Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: Tokyo takes a stomping in Gojira, known to many as Godzilla.
GojiraDirector: Ishiro Honda
Cast: Takashi Shamura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Harata
US release date: 1956-04
Japanese release date: 1954-11-03
Alternative titles: Turning Japanese; The Godzillafather
Action-packed, with many large-scale, epic scenes of rampaging monster.
Powerful echoes of Japan's recent wartime experience.
Outstanding special effects and solid acting.
The most charismatic monster in film? You decide.
Somewhat choppy structure.
Romantic lead is reminiscent of Olive Oyl.
SYNOPSIS: When a fishing boat disappears off the Japanese coast, authorities are puzzled. When a second boat disappears, that puzzlement changes to concern. When a large monster materializes on Odo Island, that concern becomes alarm. And when said large monster hauls himself out of Tokyo Bay, stomping the neighborhood and spraying the locals with radioactive fire-breath, alarm gives way to panic.
Dignified Dr Yamane differs from just about everyone else in that he doesn't want the monster, Gojira, reduced to protoplasm; rather, he thinks the creature should be studied to see how it has survived, even thrived, after absorbing radiation from a nuclear test. But everybody else just wants the critter dead, including his Yamane's daughter Emiko and her bland boyfriend Hideto. Only the reclusive Dr Sarazawa, he of the eyepatch and chiseled chin, seems unmoved. Locked up in his basement laboratory with his newest invention—the promisingly-named "oxygen destroyer"—he seems a prime candidate for Scientist Most Likely to Go Postal Before the Movie Ends.
Alas, it's Gojira who goes postal, hitting Tokyo hard in an extended rampage. This part of the film is far more powerful than most of its kind, and certain episodes, like the radio commentator broadcasting up to the last moment, are quite affecting. Scenes of "the day after," including images of horribly-burned bodies and children being scanned for radiation, carry an unmistakeable echo of Japan's WWII trauma. Dr Sarazawa, finally convinced of the need to use his super-weapon, throws himself into the action, and then throws himself into the sea. After that, the monster's days are numbered. There's a romantic triangle in all this too, but it fails to convince and isn't very interesting anyway.
What gets smashed to smithereens: Lots—including most of Tokyo, several boats and their crews, an island village, oil tanks, countless city blocks, tanks, a rooftop aviary, soldiers, fish in a tank, a notable scientist, and a several-million-year-old creature.
It's only rock n' roll: Blue Oyster Cult's 1977 hit, "Godzilla," marked a logical nexus between heavy metal rock and heavy reptilian stomping. The guitar lick was later sampled in 3rd Bass's rap foray "Problem Child."
Did you know? Director Ishiro Honda, a protégé of Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa, was inspired both by the 1952 re-release of King Kong (1933) and the more recent The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Not knowing what kind of monster to use fir his own movie, he considered many ideas, including a giant octopus. The name "Gojira" translates from the Japanese to mean, roughly, "whale-ape," so draw your own conclusions.
Didn't you know? For its US release, this film was pared down by 18 minutes, filled out with scenes of Raymond Burr scowling into the camera, and distributed as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). The recut loses much, including any comment about the perils nuclear weapons or testing—things the Americans didn't want to hear. Imagine that.
Somehow their careers survived: Takashi Shamura (Dr. Yamane), who would reprise his role in 1955's Gojira sequel Godzilla Raids Again aka Gigantis the Fire Monster, had probably reached his career zenith starring in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). But he was in tons of stuff, including 1957's The Mysterians and 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, both of which were directed by Gojira director Ishiro Honda. Akira Takarada (Hideto) started his career in this film, and went on to others such as Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964) and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)—both, again, directed by Honda. Momoko Kochi (Emiko) showed up in 1955's Love in the Snow (brrrr!) as well as The Mysterians, while Akihiko Hirata (Serizawa) scored roles in Rodan (1956), The H-Man (1958), and Mothra (1961), all directed by Honda. Hardworking stuntman Haruo Nakajima (the guy in the monster suit) continued playing monsters, including Gojira, until 1972. Gojira himself enjoyed a 50+ year career, fighting the likes of King Kong, the Smog Monster, Mecha-Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, Megalon, and many more. Avoiding Son of Godzilla (1967) is one of the wisest decisions you will ever make.
BOTTOM LINE: A great movie, well deserving of the adulation it receives, though the countless sequels are less impressive.
NEXT WEEK: Gojira No Kyakushu aka Godzilla Raids Again aka Gigantis the Fire Monster (1955)