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Catching up with a Classic: ‘Gojira’ intelligently leaves a path of death and decay

Gojira (English title: Godzilla)

Directed by Ishirô Honda

Written by Ishirô Honda and Shigeru Kayama

Japan, 1954

Think of films such A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong . Each is a horror film featuring a monster or a killer. Each was also made several decades ago. Despite this, people still watch, write about and discuss about all of them because of their respective artistic and in some cases historical merits. In essence, the importance of their age lessons when compared to the various impacts they left on film fans the world over. Yet another common thread linking them is that their individual successes spawned a long line of mostly flawed, disappointing remakes, sequels and prequels. The subsequent installments sometimes tarnish the legacy of the original to the point where common movie goers are not even aware of what made the first episode special in the first place. Godzilla, also widely recognized under its original Japanese name Gojira, falls into the same category as the aforementioned movies. Having never seen the original 1954 classic (and having indeed seen some of its dreadful remakes), Sound on Sight’s ‘Catching Up With a Classic’ January theme felt like a splendid opportunity to fix that embarrassing blind spot.

Somewhere off the coast of Odo Island a commercial vessel is completely disintegrated as a result of a underwater nuclear explosion. When search and rescue ships all suffer the same fate, the government tasks a reconnaissance team of scientists, led by Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) to observe and report whatever findings they make on and around Odo. Their initial discoveries are both curious and alarming, such as gigantic footprints and various rock debris which not only show high levels of radiation according to the Geiger counter, but whose characteristics are akin to species and rock types that date back to an entirely different era, millions of years ago. It is not long before Gojira, an enormous reptilian behemoth, makes its presence known, stunning everybody on the island. Panic overtakes Japan as the enraged and quite possibly terrified beast expands its reign of terror far beyond Odo, going so far as downtown Tokyo, leaving in its wake nothing but destruction, including a countless number of innocent lives. The film’s human element centres around Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) and the two men vying for her heart, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) and a reclusive scientist named Serizawa (Akihiki Hirata).

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Those anticipating scenes of shameless carnage and violence will see their expectations met, although perhaps not exactly in the manner they thought. The near incalculable number of sequels (some sources say as many as 30!) offered a lot fun, brainless escapism of the science-fiction variety, with the famous monsters even taking on the role of hero in some instances. Throughout the years, Gojira‘s image has been, for lack of a better term, watered down. One person says ‘Godzilla’ and another probably thinks of an actor walking around in a cheap rubber suit, stomping on what look like toy model sets of cities and combating a odd looking giant fly thing named Mothma. Mothma aside, there is a lot of that in Ishirô Honda’s spectacle of a film, but the truth of the matter is that Gojira is guided by poignant socio-political commentary, in addition to being surprisingly somber at times, not shying away from actually showing the nature of the destruction and decay the titular reptile leaves creates.

For starters, the story quickly reveals that Gojira was awoken from deep hibernation underneath the ocean following nuclear bomb tests. Worsening Japan’s odds at survival even more so is that the furious beast has acquired various fantastical defense and attacking mechanism via the radiation it was exposed to. As it stands, 50 000 watt shocks and fighter jet missiles barely scratch its hard edged skin. Here, therefore, is a monster of epic proportions whose purpose on Earth at the moment is to destroy (like a bomb), birthed through experimentation with nuclear energy, something the Japanese, by the mid 1950s, were all too familiar with, given the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings were occurred barely a decade earlier. It is like the country’s worst nightmare and worst memories have taken full physical shape and returned to plague the nation once again. There are even some brief references to the infamous bombings in early scenes, with some of the regular Tokyo citizens, at this point in the story still at a safe distance from their eventual destroyer, reminiscing uncomfortably about those traumatic attacks when the word spreads that the mysterious creature may exist as a result of nuclear testing. Gojira is not only a horrifying monster in the physical sense, but in a thematic and spiritual sense as well. Honda’s film is takes on the role of being a cautionary tale of sorts. Do not mess around with ridiculously volatile material such as nuclear energy and maybe predicaments such as this one will not happen again.

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The picture’s allegorical aspects do not end there. One character, Serizawa, has been working for some time alone in his basement laboratory on a viciously effective ‘oxygen destroyer’ detonator that can be used under water to totally annihilate any sea life in the vicinity. Even as Japan and his own city of Tokyo crumble at the behest of Gojira’s wrath, he demonstrates reluctance towards to idea of using the device in order to save his country. For those reading the film beyond the surface level melodrama (of which there is a fair amount), Serizawa’s behaviour can be seen as a gesture of honour in the face of something their not too distant wartime enemies did. Would the act of detonating the bomb be viewed as hypocritical in a sense, or perfectly justified given the dire circumstances? That is up to the viewer to decide of course. For what it is worth, all of these ideas do make up for the script’s human relationships, which, while serviceable perhaps, are ultimately forgettable and certainly never would have made the film great had they been it’s primary anchor.

Beyond the Gojira‘s obvious political commentary are the near-depressing dramatic aspects to the plight of the Japanese within the story. Once the monster stomps and burns (literally) his way through the streets of larger cities, director Honda takes the time to pay respect to the victims of the destruction, both living and dead. Scenes at makeshift medical camps reveals the imposing number of injured, sick, traumatized, lost and psychologically defeated civilians. These are deadly serious moments in the film which hammer home the fact that the existence of Gojira is no laughing matter, an idea many of the sequels would abandon.

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Are the special effects dated? They most certainly are, to the point where in some scenes, even if the viewer attempts to adopt a mindset which accepts that the film was made 58 years ago, the effects might still come across as somewhat clunky. Nevertheless, if the viewer is open minded enough, there is a charm to the scenes in which Gojira romps and stomps his way through Tokyo, absolutely demolishing, yes, sets of tiny little homes and buildings. Arguably the least successful moments consist of the monster breathing some sort of gas out of his mouth which can either lay heavy sheets of ice over a target or completely incinerate it (how it determines this remains a mystery). There is a bizarre glowing effect on Gojira’s back whenever he performs this trick and it does, sadly, look more comical than anything else.

Ishirô Honda’s legendary film will leave some unimpressed, especially if they are looking for something truly spectacular. It compensates such shortcomings with a sharp and incredibly important message, however poorly camouflaged it may be. Depending on what specific viewers are after, Gojira might end up being a very pleasant surprise for many.

-Edgar Chaput