Directed By: Ishirô Honda
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada
Tag line: "Incredible, unstoppable titan of terror!"
Trivia: In 2004, for his 50th anniversary, Godzilla was given a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame
Gojira, released in 1954 by Japan’s Toho Studios, is the one that started it all, the first screen appearance of the legendary Godzilla, King of the giant monsters. But unlike the films that followed it, there’s nothing fun or light-hearted about this movie; Gojira is a dark, brooding cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear weapons, a topic the Japanese people were all too familiar with at the time.
An unknown force has destroyed a number of fishing vessels along the Japanese coast, leaving concerned citizens, as well as many government officials, searching for answers. It isn’t until respected Paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, The Seven Samurai) travels to a remote island that the truth is revealed: a prehistoric, reptile-like monster standing 50 meters tall, which had been living under the sea, was inadvertently released by an atomic bomb tested in the nearby waters some time ago. Searching for food, the creature soon makes its way inland, destroying every village and city in its path. Seeing it as a phenomenon of nature, Dr. Yamane wants the monster taken alive, while ship’s captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), who’s secretly been dating Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoke Kochi), agrees with the rest of the world: the creature, nicknamed “Godzilla” (a moniker derived from an old island superstition), must die. Unfortunately, conventional weapons are useless against it. In fact, the only hope of ending Godzilla’s reign of terror seems to rest with Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a colleague of Yamane’s, who’s developed a device so powerful it will kill the monster almost instantly. But fearing it may eventually be used as a weapon, Serizawa is reluctant to turn it over. Will he have a change of heart, or will Godzilla instead be permitted to lay waste to all of Japan, and maybe the entire world?
Though it was produced less than 10 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira was actually inspired by a more recent event: a 1954 test of a Hydrogen Bomb, which the U.S. conducted in the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll island chain (a nearby Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon 5, was hit with large doses of radiation when the exploding bomb proved more powerful than first anticipated. Several of its crew fell ill as a result, and six months later, one man lost his life). Still, the destructive path that Godzilla leaves in his wake, especially his rampage through downtown Tokyo, very much resembles the devastation caused by the atomic bombings of 1945, images that, in 1954, were fresh in the memories of many Japanese citizens. This understandably gives Gojira a considerably darker feel than most of the series’ later films, when the giant monster attacks were presented as a bit of diversionary fun. At one point in Gojira, when Godzilla is trouncing through Tokyo, the camera moves to ground level, where a mother is sitting on a street corner, huddling with her three children. She tells them not to be afraid, that it will all be over soon, and in a few moments, they’ll be with their deceased father. It’s a heartbreaking scene, one that reminds us that while Godzilla is pushing over buildings and flattening bridges, people are dying, a reality that many films in the series never bothered to address.
Shortly after Gojira’s release, a U.S. cut of the movie, titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was produced, with scenes featuring actor Raymond Burr, playing an American reporter in Japan, inserted into the film. This was the first version of the movie that I ever saw, and while I enjoyed it to a point, it didn’t adequately prepare me for how brutal and hard-hitting the original Gojira was. With somber performances delivered by its entire cast and its introduction of a weapon every bit as frightening as a nuclear bomb, Gojira is, at times, a tough film to watch. Yet the sheer power of its story, coupled with its impressive pacing, make it a must-see for giant monster fans and sci-fi enthusiasts alike.