Directed by Ichirô Honda
The latest slogan for the Honda Motor Company is “The power of dreams.” For director Ishirô Honda, the Japanese director who helmed 8 of the 15 Showa-era “Godzilla” films (the Showa Era was the name for the period of time Emperor Hirohito ruled Japan), the fantastical and dreamlike was always his wheelhouse. When he first introduced the world to his monster creation, in 1954’s “Gojira” (which combines the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” but was renamed “Godzilla” in America), he started a pop culture phenomenon that has not yet faded. In fact, to call Godzilla “pop” culture implies it can be tied to a moment in time when it was most popular. But considering how ubiquitous the king of monsters has become—inspiring Hollywood movies, animated series, comic books, video games, songs (including the famous one by Blue Öyster Cult and one from Eminem just this year), the music video for the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic,” and countless more references and homages over the years—it’s tough to pin down exactly when Godzilla’s time was. Considering there’s another “Godzilla” film in production currently (and certainly more to come after that), maybe we haven’t even seen this beast’s peak.
In the first film, “Godzilla,” the monster is first mentioned as a local legend in parts of Japan. As legend has it, the monster eats the creatures of the sea, but will eat humans if hungry enough. When hydrogen bomb tests in the country awaken Godzilla from his underwater home, he begins lashing out at shipping freighters. We meet a young employee of the shipping company, Ogata (Akira Takarada), and his bride to be, Emiko (Momoko Kōchi). We also meet Emiko’s father, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), a zoology and paleontology professor who wants to study the monster, not see it killed. He believes it’s one of the last survivors of the Jurassic period, which has somehow survived in an underwater bunker that has protected it from extinction. But the government is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to wipe out this new threat, so when Godzilla makes landfall and threatens to destroy Tokyo, opposing opinions will clash.
First, I have to give a shout-out to the real MVP of the “Godzilla” franchise, Haruo Nakajima, the Japanese actor who strapped on a 200-pound Godzilla costume in this film and then 11 more over the next 18 years (until he was in his mid-40s). With the help of forced perspective, Nakajima really looked the part of the almost-zombified Jurassic giant destroying towns without consideration. The model cities which were built to aid in the illusion looked a lot more convincing than the occasional moving parts, like the toy cars and helicopter that were meant to look full-size. But it’s almost unbelievable that a 5’6” man dressed in expensive cosplay and stomping on cardboard boxes could create a character that would live in the public consciousness for the next 70+ years. Arigato.
In a somewhat surprising twist for me, “Godzilla” is not full of scenes featuring the monster causing collateral damage and taking lives. There’s a compelling (if simple) plot, too, which centers partly around the government’s interest in keeping this public threat a secret until it can no longer be hidden—in the interest of the economy, of course. Godzilla is a not-so-subtle allegory for nuclear weapons, and the fear the Japanese people feel when they hear the warning sirens must have looked familiar to anyone who was there during WWII. There’s also the subplot of Ogata—the shipping employee who wants to see the monster dead—and his struggle to win over his future father-in-law, who is adamantly opposed to wiping out the monster before he gets the chance to study it for science. The film might have benefitted from focusing more on these main characters’ stories, though, since it often diverted to other minor characters and their own opinions of what was happening. It’s clear from the beginning that the only character of any real importance is Godzilla itself, and all others are just vessels to express fear, curiosity, or consternation.
An in-film news report deems Godzilla “the monster of the century.” Little did screenwriters know just how right they would end up being. “Godzilla” sets up the franchise on a strong note, with striking black and white cinematography that heightens the fear (when color is used in later sequels, and more scenes take place during the day, the franchise begins to take a significantly lighter tone in general). Akira Ifukube’s score (pieces of which are reused throughout the “Godzilla” films) also adds to that tension. It’s iconic. I don’t blame them for bringing it back so often as the theme song for terror. But never does the franchise get quite as horrifying as in this film. The stuff of nightmares is eventually replaced with the stuff of daydreams. Not that that’s a bad thing…but none of the “Godzilla” movies hit quite like this one.