GREATEST METAPHOR EVER.
Godzilla. The big one. I've been preparing for this, you know. All those terrible 1950s movies I've been watching... I was giving myself context to understand this better. Ironically though I was wasting my time, since this is a Giant Rampaging Monster film to be compared with serious Japanese cinema like Akira Kurosawa.
However in addition to all the high-flown stuff, it's FREAKING GODZILLA. Despite the language barrier, he's a worldwide icon on a par with Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong. As a child, I got to know him through Hanna-Barbera's cartoon with Godzooky. What other Japanese cultural icons have made it this big? Toshiro Mifune? Hayao Miyazaki? Nope, number one is still a guy in a rubber suit whose hobby is destroying Tokyo.
In every respect, this is a film above and beyond something like the previous year's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
, which incidentally inspired it. Partly it's the production values and level of talent that went into it. Partly it's the conviction and the depth of Japan's understanding of this kind of destruction. However in large part it's the themes.
Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic age. Ishiro Honda designed his Tokyo devastation as a slow-motion representation of a nuclear attack, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even in 1954 there were Japanese casualties, including one death, as a result of America's nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. The man's name was Aikichi Kuboyama and he was the chief radioman on a tuna fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. Godzilla is all that. He's a dinosaur who's been disturbed from his natural environment by nuclear testing and he's not happy about it. He's radioactive. His breath melts steel pylons. He tries to eat trains. Even after he's long gone, grim-faced scientists will come and check children with Geiger counters. He's fifty metres tall, he can eat your army for breakfast and he's about to flatten the world's largest city as if it came free in a cereal packet.
This is shocking. I don't just mean its scale, although Godzilla's clearly way more badass than apparently similar movie monsters like the Rhedosaurus. No, its power comes from how it's being portrayed. It's like a wartime documentary, or newsreel disaster footage. The screaming relatives. The people packed into the emergency halls, or even the stairwells. The medical teams. The radio warnings to evacuate the population into shelters. It's real. That mother telling her children they'll be with their father soon, and not in a good way. Or maybe that reporter's last words as Godzilla takes down the tower from which he's broadcasting. "Goodbye, everyone. Goodbye."
This film shows what Japan saw and felt during World War Two as they were firebombed and nuked. What's more, it looks that way too. It's not cheesy. On the contrary, it's a gorgeous, atmospheric black-and-white production that (along with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai
) nearly bankrupted Toho Studios in 1954.
So Godzilla is the nuclear age, yet at the same time he's its victim! He's Japan! I started this review with "best metaphor ever" and I meant it, without hyperbole. Ishiro Honda has captured both sides of the most traumatic event in his nation's history. Godzilla was only stirred into life because of nuclear tests and, at the end, you even feel sorry for him. You see, we have a superweapon, the Oxygen Destroyer. It'll do the immediate job, but what then? America and Russia will be moving mountains to get their hands on it. In other words, the characters are debating whether to use their superweapon at all, despite the fact that Godzilla's about to chew on Tokyo like toffee. This should be a non-argument, yet incredibly the film tackles it with such intensity that it nearly talks you into supporting inaction.
Let's look at this more closely. Godzilla is behaving a lot like Japan itself did during World War Two, stomping so bloodily around the Far East that stopping it will take a superweapon. We also know that Godzilla absorbed massive amounts of radiation and yet is still alive, which again has obvious resonances. He's Japan, in other words. Metaphorically, the heroes of a Japanese film are discussing whether or not they'd nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What's more, their conclusion is "yes". They do it. Of course they do so in a manner informed by the aforementioned discussion and there will be astonishing scenes arising from this, but the upshot is still going to be a dead Godzilla.
As metaphor, this is brilliant. However it's also startling for its sheer power, which is so effective that the film is also cool if you don't care about subtext.
It looks wonderful. It's in black-and-white, which of course helps the atmosphere. It stars my hero Takashi Shimura and the very pretty Momoko Kochi. It's giving its cast plenty to get their teeth into, so for instance Kochi has to break a promise to save the world, while her father has a complicated relationship with Godzilla. He doesn't want them to kill it. Admittedly this is an extreme position, given the circumstances, but he wants to study Godzilla's resistance to being nuked.
Godzilla himself looks great. Yes, he's a bit comedic when he first sticks his head over the horizon, but he's got a memorable design and a unique roar. How many monsters could you recognise from their roar, eh? Technically he's a dinosaur, albeit way bigger than any real one, but a mash-up of a Tyrannosaurus's head and lower body, a Stegosaurus's dorsal plates, an Iguanodon's arms and a crocodile's skin texture and tail. The early Godzilla suit also weighed 200 pounds and often they'd be pouring a cup of Haruo Nakajima's sweat out of it.
I also like the way they occasionally give him moments of personality, e.g. getting irritated by a ringing clock tower or by planes shooting missiles at him.
Even the English title is brilliant. "Godzilla" sounds awesome, whereas the normal transliteration of the Japanese original would be "gojira". That's rubbish. It's as bad as Gorath
, which believe it or not looks macho in katakana and if they'd showed any imagination could have become anything from Goliath to Crash. ("Gojira" incidentally is a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale", which suggests something almost unimaginable.)
The paleontology is terrible, though. According to this film, all of prehistory happened 2 million years ago. The Jurassic era (200-145 mya)? 2 million! Trilobites (526-250 mya)? Two million!
Its attitudes are also less dated than its (often hardly watchable) American counterparts, in which individuals are subordinate to the state and censorship is a good thing. A 1950s Hollywood film would have supported the politicians in the scene where they're trying to suppress the truth about Godzilla. This film though is rightly outraged at the very idea and has women start a public screaming match with them. Here, self-serving politicians and mankind's warmongering nature are a bigger threat to the planet than Godzilla himself.
It even has one of the best movie scores I've heard. That theme music is scary. It doesn't have catchy tunes, but Akira Ifukube writes music that you really hear, making it part of the film's meat and muscle.
I watched the original Japanese version of the film, of course, but one day I might also watch the American edit, released in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. Joseph E. Levine made this by cutting out forty minutes, including all the political content, and re-editing it with his own newly shot footage so that the main character was now played by Raymond Burr. This sounds like an abomination, but in fact it's the Levine version that made Godzilla famous worldwide. It was in English. It played all over the world, ironically including Japan. It was also the first movie to be shown widely in America since World War Two to have Japanese heroes and to be so sympathetic towards the country.
Compared with the Godzilla franchise in general, this movie is atypical. It's grim. It's shot like a film noir and it's hitting greatness in its treatment of its themes of war and nuclear power. It takes what we're used to thinking of as monster movie cliches and makes them real by drawing on Japan's wartime experiences. However if you're looking for goofy fun with men in rubber suits, go elsewhere.
"I can't believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species. If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear."