Probably no other science fiction film expounds on the horrors of atomic energy and nuclear weapons, as does Godzilla, the 1954 giant monster film from Japan.
No creature has captured the public’s imagination like Godzilla. Morphing from destroyer of cities, to protector of humanity, this atomic-fueled lizard presents one of the greatest takes on the themes of nature run amuck, and the damages that mankind can unleash upon the world.
The trailer for the original Japanese release of Gojira, henceforth referred to as Godzilla, depicts the terror of a giant dinosaur-like creature savaging Tokyo. As scientists attempt to understand it, the armed forces try to stop it. A member of the local government tells reporters that news of this cannot get out or the consequences would be dire. It’s apparent that the destruction and terror it causes the populace is based more on real-life possibilities than an entirely fictionalized film.
Presented below is the trailer for the film. Compare that to one of the trailers for the US release in 1956 called Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which was recut to add Raymond Burr.
The Fiction of The Film
Godzilla opens with the crew of a Japanese freighter experiencing a mysterious event akin to a nuclear blast, which destroys the vessel. Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain, gets a call regarding the SOS and tells his girlfriend Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) that he must go help. A rescue boat also meets the same fate as does a fishing trawler. The villagers of Odo Island discover that there are no fish in the waters around their island. An elder tells the assembled group that it must be Godzilla, while younger women ridicule his idea.
Later that evening a storm tramples the village, but damage appears to be from something crushing the village from above. When paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) arrives he discovers giant radioactive footprints consistent with claims of Godzilla. Soon, the roar of the creature is heard and part of the monster can be seen over the mountain. Yamane returns to Tokyo to present his findings.
In the government council meeting, an argument is heard about whether to tell the public of this threat. Professor Yamane presents his findings about the creature, suggesting that it is a remnant of the Cretaceous period and must have been awakened by nuclear tests, irradiating the beast. The government decides to send naval vessels after Godzilla, dropping depth charges on it. That only seems to enrage the monster. Yamane is saddened by this course of action, preferring to have a chance to study Godzilla instead.
In Tokyo, Emiko has decided to end her engagement to Professor Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), on of Yamane’s colleagues, in favor of her affair with Ogata. At this time a newspaper reporter asks her if she can help him get an interview with Serizawa about his current project. She agrees to help when she visits Serizawa to end their relationship. He admits Emiko, but refuses to talk about his work with the reporter, choosing to show Emiko his project. What she sees frightens her, and she leaves in tears, forgetting to tell him of her new love.
That evening Godzilla rises from the water and attacks a district of Tokyo. The army is unable to stop him as he destroys a train. It is decided that a giant electric fence must be erected around the bay to stop him. But when he emerges again for the next attack, the electric fence does little to slow him down. He attacks the city with his atomic breath. Many citizens are killed or injured, and the hospitals are overrun by people with radiation poisoning.
Unable to keep it a secret any further, Emiko reveals that Serizawa’s experiments are for an “oxygen destroyer,” which will kill all organisms within its radius. A flashback shows Serizawa demonstrating the device to Emiko, but refusing to use it for fear that it might fall into the wrong hands. Ogata and Emiko convince him that using the device is in the nation’s best interest, so he and Ogata put on diving suits and deploy the oxygen destroyer below the water. Serizawa cuts himself free of the diving equipment after detonating the device, ensuring that his secrets go to the grave with him. Professor Yamane mourns the loss of the mighty Godzilla, but wonders if someday another creature may surface due to the continued nuclear testing.
“If the oxygen destroyer is used even once, the politicians of the world won’t stand idly by. They’ll inevitably turn it into a weapon.” – Prof. Serizawa
History in the Making
Godzilla stands as an important film in the world of science fiction film for numerous reasons. Not only was it Japan’s first and greatest entry in the burgeoning giant monster sub-genre, it also portrayed recent historical events in a fictional way to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons.
Debuting a few short months after another radioactively created giant-creature film (Them!), Godzilla created a new style of monster film, that was entirely Japanese in origin. Influenced by western films, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla took a standard monster-on-the-loose storyline and endowed it with strong characters, a social conscience, and a creature that audiences could sympathize with.
Godzilla was also the first Japanese film to introduce the term kaiju (literally “strange beast”) into the lexicon of sci-fi films. A plethora of kaiju-films would follow over the decades, many having Godzilla in them, or at least created as a direct homage to the creature. His appeal and influence is still being felt today, with a new film due out in May 2019, called Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
While giant creatures had existed in film since 1933s King Kong, the creation of giant animals having spawned from radioactive fallout was still relatively new. Last week’s Sci-Fi Saturdays looked at the American film that kicked off the sub-genre of giant mutated animals with Them! While Them! Developed a theme that normal ants could be turned into giant menaces by the fallout from atomic testing, Godzilla took that idea even further.
