Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Godzilla (1954)

The first Godzilla film is often considered the best of them all - not merely for being a groundbreaking achievement unlike any other movies released at that time, but also due to the somber historical context from which it was birthed, and from which it derives it heavy cultural commentary.  It's a seminal piece of cinema that rests close to the hearts of fans around the globe, and as such, it's hard to say anything about it that hasn't been said in countless other spaces.  Still, there's no better place to begin, than at the beginning.  

Early Concept Art

Godzilla was born out of several different culminating factors.  As far as social climate goes, Japan's defeat at the end of World War II was still a relatively recent event, as well as the slew of devastating attacks that eventually led to the detonation of two nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan received not only the alienating distinction of having lost the war, but also the horrifying distinction of being the only country in the world to have ever had a nuclear attack conducted on their soil - on their people. Despite a long list of atrocities that Japan had enacted during the war itself, the coupling of immense physical devastation in property and human lives, and the deep sense of sadness, and national shame they had after being lumped in with the likes of the German Nazis, ultimately brought about a unique national climate. Even further, regulations had been placed onto Japan by the Allied Nations after the war, preventing Japanese media from really fully expressing that unique loneliness and shame, and it was this situation of censorship that shaped most of 1950s Japanese culture - which was about to give birth to the biggest movie star of all time.

Still, years after the end of World War II, in March of 1954, Japan suffered from yet another nuclear disaster - though, perhaps even more frightening, due to it happening during a time of peace.  A Japanese fishing vessel, the Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), accidentally sailed into an American nuclear-test site, contaminating the entire crew with high doses of radiation. Political debates broke out after one crew member died of radiation poisoning, with the Japanese press pointing fingers towards America's irresponsibility with their nuclear testing. America largely shrugged off the incident, with some even saying that the ship's crew was at fault, even though many argued that the radius affected by the test far exceeded the estimated range, and had only accidentally caught the ship.  The incident was dubbed "The Second Atomic Bombing of Mankind" by the Japanese press and garnered a lot of negative publicity.  Many were wondering just what kind of horrors awaited them in a world where Japan had become submissive to nations that wielded such incredible nuclear power so recklessly.

The same year as the incident with the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fellow named Tomoyuki Tanaka sat in his seat during a flight back to Tokyo.  Mr. Tanaka was about to celebrate his tenth year as a producer at the Toho Motion Picture Company, and had, until now, done quite well for the studio. On his flight he was worried, and drenched in sweat, as he stressed out about a film he had planned to make at the studio.  The film was to have been In The Shadow of Glory, a war epic co-produced in cooperation with the Indonesian government.  However, the plans for the film had fallen through when Tanaka could not get work permits for the film's stars. Having a budget for a war film, but having no film to shoot, Tanaka agonized at the prospect of losing face in the eyes of his company.  But it was during that plane ride that desperation became his friend, and would lend him an idea that would develop into something far larger and more enduring than the project he left behind. Looking out the window at the sea below, Tanaka says that he saw a vision of a terrifying monster rising out of the ocean.  RKO Studios' 1933 King Kong had recently seen a popular theatrical rerelease, hurling giant monsters back into the spotlight, accompanied by another American horror/sci fi film, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms - a story about a monster awoken by and irradiated by atomic testing.  Tanaka decided to put his mind to a similar story.  Piggybacking off of the national sense of loss in the wake of the atomic bomb, as well as the outrage and fear of the continuing effects of radiation such as the disaster of the Lucky Dragon fishing ship, Godzilla was born - or, as the film and titular creature are known by in Japan, Gojira.

How the creature himself, along with his design came about is somewhat less clear. The name, Gojira, is a mixture of the words Gorilla and Jira - the Japanese word for Whale. Studio legend states that Gojira was the nickname of one of the stagehands, though specific citation has often been hazy.  How the monster got his iconic look is equally hazy, with numerous accounts offering up different narratives.  What is known is that the design wasn't set in stone until relatively late in the overall preproduction process, with his appearance changing from panel to panel of the storyboards, and lore even claiming that Eiji Tsuburaya (the man behind the special effects) originally wanted Godzilla to be a giant octopus-like entity.

