Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my spotlight on creature features and it’s getting you in the mood for Halloween. This week I’m spotlighting my favorite creature feature: Gojira (Godzilla to American viewers) from 1954. While the franchise would later be known for its campy sequels, the original remains a sobering cautionary tale about the consequences of the using the atomic bomb.
The film’s story starts when ships start mysteriously exploding and then sinking. A monster isn’t originally thought to be the cause. Here’s a brief plot summary:
Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk. At first, the authorities think it’s either underwater mines or underwater volcanic activity. The authorities soon head to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were sunk. One night, something comes onshore and destroys several houses and kills several people. A later expedition to the island led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada,who also happens to be Emiko’s lover, even though she is betrothed to Dr. Daisuke Serizawa) soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall (50-meter-tall) monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well. Can the monster be destroyed before it is too late, and what role will the mysterious Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) play in the battle?–IMDB
Why is it that Gojira holds a special place in my heart? It isn’t just the childhood nostalgia, although that’s part of it. I like that it’s not just about the monster and the destruction it causes. It’s a film that openly discusses the consequences of atomic bombs. We discover later in the film that what created the monster was nuclear weapons testing by Americans. Science and its consequences are front and center in this movie. The issue is addressed superficially in Them! and countless other monster films. Gojira has endured as a classic because underneath all the terrific action sequences (especially when Godzilla attacks Tokyo) is a story that has a message without being preachy.
Another reason I like this movie so much is that many of the protagonists are scientists and act as realistically as scientists can in a preposterous movie where a giant lizard attacks Japan. Dr. Serizawa is the most interesting of the bunch. He wrestles with moral questions, and isn’t just there as Emiko’s spurned lover. Should Serizawa use the weapon he has developed to destroy Godzilla but could potentially harm all ocean life? It’s another example of why this isn’t just a movie where you’re watching it for the destruction the monster causes. Gojira doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience as many of its imitators do.
Incredibly I’ve gotten this far without discussing the monster yet. With due respect to King Kong, Godzilla is the true king of the monsters. The allusions to Godzilla in the beginning with the weird occurrences at sea are very suspenseful and make you appreciate the monster when it does show up. While Godzilla is definitely a man in a rubber suit, he’s very believable. When Godzilla rises out of the sea and enters Tokyo Bay, it’s genuinely terrifying. The destruction of the city feels real.
Gojira‘s sequels did get pretty cheesy. But a few were of pretty high quality, especially Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. But the original is a classic in my eyes. It’s as much a creature feature as it is a meditation on the atomic age. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it yourself to do so.