Gojira / Godzilla

Monsters with minimal silliness
★★★
☆
Released: 
1954
Director: 
Ishiro Honda
Starring: 
Akira Takarada, Momoko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami
The Setup: 
Japan's nuclear testing awakens a monster.
Discussion: 

So this was re-released a few years ago, cleaned up and with all the Raymond Burr parts, which were inserted for the American release most of us are familiar with, taken out, leaving a fairly serious and somber story that is more focused on social issues than awesome destruction. In fact, it's a toss-up whether most of us have actually seen this first film at all, or any of the million sequels that all run together into one long, generic monster movie. So it can be a pleasure to go back and see the whole thing taken seriously, and best of all, be able to stand up to all the seriousness.

We open with a bunch of guys on a fishing boat, when suddenly there's a huge flash in the water, and the ship sinks. Then another ship is sent out to investigate, and sinks also. And then a third. You'll notice that the movie devotes time to the pleading of the wives, wondering if their husbands survived. Meanwhile on a remote island, an old man says that it's the return of Gojira, mythical monster said to have menaced the island in years past. There is a huge storm, and though we see nothing, we know that Gojira is stomping through their midst. Afterward investigators find huge tracks that are radioactive. As they're investigating, guess who should show up and peek over the hill at them, witnessed by enough people to put speculation over whether there really is a monster to bed.

There are government meetings in which a man says that the whole thing must be kept from the public, shouted down by a woman present who tells him outright he's a stupid idiot! Boy, don't you wish that stuff would happen at the United Nations? Anyway, soon the point is moot, since Gojira is taking a nighttime stroll through Tokyo, seen by everyone. Among the ways you can tell this movie is aiming for a more serious tone than its follow-ups is its momentary focus on a widow huddling helplessly with her children, telling them they'll see their daddy in just a few moments.

In here we have met several characters, namely young couple Ogata and Emiko, and Emiko's scientist father Professor Yamane. He is upset that the government just wants to kill Gojira, which is biologically unique, and Ogata takes the wrong moment to say he agrees, they should kill him. Also on hand is the mysterious Dr. Serizawa, who used to be an item with Emiko, and who shows her this special Alka-Seltzer he's developed which denudes the water of oxygen which somehow results in living things being reduced to skeletons. She agrees to keep it a secret until the big fellow conducts a particularly destructive stroll through Tokyo, and she has to say something.

Now as an American, we only have what we've seen on History channel of the destruction left after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but enough that we can piece together how all of this is a statement about the dangers of nuclear energy. The most obvious thing is the way Gojira was awakened by the nuclear tests, but there are also images of townspeople running down a street as a wave of destruction passes through them, wide cityscapes in ruins, lines of victims arrayed on the ground and hospitals filled to the brim with wounded survivors, and massive city fires that recall footage and artwork we've seen depicting the destruction of those two cities. Not to mention that the movie doesn't have Gojira saving any babies or puppies; he walks right up to a television tower, stares right at the people, then let's 'em have it.

So are the scenes of mass destruction awesome? You bet. One is again impressed with the effectiveness of simple, obvious models, as opposed to perfect CGI effects. Here, even as you can see clearly that it's a model, you admire the ingenuity in bringing it together, as opposed to the new, wonder-less feeling of "Oh, they did it all on computer." I mean, everything in Transformers 3 looked impeccable, but there was no moment of amazement. You're just looking at additional gigabytes. Here, even when you see an obvious plastic toy helicopter plop over onto its side in what is supposedly a huge typhoon, even though there's nothing realistic about it, you fill it in with your imagination (something not required by Transformers 3), and even if that falls far short, it's still charming and endearing.

Anyway, so there ya go, if you want to see a monster movie that is still serious and somber and not just pure silliness, in addition to having a message with real-world resonance, this is good and won't leave you feeling like you wasted our time on a trifle.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, especially if you've only seen the Americanized version with Raymond Burr added.