In 1954, Gojira hit Japanese theaters and was a sensation that eventually spread world wide. For those who don’t know, Gojira is the original Japanese Godzilla movie that started the series. This first film is a serious movie, unlike nearly all the ones that followed. In 2004, Toho Studios decided to restore and remaster the epic for its 50th anniversary DVD release. So now that I have my hands on it, does it live up to its reputation as a classic? UPDATED: August 2012 with expanded text and better screen captures.
As a kid, I grew up with the later Godzilla movies and it was not until I was a teenager that I saw the heavily recut American version of the film starring Raymond Burr. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, being a darker and more serious story than I had expected. Once the Internet age dawned, I found out that it paled in comparison to the Japanese film it originated from, but there was no way to see it.
Years went by and then rumors of a New York City showing of the original movie for the 50th anniversary of Gojira got my attention. Hopes of a DVD release turned into reality thanks to ClassicMedia, but it ended up being out of my price range. Time went by and a sale at a Target in Indiana landed the very nice deluxe release in my hands. This review applies to it and to the discs in The Godzilla Collection also put out by the same folks.
The movie starts with a strident and bombastic theme by Akira Futabe that fits the tension that permeates the entire production. After the credits roll, an idyllic scene of a merchant ship’s crew relaxing on deck seems very serene. A bright flash of light draws their attention to a strange glowing mass in the water. Another flash and the ship explodes into flames. The distress call of the Kingo Maru results in the Eiko Maru being sent to find it, whereupon it promptly sails into a glowing circle of water and explodes like the first ship.
As news spreads of the shipping line’s losses, upset family members crowd the home office and demand information. No, this isn’t like a kiddy movie at all, for it is played very straight for maximum emotional impact. The beleaguered company officials and angry relatives of the sailors have the confrontation interrupted by a radio report. Hopes are dashed for only one survivor has washed onshore on a small fishing island. He insists a monster did it before passing out, leading an old man to speak of a local deity, Gojira, being responsible.
Once at Odo Island, a first wave of investigators and a reporter listen to an old man expound about how young women used to be sacrificed to the monster, Gojira, to appease his hunger. It is an interesting scene spoken over a native ritual meant to exorcise the beast. As the ritual reaches its climax the wind begins to pick up indicating a storm is coming.
Later that night the thunder sounds curiously like giant footsteps.What follows is a nightmare for the residents of the island, especially Shinkichi (Toyoaki Suzuki), a teen who watches in horror as his brother and mother die during the storm. Something huge is out there and finished the job of killing his brother, the sole survivor of the ship. A slight hint of the supernatural or a love of irony by the director?
An expedition led by Professor Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is mounted to Odo Island. Being a paleontologist, he is intrigued by the idea that a prehistoric dinosaur might be responsible. Going along with him is his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her boyfriend, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Emiko is her father’s main assistant and was promised in marriage to an older man – not Ogata.
The two lovebirds do not seem to be doing a very good job at hiding their romance, since they seem inseparable even around her father. Ogata is a salvage officer, though it isn’t made completely clear except for him being in uniform some of the time. With that, we have our three main characters introduced, and a fourth briefly seen on the dock as their ship departs. More of him will be seen later.
The morning brings light, if not some enlightenment as to what happened the night before. Professor Yamane finds a huge depression that he surmises is the footprint of a giant animal. Simultaneously, government workers detect radioactive contamination of the wells in the village and then the footprint. Even stranger than the radiation is the discovery of a fresh trilobyte corpse in the footprint. Those insect like creatures having been extinct for millions of years.
An alarm bell being hammered interrupts the speculation and everyone rushes up the hills to see what is going on. The sound of thunderous footsteps precede the first appearance of Gojira’s ugly head and his now famous rusty roar. A quick retreat segues into government hearings on what to do about this extraordinary situation.
The hearings contain terrific drama involving arguments over whether or not to go public with what has happened. Fears of panic, economic loss, and damaged foreign relations eventually lose to the public need to know. Action is taken as the Japanese Self Defense Force sends its destroyers to sea with depth charges via stock footage from WWII propaganda films. The good Professor is dismayed as he wants to study the monster, not kill it.
What is it with movie scientists always siding with the aliens and monsters? It is pathological, I tell you.
Of course Gojira is too tough to be harmed by the depth charges. Having absorbed an immense amount of radiation from a hydrogen bomb and still kicking, such puny measures only drive him toward Tokyo harbor. The concern over what might be able to kill the monster begins to be raised.
While this is going on, the love triangle subplot is fully revealed. The mysterious man at the docks is Doctor Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a man with a murky past. Sometime during WWII, he lost his eye and was scarred, but it is his connections to a German scientist that disturb. The German has told the media that Serizawa has a weapon design that could stop the beats.
