Director Ishiro Honda
Cast Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarata, Akihiko Hirata
A mysterious force destroys a Japanese fishing boat at sea. The families of the missing demand answers. A subsequent investigation leads to terrible revelations.
The scenario plays like a nightmare headline, the ink only beginning to dry. A collision between a US Navy submarine and a Japanese fishing vessel? No, the opening chain of events from Gojira, the first Godzilla movie.
The unaltered 1954 Gojira is a film shown so seldom outside Japan one might think it suppressed. No wonder. Half a century on, Gojira, a conscious exploration of unconscious fears, still taps into national traumas and anxieties.
“Behind the fear of Gojira was the fear of the atomic bomb,” wrote director Ishiro Honda, in an essay. “We thought that if we were to shy away from it, even a little bit, the film would not be completely successful.”
Japanese audiences witnessed scenes which directly addressed the horror and banality of life in the then newly minted atom age. Much of this aspect is absent from the 1956 Americanized re-edit of the film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which instead opts for placing the reassuring face of Raymond Burr center-screen. It’s Perry Mason vs. Godzilla.
In the Japanese Gojira, a TV crew catches sight of a mutant dinosaur awakened by atomic testing and assures us that, “This is not a movie or a play.” The high-contrast black-and-white footage resembles a newsreel taken at ground zero.
Honda did his utmost to give his Gojira documentary strength; the point of view is informed by personal experience and real catastrophe. As the principal characters watch Tokyo Bay and much of the surrounding city burn down, the feeling is far away from popcorn entertainment. You can’t root for this monster or even vicariously enjoy the carnage it creates. The mood is somber and one of pure helplessness.
Gojira is the bomb. Gojira is the Great Kanto Earthquake. Gojira is the sound of thunder coming down from the mountain. Gojira is a multi-purpose symbol for destruction incarnate.
Fifty years on, Godzilla is a pop icon, but, in a new era of sunken fishing boats and mad science, the original Gojira still haunts the seas.