Unlike the contemporary popular image of Godzilla films being ludicrous Saturday Afternoon Matinees, the first Godzilla is actually a rather gloomy, stern, and tragic movie.  Don't get me wrong, it still has all of the fun charm that comes with little model cities being smashed by men in rubber monster suits - the studio wanted to use stop motion animation like King Kong, but the process was too expensive and time consuming so they improvised - and is ultimately a fun romp to watch; but tonally, there is some pretty serious stuff being tackled here. Gareth Edwards, director of the 2014 American Godzilla, said of the original film, "I think it’s really underrated and Godzilla is misunderstood in terms of how it all began. People think of Godzilla and think of the child-friendly versions. It’s funny because when people look at the 60's films, they’re a bit B-movie, and people can say, 'What if you made it serious like the Batman series became?' And if you look at the original, they did that already. They beat us to it by 60 years.  It’s really serious and somber and very harrowing.  Apart from the fact there’s a giant monster, I challenge you to show me a film – like a popcorn movie – where they show a child and they hold a Geiger counter to his face and it clicks as if the child is going to die of radiation sickness and the shot moves on. I have not seen that in films of real dramatic weight, let alone a monster movie. I can’t think of a more serious monster movie."  And indeed, he is correct.  

Director Ishiro Honda - himself an associate of the great Akira Kurosawa - brought an expertly trained eye to the project, giving it something of a westernized and almost documentarian feel.  Accompanied by the killer - and truly ground breaking - special effects of Eiji Tsuburaya, and the booming musical score composed by the brilliant Akira Ifukube, Godzilla comes off as a serious classic, and deserves to be recognized for being just as influential as any other classic film of the era. Of all of the Godzilla outings, the original is likely the one which is most beloved. The franchise has experienced numerous reboots throughout its history, but the original film has always remained at least somewhat within continuity, being referenced by nearly every other version ever produced.  Its legacy is most certainly ensured.

The film opens with some scrolling credits, accompanied by composer Akira Ifukube's iconic score (Ifukube would go on to compose music for most of the franchise, and is undoubtedly responsible for most of the iconic themes that endure throughout the series to this day), and then shifts to a Japanese fishing ship modeled after the real-life Lucky Dragon, floating just off the shores of Odo Island. Suddenly, the ocean is engulfed in a blinding flash of light, and the ship explodes. Several other ships in the area start going under, and the people of Japan find themselves in a bit of a panic, mourning their losses.

On Odo Island, a relatively remote and medieval rural locale, the village elder blames their poor fishing on a sea monster from ancient legend known as "Godzilla," and recalls that in earlier times, native girls were sacrificed to appease the giant sea monster/god.  Shortly thereafter, one of the fishermen from a sunken fishing vessel washes up on shore, where he dies of radiation poisoning.  Word gets out, and a helicopter arrives on the island with curious and skeptical reporters.  Frightened natives perform a night-time ceremony to keep the ghostly monster of legend away, yet, that night, while everyone is asleep, a storm arrives; and along with it comes something else.  Buildings are crushed, people are squished, the helicopter is mangled, and a young boy on the island bears witness to an enormous monster lumbering by in the darkness.

In Tokyo, famed paleontologist Professor Kyohei Yamane suggests that investigators be sent to Odo Island in order to survey the destruction.  Permission is granted, and an expedition is organized.  Going on the trip is Professor Yamane, his daughter Emiko, and their friend Hideto Ogata.  At the expedition's departure, they are all seen off by a crowd of cheering civilians, as well as the mysterious Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, who happens to be Emiko's fiance through arrangement.  Serizawa is quiet, and wears an eyepatch over an eye that he lost in World War II.  Emiko likes him, seeing him as a sort of brother-character, but it becomes apparent that her true feelings are actually for Ogata, making things somewhat awkward between them all.

