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#109. Godzilla (1953) - Review

Godzilla / Gojira posterThe monster movie, or what the Japanese call “daikaijueigai” films, is a long standing genre that successfully elicits fear in the audience, while at the same time projects a deeper symbolic meaning onto the screen. From the moment King Kong fell to his death from atop the Empire State Building, directors have been taking advantage of the monsters found in this genre to sympathetically manipulate audience’s expectations and emotions. In 1954 Toho director Ishiro Honda took advantage of the medium to define the “creature feature.” Fueled by the destruction caused by the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II by American forces, Honda created the prehistoric Gojira, the grotesque and terrifying physical embodiment of nuclear fallout. Godzilla (American translation) is a symbol of not only an unspeakable past, but also serves as an omen, a warning against human kind’s inherent instinct to destroy each other. Unfortunately, 90-minutes of a man in a dinosaur suit destroying detailed models of Tokyo does not a movie make, and the contrived characters and plot that accompany the titular behemoth do little to enhance the already clumsy narrative.

Perhaps indicative of the genre’s immaturity, or Honda’s own shortcomings as a screenwriter so early on in his career, Godzilla’s metaphors and themes are as heavy-handed as the monster itself, taking cues from historical incidents that seem so on-the-nose that it is surprising it was taken seriously at all. The film opens effectively enough, the heinous metallic roar of the mysterious giant washes out the terrified screams of innocent men and women. The fishing vessel Eiko-Maru (an obvious acknowledgment to the “Lucky Dragon,” a tuna trawler whose crew was killed by radiation sickness after an American H-bomb unexpectedly sent nuclear fallout across a 7000 mile radius) comes into view as its crew desperately clings to the ship for support, their howls disappearing into the darkness that surrounds them while their imminent doom is all but guaranteed by the attacking monster. It is within these opening moments the film is most successful, Honda brilliantly manipulates the murky shadows the monster inhabits to great effect, obscuring it from view and creating an ominous reality of confusion and dread. Promising a horror film crafted by a disciplined director, once Godzilla is brought into full view, the film sadly relinquishes itself to the same campy compulsions that have handicapped the monster-movie genre since its inception.Professor Yamane (Takeshi Shimura)

After the monster attacks a small village in Odo, a team of scientists lead by Professor Yamane (Takeshi Shimura) is sent to investigate.  After finding high amounts of radiation in a footprint left by Godzilla, Yamane eventually surmises the same atomic weapons that guaranteed Japan’s defeat in WWII in fact birthed the creature. Shimura offers the same benevolent performance as Yamane as he did in many of his most famous films, and while the professor does not provide the same range that the dying bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe did in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), Shimura portrays Yamane with a kindly melodramatic charm that contrasts perfectly with the calamitous Godzilla. Yamane, amidst the destruction caused by the monster, immediately sympathizes with the beast, sensing a correlation of a brutal cause-and-effect both of them share. Just as Godzilla was created by the nuclear blasts caused by war, so to is Yamane a creature of the past, a relic who has been dismantled and reformed by his imperialistic homeland. Both man and monster are the tattered results of war, and it is a sweetly humanistic allegory that is too easily diminished by its own trappings. The dialogue spoken throughout the film, especially in scenes of noticeable importance, is unimaginative and elementary, typically grinding any moment not focusing on a fire-breathing reptile down to a slow and punishing halt. Usually as ham-fisted as the film’s metaphors, dialogue tends to read like an expository handbook; like when Yamane pleads to a commanding military officer, “ I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… but if we continue conducting nuclear tests its possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” Now, no one is expecting Oscar Wilde, but it must be said that Godzilla, a film that inspired over 20 sequels and spin-offs as well as countless other monster movies, laid the groundwork for the drivel that was to follow, and the success of this film, regardless of its amateurish colloquy, is the only excuse subsequent filmmakers will ever need.

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata)There is a love story in Godzilla, and unfortunately it is not between professor Yamane and Godzilla itself. Yamane is accompanied to the island of Odo by his beautiful young daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her secret lover, a handsome naval officer named Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Their affair must be kept in the dark because Emiko is actually engaged to Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a reclusive scientist with an eye patch and a laboratory that would make Dr. Frankenstein insecure. Ogata, in love with Emiko and fully aware of her relationship with Serizawa (her father’s first choice for a husband), out of duty asks Emiko to venture down into Serizawa’s laboratory and seek his assistance on how to destroy Godzilla before it is too late.

Serizawa is possibly the most interesting character in the film, going so far as to be even more enigmatic and bewildering than Godzilla. He is presented with little context, and this lack of explanation only heightens his ridiculousness. This is an intense man, with the weight of the film on his shoulders and he knows it. He could kill Godzilla right now with his rumored secret weapon, the aptly named “Oxygen Destroyer,” if it wasn’t for the possible consequences. With destructive capabilities far greater than the atomic bomb, Serizawa is understandably worried about how such a weapon would be handled if put in the wrong hands.Godzilla / Gojira

That is until Godzilla finally arrives in Tokyo. In what could be considered the film’s biggest highlight, the giant lizard wreaks havoc on the port-town, laying waste to anything and anyone that crosses his past. The buildings of Tokyo are toppled faster than a Lego-structure in a playschool, and unfortunately the special effects do not strive to look much better. Offering ample time to fetch a good look at the creature, Godzilla looks more like a homeless man covered in black plastic trash bags than a fire-breathing dinosaur from the Jurassic period.  Even compared to the monster movies that came before it, like the aforementioned King Kong or 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla’s effects must have been instantly outdated.

Godzilla / Gojira poster

The wavering Serizawa eventually employs the Oxygen Destroyer to terminate Godzilla, but at the cost of volunteering his own life in the process. His brave martyrdom is a serious affair, however overshadowed by the campiness that oppresses the moment.

Godzilla’s maladroit parable works in spite of itself. While the special effects and crippled dialogue do the film’s allegorical ambition a great disservice, it is understandable that Honda’s 1953 “daikaijueigai” has inspired the loyal and rampant following that it has. Godzilla may not be the prettiest, or even the most eloquent movie about a giant metaphorical reptile gone berserk ever made, but its reputation is proof that for many film fans, it is quantity over quality.  

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