“I’m telling you, the sea just exploded!”
Godzilla is not merely a monster movie. I remember the critic David Katal once called it “a contemporary folk myth of the nuclear age.” He’s right.
Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla is less a monster movie than a fable with elements of grounded horror. In addition, Honda, who also co-wrote the script with Takeo Murata, grounds the film into an everyday horror. The horror, though, is not Godzilla. Or at least not just Godzilla.
Instead, it is the literal background radiation of the H-bomb being tested at Japan’s back door in the Marshall Islands by the United States. Moments such as the fishing boat being caught in the blast are incidents ripped from the headlines. In his first film, Godzilla represents radiation, a harbinger of death and destruction.
In many ways, Godzilla acts as a catharsis for Japan. A showcase of reckoning with the power and cost of atomic energy. Time and time again, Honda and Murata’s script drops references to the A-bombs dropped on Japan, with the scenes of the survivors of Godzilla’s devastation calling to mind the pain and suffering from the U.S. attacks during World War II.
At one point, Honda cuts to a subway car. Three people read the news about Godzilla, and we overhear their conversation. “Atomic tuna, radioactive fallout, and now this Godzilla to top it off. I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki — and now this.” Their tone is that of exhaustion and resignation. Finally, one of them mutters, “Evacuate again? I’ve had enough.”
Godzilla is a movie that rarely feels its age, outside of the special effects. But even these have a certain charm to them. Of course, special effects age faster than comedy. Yet, in their aging, I find, they acquire an aspect of nostalgia, a reminder that nothing stays new for very long.
Honda opens Godzilla with a black screen, the monster’s chilling roar echoing in the abyss. The credits begin to scroll as a percussive beat pounds. Akira Ifukube’s iconic score soon joins Godzilla’s roar and the drums. In moments like these, Godzilla feels eerily modern.
Ifukube’s theme is so iconic that it’s almost hard to believe it’s barely used in the movie. Even stranger is how the music doesn’t automatically accompany the monster whenever he appears onscreen. Instead, Honda uses it for choice moments, maximizing the impact of both the monster and the music.
Honda’s style isn’t gritty as it is naturalistic and, at times, observational. The monster is the backdrop to a sea of characters ranging from the wise old scientist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) to the love-struck ingenue Emiko (Momoko Kochi). Every time I watch Godzilla, I’m struck by how invested I am in these characters’ lives.
Granted, the storyline of Emiko and her handsome beau Hideto (Akira Takarada), is arguably the film’s weakest aspect. But, at the same time, I can’t help but giggle at how Honda never lets the two characters succeed in telling anyone they want to get married. Another plot thread is concerned with Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who is either an ex-love of Emiko’s or just a dear friend. The movie isn’t clear.
The mysterious young Dr. Serizawa works fervently in his laboratory on a secret invention no one seems to know anything about. Eventually, we discover his invention is a bomb called the Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa is ashamed of his discovery and wishes he never invented the contraption.
He tells Ogata and Emiko, “If the Oxygen Destroyer is used even once, the politicians won’t sit idly by.” Rarely has the invention to kill the monster involved any moral debate, such as the one that erupts between Ogata and Serizawa. Serizawa’s creation will most likely kill Godzilla, but it will almost certainly be used to kill others and with less justification.
All the while, Godzilla lurks offscreen.
Meanwhile, Shimura’s Dr. Yamane is shocked at Japan’s response to the monster. “All they can think of is killing Godzilla. Why don’t they try to study its resistance to radiation?”
Again and again, Honda and Murata bring to the forefront not just the bombings of Japan but nuclear testing in general. It’s not subtle, which makes how people can ignore its basic motif and write the movie as merely a monster movie is confounding.
Perhaps it is because the American version is such a vastly different film. An American producer, Joseph E. Levine, bought the American distribution rights. Levine shaved forty minutes off of Honda’s cut, re-edited the entire film, shot extra footage with the film’s new star Raymond Burr, and re-titled the movie Godzilla, King of Monsters! Burr, a character actor who would go on to play Perry Mason in Perry Mason, plays a world-weary reporter named, no joke, Steve Martin. You understand that that’s Steve Martin, the world-weary reporter, not Steve Martin, the world-weary wild and crazy guy.
Levine hired Terry O. Morse to re-edit and direct the new footage. Together they turn Honda’s opus into something one would find on a bill at a drive-in theater. Well, that’s not entirely fair, for the simple reason that Honda’s Godzilla isn’t just a significant influence on the giant monster movie or the kaiju genre; it’s damn near the beginning. It’s because of Godzilla that the drive-in theater has giant monster movies.
There had been a scattering of monster movies before 1954. Obviously, there’s the 1933 King Kong, but it didn’t spawn a new league of extraordinary special effects despite being a massive hit. Years later, Ray Harryhausen would work on 1953 The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, just one year before Honda’s Godzilla. In comparison, the similarities are surface-level at best. Both films involve prehistoric beasts awoken by atomic testing and begin to ransack major cities and haunt the ocean floor. But that’s where the overlap ends.
There are other films as well, but my point is that there was not a glut of them until Honda made Godzilla. Of the many notable aspects Godzilla is known for, the pioneering a form of special effects known as suitmation is chief among them. Or what we know of today as a stunt person in a rubber suit stomping on miniature sets.
But the effects in Godzilla are so much more than just a man in a suit and miniatures. Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects team utilized every trick, particularly the use of matte paintings. This is an effect whereby you paint part of a scene on a piece of glass and film the scene through the glass, thereby making it seem as if both the painting and the background are one and the same.
Tsuburaya, Honda, and Masao Tamai, the DP, work together to create scenes of destruction that are both spectacular and haunting. They use the shadows of the night as an excuse to light the creature almost as if he’s in a noir, giving him character and lending the destruction a sort of nightmarish undertone instead of pure spectacle.
Honda and the editor Taichi Taira utilize wipe cuts and jump cuts to give Godzilla the feeling of a newsreel. I constantly marvel at how easily Honda creates tension with editing and without Godzilla. In one instance, he uses Ifukube’s score overlaid onto a montage of scenes of the army preparing to fight Godzilla.
The montage ends with a slow zoom onto a nameless power operator and the abrupt end of music. A pall of silence falls over the scene, with a loud buzzer used as a punctuation mark. Godzilla is a meticulously crafted film that, citing merely the monster effects, cheapens Godzilla.
In addition, Tamai crowds the frames with throngs of people. This gives Godzilla a lived-in feel while also giving us a feeling of claustrophobia. Tamai’s camera placement is playful, at times placing it behind the character speaking or from the view of a fellow subway passenger.
However, the finale isn’t a celebratory defeat of the monster. Instead, it is shown with an abiding sense of melancholy. Characters have made sacrifices, and countless others have lost their homes and loved ones.
Even Godzilla’s death is portrayed as a tragic one. The beast thrashes about as Dr. Yamane, and others look on in despair. Finally, the beast dies, but there is only somber relief.
What must it have been like to sit in the theater in Japan and see Godzilla for the first time? Guessing by the box office records, it was safe to say it was a galvanizing experience. Godzilla has spawned an entire genre and an endless series of sequels and spin-offs. But above all else, it remains a powerful commentary of the time it was made while also retaining an immediacy with its dire warnings about how the atomic age carries a far too heavy of a price tag.
Images courtesy of Toho
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