There’s a scene in Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese) in which a dinner table conversation between a young woman (Emiko), her father (Professor Kyohei) and her boyfriend (Hideto) spirals into a heated debate over whether Godzilla should be killed or not. Kyohei (played by Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa favourite), a professor of palaeontology, is against the killing. Hideto (played by Akira Takarada), a cargo ship sailor – and a more practical guy – says it’s the only solution; Hideto was supposed to be extra-impressive in front of the old man so that he can ask his daughter’s hand in marriage, but he blows it up, and later tells Emiko he regrets not having been more ‘tactful.’
What an odd way to create conflict in such a simple family scene, you’d think, but it doesn’t feel unnatural. One of the strengths of Godzilla, co-written by Takeo Murata and Honda, is that we don’t see it as much as we sense its impact on Japanese life through such small, evocative vignettes. The fish from the deep sea vanish, so the fishermen return with empty nets. The morning after Godzilla first sets foot in the coastal village, we hear about the 6 pigs and the 8 cows that a farmer has lost.
The social realism in Godzilla makes it far removed from everything we’ve come to associate with the modern monster movie. Not ‘revisionist’ monster films such as, say, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, or the ones by Guillermo del Toro, but the big studio films made for a mass audience. Like the numerous Godzilla reboots that have followed, the latest instalment of which — Godzilla: The King of Monsters — releases this week.
Honda’s Godzilla is unlike any other monster movie ever made, period, because it was rooted in the grief and horror of the Nuclear bombings of Hiroshima Nagasaki. It was addressing the anxiety of facing another nuclear disaster; in 1954, the same year as the movie released, the US conducted its largest testing of Hydrogen bomb, an even more powerful weapon than the atom bomb, in the Pacific.
Honda’s Godzilla is unlike any other monster movie ever made, period. Because it is rooted in the grief and horror of nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was addressing the anxiety of facing another such disaster; in 1954, the same year as the movie released, the US conducted its largest testing of the hydrogen bomb, an even more powerful weapon than the atom bomb, in the Pacific. It affected a Japanese fishing boat, one of whose crew members died due to direct exposure. The latter directly inspired the first few minutes of Godzilla, where a freighter and then a fishing boat are destroyed by something that’s hidden in the ocean.
It was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s (he was heading Toho Studios at the time) idea to find an expression for this collective trauma in the most popular movie trend of the moment: the sci-fi, fantasy, horror genre. The re-release of King Kong (1933) — the first ‘creature feature’ — in 1952 was a smash. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on a story by American sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, which came out in 1953, was a huge success. Godzilla took its basic plot from Beasts: that of a prehistoric creature forced to come out of its natural habitat due to a radiation-filled environment.
It’s important to note that Honda was bringing in his own experiences in World War II into his filmmaking in Godzilla. He had served in the military, which he was somewhat reluctantly inducted into, and he was a prisoner of war in China. “I always thought that when this thing is over, I am going to go back to the studio and make movies. It helped me not go insane,” he said later. Honda assisted his best friend Akira Kurosawa in the crime film Stray Dog (1949) — his first filmmaking gig after the war. Kurosawa gave Honda charge of one of the most talked-about segments of the film: a 9-minute montage of people swarming in the black market in Tokyo. With superimpositions and dissolves that alternate with close-ups of the hero’s face, it captures the mood of a post-war society. You see this documentary style in the crowd scenes in Godzilla, which draws from photographs taken during the war, which depict children in makeshift hospitals, or the families of the victims in government offices. In one of the scenes, a woman in a subway says, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb at Nagasaki – and now this.” The fact that Nagasaki was real makes Godzilla appear a little more believable too.
Honda and Tsuburaya’s showing the monster is economical. The first look of Godzilla in film is a glimpse of a part of its face from behind a hill. And later, in many night scenes, taking advantage of the black and white cinematography (Masao Tamai), it is shrouded in smoke, shadow, and glisten of its texture.
Viewers anal about the sophistication in special effects might scoff at the look of the original Godzilla. But there’s something organic about it, as though born of dark marine rock (achieved by ‘suitamation’ — a pioneering approach in sci-fi moviemaking by special effects wizard Tsuburaya — where an actor in a monster suit trudged around miniature sets). Honda and Tsuburaya show the monster in an economical manner. The first look of Godzilla in film is a glimpse of a part of its face from behind a hill. And later, in many night scenes, taking advantage of the black-and-white cinematography (Masao Tamai), it is shrouded in smoke, shadow, and glisten of its texture. This Godzilla is a bit stolid, but it is much better than some of the rubbery looking updates in the Kaiju movies, where, at one point, it became a kid-friendly monster.
The story by Shigeru Kayama is simple, effective. It’s about a collective trauma, but Honda and Murata pare it down to a handful of characters. Professor Kyohei is a true student of nature; his eyes light up when he discovers strontium from the sand found in trilobite — “a three lobed marine arthropod long thought to be extinct” — a tiny piece of evidence that leads to the confirmation of Godzilla. There is a subtly played out love triangle that occurs between his daughter Emiko, Hideto, and Dr Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) — an acolyte of the Professor. Serizawa is the plot’s trump card and plays a key role in the third act of the film. He is also the most interesting. He has made a terrible scientific discovery, implications of which drive him insane. In one of the most haunting stretches of the film, Serizawa looks transfixed at the television set, which shows school girls singing a peace hymn, accompanied by church organs. It stirs something within him.
It’s because we see through the eyes of these characters, who ask difficult, ethical questions, that Godzilla never remains simply a monster. Godzilla’s death, in its natural habitat, fills you with a sadness. It’s a masterfully filmed underwater sequence, heightened by a mournful score by composer Akira Ifukube.
Most people have seen the Americanised, depoliticised version. Released in the US two years later as Godzilla: The King of Monsters; it retained only one hour of the original, rejigged the chronology, and inserted a track starring Raymond Burr, who was cast as an American journalist. (The New York Times critic called this version an “incredibly awful movie”). Unfortunately, till as late as 2004, it is the only version that viewers in the US — and by extension to a large section of the world — had access to. What worked against it further was that the Japanese original was a monster blockbuster, and didn’t fall in the art-house category — because of which it wasn’t shown in repertory houses or film festival screenings in the US. Then Rialto Pictures, which specialises in “reissue distributions”, released the original Japanese version. Then came Criterion’s high definition digital restoration in 2011. A reassessment has followed, discussing the serious artistic merits of the film.