Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our fifth entry acts as a brief refresher on one of the pivotal moments in Japanese cinema, Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954)…
Picture Godzilla in your head. What do you see?
For most, the image is simple — men in rubbery monster suits battling one-another amidst a chintzily built model, stepping on toy cars willy-nilly in an effort to put forth the feeling of destruction on an apocalyptic scale. To the average cinema-goer Gojira — excuse me, Godzilla — is an icon of pugilistic campiness; a towering figure akin to a scaly Macho Man Randy Savage, wrestling other goofy kaiju for ninety minutes while tiny Asian people point and scream “the monster is attacking the city!”
Like most successful franchise frontmen, the weight of Godzilla’s initial appearance has been watered down by subsequent sequels (twenty-seven, to be exact), to the point that many have forgotten the iconic monster’s original metaphorical meaning: a walking mushroom cloud, the fantastical representation of holocaust. Ishirō Honda’s monumental piece of Japanese filmmaking still stands as one of the greatest cinematic responses to the psychic trauma caused by war, ranking with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as a defining piece of pop art derived from the utter devastation of the nuclear bomb.
Simultaneously gaudy while still retaining the sobering air of tragic loss, Honda’s 1954 Godzilla feels like a lurid nightmare that only hints at the true mental anguish contained in the subconscious dreaming mind. While news bulletins assault us with words and images describing nuclear fallout and the incineration of Nagasaki, a gigantic reptile rises from the sea, ready to lay waste to the island country caught in its path.
Roaring and breathing fire, Godzilla is a force of nature that cannot be contained and is set on punishing those who have meddled in its arena. Reality is undercut by the absurdity of it all, as Honda both never lets you forget that you’re watching a heightened fantasy while also constantly reminding you of the true-life tragedy that inspired this preposterous polemic. In many ways, it’s almost as if we’re experiencing this cataclysm through the eyes of child; the monster an invention of his or her still-developing cognitive functions as a result of not being able to fathom the devastation that is occurring in their country.
For Japanese audiences upon the time of its release, Godzilla hit incredibly hard, as its combination of naturalism and extreme reverie was almost too much too take. Many Japanese critics accused Godzilla of exploiting not only World War II, but also the Lucky Dragon nuclear tragedy, which occured a few months before production on Honda’s picture began. Yet much of the film stresses a need for collective solidarity in the face of wanton, mindless mass destruction. Godzilla brims with imagery wrought from disaster: hospitals filled with the dead and dying, children being herded and evacuated while the military readies itself, positioning tanks in the streets. In contrast to modern American blockbusters like Man of Steel, Godzilla shows us the scarring results of devastation, as the monster not only leaves a city in ruins, but also mass casualties in its wake. Mothers cling to their deceased children in makeshift hospitals, while the movie’s distinctive score (composed by Akira Ifukube) lends the entire affair a radioactive cloud of melancholy.
Even the sound effects add a feeling of realistic devastation to Godzilla. Toho enjoyed a close relationship with the Japanese military (for whom they produced numerous recruitment and propaganda films), leading the design team to draw from the studio’s archive. While the roar of the beast is undoubtedly the most iconic sonic bit Honda’s film produced, the monster’s stomping havoc was created from samples of Japanese bombs, jets and weapons that helped evoke memories of war from those who had just lived through it. It was again another example of real-life horror being used as building blocks for filmic fantasy.
Honda’s picture could also, in a strange way, be considered an act of artistic devotion to his country. The most expensive film in the history of Japanese cinema at the time it was made (at $1 million, Godzilla’s budget was ten times the average Toho Studios production), even the word kaiju is a portmanteau of the Japanese term for “whale” (kujira) and the English loanword “gorira” (gorilla), resulting in a moniker that would come to define many outsiders’ experiences with the country’s film industry as a whole. For the next forty years, Godzilla and the spin-off monsters his enormous popularity spawned (including Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah and Hedorah) dominated not only the Japanese box-office, but also crossed over with titans from American cinema (Godzilla famously fought King Kong in 1963’s aptly titled Godzilla vs. King Kong). If you ask many passive film fans who their favorite Japanese cinema star is, the answer is simple. Godzilla became a avatar for an industry who, before Honda invented him, was mostly unpopular, both in its own country and especially abroad, due to its main service of mobilization. Through tragedy, Honda had mined identity, not only for himself, but for his fellow artists at large.
The Japanese weren’t the only ones responsible for lessening the impact of their cinema’s “greatest star” over the years. As is their way, when American producers caught wind of the monster’s massive success over in the land their armies had just decimated, they quickly snatched up the property and “re-cut” it for the fly-over states. Utilizing editing tricks that would make Harvey Weinstein salivate, Jewell Enterprises transformed Honda’s intensely personal vision into Godzilla, King King of the Monsters and released it in 1956. Starring a post-Rear Window, pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr as an American reporter narrating the destruction of Japan beneath the claws of the ancient dinosaur, King of Monsters re-purposed much of the original Japanese footage into a more “traditional” disaster movie. It’s an ugly bit of commercialist cultural re-appropriation that robs the film of feeling and transmorphs it into cheap spectacle.
Yet sixty years on, no amount of tinkering or sequels can diminish the crater-like impact on one’s soul a single viewing of Honda’s titanic sci-fi milestone can leave. Godzilla isn’t so much a masterpiece as it is a relic; a historical reminder of a people standing strong during their time of crisis and finding catharsis in the fantastical representation of their homeland’s end. It’s a reminder, in 2014, that origin is often important and that what may now be considered ‘corny’ was anything but to the people who first witnessed it.