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Gojira (1954)

As you’re probably aware, Godzilla and all of his kaiju ilk have a very campy reputation. Heaven knows it’s not unwarranted, given the increasingly goofy nature of the stories and monsters, to say nothing of the archaic “man in a rubber suit” special effects technology. The unintentionally comical nature of English voice dubbing probably hasn’t helped, either. In light of all that, it’s become easy to forget that back when he started, Gojira was deathly serious. You may already know that the King of the Monsters was made in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but if you think the nuclear testing allegory ended there, then you don’t know the half of it.

Gojira premiered only eight months after the U.S.A. detonated the first hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands. In that short time span, 66 more nuclear devices were detonated there, turning it into “the world’s most contaminated area.” No shit, that’s exactly what the Atomic Energy Commission called it back in 1954. And keep in mind, that’s just the American nuclear tests. The Russians were right next door to Japan, and they were conducting their own nuclear tests in the run-up to the Cold War.

So there’s Japan, minding its own business, still reeling from fatalities and economic troubles after losing WWII, quite literally caught between the radioactive fallout from rampant nuclear testing by two separate countries. And if you think that was bad enough, let me introduce you to the Daigo Fukuryo Maru (which translates into “Lucky Dragon 5”).

On March 1st of 1954, a tuna fishing vessel was trawling at Bikini Atoll, near the Marshall Islands. Then the Castle Bravo nuclear test happened, creating an explosion over 400 times more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. This result was double the expected yield, due to the use of a certain tritium isotope that wasn’t nearly as inert as expected. At the time, the Lucky Dragon 5 was far enough away that they didn’t hear the blast for about 8 minutes after the blinding flash of light. Even so, all 23 crew members were dead of radiation poisoning within six months. Far worse, the Lucky Dragon’s catch was put into the marketplace before anyone had realized what happened, exposing the entire country to secondhand radiation by way of tainted fish.

A year later, the U.S. government paid $2 million to the families of those aboard the Lucky Dragon 5 (that’s roughly $17 million, adjusted for inflation), but the damage was of course done. The Castle Bravo incident became a Japanese rallying point for protests against America and against the use of nuclear weapons. In this spirit, the people of Japan gave birth to an anti-nuclear icon that was later turned into a campy punchline by the Americans, culminating in the Roland Emmerich atrocity of 1998. Oh, the irony.

Flash forward to 2014 (60 years to the day since Castle Bravo), only a few months before Gareth Edwards’ attempt at bringing Godzilla to Hollywood. Everything I’ve seen and heard about this movie would suggest that Godzilla is being presented as a symbol of nature’s wrath, and the subject of nuclear testing is brought up in the trailer. In fact, Edwards himself has already stated point-blank that his approach is based on the premise that all those nuclear tests in the ’50s were actually done for the purpose of killing off giant monsters.

Clearly, if I’m ever going to acquaint myself with the film that started it all, I should probably get to it now. And just to clarify, this will not be a review of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Yes, the recut version with Raymond Burr was the one that first introduced American audiences to Godzilla and defined our mainstream perception of the beast. But that’s not what I’m after. I want to meet Gojira as his creators at Toho had intended. With that spirit in mind, this will be a review of Gojira.

This prelude may seem lengthy, but context is important with this film. Without all of this advance information, the movie would seem to open up with the deaths of random bystanders, which is perfectly typical for a disaster flick. But put yourself in the position of someone in Japan of 1954, living in constant fear of dying from slow radiation poisoning even if you were lucky enough to survive all that irradiated tuna floating around. Hell, you might have been reading about the dead Lucky Dragon crew members in the paper that morning. And then you see a film open with dozens of sailors dying sudden, painful deaths as a flash of light sinks their ship. OH. MY. FUCKING. GOD.

But of course it doesn’t end there. More ships are sent out to investigate, more ships get sunk for as-yet-unknown reasons, and every life lost is treated as a catastrophe. The film makes a point of lingering on the loved ones of those who were lost at sea, which serves as a poignant reminder of those who lost friends and family to radiation after Castle Bravo. Coincidentally, the sight strikes a heartwrenching chord in modern times, when we’re still desperately searching for answers regarding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. And it doesn’t end there. Every time Gojira takes another casualty, the film takes an extended amount of time to dwell on the suffering. Whether they’re nameless extras or lead characters, they’re all equally dead and given their proper respect. It’s saddening, sobering, and given the historical context, infuriating.

