Godzilla: the most melancholy giant monster film yet made?

With Pacific Rim out now, Ryan looks back at 1954's Godzilla. Is it the most downbeat, melancholy giant monster film yet made?

Although influenced by King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1954’s Godzilla and its title monster quickly emerged as an icon in his own right. And this summer, Godzilla and the Japanese kaiju genre he spawned gets a loving tribute in the formidable shape of director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim – an action adventure unafraid to wear its love for Japanese otaku culture on its over-sized sleeve.

Godzilla celebrates his 60th birthday next year, and this venerable giant lizard has starred in so many movies – almost 30 – and appeared so often in comics, cartoons and merchandising that it’s easy to forget what how dark, thought-provoking and extraordinary director Ishiro Honda’s initial entry was.

Where later Godzilla movies were colourful and riotously entertaining, the 1954 original is stark and uncompromising. Its tone is serious, its conclusion ambivalent and solemn rather than whooping and triumphant. It’s often said that Godzilla is a metaphor for the nuclear bomb, a walking radioactive nightmare. But nowhere is this more keenly felt than in Honda’s film, which dwells on the after effects and psychological trauma of destruction more than any other monster movie before or since.

Godzilla’s opening was torn straight from the headlines of the day. Months before the film’s release in November 1954, a Japanese fishing ship, the Daigo Fukyuru Maru, was struck by radiation following the test detonation of a nuclear bomb – US scientists had failed to anticipate the size of the blast, resulting in a bout of serious radiation sickness for the ship’s crew. 

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The event opened up wounds still fresh from Japan’s defeat in World War II, which concluded with not only the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the razing of Tokyo. Arriving less than a decade after the conclusion of the war, Godzilla was an encapsulation of that period, and Japanese audiences would have immediately recognised the symbolism of its opening scene, where a fishing vessel is destroyed by a flash of light emanating from the sea.

As the ships sent to investigate are also destroyed, the residents of nearby Odo Island begin to sense that something is terribly wrong. “When it can’t find fish in the sea, it finds men on the land,” a village elder warns, referring to a legendary creature named Godzilla, who in days past was appeased by the occasional female sacrifice. That prediction is soon proved accurate, as Odo is attacked by night, before the colossal predator turns its keen eyes to the mainland and the neon lights of Tokyo.

Honda had accesss to a then-unprecedented budget for the Japanese film industry (reckoned to be as much as $1m) when realising his scenes of destruction. Seasoned cinematographer Eiji Tsuburaya had previously created some uncannily realistic effects for war movies before the 1950s, and he brought those skills to the scenes of devastation in Godzilla. Famously, Tsuburaya and Honda chose not to employ the same stop motion techniques Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien had used in their monster movies (though one brief scene did use some animation) since it was deemed too expensive and time-consuming. 

Instead, Tsuburaya opted to use an actor in a suit (Haruo Nakajima, who would play the part until 1973) and scale models to bring his action scenes to life. Although some critics dismissed this approach as comparatively crude – and perhaps even quaint, particularly when seen in later kaiju movies – cinematographer Masao Tamai’s lighting brings real drama to these sequences: often seen in silhouette against a blazing city, Godzilla has an elemental, menacing presence. Godzilla’s original name, Gojira, is an amalgam of the word gorira (or ‘gorilla’) and kuijira (meaning whale) – and the creature’s physical weight and destructive power embody that name perfectly.

Although Godzilla is the title star of the movie, Honda places human characters at the centre of his drama. Shot with surprising naturalism, the film’s really about the interplay between four people: Doctor Yamane (Momoko Kochi), who wants to protect and research the creature, his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), who’s in love with ship captain Hideto (Akira Takarada) and plans to break off her engagement to the increasingly reclusive scientist, Dr Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata).

Although the handsome Hideto could be regarded as the hero among this small ensemble, it’s arguably Serizawa who’s the most compelling and sympathetic. Facially scarred by radiation from the war, Serizawa’s haunted by the results of his own research: something called an Oxygen Destroyer, which has a devastating effect on aquatic life. Afraid that his invention could be used as a deadly weapon, he’s become withdrawn and guilt-ridden, until Hideto and Emiko convince him that his discovery has to be used to stop Godzilla’s campaign of destruction. 

