Godzilla (1954) / Sci Fi-Horror
aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence and scenes of destruction
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata, Sachio Sakai, Fuyuki Murakami, Ren Yamamoto
Director: Ishiro Honda
Screenplay: Ishiro Honda
Review published May 10, 2014
Released as Gojira in 1954, there would be two versions of Godzilla - one the original Japanese-only release and the other an English-dubbed release (often titled Godzilla King Of the Monsters) that inserts 'flashback' scenes of actor Raymond Burr, portraying American reporter Steve Martin, for the US-distributed release in 1956, and tones down some of the potent allusions regarding the US use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities. Either one is generally fine for escapist viewing, as they are, more or less, the same basic plot at its core, even if they seem very different in tone and characterizations. However, true fans would scoff at anyone preferring the chopped-up American version over the original Japanese, so I suppose from a true Godzilla fan standpoint, it's best to introduce yourself with the original uncut version before seeing the re-edited Hollywood feature.
Near Odo Island, in the seas near Japan, a 165-foot-tall, amphibious creature of prehistoric origin named Gojira (or Godzilla, from here on out in this review) rises to the surface, attracted to the nuclear energy humankind has been testing in the area, and destroys quite a few shipping vessels in his wake. Japan seeks to figure out a way to either make it return from whence he came, or to destroy him, before the beast stomps all over their land and uses its atomic breath blasts to kill millions with heat and radiation.
Given a mere decade since the the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, Godzilla is rife with allegorical commentary about the perils of nuclear war, with the substitute being an atom-splitting Oxygen Destroyer, which, when unleashed could completely decimate all of the nearby life under the water -- something that could mean the beginning of the end for life on Earth as we know it if used as a weapon, which is obvious metaphor for the use of nuclear weapons. One can see the indelible look of a city completely destroyed in the fire blazes and crumbling buildings left by Godzilla in his rampage throughout the city, as people cower in helpless fear from the destruction they are powerless to stop.
Perhaps the greatest downside to Godzilla is the dated, shoddy effects, which sports the use of obvious miniature vehicles and cardboard buildings throughout that one might think would have even made audiences from the 1950s snicker a little. It also doesn't feature the titular monster nearly as much as you may think, and the iconic scenes of wanton destruction of Tokyo are relegated to one lengthy portion of the climax involving power lines and massive electric towers meant to thwart the behemoth.
However, that B-movie quality is also what some people have come to enjoy about the old monster movies, so even if it can sometimes look like someone's home video shot in their back yard, it can also be great fun to snicker when we see toy helicopters tip over and planes with strings on them fire sparklers at a man in a rubber Godzilla suit. However, given the limited budget, the size and scope of the miniature Tokyo does impress, as does the use of fire and heat blasts that stand up well today. But it's that now-iconic Godzilla roar that sets the creature apart, as the sound effects are superb, blending well with a fantastically gloomy Akira Ifukube score, and elevate the action even when the visual effects prove spotty from scene to scene.
Given the film's ending, it's clear that a sequel had not been foreseen, but given the massive success of the film around the world, Toho, the production studio behind Godzilla that had virtually been bankrupted by its expense, quickly ordered more. Future entries make Godzilla lighter and more comical, and even an antihero of sorts saving humanity from nastier monsters. These further interpretations, while in good fun, do detract not only from the impact of the scenes of destruction, but also grossly ignores the original intent of the anti-nuclear political philosophy. That allegory makes this 1954 film the most relevant, and the best of the bunch, by far. If Godzilla is the "king of the monsters", then Gojira is the king of monster movies, well worth seeking out for film buffs, historians, and monster-movie addicts alike.
-- Followed by Godzilla Raids Again (1955), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster (1966), Son of Godzilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla's Revenge (1969), Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn (1984), Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993), Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994), Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995), Godzilla 2000 (1999), Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000), Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Remade as Godzilla (1998) and Godzilla (2014).
©2014 Vince Leo