On arrival at Odo, Yamane and the survey team discover that the village has become contaminated with high levels of radiation.  They also discover giant footprints strewn throughout the village, inside one of which they find a living trilobite - a bug-like creature that went extinct millions of years ago.  At about the time of the discovery, the town bell sounds, alarming the village of danger.  The villagers arm themselves with sticks and various weapons, and run to the nearby hills.  As they reach the crest of the largest hill, an enormous shape rises over the horizon, revealing itself to be the massive head of of a dinosaur-like animal, which turns and roars before lumbering off down the beach and back into the sea.  The creature is dubbed "Godzilla," named after the mythical beast of Odo Island lore.

The team returns to Tokyo to present their findings, where Yamane hypothesizes that Godzilla was unleashed by a nuclear explosion.  He says that the creature is some sort of transitional reptile from prehistoric times, which had been sealed - perhaps in suspended animation - in a deep sea cave, using the living trilobite as proof of Godzilla's home being a sort of natural time capsule.  He then cites the radiation and bizarre shape/size of the creature to conclude that nuclear testing in the Pacific must have unleashed, and perhaps even painfully mutated the creature.  Some at the hearing want to conceal that fact, fearing international repercussions for blaming nuclear testing.  Others say the truth must be revealed.  Political argument ensues, but those seeking the declassification of this information eventually prevail, and Godzilla's origins are announced to the public.  Battleships are immediately sent with depth charges to kill the monster, and after several detonations, the threat of Godzilla is declared to be over.

But obviously, it's not.  Godzilla appears again, this time near Japan-proper, frightening patrons on a party boat, and causing nationwide panic. Officials appeal to Dr. Yamane for some way to kill the monster, but Yamane wants him kept alive and studied, noting that enormous amounts of good to be accomplished by studying Godzilla's ability to not only survive in, but seemingly absorb radiation.  Meanwhile, his daughter Emiko decides to break off her arranged engagement to Dr. Serizawa, because of her love for Ogata.   However, before she has the opportunity to do it, Serizawa tells her about his secret experiment.  As it turns out, following the war, Serizawa has devoted himself to studying Oxygen, and all of its apparent uses.  His research, however, has led him to become recently rather reclusive, as he has apparently stumbled upon something horrifying.  He gives a small demonstration of a devise he calls The Oxygen Destroyer, activating it inside a fish tank in his lab.  Shocked by what she sees, Emiko is sworn to secrecy and never gets a chance to break off the engagement.

That night Godzilla rises from Tokyo Bay and attacks the city.  Though the attack is over quickly, there is much death and destruction. The next morning, the army constructs a line of 40-meter electrical towers along the coast of Tokyo that will send 50,000 volts of electricity through Godzilla, should he appear again. Civilians are evacuated from the city and put into bomb shelters. And, as night falls, Godzilla does indeed attack again. Still, he easily breaks through the electric fence, melting the wires with his atomic breath, an ability that the world had previously been oblivious to.  A blast of atomic radiation is emitted from his mouth, his enormous spiked dorsal fins glowing as he does so.  A bombardment of shells from army tanks have no effect.  In fact, it should be noted that since World War II, Japan hasn't had a true "army" per se.  Instead, they have the JSDF, or the Japanese Self-Defense Force.  Anyway, Godzilla continues his rampage until much of the city is destroyed and thousands of civilians are dead or wounded.  During this, there are several pretty harrowing scenes.  People getting melted, buildings being crushed, trains being chomped on, and so on.  We see a mother gathering her children around, waiting to die, repeating to them that soon they'd join their father in heaven.  Dark.  There's also a famous scene where some reporters stand atop a tower, reporting live as Godzilla approaches and kills them.  Eventually, with the entire city more or less in ruins, airplanes arrive and herd Godzilla back to the depths of the sea, though he is virtually unscathed.