Of course, I must admit that the effects haven’t aged all that well. There’s some blatantly obvious miniature work and Godzilla himself — for better or worse — has aged about as well as his American cousin, King Kong. But the film still gets away with uneven effects work for a reason that modern Hollywood is only now beginning to realize: The effects are used as a means to convey the greater allegory, rather than being treated as ends in themselves. Though the catastrophes aren’t always much in terms of spectacle (though Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo is admittedly fucking awesome), the spectacle isn’t the point. The movie isn’t trying to call attention to the effects, it’s trying to call attention to all the hundreds of people who’ve died as a result of what’s going on (like an inverse to the Man of Steel climax, if you will).

With that in mind, it is a touch disappointing that none of the human characters leave much of a mark. The lead characters are all stock, and even after seeing the movie, I don’t think I could pick them out of a lineup if I tried (except maybe the mad scientist with an eyepatch). This is especially disappointing, given the caliber of talent that went into this movie. The film was directed by Ishiro Honda, a close friend and frequent collaborator to Akira Kurosawa himself. Several cast members (such as Takashi Shimura of Rashomon and Seven Samurai) were Kurosawa alumni, and even the debut actors went on to fruitful careers spanning several decades. There’s also Eiji Tsuburaya — whose miniature work in war films was so convincing that Allied troops thought his airplane models were actual Zeroes — the effects guru who brought Gojira to life.

(Side note: Akira Takarada, who made his screen debut as the protagonist of Gojira, has since been considered the “lucky charm” of the franchise. Though Takarada had absolutely nothing to do with Roland Emmerich’s take on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards took great pains in making sure that Takarada would get a cameo appearance in his upcoming film. Make of that what you will.)

But if Gojira is a lumbering block of rubber and the main characters are completely unmemorable, just what is it that makes this creature and this movie so beloved after all this time? Personally, I think it has more to do with what Godzilla represents and how well this movie conveys those ideas. This film perfectly captures the impotence of humanity in the face of a huge natural disaster, poignantly arguing that mankind’s acts of destruction can have catastrophic results that we could never anticipate. This means problems that demand even more drastic solutions and things just keep on spiraling out of control from there. It’s a timeless concept, and one that’s far more compelling than any one character or story could ever be. It’s like with werewolves: We can all identify with the notion of an inner beast, even if one person out of a hundred couldn’t tell you the first thing about Larry Talbot.

Furthermore, it bears mentioning that there really wasn’t a blueprint for anything like this movie. At the time, the only “monster movies” were King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It goes without saying that Gojira took heavily (some would say “plagiarized”) from both sources, much to the lifelong chagrin of Ray Harryhausen. Yet those films involved stop-motion animation, which was more costly than Toho was willing to pay for. So Toho had to pioneer the concept of full-sized monster suits, which had only been previously used in the Wasei Kingu Kongu knockoff (now lost to history) back in 1933.

The point being that this genre was still in its infancy. In terms of narrative and in terms of special effects, there hadn’t been a whole lot of groundwork laid. Yet the film could get away with its experimental nature, because of how perfectly it represented Japanese frustration and heartbreak at the time. So much catharsis, wrapped up in a 50-meter-tall, scaly, unstoppable, pissed-off package. What’s not to like?

Gojira (1954) is very slowly-paced at times and it hasn’t aged well as a special effects disaster extravaganza, but it serves a much more important purpose. By keeping its focus on the human tragedy, portraying the nuclear/natural disaster allegory in such a creative and visceral way, it serves as a time capsule to represent a very frightened and vulnerable time in Japan’s history. Even 60 years later, there are still images and scenes in this movie that will strike a chord with anyone even remotely connected to a city-wide catastrophe. Though the film does pour on the spectacle when the time comes to release Godzilla, the film always takes the time to check in on the innocent civilians who are dying horrible and violent deaths. The main characters may be stock and unmemorable, but the crises and dilemmas they face are incredibly powerful.

This is a movie that demands to be seen. Partly because it defies the stereotype of its franchise and partly because there are a lot of disaster filmmakers out there who could learn a thing or two from seeing it. Not that I’m naming any names, of course.

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