The Big G's big debut
Gojira, also known by the title of its American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a 1954 Japanese science fiction kaiju film, and is the first major on-screen appearance of Godzilla. The American version stars Raymond Burr, but the one that I am reviewing is the original Japanese classic.
I am one to vouch for the original Japanese Godzilla movie to be, at least, in the conversation of greatest monster film ever made. Others might argue that the 1933 King Kong deserves such a title, given its visual achievements with stop-motion animation and a legendary soundtrack by Max Steiner. King Kong does have impressive credentials, but I find the fact that Godzilla was inspired by one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century to be too much to overcome. Japan may have been the most ballsy country back then. Not even 10 years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they create a film about a monster who reflects the destructive and horrifying nature of nuclear weapons.
Godzilla, though, is not literally a nuclear weapon. It's what he does and how he does it that resembles what nukes can do. He sprays atomic breath that engulfs everything it touches in flames. Buildings and monuments will crumble as soon as they cross Godzilla's path. Tanks, missiles, and guns are useless to stop his widespread impact. Everyone runs in terror.
I think the metaphor of nuclear weapons is a forgotten reason about why people gravitate to Godzilla so much. Seeing how Godzilla' entire history has played out, I can't fault someone for seeing Godzilla nowadays as just a fire-breathing lizard that beats up other monster baddies and maybe save the world, if he feels like it. Of course, a lot has happened in history since 1954, so as the human world changes, so should Godzilla.
Now onto the movie itself. The film opens on a ship where the passengers are blinded by a shining light coming out of the ocean. The ship is mysteriously destroyed, as are other ships within the general area. A nearby fishing village discovers that no fish are being caught, which one of the village elders blames on an ancient sea creature called Godzilla. Soon enough, a massive reptilian creature emerges and rampages the village, and later setting its sights towards Tokyo Bay. The Japanese military scrambles to find a way to stop Godzilla, but is met with opposition from Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), a zoologist who wants to study Godzilla.
- The best scene in the movie is one that doesn't even have Godzilla in it physically. It's the sequence right after Godzilla destroys Tokyo, in which we see the destruction left behind, and shots of people injured and grieving being tended to in a hospital. A little girl is crying in a woman's arms, and we also see a choir of little Japanese girls singing a prayer for the violence and destruction of Godzilla to come to an end. This entire scene is like a flashback to the aftermath of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The true horrors of war and nuclear weapons are on full display in this one scene, and I found myself getting slightly emotional while watching. Godzilla's appearance is rightfully treated like an epic disaster, which is an aspect that almost none of the future installments are able to fully recapture.
- I can't say that there is really anything within the film that I thought dragged it down in any alarming way. Godzilla's eyes look wonky in some low angle shots, and the last thing that you'd want in a movie as grim as this one is to make Godzilla look goofy. There is also a good 25 minutes or so in which Godzilla doesn't appear, but considering that his rampage through Tokyo is a long sequence that doesn't cut away to anything unnecessary, I was perfectly fine with it. Plus, it's not like they can have nothing but Godzilla just trampling buildings for 96 straight minutes. There's a budget to be mindful of.
It's not that Godzilla is only a great monster movie. With themes regarding the dangers of nuclear weapons, and how a nation reacts in the midst of a terrifying crisis, Godzilla is also an emotional and memorable metaphor for some of humanity's greatest fears. I can't say that it's a perfect movie, and yes, the special effects are dated, but I can say that if anyone you know would ask, "Why is Godzilla so popular?", "Why does Godzilla have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?", or "What is so great about Godzilla?", point them in the direction of this film. The fact that Godzilla is still appearing in new movies today must mean that the Big G has always been doing something right. Whether to say that it's the absolute best Godzilla movie is up for interpretation. I would say that it may be the most important one, and for that, it demands respect.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: