Would you believe that there are 29 Godzilla movies, with a thirtieth coming in 2014 (starring Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad", for some reason). It's amazing how, essentially, the same story can be recycled over and over again where some creature terrorizes Japan, and then Godzilla comes and saves them. (Didn't the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers show suffer from the same problem?) But if we look back to the very first Godzilla movie, things were a bit different. Way back in 1954, there was no foreign creature to rip up Tokyo like hungry barbecue goers on a taco salad. Godzilla did it himself in the first ever film, entitled "Gojira". I'm going to be reviewing the original Japanese version, not the American retooling from 1956 with scenes of Raymond Burr spliced in.
"Gojira" was written as a response to the horrors and fears still felt by the Japanese people after the United States had started testing their hydrogen bombs around Bikini Atoll, to the far southeast of the country. A Japanese fishing vessel was nearby, and its citizens felt the effects of the radiation almost immediately; at least one person died as a result of this testing. The movie starts out the same way: a fishing ship is suddenly destroyed in a burst of light, as is the rescue boat that responds to their distress signal. It is soon discovered that the source of the destruction is Godzilla, a legendary monster. When an investigation team visits the island, they find giant footprints emitting strong radiation. Suddenly, Godzilla shows up to spook the islanders before returning back to the sea. The citizens want Godzilla dead; Dr. Yamane, however, wishes to study it and know what has kept this, a prehistoric dinosaur-like creature, alive for so long. It is believed that he lives off both the nuclear energy of weapon testing and snacking on deep-sea creatures. Initial attempts to kill Godzilla at sea fail, and when they decide to build a giant electrified fence to zap him to a crispy doom the following night, this, too, fails to stop him. Godzilla soon runs amok throughout Tokyo, leaving many suburban areas absolutely demolished and set aflame with fires that cannot easily be extinguished.
Godzilla's attacks aren't the entire focus of the film. Behind the scenes is the romance between Emiko Yamane and Hideto Ogata. Emiko, however, is engaged to a colleague of her father, Dr. Serizawa. When she goes to break the news that she is in love with Ogata, he confides in her a dark secret about his research: he has, by accident, created an Oxygen Destroyer, able to disintegrate oxygen in water and cause any living organisms within to die. She initially agrees to keep this secret but does not confess her love for Ogata. Later, after Godzilla has basically ruined much of Tokyo, she reveals the details of the Oxygen Destroyer to Hideto, and they both go to convince Serizawa that this is the only way to save the world from Godzilla's wrath. Serizawa is torn because he does not want his work to be used for negative purposes, now or in the future. He is eventually convinced, however, as both Ogata and Serizawa take the Oxygen Destroyer to the bottom of the ocean via scuba suits and prepare to set it off. Ogata surfaces, but Serizawa does not, saying he wants Emiko and Ogata to both be happy. Tears flow like wine at a wedding reception.
And, of course, Godzilla disintegrates into a skeleton.
Contrary to later Godzilla films, this one's serious from start to finish. Well, as serious as a movie can be when it's about a giant lizard stomping through your town. I was hoping there would be even a slight chance of comic levity wedged in somewhere, but there's nothing humorous to be found here, unless you consider overacting to be funny. And if you do, you may like this movie because there's more chord-scraping screaming and spontaneous bawling here than necessary. I was amazed at what people will yell at here, and it's a bit taxing on the ears. Likewise, Emiko Yamane (played by Momoko Kôchi) tends to break down and cry very easily, but she's not exactly the best actor for it. She looks so unnatural when shifting emotions. It's pretty weird. Godzilla could probably do it better.
Though we know in our heads that Gojira isn't real, there are certain times when you definitely know it isn't real. The film relies heavily on miniature sets that Godzilla (or a fellow in a dinosaur costume) knocks down or sets on fire. Sometimes the effect is convincing; othertimes, it's too obvious that the buildings aren't real. I don't expect CGI quality in 1954, but it does pull away from the immersive feeling every once in a while. Nonetheless, the menacing rampage of Godzilla is very moving; you can sense the panic in the citizens as their beloved town is crushed, a reflection of the hovering fears still remaining after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier.
As a sidenote, the film was originally going to be shot in colour; at the behest of Toho Studios, the production company, this idea was scrapped, likely for financial reasons. I'm glad Gojira is in black and white; it adds to the terror, particularly during the night scenes.
Gojira is one of the best movies of the entire series and a great place to start if you haven't seen a single Godzilla film yet. Though he later served as a hero to mankind, we're able to look at the monster as he was original intended to be: a threat to society thanks in part to our own malicious ways. Gojira is, at times, a chilling depiction of a true disaster, and even though it's about a city being terrorized by a giant dinosaur, there are far more social, political, and moral undertones here than meets the eye.