Friday, July 2, 2021

Green Phoenix - Godzilla (1954) Review

 Gojira 1954 Japanese poster.jpg

This week's article is a very special one. Our first ever Patreon requested article, submitted and suggested by none other than my fellow contributor and friend Cendoo. Cendoo's official request was to review anything remotely associated with the Godzilla franchise, so I felt that looking at the original 1954 Godzilla film was as good a place as any to start.

The original Godzilla has achieved an almost legendary status in the annals of cinematic history. Following Japan's defeat in World War 2, Japanese media was heavily regulated by the occupying American military. This censorship tended to avoid any mention of the world wars or nuclear weapons for fear of growing Japanese resentment to the occupation.

When the American censorship relaxed in the mid 1950s, Japan was finally allowed to deal with the trauma and fear that resulted from World War 2 and the legacy of being the only nation in the world to have a nuclear weapon dropped on their population during wartime. At the same time, Japanese fishing trawler's were getting caught up in American and French nuclear testing in the Pacific, resulting in several diplomatic incidents.

All this led to an era of nuclear awareness in Japanese cinema that Godzilla fully played into. The film was a monumental success that launched one the longest running film franchise in cinema history, set the standard for the kaiju film, and established many of the ongoing expectations of the kaiju and science fiction genre; with an "Americanized" version being released in 1956 that altered the tone of the film tremendously.

While I grew up watching the "Americanized" version and even own a copy, I will be focusing today's article on the original Japanese film, touching upon the American verison only when the need for comparison arises. I want to once again thank Cendoo for supporting my articles through Patreon.

  • Directed by Ishirō Honda
  • Produced by Toho Studios
  • MPAA Rating: G
  • Running Time: 96 Minutes


When a series of Japanese freighters goes missing with clear signs of nuclear radiation, Japanese authorities fear a potential nuclear disaster and send an investigative team of reporters and scientists to look into the catastrophe. The team soon learns that the true culprit lies in a massive irradiated lizard that begins to attack the city of Shinagawa and threatens to plunge the nation into a nuclear holocaust.

With the monster impervious to all traditional weaponry and the death count rising, the team seeks out the aid of a mysterious scientist with a weapon that could be even more catastrophic than the nuclear bomb and a reluctance to ever see it used.



When looking at Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I am immediately drawn to a severe tonal shift, largely a result of American media of the 1950s leaning away from the dark realities of nuclear fallout and Japan's very real experience with the same. Godzilla can be an incredibly haunting experience to watch as the Japanese have a distinctly personal experience with nuclear fallout and its effects on the population. I imagine that the images of the cleanup and victim rescues following Godzilla's attack on Shinigawa must've been truly haunting for people who had experienced similar looks less than a decade before.
This leaves the film with an overall grim atmosphere that I'm struggling to think of a worthwhile comparison in American cinema of the same period. The film feels deeply tragic and avoids many of the more lighthearted or spectacle driven fare that one would expect from American monster movies of the same era. It creates a unique experience for someone like me who grew up on those classic B-movies. Godzilla in many ways looks like your period standard monster movie, but what elevates its status is the historical context that cannot be isolated from it.
Moving from the overall thematic perspective of the film to the visuals and cinematography, the film definitely feels like a product of its time and limited by its budget, costing around 100 million yen to produce (around $900,000 USD). The Godzilla effects feel silly nowadays compared to the amazing computer-generated effects that we've come to expect from the Legendary Pictures Monster-verse films, but the film gets around the limitations of its "man in a suit" monster effects by bathing the scenery in pathos and making sure to keep Godzilla always feeling larger than life.
It's also the fact that Godzilla is kept a rather quiet entity throughout. While many people might criticize a monster movie where the monster's appearances are sparse, Godzilla makes this work by ensuring that anytime the titular creature appears is an enormous moment and relishes in it. However unlike the more modern Godzilla movies that tried this same approach, the films emotional moments are derived from the struggles of genuinely interesting human characters and how they relate to the predominant theme of the franchise.
In particular, the character of Serizawa is a fantastic element and plays into the overall theme of the film. That being the dangers of unregulated science and mankind's capacity to destroy itself through lack of foresight. Throughout the film, Serizawa is in possession of a dangerous weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. This weapon has the capacity to be even more destructive than the atomic bomb and Serizawa shows a fear of releasing his weapon into the world, as he does not know the consequences of its use (later films would justify this fear with the introduction of the monster Desotroyah, but that is a story for another time). Ultimately, Serizawa's struggle against both Godzilla and his fear of mankind's misuse of science forms the emotional core of the film. The other characters are largely driven by a romantic B-plot involving Ogato, a surviving ship captain who is brought on board the team to uncover the truth of Godzilla, and Emiko, Serizawa's ex-fiance and the daughter of the head scientist, and how their relationship ties into Serizawa.
It really distinguishes the film from the Americanized version which used an awkwardly shoe-horned American reporter into the film, played by the Raymond Burr. The :Americanized version also removes most of the more troubling visual elements, particularly those which showed the effects of Godzilla's rampage in terms of nuclear fallout. The Japanese had very real experience with such effects and used the film to explore very real trauma's. Godzilla treats the titular monster with the same respect one would give a natural disaster and it constantly films it as such.
That tone is immensely helped by the incredible sound design. Oh my god! The music and sound of Godzilla are legendary. I think most anybody with access to the internet has likely heard of how they designed the iconic roar for Godzilla by rubbing a leather glove across cello strings and the result is haunting to hear in the film. This mixed with the spectacular music that has become the sound of the franchise. I don't think anyone can listen to the original 1954 theme and not immediately be brought back into watching your first Godzilla film. The ties to the film and the soundtrack elevate the tracks to a legendary status.

Godzilla was experimental for its time, as the Japanese film industry was still recovering from the World War and it used a rather small budget to tell a powerful story of the consequences of man's hubris and destuctive capabilities whilst simultaneously using Godzilla to explore the collective cultural trauma of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It elevates Godzilla from a potentially campy science fiction B-movie (as the "Americanized" version turned it into) into a powerful story that launched a legendary franchise.
  • 7/10
  • 10/10
  • 7/10
  • 10/10

 FINAL SCORE - 8.5/10

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