GOJIRA (GODZILLA)

(Re-edited, dubbed and released in U.S. as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS)
(1954)

With Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura (and Haruo Nakajima as Gojira)
and Raymond Burr (U.S. version)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

This review is of the original Japanese version and the dubbed American version of the film.

Comin' through... oops, sorry... pardon me...     Unlike many of the fun but childish sequels of the 1960s, the original GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA) is a serious-minded sci-fi/horror movie that presents the monster not as the folk hero he was later to become but as a nasty, destructive fire-breathing harbinger of death; in essence, a walking atomic bomb.  

    Unlike KING KONG, there is no long wait for the monster's first appearance but, unfortunately, when The Big Guy does show up, he initially looks more like an early Jim Henson Muppet experiment gone horribly awry than he does the above-mentioned "harbinger of death".  Although inspired by KING KONG and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, the effects team had neither the time nor money to use stop motion photography to create their beast, and chose to go with an actor in a rubber monster suit stomping around on miniature sets.  Sometimes this is thoroughly convincing, especially in the long shots, but other times it looks likes an actor in a rubber suit stomping around on miniature sets.  In closeups, it is obviously a handpuppet.  No matter - the sheer effort put into recreating Tokyo in miniature and then demolishing it completely for our entertainment and education is massively impressive.  Most of the monster's footage later takes place at night, which, along with the stark black and white photography, helps disguise tye monster's true nature.  Also helping to put over the creature are the echoed footsteps that always signal his arrival, the freaky roar (created by abusing the strings of a double bass) and the ominous music played during the attacks that owes a little bit to the mood, if not the melodies, of Max Steiner's original KING KONG score.

     Director Ishiro Honda keeps the film moving at a quick pace by compressing some of the timeline into montages, complete with the kind of transitionial wipes that were the trademark of his best friend, Akira Kurosawa.  Kurosawa fans will instantly recognize Takashi Shimura, the star of IKIRU and SEVEN SAMURAI, as resident Godzilla expert Professor Yamane, as well as Kokuten Kodo, who played the wise old farmer in SEVEN SAMURAI and plays a wise old fisherman in this film.  Apparently, Kodo was the go-to guy in Japan when a director needed a wise old man and Takashi Shimura was already cast as someone else.

     GOJIRA is one of the earliest anti-nuke films and, along with DR. STRANGELOVE, still the most famous.  The dramatic depictions of the utter devestation left behind by Godzilla's attacks on Tokyo have an almost documentary feel to them and are clearly meant to invoke the destruction of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War Two.  According to Professor Yamane (who seems trustworthy even though he places the Jurassic Period as being only two million years ago), Godzilla was created by the testing of atomic weapons and now is an unstoppable radiological force himself.  Honda unflinchingly shows us the horrors of not only Godzilla's rage but also the radiation he leaves in his wake.  During the major attack, Honda zeroes in on a mother in the streets of Tokyo, cradling her children and telling them not to worry, they will all be with Daddy very soon.  After the attack, Honda takes us to a hospital where children are revealed to be suffering from deadly radiation poisoning.  You won't find too many moments like these in later Godzilla films.

    In the final moments of GOJIRA, the Professor warns us that if we keep playing around with nuclear energy, there will be another Godzilla appearing soon.  He should have added "at a theater near you!", as GOJIRA was intially followed by a direct sequel (GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN) the same year, and then a dozen more until the series ran out of steam in the mid '70s.  In the wake of the success of GOJIRA, Honda and company created a whole slew of other prehistoric beasties such as pteranodon Rodan, three-headed flying thingy Ghidorah (aka Ghidra or Monster Zero) and the silk-spewing Mothra, while rival film studio Daiei created the memorable giant flying turtle Gamera, though perhaps in the case of a giant flying turtle, the word "memorable" is an unnecessary qualifier.

Perry Mason gets Godzilla to jump up and confess     In 1956 GOJIRA was released in the United States as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, a re-edited version with new footage directed by Terry Morse.  Raymond Burr now "starred" in the film as pipe-smoking reporter Steve Martin, a generic name in the fifties that these days brings giggles every time it is mentioned.  Burr essentially narrates the film as a series of dictated news reports and editiorials ("I'm saying a prayer, George, a prayer for the whole world,"), and through the magic of doubles and vocal dubbing, he interacts with several of the film's characters.  But it is still extremely obvious that he is in one film, and the original GOJIRA actors are in another.  GODZILLA: KING OF ALL MONSTERS is a decent movie, thanks mostly to Honda's footage, and it is certainly much beloved by many fans today for whom it will may always be the real Godzilla story.  But Honda's original, untouched GOJIRA is a much better film.

     And let's just all be thankful that nobody ever edited Raymond Burr into SEVEN SAMURAI.  ("I can see the bandits now, George, they are just coming over the hill...") 4 - JB

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