In the run up to May’s release of Godzilla by Legendary Pictures, I figured I’d take a look at the Godzilla films I grew up with: The Showa series. For the record, the Showa series represents the first 15 Godzilla films produced between 1954 and 1975 (before the reboot in 1984 which ushered in the Heisei series). These are the films I watched over and over again as a kid either on tape, rerun on cable or as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000. They run the gamut of sophisticated to mentally handicapped, thrilling to mind-numbing, elaborate to clip show, so let’s take a look back at the original series, starting from the top…
Approach any person on the street and try to strike up a conversation about Godzilla. Chances are all they’re going to recall about the character are his goofy and cheesy films from the 1970s, such as Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Gigan. It’s true that in the public eye, the Big G is recognized primarily for his more abundant and very silly children’s movies, but there was a time long ago when Godzilla meant a whole lot more. The original Godzilla (otherwise known as Gojira) wasn’t some schlocky B-movie targeted at selling action figures to hyperactive ten year-olds, but quite the contrary. 1954’s Godzilla is a grim allegory for the horrors of nuclear weaponry and provides some very meaningful commentary on the fears of the Japanese, post-World War II.
Eiko-Maru, a fishing boat, mysteriously vanishes at sea after being engulfed in a bizarre flash of light from beneath the waves. Not long afterward, the villagers of Odo Island find their home torn to pieces after a strange and unexplainable disaster. The superstitious folk believe that the dreaded and legendary monster called “Godzilla” has come to destroy them. After investigating the strange, radioactive footprints left behind on the island, famed paleontologist, Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kouchi), and her lover, Ogata (Akira Takarada), manage to witness the rampaging beast in all its towering, horrifying glory.
Professor Yamane comes to the conclusion that Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) is actually a dinosaur, revived and mutated by nuclear weapons testing. Godzilla soon reappears, this time in Tokyo Bay, where he destroys homes, kills hundreds and proves invincible against all conventional military weaponry. The secret to destroying Godzilla may lie within the hands of Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), but by revealing it, he may provide the world with a weapon even more dangerous than Godzilla.
Less than ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the aftermath of World War II was still being felt all across Japan. Just prior to 1954, the Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, was caught in a US nuclear weapons test and destroyed, returning the threat of nuclear weaponry to the attention of the Japanese (as if they’d had very long to forget about it). Godzilla was created as a personification of nuclear weapons and all the horror they entail. When an atomic bomb explodes, there’s no stopping the wave of destruction that follows. Likewise, when Godzilla attacks, no military weapon on Earth can stop him. While Godzilla may have initially been conceived as a means to ride the popularity of Eugene Lourie’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Director Ishiro Honda delivered a movie that was far more meaningful.
I didn’t see the film (in its edited US version,Godzilla, King of the Monsters) until long after I’d seen most of the more TV-friendly sequels from later in his career, and to put it lightly, seeing this was a fairly jarring experience. Godzilla is not the Irish jig-dancing, kid-friendly mascot that you’ll see in his escapades from the 60s and 70s. No, this Godzilla is a ruthless killing machine that reeks of pure evil. Honda never spares the audience all the gruesomeness of Godzilla’s rampage, showing him killing scores of panicking people, right down to mothers and their children. The aftermath of Godzilla’s attack is given more attention here than perhaps any other film in the series, with bleeding bodies lined-up all across hospital corridors and even children being shown suffering from radiation poisoning. This is a very, very grim movie.
Eiji Tsubaraya’s special effects start out strong with this flick and would continue to improve over the course of his career. The results for Godzilla, considering the budget and the short amount of production time, are genuinely astounding. I really love this original Godzilla suit, with those devilish “kitty ears” I know some fans hate, but I really dig. And at times in this movie Godzilla even comes across as being a little spooky, with eyes that glow in the dark and a humongous, spectral blob of a silhouette dominating the skyline. Godzilla’s atomic breath is realized here as steam being pumped out of the big guy’s mouth, rather than the more famous animated atomic breath seen in later installments (though his back-plates are still animated so that they glow when he breathes it). I suppose the only Godzilla effect I did not like was the hand-puppet used for certain close-up sequences. It’s also used during Godzilla’s big reveal on Odo Island, unfortunately. No matter how nicely detailed the puppet is, that doesn’t alter the fact that, well, it looks like a hand-puppet.
The miniature effects can range from good to bad. Tsubaraya’s cityscapes are absolutely amazing with detail. While tanks and other military weaponry looked quite convincing, a few civilian vehicles don’t come across as strongly. I have to point out the unfortunate stop-motion fire truck as proof of this. You also have a few moments where the strings on the fighter jets are clearly visible, as well (though to be fair, and contrary to popular belief, visible strings are something that rarely occurs in Godzilla movies). There isn’t a very good sense of “weight” with some of the miniatures, but that’s definitely an issue Tsubaraya addresses and improves upon in his later work.
As I review the Godzilla movies, I want to separate a paragraph for what is known as the “human drama”. Much to the chagrin of many a movie-goer, yes, there are human characters in Godzilla movies. In fact, they typically absorb far more screentime than any of the monster. Well, the human drama here in Godzilla is the stuff of legend. Dr. Serizawa makes for a fantastic hero, with his actions (particularly at the film’s conclusion) actually distinguishing him more than his eye-patch. The love-triangle between him, Emiko and Ogata is a bit on the predictable side, but adds some needed depth to the film, anyway. Then there’s Dr. Yamane, whose conflict over whether or not a creature as amazing as Godzilla should be destroyed provides some excellent character tension. While Godzilla appears as a force of nature in this movie, the plot is driven more by the memorable cast of characters than anything else. And unlike so many Godzilla movies in the future, they carry it all extremely well.
If there’s one more quality I have to chime-in on, it is the opening title sequence, which manages to express the sense of dread and impending doom that is Godzilla, but through the most minimalist approach possible. The first thing you see is a blank, black screen, which is then followed by loud, crashing footsteps that eventually lead into Godzilla’s unearthly, unmistakable (and trademarked) roar. All that is then followed by Akira Ifukube’s unforgettable and truly epic main theme, which makes me want to march in place every time I hear it. It doesn’t get much more minimalist than that, and yet the results are so effective.
I grew up with the King of the Monsters cut and didn’t get the opportunity to see this version until its R1 DVD release for the 50th anniversary of the franchise. Though to an extent it pains me to say it, this version is superior to the one I was raised on. Godzilla is a very thrilling movie, loaded with political commentary of the era and truly a piece of cinematic history.