Jan 25, 2012


The Reason Tokyo Can't Have Nice Things


Ishiro Honda

Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murakami

Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada,
Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata,
Fuyuki Murakami

The surprisingly lucrative 1952 re-release of King Kong inspired 1953's The Beast From 20000 Fathoms, a film about a rampaging dinosaur unleashed during atomic bomb tests. Both films did very well in Japan as well as the U.S. convincing Toho Company executives to have a go at making their own movie about a rampaging dinosaur, turning an idea lifted from an American movie into the beginnings of a distinctly Japanese genre. 1954's  Gojira (a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale") was the first Kaiju (strange beast) movie. More specifically it was the first Daikaiju (really fucking big strange beast) movie. Trimmed down, dubbed and edited together with new scenes featuring Raymond Burr, Gojira had a lucrative 1956 release in the U.S under the title; Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Rather than the more costly and time consuming stop motion effects developed by Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, Gojira would utilize the special effects techniques pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya. This involved the use of puppetry, miniatures, high speed filming and a guy in a rubber suit. And while the U.S.would continue to make giant monster movies over the years it was a sub-genre that peaked for Hollywood in the 50's. The Japanese however, would just keep cranking them out. Just the number of Godzilla films produced by Toho is impressive. Twenty-eight Godzilla films divided into three periods over six decades with a possible reboot in 2014. Several of Godzilla's sparring partners stared in the own films and there was also Daiei's Gamera series.

Gojira is quite grim. The opening scene references the Lucky Dragon Five incident which occurred just months before filming began. A Japanese fishing trawler was caught in the danger zone of a US hydrogen bomb test. Though the tests were announced before-hand and the test area restricted, the blast was twice as powerful as expected and shifting wind patterns deposited radioactive fallout on the ship and crew. It would turn out that hundreds of fishing boats suffered some degree of exposure. This was a politically sensitive issue with the potential to strain Japanese/US relations, a subject more difficult to address directly than in the context of science fiction. Director Ishiro Honda's experiences as a prisoner of war and the impact of the devastation he witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war are evident on screen.

The film builds slowly, Godzilla not seen until 20 minutes into the film. Honda has said that he was attempting to portray something like a rolling nuclear attack coming in slow stages. The initial explosion is followed by a sequence depicting a hurricane accompanied by the steady rhythmic tremors of Godzilla's footsteps. Large indentations left in the ground, the creatures footprints, are found to be radioactive. This all culminates in the scene in which Godzilla's head rises from behind the hills and he splits the air with his unholy roar.

"Hey! Who pinched me?"

Yeah, it's a puppet.

The effects are a mixed bag. The miniature sets and wide shots of Godzilla much better than the closeups. The black and white helps this film not only in establishing a stark atmosphere but in hiding the strings and seams. Roger Ebert has written that better effects had been achieved in the 30's. But the uneven quality of effects in Gojira don't bother me. This is because every other aspect of how the monster is handled is exemplary. The slow apocalyptic build up, the fear and awe the characters display towards him, the serious depiction of the destruction he causes are all as much a part of the representation of the monster as the effects used to convey him visually. I like slick effects as much as the next guy, but now they're commonplace, it's rare to find a film in which the movie around the effects lives up to them.

And I really like Godzilla's design. A synthesis of everything you think of when you think of "dinosaur" It's become iconic for a reason. His design has been played around with over the years for better and worse but it's always recognizable as Godzilla.  It has personality. Try picturing what the Cloverfield monster looks like from memory.

Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Kagemusha)  plays professor Yamane, respected paleontologist. He delivers most of the film's exposition about what Godzilla is and where he comes from and why he's hanging around the surface these days. It's a prehistoric creature driven from it's deep sea habitat as atomic testing may have killed off it's food supply, or maybe just pissed it off. Its most definitely absorbed crazy amounts of radiation from these tests. The film places the Jurassic period at about two million years ago... off by a slight 198 million years or so but there's no reason to quibble about this...Godzilla roamed the earth a long, long time ago. The important thing is that he's 50 meters tall and possibly unstoppable.

"...trains are great...
they taste like chocolate cake..."
Yamane's findings cause a stir of controversy when presented before government officials. There is a heated debate over whether to risk panic and damaging foreign relations by making his discoveries public. What creates the most controversy is not the existence of the creature itself, something rather difficult to hide, but that atomic testing is responsible for it. After the debate we cut to a man on the street scene depicting the public reaction. Rather than panic, the news is met with a resigned gallows humor. First atomic bombs and radioactive tuna, now this. Same shit different pile. Apocalyptic threats seem to have become the new normal.