Serizawa’s reaction is cold, with him refusing to acknowledge that he has anything that could be of help. After turning a reporter away, he shows his fiancé Emiko what he has been working on in his lab. Leading her to a fish tank, he runs current into it and drops a device into the water. What happens next is not shown, yet she screams in horror and covers her face. Serizawa demands and gets a promise from her not to tell anyone about his secret. The love triangle has just gotten even more complicated.
That night, air raid sirens sound in Tokyo while monstrous footsteps are heard. Gojira makes landfall like a bipedal typhoon. His immense size is fully revealed as he strides into the city downing power lines and destroying a commuter train in a very impressive scene. With only machine guns, the army fails to deter Gojira or even get his attention. He does as he pleases, then heads off into the water again.
Further drama ensues with the love triangle and the good professor agonizing over the people wanting to kill the prehistoric menace. A staple of later Godzilla movies begins here with scenes of panicked people evacuating and the military making preparations to defend Tokyo.
At this point, all the classic elements of a 1950s monster movie are in place: a radiation induced mutant monster, the scientist wanting to save/study the mutant, and the military out to to kill the beast. That means it is time to roll the tanks and artillery out for an all out brawl.
What follows is cinema history that left an indelible image on audiences worldwide. Destruction, despair, and drama fill out the rest of the movie in what could have been just spectacle, but becomes one of the greatest antinuclear and antiwar statements ever put on celluloid.
Gojira is at its heart a cry against war and the suffering it causes. Director Ishiro Honda is on record that he hoped it would end nuclear proliferation and after watching it, it becomes terribly clear that it dominated his thinking during production. Reality dictated otherwise, for movies are not as important as those who make them think they are.
There is considerable irony in that Toho Studios and most of the people who worked on the movie were involved in making propaganda films during World War II. How much personal guilt was involved as inspiration?
The movie has to be watched with an understanding of just how fresh WWII and the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were. Less than ten years had passed since then and the nearby Korean War had just staggered to a draw. To a national psyche that had broken under an unimaginable defeat, this film must have had a profound emotional impact. This is a serious and grim meditation on the fears that still gripped Japan. By approaching the subject of devastation, nuclear weapons, radiation poisoning, and the dangers of science in an oblique way, the film allowed those things to be addressed. I have to wonder if it was a cathartic experience for 1954 Japanese audience goers.
There is good character development and acting in the movie, especially that of Hirata as Doctor Serizawa (he later became a fixture in Toho scifi films). The love triangle was a late addition to the story, but an effective one that enhances the story rather than detracts from it. Western influences were beginning to be felt in Japanese society and the idea of spurning an arranged marriage in favor of love was a radical one at the time. Fallout from the affair is as great in the story as the other kind which created the title monster.
Due to the deaths and intense scenes, Gojira is not a film to let little kids watch, unless you think they can handle it. There is nothing comic or silly about the monster in this outing and while I have shown other Godzilla movies to youngsters, this one I have not. Parental guidance is highly advised for that reason. There is no gore, but minor amounts of B&W blood.
I recommend the movie to those who enjoy classics, giant monster films, or to those curious as to how the Japanese felt after World War II. This is a genuinely good movie and not at all silly, so adults will enjoy it more than children.
The black and white movie is presented in something close to 1:37:1 ratio, not 1.33:1 which is the norm. While Gojira is restored and remastered, many of the film defects are still there. The original prints all had scratches, dust speck damage, and heavy grain due to the poor quality of film stock available along with primitive working conditions in the special effects room. This also applies with the review of the other disc in the set, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Contrast is decent and the print is clear for the most part. I understand the new Criterion edition has better contrast levels, but the same blemishes even on the Blu-ray. NewMedia also has a Blu-ray edition, but go Criterion if you have the money.
Audio is very good Dolby Digital Mono with all the dialogue clear and sound effects have good punch. The soundtrack sounds great and composer Fukatabe created Godzilla roar and footsteps are loud and effective.
Extras include a commentary, the theatrical trailer and two featurettes.
The commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski (appropriate name there) is very informative and goes into the world events and politics that influenced the making of Gojira. Large amounts of trivia on the production can be found here and it is worth a listen for die hard fans and film buffs alike.
Godzilla Story Development
Written and narrated by Ed Godziszewski this thirteen minute documentary covers the creation of the story and production of the movie. Unfortunately, the video quality is closer to VHS than DVD, which is a great pity given the rare materials shown. The original story written by novelist Shigeru Kayama for the film is gone into and its differences with the final screenplay written by Takeo Murata and Ishiro Honda.
Gojira was the first movie to be storyboarded in Japan, so it is nice to see some of those drawings. Also nice to see are stills of deleted and unfilmed scenes including what may be Emiko and Serizawa as teenagers.
