Here comes Godzilla with … Godzilla (1954)
To get me geared up for Godzilla (2014) in May, I am going to look at some old-time Godzilla movies to see if they still hold up today. I’m looking for hidden gems, not just crap on a stick like that shown on cable.
When I was younger, I didn’t care that these movies weren’t big budget epic special effects extravaganzas, and I don’t really care much now either. What I do care about is dialogue, and poor dialogue makes my hears burn, like in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), but I often find Godzilla vs Mothra (1964) or Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991) still somewhat appealing. Much like the Universal horror films, these movies made money and were appealing to somebody, otherwise they wouldn’t have made two-thousand of them, so I’m not going to so-much make fun of these movies as look at them in a nostalgic way. Are you ready for some Godzilla May 15??! I am! Let’s get some Godzilla review on!
I did not know this, but people divide the 28 Godzilla movies into series categories or eras, mostly for continuity reasons. The Showa era is the first, covering the movies released from 1954 to 1975. After a decline in popularity in the 70s, Godzilla went on a 9 year hiatus until the release of Godzilla (1985), also called The Return of Godzilla. This was a remake, reboot, sequel of sorts that seems more fresh than the rest of the Showa era films and began the Heisei series, which lasted until 1999. After those, the Millennium series of Godzilla films then lasted until 2004, when Toho swore off Godzilla for 10 years and demolished its Godzilla sets.
All these films, no matter the series, use Godzilla (1954) as a starting point. My exposure to Godzilla began with the 1956 Raymond Burr Godzilla, an edited version of the 1954 film for American release. Raymond Burr was added to appeal to American audiences and I think he does a good job, despite the criticism of his version. To make room for Raymond Burr, I have heard that they cut out scenes of exposition and many Japanese characters, which is a shame. I think I saw the Japanese version on video when I was younger, but I’ve only seen clips of the full movie, until recently. I’m not sure which is better, but the differences were very apparent when I watched the Japanese version on DVD again for these comments. The Japanese version was re-released in 2004 and 2014.
What is there to like about Godzilla? Well, I happen to like watching Godzilla destroy a bunch of crap. Mostly, the Godzilla movies I remember have good explosions and strong action. The stories suck in most of them, but the 1954 original has the story and the action, so it is good on both counts. Beyond the action, many of the sequels have so-so sci-fi elements, but the monster designs are well-done, such as the popular Mechagodzilla or Mothra. The argument that Godzilla is just for kids is pretty dumb, considering the themes in the 1954 original. It is literally an allegory.
The 1954 original has meaningful themes and creates Godzilla as a symbol for the atomic bomb, a weapon that has ravaged Japan before. When I watched the film in its entirety, it certainly showed its age. Probably the most striking things about this film are the music, the monster design, and the destruction, in that order. I’ll always argue that a good musical score boosts a film from being good to great, and may mask the weaknesses of a lesser film.
At the beginning of the movie, a fishing boat is sunk and panic erupts about what might have caused it. The people begin to suspect that a volcano was responsible, but others are not too sure about that explanation. After a strange storm, Japan sends a fact-finding expedition to Odo island, the source of the trouble. Godzilla appears behind the hillside and frightens the locals, who see his huge footprints too. One of the characters brings this film into the realm of high politics by arguing against making the discovery public, fearing a general collapse of society. It does go public though, because I guess you can never keep a good secret hidden for too long.
The Japanese navy gets to work and tries to pre-emptively attack Godzilla by dropping depth charges. They are unsuccessful. There is a romantic subplot at this point, as a young woman named Emiko tries to break off her engagement to Daisuke Serizawa, as she is in love with someone else, but never gets the chance because he shows her his latest experiment. This experiment uses a de-oxygen device of some sort and it kills all the fish in a tank. She screams upon seeing the results. I liked this part of the movie, despite its slower pace and lack of Godzilla, because we get more of that later on, anyway. The strength of that scene is in the emotion. The acting is not exactly perfect, but it’s good enough and moves the plot.
Godzilla attacks Tokyo, like a literal atomic bomb, and this is the selling point of the movie. Fire is the major destruction in the scene and everything not set on fire is stomped by Captain Lizard. Godzilla has an atomic breath that spreads the dangerous fires across the city. Perhaps this mirrors what happened when the bomb was dropped on Japan.
The allegory of the Oxygen Destroyer is brilliant. There’s no evil scientist to be found in this movie, instead Serizawa is concerned his device will become a horrible weapon, if discovered. This was exactly what J. Robert Oppenheimer thought, the physicist who headed the Manhattan Project. He is said to have agonized over the destruction the atomic bomb would cause. Even Albert Einstein showed regret, in his encouraging of the bomb’s development. This is one parallel I’ve never seen before in this movie and it works well. After using the Oxygen Destroyer, Serizawa kills himself, which I assume is the movie’s comment on the futility in the pursuit of his type of work, though it is helpful in the short-term. But, as the movie reminds us, what happens if Godzilla returns when more nuclear testing is done?
The ending is a moral statement on how science can be perverted into a dreadful weapon. This is true of Godzilla too, who was born out of those weapons. It seems as if Godzilla, the literal symbol for nuclear holocaust, later became a Japanese symbol for strength, which may also account for some of his popularity. In any case, Godzilla is the most distinctive and unique creature on film and I’m not sure if the creators of Godzilla could have known he would have such a long-lasting, cultural identity. I can believe it, given the quality of this film. The symbolism alone raises the movie above the mediocre into something worth thinking about. All in all, I liked the 1954 Japanese original very much and would be honored to own a restored copy, not the tired and worn version I viewed. I hope the re-release and new 2014 Godzilla will bring back deeper, meaningful monster movies started by the 1954 original.
Godzilla Movies (click movie name for my review)
1. Godzilla (1954) – 9/10
2. Godzilla vs King Kong (1962) – 4/10
3. Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla (1974) – 5/10
4. Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) – 6/10
5. Destroy All Monsters (1968) – 3/10
6. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) – 4/10
7. Godzilla against Mechagodzilla (2002) – 8/10