Friday, November 03, 2023

Happy Godzilla Day 2023: Godzilla (1954)

I realize that many folks associate Godzilla movies (especially of the 1970s) with kiddie-matinees, rubber monsters, abundantly-obvious model-work and the like. Yet the original Godzilla endures as nothing less than an atomic age nightmare, and it is anything but juvenile.  

This is an unremittingly dark film, dominated by unsettling images of widespread destruction and human suffering.  Those images of disaster – and of a city on fire – are all the more uncomfortable because of Japanese and American history in the 20th century.

There are two galvanizing incidents roiling beneath the surface of this monster movie.  The first is the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by America in August of 1945.  Today, these are still the only instances of nuclear warfare in human history. 

Godzilla mastermind and director Ishiro Honda utilizes these historical incidents as the seeds of his fantastic but meaningful story.   

As the film opens, nuclear testing near Japan has awakened a prehistoric goliath, or “deep sea organism,” a dinosaur-like creature with the power to emit radioactive fire breath.  Upon Godzilla’s awakening, several small fishing boats are destroyed at sea, their crews murdered in blinding, white-hot flashes.

A paleontologist, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), conducts research and determines Godzilla’s origin in the Jurassic Age.  He follows the monster’s (over-sized) trail to Odo Island, where the locals recount old legends of the monster Godzilla: a creature that lived in the ocean and fed on humanity to survive.  In ages past, the islanders conducted a kind of “exorcism” ritual (with native girls as sacrifices…) to appease Godzilla.

While Godzilla moves irrevocably closer to mainland Japan, the government establishes a “Counter Godzilla Headquarters” whose first gambit is to destroy the beast at sea with depth charges.  When that move fails to stop the beast’s progress, a second defense gambit is devised. It involves the construction of an electric fence along the coast to ensnare Godzilla.

That defense attempt fails as well, and Godzilla reduces most of Tokyo to rubble in a night of unending fire and smoke.  Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), however, knows of a secret that could reverse Japan’s fortunes.  

Her former betrothed, Dr. Serizawa (Ahihiko Hirata) has developed a weapon even more deadly than atomic bombs, a so-called “oxygen destroyer.”  He has sworn her to secrecy about the device however, because he fears it will be taken out of his hands, and used on an international, even global scale. 

With Godzilla’s reign of destruction unstopped, however, Serizawa must re-consider using the doomsday weapon.  He knows if he uses it, however, he must also die with Godzilla, so the oxygen destroyer will never be used again by mankind…

Godzilla commences with the strange mystery at sea regarding the sinking of several Japanese fishing ships (reflecting the Lucky Dragon incident), and then moves into a tale of epic destruction and survival.  One facet of the film that remains so effective, even today, is the almost whirlwind, documentary approach to the narrative.  Early on, Dr. Yamane delivers a briefing about Godzilla’s possible origins and nature, and it’s like we’re sitting in on a university lecture. 

Also, there’s a heated discussion -- or fight -- in the halls of Japanese government about whether or not to reveal Godzilla’s nature to the public.  These and other similar moments feel like the audience is eavesdropping on real conferences and legislatures.   It’s quite unique how the film “moves” from one plot to another with these meetings, briefings and other formal moments.  The characters, though very interesting (particularly in the love triangle of Ogata/Emiko/Serizawa) don’t dictate the flow of the story in any meaningful way until the final act.  That’s important, because this fact plays into the epic feel of the drama.  These men and women -- and all of Japan indeed -- are swept into a story beyond their control.

Beyond the documentary approach, Godzilla utilizes its atomic bogeyman as a metaphor or signifier for nuclear destruction, and accordingly many of the images feel like authentic documentary footage from the Hiroshima or Nagasaki aftermath.  For instance, at one point there is a long, deliberate pan across a ruined, twisted, formerly-urban landscape.  The scene is one of total desolation, a testament to the searing power of nuclear weapons (or Godzilla’s fire breath, as the case may be).  

A city once stood there, but now only twisted metal remains.

Shortly after that revelatory shot, other footage reveals doctors and nurses moving dozens of patients on stretchers into a make-shift hospital or recovery center.  The scene is one of human suffering on an almost impossible-to-believe scale.  The impression given is of a perpetual war-zone, a blazing hell on earth.

Godzilla pretty plainly uses the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as its formative imagery, recalling a real-life nuclear terror not even a full decade in the past at the time of its production.   

At one point, the detonations are even alluded to, albeit subtly, with a mother and daughter facing jeopardy from Godzilla.  The mother tells her daughter (bleakly…) that they are going to join the girl’s father in Heaven.  The inference is that he died at Nagasaki or Hiroshima.

The Honda film also reflects the dawning nuclear age in another trenchant way, namely in the character of Dr. Serizawa.  Pretty plainly, he is a surrogate for J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who worked at the Manhattan Project and is known, historically as “The Father of the Atomic Bomb.”  According to interviews, Oppenheimer once remarked, after witnessing a test atomic bomb detonation that he had “become death” and a “destroyer of worlds.”  In a sense, Godzilla is Oppenheimer’s child, then.

Dr Serizawa in Godzilla is acutely aware that he might suffer the same fate as Oppenheimer, and may be remembered the same way…and he doesn’t want that.  His Oxygen-Destroyer is more destructive, more monstrous even than the H-Bomb, and Serizawa knows that it very rapidly would become the object of a new international arms race.  He makes a moral, individual decision, however, and decides that knowledge of the weapon should die with him (after he has burned his notes).  A second, post-nuclear arms race is thus averted through his individual sense of right and wrong, and his willingness to sacrifice himself.   

If Godzilla is a warning about the dangers of Pandora’s Box opened in the Atomic Age, then Serizawa himself is an indicator that the box can only be shut via the auspices of individual conscience.  Even though Serizawa has created something of monstrous destructive potential, he nonetheless possesses the moral barometer to see his work destroyed, not unloosed on the world.

Unfortunately, as the film’s ending reminds viewers, not all men are as noble or moral as Serizawa was.  As long as nuclear tests persist, Dr. Yamane warns, other “Godzillas” could rise up to threaten human civilization.

If this final warning sounds preachy to you, it may be because you haven’t just finished viewing the film.  Godzilla’s scorching imagery -- a world of black-and-white but mostly black -- earns the filmmaker the right to ponder big philosophical issues at the denouement. Above all else, the movie serves as a cautionary tale for an age where the future of nuclear war was unwritten.

Many Godzilla movies have come and gone since this one premiered. However, this first film -- light on rubber monster suits and heavy on fire, blinding-light and suffering -- remains an indelible viewing experience.  Some have called Honda’s Godzilla a “grotesque” work of art.  

But I wonder if that descriptor isn’t a commentary on mankind more than it is Godzilla.

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