Japanese word for whale. Godzilla is often called a reptile or a dinosaur, but I imagine if you were to touch him, he would feel more like a shark. I prefer to think of Godzilla as an amphibian.
The story of director Ishiro Honda’s original Gojira has permeated pop culture to a point of universality at this point: lingering radiation from atomic bomb tests has awoken a gigantic beast from the ocean floor. The monster begins terrorizing small coastal Japanese villages, eventually getting the attention of the local military who wish to kill it. This is disgusting to the local zoologist Yamane (Takashi Shimura from Seven Samurai and many others). As the monster Godzilla (Katsume Tezuka and Haruo Nakajima) wreaks more and more havoc, Yamana, a young heroine, and a bland hero must enlist the help of a bitter scientist named Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) to use a weapon even more powerful than the atomic bomb.
In a modern American action film, using the bigger weapon would seem like the heroic thing to do, but in Gojira, it is, well, the nuclear option. Weapons created this monster, and more weapons seems counterintuitive. Godzilla himself, by the way, is pretty much just an animal in the original who is drawn to bright lights. Godzilla is not an evil monster, but a confused creature reacting naturally to its environment. It just happens to be five stories tall. As such, when it comes time to kill it, people are saddened and dismayed, ambivalent at best. Serizawa’s weapon is called The Oxygen Destroyer, and it strips the flesh from Godzilla’s bones. In future films, this dead creature will be referred to as “the first Godzilla.” So the badass that would become our awesome protector throughout the 1960s and 1970s is actually a different monster.
As a film, Gojira is actually kind of shabby. The special effects are really cool, but they were considered a bit cheap, even for the time. Plus, it’s hard to look past the silliness of the kaiju idea; A giant monster stomping a city – no matter how serious you try to make it – still feels like an Edenic little boy fantasy than a serious polemic about nuclear power.
As an experience, however, Gojira is indispensable. The visual impact of Gojira hits me right in the heart, and is the full realization of some strange violent impulse inside each of us; We just wanna see a giant monster slam his foot down on a tank. This is not the best Godzilla film, but it’s certainly the most important. For anyone who has ever thrilled, however slightly, at the notion of Godzilla in any era, then Gojira is a must-see. No horror fan, monster fan, or even genre fan is full or complete without having seen Gojira.
Next: Godzilla Raids Again (1955)