Best of all is this still from footage that was destroyed. It was to be the first appearance of the big G complete with him munching on a cow, which explains why we saw cattle in the background earlier in the movie. The footage was deemed to be too frightening so it was yanked. Too bad, since it and the missing fish explain what the creature was eating to survive.
Making of the Godzilla Suit
Another installment in Godziszewski’s series of micro documentaries on ClassicMedia’s Godzilla discs, it is thirteen minutes of kaiju suit nirvana. Anyone who is interested in how these suits started out will be fascinated by the content here. Since nothing like this had been attempted before, Eiji Tsuburaya and his assistants pioneered the whole concept. Due to a paucity of time and funds, stop motion animation was not an option, so they came up with the idea of a man in a rubber suit. It turned out to be a lot harder than expected.
Designing the critter was difficult enough, but with the decision to combine a Tyrannosaurus Rex with features of Iguanodon and Stegosaurus things finally started rolling. Three models were sculpted before the last one was accepted, then production of the costume began. Let us just say that inferior grade latex is not your friend when making things that actually move.
After the first suit failed to be of use, construction of a lighter and more flexible one resulted in the suit seen in the movie. It still was not much fun to deal with and weighed around 200 pounds, but at least it worked.
I had never noticed the air holes in the neck until the documentary pointed them out to me. They did not work very well and it got very hot in there. At least they found a way to salvage the bad first suit – they cut it in half. This allowed the suit actor to stomp sets in relative comfort for some of the scenes.
The original Japanese theatrical trailer has a very dark intro and I can see how it packed the theaters. It is a very well done trailer.
I should mention the quality of the packaging on the release. A holographic Master Collection sticker on the front shows off Godzilla’s head and Toho’s logo. ClassicMedia’s issue has a book quality glossy cardboard case with clear plastic disc holders inside each cover for the two movies. Photos from the movie can be seen through the holders and a color booklet written by Steve Ryfle is also inside. The booklet is very informative and while it covers much of the same information as the extras, it has some things they do not.
The same two discs are included in The Godzilla Complete Collection, but the booklet is not and the packaging is nowhere as nice. Therefore, I am keeping this issue despite the redundancy!
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
A huge chunk of the movie is devoted to the final attack on Tokyo. It is horrific and exhausting, but never dull. The attempt to keep Gojira out of Tokyo by building a fence of made of power line towers goes very badly. Not impressed, the big guy unleashes his radioactive breath like an atomic age dragon. Looking like glowing steam, it is effective on screen, far more so than later versions. A puppet with a water spray nozzle was used for close ups.
His extreme halitosis proves lethal to towers, tanks, cars, and people. The miniatures work is quite good for its time and many scenes are still impressive today. Director Ishiro Honda’s excellent use of lighting and composition makes for a fevered nightmare on screen. Those melting towers? Made of wax painted with metallic paint, then subjected to a studio light. Amazingly clever work, that.
Watching Tokyo burn had to have brought back memories of the B-29 fire bombings for Japanese audiences. Scenes showing people fleeing for bomb shelters and one of a woman telling her young children they will soon be with their father as she prepares to die drive that feeling home. When Shinkichi watches from the docks, swearing repeatedly in frustrated impotence, he had to embody how the people of Tokyo felt during the final years of WWII.
After F-86 Sabre Jets drive back Gojira into the water, we are shown the aftermath of the rampage. Tragic vignettes pull at the heartstrings. One includes a little boy being tested with a Geiger counter by a doctor, who sadly shakes his head letting us know the boy will die. Then a little girl wailing as her mother from the earlier scene dies in triage leads Emiko to break her promise to Serizawa.
As she informs her boyfriend, it turns out Serizawa has developed something called the Oxygen Destroyer that can disintegrate anything organic in water. Seeing Emiko and Ogata in his living room, the man prepares himself to finally hear that the engagement is broken. So it is a shock when Ogata confronts him over his invention.
The fight that breaks out is handled mostly off camera, which makes it worse somehow. A nationally televised girls choir singing over images of the destruction makes for a moving scene which finally succeeds in convincing the tortured scientist into using the invention as a weapon. There is a condition – all the research and documentation will be destroyed so that his weapon will not be used the way nuclear weapons were. His calm façade shatters and it is clear that Serizawa is a broken man. He has lost everything he cares about: Emiko, his career, and hopes for mankind’s future.
This leads to the final confrontation with Gojira under the Tokyo Bay, with Ogata and Serizawa making a dive to unleash the Oxygen Destroyer. Here we see some very murky underwater camera work.
Serizawa’s device works, but there is no rejoicing due to his committing suicide. Emiko and Ogata are together, but it is bittersweet ending at best.