Tokyo Terror: “Godzilla”


Published: January 31, 2008

These kinds of movies always start so peacefully. People are going about their normal everyday activities, blissfully enjoying their lives. Then a mysterious noise brings it all to a halt. From then on, the world as they knew it is all over. Destruction and hysteria takes over, and all that drives them is the avoidance of a painful death in the hands of a massive creature.

Now which colossal creature is this? In the cinematic world it could be one of many: King Kong, the Blob or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. However, given that the movie monster created for the recently released film “Cloverfield” seems to remind others of “Godzilla,” it seemed worthwhile to take another look at the 1954 Japanese film “Gojira,” where the reptilian terror made its famous debut.

The plot in “Gojira” is quite basic. Boats and fish in the waters off of Odo Island are mysteriously disappearing. The standard “crazy old man” chalks it up to the folkloric, human-eating monster Godzilla. It isn’t until respected paleontologist Kyohei Yamane suggests that a creature is a plausible reason for these attacks that the situation is taken seriously. While a team researches the island for proof, Godzilla decides to show up in the flesh, and this is when the audience gets its first clear look at the monster.

Obviously it’s in the special effects that the film shows its age, as the destruction of Tokyo is done with old-fashioned movie magic: costumed feet crushing miniature models.

Despite the valiant effort that the creators put into the film to make the effects seamless, watching it now takes a bit of imagination, not only to accept the idea that a resurrected dinosaur can demolish a city, but to ignore all the technical glitches that a 1954 film presents.

Really, this is the test of how good a science fiction movie is: is it able to rationalize what’s happening in the story to the point of almost being believable? Honestly, Dr. Yamane speaks with such authority that it makes it easier to believe a giant lizard can be brought back from extinction. One of the thematic intentions of “Gojira” was to be a commentary on nuclear technology and weaponry testing. In the film, Dr. Yamane finds massive amounts of radiation in Godzilla’s footprints and explains that its arrival is due to nuclear testing. An explosion from an atom bomb shifted its surroundings, which allowed it effortless access to the surface, and mutated the monster back to life with the power to melt and set fire to objects with its hot breath. It’s a not-so-delicate accusation that they brought Godzilla upon themselves. The humanity of the film comes from Dr. Yamane. As a paleontologist, Dr. Yamane considers Godzilla an amazing scientific discovery and is adamant against killing it.

Amidst all the turmoil of dealing with Godzilla, there is also a love-triangle subplot involving Dr. Yamane’s supportive daughter Emiko, who is in love with Lieutenant Ogata but is engaged to Dr. Serizawa. The acting in this film is surprisingly very subtle, and not as melodramatic as you’d think—a fact evidenced in Emiko’s dilemma—given its “campy” factor. There are occasional moments of overacting, but the good overrides the bad, such as when we witness the heart-warming tenderness between Emiko and Ogata, and even Dr. Yamane’s palpable depression over whether to kill a scientific marvel. Despite the film being mainly a monster movie, there is a significant amount of character development with inner psychological struggles that co-exist with the physical struggle against Godzilla.

After seeing how much damage Godzilla has caused and all the lives it has taken, Emiko decides to betray her father and ask Dr. Serizawa if he would use his powerful Oxygen Destroyer to get rid of Godzilla. Dr. Serizawa’s initial protest against using his weapon is another piece of commentary about nuclear weapons. He knows that if the Oxygen Destroyer works, every politician will want the instructions so they can build bombs of their own. He eventually decides to use the Oxygen Destroyer but cuts off the ropes connecting his scuba gear to his boat, killing himself and extinguishing the risk of anyone learning the secrets behind his devastating bomb. However, Dr. Yamane ends the film with the warning that if nuclear testing continues, more Godzillas can arise; a final word of caution for leaders of the nuclear age, as well as an opening for numerous sequels.

In actuality, “Gojira” is a heavy analysis on how humans are the cause of their own destruction, but by using a fictional monster, it disguises the still-relevant message in a much easier to digest package of a light horror film. It’s a lesson that goes along nicely with a bucket of popcorn.