REVIEW: ゴジラ [Gojira] [Godzilla] [1954]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: November 3rd, 1954 (Japan)
Studio: Toho Company
Director(s): Ishirô Honda
Writer(s): Ishirô Honda & Takeo Murata / Shigeru Kayama (story)

“I’m telling you the sea just exploded”

Only nine years after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, the first science fiction kaiju film was born. Manifested as a hybrid Tyrannosaurus Rex, Iguanodon, and Stegosaurus, the creature ゴジラ [Gojira] [Godzilla] took shape in the mind of special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya. A giant beast released from the sea’s depth due to hydrogen bomb tests destroying its natural habitat, its ability to survive on land and water shaped its name from the words gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira). Breathing invisible radiation that melts everything in its path, the creature put a horrific face to the fresh memory of the bomb. A commentary on Japan’s survival from such a cataclysmic event, the film also becomes a cautionary tale for mankind’s power-hungry desire to transform scientific achievement into volatile weaponry before potential benefits can even be discovered.

With a story by novelist Shigeru Kayama and a script by Takeo Murata and the director Ishirô Honda, Gojira stands the test of time thematically and cinematically. The choice to portray the monster by putting an actor in a suit atop miniature environments really sets this apart from 1933’s King Kong and Ray Harryhausen‘s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms by letting it exist without the hitches of stop-motion animation. There’s definitely a contrast difference between Godzilla’s background movements and the live action cast running in the foreground with the former being a murkier gray, but its otherwise seamless construction puts you into the action as he rises from the deep. He has big goofy eyes and the radiation breath resembles a fire extinguisher, but you never feel as though you’re watching toys. The abject destruction definitely doesn’t hurt.

Opening with a fishing ship named the Eiko Maru as it explodes in boiling saltwater thanks to an unknown entity beneath (based on the actual nuclear disaster with Japanese tuna boat Lucky Dragon 5 a few months previously), the authorities on Odo Island and the vessel’s owners are at a loss. They send another on a rescue mission only to witness a communication breakdown as it also disappears. More boats go without return, leading one village elder to declare the ancient mythological Godzilla responsible. Lore states the creature—after eating all the fish in the sea—would find its hunger bringing him ashore for sustenance. The Odo citizens have a dance depicting this story and their sacrificing women so the monster would leave. No longer an option morally or realistically, a new solution is necessary.

Focusing on the men surrounding young Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the plot gives us differing opinions on their supernatural enemy’s fate. Her paleontologist father Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) hopes to persuade the community to study Godzilla and understand how it not only withstood the nuclear fallout but grew stronger as a result. It’s a plausible idea, especially since the rest of Odo fear its warpath as much as they did the American bombings that created it. Why not discover a way to survive future carnage? With those scars still fresh, however, any plan that doesn’t end in Godzilla’s demise is unacceptable. Drowned out by the military and government, Yamane becomes saddened by humanity’s love for murder as its go-to quick fix. Even his daughter’s would-be fiancé Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) sees no alternative but its death for their survival.

It’s the other man in Emiko’s life, scientist (and current fiancé) Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) who possesses the means for salvation. But like the crisis of conscience Albert Einstein had helping create the atomic bomb, Serizawa cannot bring himself to use his “Oxygen Destroyer” because one successful demonstration—no matter how many lives it saves—can only lead to more pragmatic minds hatching ways to turn it into a weapon of mass destruction. And here lies the beautiful conundrum of Gojira: the cyclical nature of our destiny always altering our environment for the worse. Mankind just ended one of the greatest tragedies of our time (World War II and the Holocaust) with its own genocide. Amidst all that death comes a beast so volatile that our first thought is to risk moving even further away from righteousness.

This push and pull of philosophical quandaries is what’s allowed Godzilla to endure sixty years through countless sequels, remakes, and homage. The kaiju represents our hubris—our fighting it for all intents and purposes us fighting our past, our regret, and ourselves. Its iconic roar is a collective shriek of internal pain, its identity a horrifying visual representation of actions that have brought us to potential apocalypse. What’s most interesting to me, however, is the complete absence of faith. It’s not exactly surprising considering how soon production followed Little Boy and Fat Man’s descent, but the lack of its contrasting Yamane’s scientific forum is a glaring void. Survival becomes science’s adversary instead, selfish present-time gains overshadowing the benefits of long-term plans. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that bloody justice proves victorious when death looms rather than compassion.

The science fiction genre is always steeped in reality, but watching Godzilla smash Odo’s cities hits you harder considering its metaphor. Nothing slows him down (explosive missiles sent via strings from model airplanes become the only time when special effects limitations are unavoidable) just like nothing could protect Japan from the bomb’s fallout. As they moved forward ignorant to the threat of annihilation, so too does mankind continuously play with fire. The Cold War showed what happens when two superpowers put their respective Godzillas at the forefront of diplomacy, the monster signifying what both sides knew through respect bred from mutual fear. If the atomic bomb’s proponents refused to acknowledge that its use tainted humanity’s position of superiority as a species with unparalleled conscience and morality, its victims manifested their painful comprehension through art to ensure they did.

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