Yamane has a strange attitude about what should be done about Godzilla. Though he's knows better than anyone the threat Godzilla posses he doesn't think Godzilla should be destroyed, and like the scientist he is, he wants to study it. Actually, I got the impression that he thinks it's a waste time trying to kill Godzilla. Depth charges, artillery and a giant electric fence just seem to encourage him. Yamane is more interested in how it is, what with all the radiation its absorbed, that it isn't already dead. Some potentially useful information there.

There's a subplot involving Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Ogata (Akira Takarada), the man she loves and  Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) the man her father has arranged for her to marry. Emiko has always looked upon Serizawa as an older brother and is about to kick him to the curb...but gently. Serizawa was left scared from the war and the eye patch really helps sell him as the torchered, tragic soul he is. But whatever horrors he experienced in the past are now compounded by the burden of the terrible knowledge to which his research has lead him. Emiko pays him a visit to give him the "it's not you it's me speech." but, unable to keep it to himself any longer and swearing her to secrecy he shows Emiko just what he's been working on.


I love how this scene is handled. Serizawa flips a few switches in his Frankenstein lab and something horrible happens in the fish tank centerpiece. The audience can't see what it is but it drives Emiko to tears. It's like she has just witnessed a crime against the laws of nature. She holds off on breaking it off with Serizawa for the time being. The audience is left to wonder just what Serizawa has discovered for a while so skipping ahead, he's created an oxygen destroyer. Not even on purpose, he was just studying boring old hydrogen when suddenly he stumbled upon something that could be the most destructive force the world has ever seen, and this is a world that has Godzilla is strolling around in it. Serizawa is determined to take the secret of the oxygen destroyer to his grave unless he can find some non-apocalyptic application for his work.

Science. It's never pretty.

It's to the films credit that the love triangle subplot doesn't feel tacked on here, it doesn't slow things down but intertwines with the main plot laying the groundwork for the feel bad ending. After Godzilla's had his way with Tokyo, Emiko witnesses the lingering horrors of the aftermath and decides she has no choice but to break her promise to Serizawa and make his secret known. Put in an impossible situation, realizing that Godzilla must be destroyed but fearing that doing so will unleash an even bigger horror upon the world he burns his research and agrees to use his oxygen destroyer, just this once. Though Emiko and Ogata appreciate the gravity of sacrificing  a lifetime of research, they probably don't appreciate the full implications of Serizawa's decision. Or maybe they do, the film gets just a little darker if you assume that they do. It's not good enough to destroy his research, Serizawa still has the knowledge in his head and fears he may some day be compelled to make another oxygen destroyer. So when he and Ogata sneak up on Godzilla while he's taking a break, Serizawa deploys the oxygen destroyer and cuts his own line ensuring that he and his secrets die with Godzilla.

Now, I've seen this ending criticized as anticlimactic, but by this point it's already been established that mere force is useless against Godzilla (well, not until other giant monsters join in on the party but that's for later reviews). Defeating Godzilla turns out to be a matter of will, Serizawa has had the means to kill Godzilla the entire film, all he needed was the will to counter horror with something more horrible. His suicide an attempt to halt the cycle of escalation that this one-upmanship leads to.

So the monster's dead and Ogata and Emiko are free to marry. Serizawa wanted them to be happy but the enormous guilt trip that they're put through will make that rather difficult. Yamane offers a finale gloomy observation that questions whether Serizawa's sacrifice may have been in vain. Godzilla was likely not the single remaining member of his species. Oh hell, the sea's probably littered with them.

"...stomp, stomp, stomp...that's what I like to do...
I'm gonna stomp on a house and then stomp on a truck,
and then I'm gonna stomp all over you..."


Godzilla has been interpreted as a metaphor for the US, a superpower wreaking havoc on Japan but,  before he makes his first appearance and the inhabitants of Odo island speculate on what is causing the destruction of so many ships, an old man explains it must be the ancient god to whom the islanders used to sacrifice virgins to keep appeased. Godzilla is something very old with a unique relationship to Japan. Now he's radioactive, a blend of the ancient and mystical and the modern and scientific.


  1. Your thoughts on the 2014 remake?

    1. I really liked it. Doesn't carry the same weight as the original but as a cool giant monster film it works really well. I will say it felt more like the second installment of a Godzilla reboot rather than a first. Would have liked to see this as a Godzilla solo rampage and then introduce additional monsters in the sequel. Establish him as the protector of the Earth/lesser of to evils at that point. But yeah, it was cool.