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Honda’s direction is full of suspense. He frequently shrouds Godzilla in rain or darkness, or has characters see things that we don’t. In the first act, a villager on Odo island looks up and sees something horrifying in the night sky, but the beast itself is kept off camera for a few more agonising minutes. Shortly before the film’s mid-point, Sherizawa shows Emiko the experiment that has indirectly caused their break-up. We see Emiko stare into an aquarium full of fish, then cover her eyes and cry out, but we don’t see the cause of her distress. It’s only much later, during a flashback, that we learn of the Oxygen Destroyer’s power: it reduces the fish to skeletons.

From beginning to end, Godzilla is about characters making difficult and often terrible decisions. Godzilla is itself an innocent victim: a two-million-year-old creature whose habitat and DNA have been distorted by nuclear energy. Doctor Yamane insists that science should “learn amazing secrets of life from it,” but in the end, his weary face appears to suggest that even he has decided that Godzilla is simply too dangerous to be allowed to live.

Even in the effects sequences, Honda grounds the devastation in human drama. “We can see your father soon in heaven,” a mother says, as she vainly shields her children from falling debris. The destruction of Tokyo is depicted not as a rousing action sequence, but as a tragedy, underlined by the subsequent shots of irradiated children crying in a hospital. 

Throughout, Honda matches deafening noise with silence, or the large-scale with the small. A shot of canaries in a cage is later replaced by the captivating image of Godzilla staring into a colossal aviary full of birds. Quiet conversations are cut short by the rhythmic thudding of feet or a terrifying roar.

The film’s most indelible sequences arrive at the end. Realising that the Oxygen Destroyer is the only means of stopping Godzilla, Emiko betrays her former fiancée to Hideto. Hideto and Emiko confront Sherizawa about his invention, and the doctor aggressively resists the suggestion that he use the Oxygen Destroyer as a weapon – in the wrong hands, he says, it could be even more dangerous than the H-bomb.

Shortly after, a television announcer introduces a choir of school girls, who sing a mournful hymn of peace. Honda shows us scenes of a ruined city, of children lying bloodied in a field hospital, before cutting to the choir, standing in eerily perfect rows. “May peace and light return to us,” they sing, as Honda’s camera films them each in turn, “May we outlive destruction”. We cut back to Sherizawa’s face, and we see that he’s changed his mind.

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An instrumental version of this hymn, hauntingly and beautifully orchestrated by composer Akira Ifukube, plays out over the conclusion, where Sherizawa and Hideto take the weapon down to the ocean floor and use it on the slumbering Godzilla. Far from the “Smile you son of a bitch” triumph of something like Jaws, it’s filled with yet more sorrow – the destruction has ended, but so has the life of a noble creature.

Emiko, Dr Yamane and the crew of a battleship look on sadly as Godzilla breathes his last. Even the monster’s passing brings more uncertainty. “If they keep experimenting with deadly weapons,” Yamane says, “another Godzilla will surface somewhere else in the world…” 

Critics both in Japan and abroad were initially unkind to Godzilla, with some arguing that the film was cashing in on the traumatic imagery of World War II and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident. But those images struck a chord, and Godzilla was a huge hit in Japan; its success became global when a re-edited version called Godzilla, King Of The Monsters!, starring Raymond Burr, was released in 1956.

The heavily reworked King Of The Monsters inevitably stripped Honda’s original cut of some of its bleak power, however, and indeed, it’s arguable that no other giant monster movie managed to capture that sense of sadness and betrayal that Japan must have felt in the wake of its WWII defeat. Although Godzilla‘s title creature was heavily featured on the poster, and became the icon of an entire emerging kaiju genre, some of the film’s most memorable images are of human faces: staring in disbelief or sadness as their homes are destroyed all around them.

But within all this melancholy, Japan found an icon, and both Godzilla and the kaiju genre have endured for decades. Eiji Tsuburaya would go on to create the Ultraman series, while Godzilla would continue to appear in dozens of Toho sequels.

Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American remake did decent business, but failed to recreate either the chilling impact of the first film or the zany majesty of the latter entries – instead, it fell into a curious middle-ground, emerging as a rather redundant post-Jurassic Park disaster movie.

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It’s fitting, perhaps, that the director of America’s next attempt at a Godzilla film is Gareth Edwards. His 2010 debut feature Monsters was the closest a giant monster movie has come, at least in tone, to Honda’s Godzilla, mixing as it did adult drama, an anti-war theme and a sombre tone with special effects. With Edwards’ talent behind the camera, maybe the 2014 iteration of Godzilla can return this iconic monster to his terrifying and majestic roots. What a fitting birthday present that would be.

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