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Gojira (1954) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)

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Posted 16th February 2012 at 12:25 PM by thelostclassics

This review appears on my website: www.thelostclassics.com

So, this is where it all began. With over two dozen film appearances, a children’s cartoon and an American remake to his name. Godzilla, like his foe in the 1963 ‘lost classic’ King Kong, has almost become a by-word for giant monsters. He has had many different roles in the movies hero, villain, environmentalist, cosmic avenger, father… it’s difficult to remember that he began life as a menace born of the atomic fires of the nuclear age. Even harder to consider that the first Godzilla movie, the Japanese film Gojira was more than a man-in-a-monster-suit extravaganza but rather a parable of the dangers of nuclear destruction.

They are so wrong. Godzilla should not be destroyed, he should be studied

Interest in making the film came about following the release of The Beast from 20000 Fathoms in 1953, Ray Bradbury’s effects caught the attention of film makers and audiences everywhere. In Japan it was decided that it would take five years to make the film with the stop motion effects that made Beast and King Kong so successful so a decision was made to use a suit. The name Gojira actually means ‘Gorilla Whale’ and was the nickname of one of the studio men at Toho studios. Toho decided to pattern the design closely after the Rhedosaurus in Bradbury’s feature with Gojira being an amalgamation of a T-Rex with the dorsal spine of a Stegosaurus.

The suit itself would weigh over two hundred pounds and be described by its wearer Haruo Nakajima as wearing a strait jacket. Nakajima would go on to wear the suit in twelve film appearances.

Directorial duties fell to Ishiro Honda, a lifelong friend of Akira Kurosawa, who also experienced international success that year with The Seven Samurai. Honda worked with a budget of between $175,000 and $250,000 in today’s standards.

I hope I didn’t survive Nagasaki for nothing.

Gojira was released nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as producer Tomoyuki Tanaka noted:

“The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

It was also influenced by a more recent report of the ‘Lucky Dragon No. 5’ a tuna trawler that, on March 1st 1954, strayed close enough to a H bomb test near the Marshall islands for the crew to become sick with radiation poisoning. This incident was echoed in the opening scene of Gojira where the crew of a small freighter are blinded by a flash of light at sea, just before their boat is overcome by flames.

The Japanese original was certainly quite ‘heavy’ on its references to the nuclear bombs with one character even noting, “if we continue testing H bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear.”

I’m afraid my Japanese is a little rusty.

The references to H bomb tests, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the result of releasing the film somewhat risky in America. Thus instead of just providing English dubbing over the Japanese soundtrack, the producers made the decision to alter the film by introducing an American journalist who would provide narration and just as importantly, an international point-of-view to the desctruction. Raymond Burr was cast as journalist Steve Martin who stops over in Japan to meet an old college friend, just in time to witness the destruction by the newly named Godzilla. Burr was best known for his role as the wife-killer who plagues James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and would go on to star on TV as Perry Mason. An Asian actor was hired for the part of Steve Martin’s interpreter and the use of extras as well as stand-ins (usually appearing with their back to the camera) for the original cast were used to integrate Steve into the film. There are still rumours that Raymond Burr completed all of his scenes in one day, although the reality is that it had to have been several days filming.

But the whole world could wake up and live again.

Although the film is over fifty years old, the only manner in which it has significanty dated is the use of effects. The old Thunderbirds style ‘Supermarionation’ is used quite frequently and the shot of a helicopter being blown onto its side during a storm on the island is laughable now. However, the Japanese version in particular is heart wrenching with haunting scenes such as children dying and a convent full of school girls singing whilst Gojira approaches being prime examples. The ending can stay with you also as it depicts a scene of self sacrifice to beautiful soft requiem strains. Once you watch the film, one of the hardest things to realise is that the series would almost instantly descend into the level of camp.

Watch Gojira or Godzilla, King of the Monsters then watch other films in the series on different sittings. I’d recommend Mothra vs. Godzilla, King Kong vs. Godzilla and Destroy all Monsters. Oh and if you really didn’t like the Roland Emmerich directed American remake, check out Godzilla: Final Wars for a short lived battle between original and its American counterpart (known simply as Zilla in the Japanese films).

Film Rating (from FIVE): FOUR

Series rating (from FIVE): THREE
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