Something to note in the original Godzilla film is that his power is all shown in full force, but never truly discussed through exposition.  He's big, and he destroys, but his motives are never really made clear.  And he is nigh indestructible, but it will be a great many films before that ability is ever truly explored beyond Dr. Yamane being annoyed that the government would rather kill the monster than study him.

The next day, hospitals overflow with victims, including some with radiation poisoning.  Witnessing the devastation, Emiko tells Ogata about Serizawa's secret Oxygen Destroyer, a device that she says disintegrates oxygen atoms, causing living organisms to either die of asphyxiation, or completely dissolve (the fish from Serizawa's fish tank were entirely stripped of flesh, left merely as skeletons) and that it accidentally created a new energy source.  She hopes that the two can persuade Serizawa to use it to stop Godzilla.  When Serizawa realizes Emiko has betrayed his secret, he refuses, and he and Ogata fight, leading to Ogata receiving a head wound.  As Emiko treats Ogata's wound, Serizawa apologizes, but also refuses to use the weapon on Godzilla, citing the public bedlam his weapon could cause.  There are some pretty ominous parallels made between nuclear weaponry and the Oxygen Destroyer, and the dangers of escalation.  Nuclear weapons ended World War II, but nuclear weapons also created Godzilla.  The Oxygen Destroyer could end Godzilla, but what new evil would rise from that?

Serizawa eventually changes his mind after seeing a newscast showing the devastation Godzilla has caused. Choirs of children are shown singing a hymn of prayer, and Serizawa decides he will use the weapon once and only once.  To ensure it can never be used again, Serizawa destroys all of his notes on the subject, and creates one final Oxygen Destroyer device.  Emiko breaks down and cries when she sees this, as she understands that Serizawa is sacrificing his life's work to stop Godzilla.

A navy ship takes Ogata and Serizawa to plant the device in Tokyo Bay.  They don diving gear and descend into the water, where they find Godzilla sleeping.  As they begin setting up, the monster awakens.  Ogata returns to the surface as Serizawa activates the device underwater.   Serizawa tells Ogata to be with Emiko, and then cuts his own oxygen cord so his knowledge of the device cannot be used to harm mankind.  A dying Godzilla surfaces, letting out a final roar, and sinks to the bottom before completely disintegrating into an enormous skeletal carcass.  Although the monster is gone, those aboard ship mourn the unexpected loss of Serizawa.  Godzilla's death has come at a terrible price, and Dr. Yamane believes that if mankind continues to test weapons of mass destruction, meddling with the elements of nature, another Godzilla may appear again one day.

Godzilla is represented as a symbol for nuclear holocaust and ever since the film's initial release, Godzilla has been culturally identified as a strong metaphor for nuclear weapons.  In the film, Godzilla's attack mirrors the same horrors the Japanese people experienced near the end of World War II.  Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka stated that, "The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind."  This theme has echoed throughout the entire series. The hit song from Blue Oyster Cult states, "History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man."  This line was further carried on in the 2014 Godzilla, in a line which states, "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control, and not the other way around." Director Ishirō Honda filmed Godzilla's rampage on Tokyo with the mentality that the monster's onslaught was a parallel and physical manifestation of an Atom bomb attack. He stated, "If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball.  But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn't know what to do.  So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla."

With the original film's huge success, its title creature became a runaway hit and entered the realm of popular culture.  Though Godzilla initially began as a metaphor for nuclear devastation, the more sequels Toho produced, the more the symbolism and metaphor behind Godzilla evolved.  He became a symbol for war itself, for forces of nature, and even became something of a hero in certain outings.  Reportedly just as many people in the audience for the original Godzilla had mourned the death of the monster as they did the death of Serizawa.  After all, Godzilla had been a victim of the bomb as well.  It seems almost no wonder that the masses took such a fast and hard liking to the monster.

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