aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Godzilla, solo, in his big screen debut
The Plot (Spoilers!)
Going into the original Godzilla from 1954, I was only armed with some vague preconceptions about what the movie was going to be, picked up from various pop culture references and some incidental viewings of sequels in my childhood. More or less I was expecting wall-to-wall fire breathing and city stomping. A three ring, cheap-looking, retro disaster porn extravaganza if you will.
The reality of the original Godzilla is a bit different.
Lighthearted, it is not.
As Godzilla opens, we find ourselves on a fishing ship that is quickly destroyed by an unknown explosive force emanating from beneath the surface of the sea. This scene was inspired by a real life situation involving a Japanese fishing ship called the Lucky Dragon 5 that was contaminated with radiation from a nearby American nuclear weapons test.
A rescue ship is dispatched and summarily destroyed. The powers that be send a third ship to check things out before they realize something is a tad askew.
A survivor washes ashore near a fishing village and breathlessly declares that a “monster” was responsible for the destruction of the three ships. This leads one of the ancient scowl-faced villagers to announce that it must be a Godzilla, a terrible sea creature that feeds on humankind. That would have been my first rational explanation as well.
A bit later Scowl Face adds that the only way to get rid of such a monster is by sacrificing young girls, a tradition that has been abolished, much to the old villager’s lament. Now, instead of the whole human sacrifice thing, the villagers attempt to ward of the Godzilla with a choreographed dance involving funny hats and masks. Sadly, the dance doesn’t work (shocking) and a storm, and Godzilla (still unseen by the viewer), smashes up the village.
Abandoning superstitious hokum, the powers that be send for their best archaeologist, who we’ll just call Mr. Scientist, because I’m never going to remember his name. He lends his expertise and testifies that the ocean is a weird place that could be full of all kinds of scary crap (paraphrasing).
Mr. Scientist (ok his name is Dr. Yamane) heads to the ravaged island and finds residual radiation, a gigantic footprint, and a trilobite. The villager manning the Monster is Attacking the Village Emergency Bell starts clanging away and we finally get our first glimpse at the iconic creature in the form of a 50 meter tall, snaggle-toothed hand puppet that looks like it was sculpted by a Jim Henson Company intern strung out on meth.
The first appearance of Godzilla!
Everyone is surprisingly calm at the sight of a giant reptilian monster, and Mr. Scientist states unequivocally that Godzilla is a creature from the Jurassic period that has been awakened by recent nuclear testing.
The government sends out the Anti-Godzilla Frigate Fleet, which is the best name of anything ever, to begin dropping depth charges to kill the monster, based on no supportable evidence of their effectiveness whatsoever. Here begins the age old tradition of repeatedly attacking Godzilla with weapons that have no effect on him.
“Anti-Godzilla Frigate Fleet” is the best name of anything ever.
Happening concurrently is a very uninteresting love triangle between Yamane’s daughter Emiko, who is engaged to a scientist named Serizawa, even though she really loves a salvage ship captain named Ogata. In the midst of the national Godzilla crisis, Serizawa shows Emiko a secret device he has been working on which we later find out is called the Oxygen Destroyer. The purpose of the device is to, well, destroy oxygen. Which, in turn, leads to the complete disintegration of any living thing close to it. Serizawa is reluctant to share his findings with the world, even though it may kill Godzilla, because he fears it will fall into the wrong hands and be turned into a weapon. That old chestnut.
After a day of failed depth-charging, Godzilla emerges from Tokyo Bay that night for his very first city smash up. He stomps his way around town, leveling power lines, buildings, and bridges, just to show everyone who the boss really is, before returning to the water.
Japan then enacts Plan B, and builds an enormous electrified barbed wire fence. Godzilla returns, is momentarily slowed by the fence and some additional artillery fire, but ultimately gains the upper hand because IT’S A FENCE and re-commences smashing things to bits.
Godzilla is then attacked by a squadron of fighter jets firing missiles with seemingly no way of aiming as their hit ratio is approximately one out of every twenty. Apparently, Godzilla is disgusted by their lack of targeting and retreats back into the sea probably to pen a very strongly letter to Japanese Air Force officials.
Bottle rockets away!
After much hemming and hawing Serizawa finally agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla. Ogata and Serizawa don diving suits and take to the seas. Serizawa sets up the device and sends Ogata back to the ship. Serizawa then severs his oxygen line, and detonates his device, sacrificing himself to prevent the knowledge he possesses from being used for nefarious purposes. Godzilla is disintegrated! Defeated forever until the next movie. I did not know that there were Godzillas plural. I thought there was one Big G and that was it. I’m assuming they’ll explain this away and replace the original monster in the later films, as there is literally nothing left of this Godzilla at the end of this movie.
This film really surprised me. This isn’t the silly monster wrestling that would come later. Godzilla is a serious reflection by a country coming to grips with its recent encounters with nuclear weapons at the end of World War 2.
In one particularly haunting scene, glimpses of hospitals teeming with victims burned and maimed from Godzilla’s attack on the city are intercut with a school full of children chanting a funeral dirge-like prayer. It is a somber reminder of what occurred not even a decade before.
And the reluctant scientist’s moral dilemma, whether or not to use his device for fear it will fall into the wrong hands and be used as a weapon, is easy shorthand for the film’s message.
Notwithstanding, the movie is still great fun to watch. There is nothing better than tiny war machines shooting bottle rockets at a rubber monster thrashing his way through scale power lines.
Overall, the effects are not great, even by 1950s standards, but they are endearing because they are done in earnest and they get the job done.
Sure the movie centers on a man in a rubber suit stomping on tiny model cities, but it manages to transcend this, in its complete sincerity. It’s an important film and worth the watch even if you are not interested in Godzilla.
It’s crazy how such a movie could give birth to the some of the outright silly sequels that followed it. But then again what has King Kong done lately?
- The original Godzilla marks the beginning of the first of the three “series” of Godzilla films. It is known as the Showa Series, and would span 15 films in all, ending with 1975’s Terror of MechaGodzilla.
- Godzilla lost the Japanese Academy award for best picture to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.