Friday, November 19, 2010

Gojira (Godzilla) (1954)
--- science fiction/ horror

Dir: Ishirō Honda

When it comes to the "King of All Monsters", it would seem someone wanted to usurp the throne of old "King Kong". Well, after fifty years and a franchise with a robust twenty-plus films, it's safe to say Godzilla has earned the title. My personal earliest memories of Godzilla films were usually the cheesy ones my family watched on or around the Thanksgiving holiday. Besides being famous for weatherman Lloyd Lindsay Young, New York's Tri-State area WWOR channel 9, featured Thanksgiving marathons of King Kong and our imported giant amphibian. Toho Studios' gigantic 150-foot tall mutated reptile has battled other giant creatures, aliens, and all other sorts of menace with Japan trodden under foot regardless of intentions to harm or not. His initial film had a much more somber message.

"Gojira" begins with a reference to The Lucky Dragon No. 5. This was, in reality, a tuna trawler that got so close to a Hydrogen bomb test near the Marshall Islands in 1954, that the crew returned to Japan with radiation poisoning. In the film proper, a fishing vessel bursts into flames after a blinding white light, and more boats sent out soon follow the same fate. A local shipping office grows panicky, as this alerts the local press and the entire nation. Soon, however, the local island of Odo discover that the cause of the ships destruction (at least according to the elders) was a legendary beast called "Gojira", and as we shortly see for ourselves, those legends are all too true.

The authorities gather to discuss the recent nightmarish events. Paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (played by Akira Kurosawa director pet Takashi Shimura) leads the discussion, questioning exactly why this creature would awaken from its slumber. He conducts a team of investigators to the island. As they depart on their voyage, we get all our principal characters together including Yamane's daughter Emiko, her beau Ogata (who works for the shipping office), and the eye-patch clad Dr. Serizawa. A love triangle amidst the horrific events, something Jim Cameron utilized decades later. The natives show them the gigantic foot prints, and Dr. Yamane's tests uncover the fact that this creatures appearance was caused by nuclear radiation. Yamane tells government officials that the creature is a dinosaur unearthed by the H-bomb. It is clear however that Yamane becomes conflicted as a miraculous discovery of science must be destroyed.

Emiko visits Dr. Serizawa as he soon shows her his secret experiment, an Oxygen-Destroyer. In a very much Frankenstein-esque tradition, the science of how it works exactly is not revealed. It hereby kinda becomes the deus ex machina. As Gojira's wave of destruction continues, and the military efforts prove futile, Emiko will betray Serizawa's trust by revealing to others its power as a solution. It does figure in the climax as the only means to destroy the monster. Unfortunately, Dr. Serizawa, who comes to the epiphany he has nothing left to live for since he has lost Emiko to Ogata, sacrifices his life to detonate the Oxygen-Destroyer underwater himself.

According to producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the original "Gojira/Godzilla" film was designed to be a cautionary tale about, not only the horrors of nuclear war (which Japan learned first hand), but about the long term ramifications of how nature would retaliate. Hiroshima was one thing, but years later we had many examples of how nukes were not good for humanity, period. Other 50's and 60's science fiction films followed in line in the dangers and fears of messing with nuclear radiation. They went from films such as "Them" and over time graduated to post-apocalyptic nightmares. "Gojira" created a new hit genre for Japanese film called "Kajiu" (meaning giant monster) and became an international sensation. It was eventually imported to the States with new scenes shot for American audiences and retitled "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!". The 1956 film starred Raymond Burr as a reporter chronicling the rampage of the giant monster loose in Tokyo.