FILM REVIEW: Godzilla ゴジラ (1954)
Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk near Odo Island. However, it is soon discovered to be something more devastating than imagined in the form of Godzilla (ゴジラ, Gojira), a fire-breathing behemoth that unleashes its terror unto Japan after being awakened from its centuries-old sleep by an atomic bomb. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan, but the rest of the world as well.
Godzilla, the rampaging radioactive beast and a poignant embodiment of an entire population’s fears, became a beloved international icon of destruction, spawning over thirty sequels and continues to be a cult phenomenon.
Director: Ishirō Honda
Runtime: 96 min
Review by: Leticia Sim
Leaving the Asian Film Archive’s screening of Ishirō Honda’s original Godzilla, I was hit with the following realisation—I genuinely do not think there’s anything I can say, or any nuanced take I can give about this seminal allegorical monster movie that has not been scrutinised, preached, and reiterated to death.
Gojira, or Godzilla, is a monster that needs no introduction. Arguably one of the most recognisable and beloved movie icons, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who cannot immediately describe the behemoth’s unmistakable appearance and characteristics— A slow-moving yet ruthless mutated lizard towering over Tokyo, with a tyrannosaurus-like head and rows of spiky fins running down his back to the top of his tail, hell-bent on wrecking merciless destruction through cities.
While perhaps not as instantly recognisable, it’s also incredibly well known and blatant that this original incarnation of Godzilla was a sombre embodiment of Japanese post-war paranoia, a metaphor for the nuclear horrors in wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost immediately it’s drilled—no, jackhammered—into the viewer’s head that the real monster is not Godzilla. It’s instantly seen in the founding inspiration for the opening scene. Castle Bravo, an unimaginably destructive hydrogen bomb explosion, had hit a Japanese fishing boat months prior to the film; its fishermen were the first civilians to fall victim to weapons-grade radiation in peacetime. This incident sent out a potent reminder throughout the country: the nightmare of nuclear terror was ubiquitous, and would stretch far beyond war.
The audience at the screening I attended was a mixed bag. It seemed as if some, like myself, came into it expecting campy Godzilla with passé special effects and clunky dialogue indicative of the film’s age, while others were more cognizant of the weight of the subversive commentary this original version held.
It is often forgotten that Godzilla is first and foremost a human story. Even though we’re treated to the whole spectacle of this ruthless beast absolutely tearing through Tokyo, the focus was never really the creature itself, rather the devastating effects and direct impact it has on our immensely likeable main characters. It’s easy to quickly become invested in their personal stories and arcs, with each of them presenting different perspectives and facing momentous and urgent moral quandaries.
Sure, there were times the crowd collectively chuckled at the cheesy dialogue and scenes when it was more than obvious that Godzilla was a man in a rubber suit stomping on model figures. As a matter of fact, the dated monster-thrashes-city action and dramatic delivery are what make the film so earnestly charming. But when Godzilla was unleashing its sheer terror unto Tokyo, setting the city ablaze with its atomic breath, no one was laughing.
While the pioneering use of special and practical effects, and the invention of suitmation are technical feats for their time, the most remarkable and timeless aspect of the filmmaking is its fantastic score helmed by Akira Ifukube. The main title, “The Godzilla March” plays in the opening credits—it’s heavy, atmospheric, and terrifying; a perfect encapsulation of the monster we are going to meet. Accompanied with the pulsating footsteps of Godzilla, the music somehow captures the very essence and theme of the film without any words. The rest of the score also serves as a visceral accompaniment full of unrelenting adrenaline and sorrow, elevating the film to resonant heights.
Over half a century later, in addition to being an instantly recognisable pop culture icon, Godzilla has now become the longest continuously running movie franchise, spawning over 30 sequels. It’s hard to digest and fully appreciate the franchise’s rather reductive and exploitative westernised adaptations, especially after viewing this poignant genre-defining and contextually important Japanese original.
The creature feature’s latest Hollywood sequel comes in the form of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, tackling America’s present-day anxieties over climate change. While still rooted in relevant shared cultural terror, what this and all of Godzilla’s recent Western incarnations lack is the heart of the timely and cultural-specific original Japanese post-war film— its gritty, urgent, and unsettling commentary.
And while these are not new revelations, there’s something to be said about this particular Japanese approach to Kaiju monster flicks. In the wake of nuclear holocaust and tragedy, Japan managed to create and use Godzilla as an enduring and endearing vessel for national catharsis. And somehow, this Japanese gorilla-whale beast (the original name, Gojira, was a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale) was and is still able to resonate with international audiences, even in 2019.
All hail the king of monsters. All hail Godzilla. Nay, all hail Gojira.
You can catch the Asian Film Archive’s final screening of Godzilla on 15 June, 8pm at Oldham Theatre as part of State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters. Get your tickets here.
About State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters
Monsters have entertained and united us through our fear – from the genre defining Orang Minyak to the enduring image of Godzilla tearing through the streets of Tokyo – A Fear of Monsters explores the monsters that have traversed folklores and popular culture to the silver screen.
Featuring Asian horror films from the 1950s – 2000s, this programme is a cinematic continuation of Asian Film Archive’s exhibition State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters. More information can be found here.