The premise in this film is that not only does Godzilla have radioactive breath from the H-bomb detonations around Japan, but the radiation also, somehow, immunized him against the damage of conventional man-made weapons. And, oh yes, he’s also a dinosaur that has somehow survived millions of years, released from an underground fissure. Bridging the Jules Verne era “hidden world” with the atomic-tomorrow-made-present, Godzilla creates a literal hybrid for the monster genre. And while conventional weapons cannot stop Godzilla, it’s no surprise that director Ishiro Honda and company developed a great science-fiction inspired device in the oxygen destroyer. A device that sits outside of logic is the one weapon that is capable of (apparently) destroying Godzilla.
Godzilla’s special effects are something that would inspire films, with budgets both low and high, for decades to come. Putting a man in a monster suit historically has been a pretty low-budget solution of bringing aliens and creatures to life on film. Godzilla’s use of miniatures, man-in-a-suit, matte paintings and cinematography create an energy to the destructive scenes that are just not present in films using stop-motion photography like King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. While other studios would try to copy the success of these effects, none did that better than Toho Studios. Even though current giant-monster films like Pacific Rim and Cloverfield use digital effects to invoke a more realistic sense of horror and destruction, many techniques and styles pioneered with Godzilla can be seen, from the way shots are framed to the style of the destruction.
“History shows again and again, how nature points out the folly of man.” So says rock band Blue Oyster Cult in their 1977 song called “Godzilla.” This also speaks to the central theme of the film, in which mankind cannot know the destruction they unleash with their nuclear testing. On one level Godzilla, the creature, is nature run amuck. He rains terror and destruction on mankind. The same mankind that decided to create and detonate nuclear weapons. His attacks serve as a warning that any attempt to harness the power of the atom can only end in our mutual destruction.
On another level Godzilla is the country of Japan. A country that literally was at ground-zero less than a decade previous, for two of the most destructive uses of nuclear weapons mankind has yet witnessed. A country that was still hurting, nine years after Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film opens with a presumed atomic blast, and contains multiple imagery of dead and dying woman and children from radiation poisoning. Characters invoke the name of one of the bombed towns, or in another scene a mother cowers with her children when Godzilla attacks claiming that they will soon be “seeing their father again.” These are all terribly depressing and shockingly raw portrayals of the scars that Japan still held from World War II.
If any other group of filmmakers would have made this film, these scenes would have seemed in poor taste. But from the country and citizens that endured such attacks, the scenes are filled with a pathos that carries on even today. Interestingly enough, a number of these scenes were edited from the film when it was cut for US release. Perhaps it was a creative decision, as the film was reworked to include a new character, changing some of the storylines. But more likely, it was an embarrassing reminder to the United States of the destruction they brought into the world.
Finally the character of Professor Serizawa, who fears the one weapon he has created that can possibly destroy Godzilla will fall into the wrong hands. He fears the ability to use it at all. I am reminded of Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists behind the Trinity bomb tests and a creator of the bombs that fell on Japan. He is said to have felt regret for his actions. Serizawa, as a character, points out that the proverbial genie cannot be put back in the bottle after being released. His fear that the oxygen destroyer would be used to harm other and used as a weapon is a great metaphor for the nuclear bomb. Director Honda has him sacrifice his own life in order to ensure that such a device can never be used again. A wish that many people hold for nuclear weapons as well.
The Science in The Fiction
Almost nothing of the science is Godzilla is accurate. The film places dinosaurs at being alive 2 millions years ago, which is about 145-190 million years off from when it really occurred. The oxygen destroyer, if it really destroyed oxygen, when thrown into water would result in a bunch of hydrogen gas, and suffocated fish, rather than bones and bubbles.
But at this point, that’s negligible. Godzilla is not supposed to be about science in a normal science fiction setting. This film is a parable or an allegory about the destructive nature of man and how it may be possible for nature to fight back.
The Final Frontier
Godzilla’s reign as King of the Monsters in subsequent films and versions is in no danger of stopping. This film spawned literally dozens of Godzilla films, including two (and soon to be three) American remakes. It created a universe of other kaiju that would fight with or against Godzilla as need be. Creatures like Gamera, Mothra, Rodan, Mechagodzilla and King Ghidorah.
It has influenced remakes of King Kong, spawned franchises like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, plus inspired the oddly personal Colossal. It birthed the Godzilla franchise, which shifted from a creature that invaded and destroyed Japan to one that protected the people and property of the island. He became a true national treasure.
Godzilla is an important film, not just in science-fiction circles, but in cinema itself. It’s important to see the original version of the film, and not the 1956 American re-cut (with Raymond Burr), as the message and meaning have been substantial altered. It’s important because it also provided an outlet for a grieving nation. This catharsis is one of the biggest and best uses of science fiction in film. It shows how film is able to provide a connection between audience members and as an outlet for their fears.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.