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Gojira (Godzilla)

Movie Information

In Brief: The Japanese giant monster — or kaiju — movie starts here, and nothing that came in the wake of Gojira (Godzilla) ever got anywhere near this dark, somber and downright grim film. Oh, sure, it has the same dumb special effects and the man-in-the-rubber-suit monster (helped by keeping the action dark), but there's no silliness here. The stakes feel genuinely high, the characters are complex and the tone is anything but the kind of "kiddie fare" the series came to be. A must-see of its kind.
Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Director: Ishirô Honda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami
Rated: NR

Perhaps no series in the history of movies ever went to hell as fast as the seemingly endless spawn of Gojira (1954) — or Godzilla as it came to be known in the West. Oh, sure, the immediate cheapjack sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955) — which made it to the U.S. in 1959 as Gigantis the Fire Monster — was at least seriously-intended, but it was a cheapjack sequel that showed up in Japanese theaters about four months after Gojira. It also had none of the first film’s genuine sense of dread or weightiness of theme — perhaps because co-writer-director Ishirô Honda was nowhere to be found. However, this first film is a kind of post-war masterpiece. And there is very much the specter of the war haunting the film. One of the early scenes — after Gojira has made his presence known — involves people on a commuter train talking about bomb shelters, with one commenting, “The shelters again. That stinks.” The whole very anti-nuclear tone (a staple in Honda’s films) is plugged into that mindset and the ghost of the atomic bomb. Gojira is even said to have been released by nuclear testing — and you hardly have to reflect to find the allegory in an unstoppable force that can incinerate people and level entire cities with its radioactive blast.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film’s power owes less to the image of the giant monster himself (though in this one incarnation that can be pretty potent) than to the havoc he brings: the twisted, burned-out wreckage of his fury that lingers in the mind — to say nothing of the scene of a cowering mother telling her child that they’ll “be with daddy soon” as they await destruction. One of the most striking things about all this is that, despite what we think of as the “Godzilla Theme” (the same music Leos Carax uses for his M. Merde character in Tokyo! and Holy Motors), the musical score by Akira Ifukube is mostly somber. Most of the action — and the entire final act — is underscored with dirge-like music that, instead of hyping the action, making it seem almost inexpressibly sad.

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Gojira (Godzilla) Thursday, Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

10 thoughts on “Gojira (Godzilla)

  1. Stephladder

    …I agree with your review. In the late ’50s or was it the very early ’60s it played every evening for a week on Million Dollar Movie (TV) and I watched it every night. I was only thirteen and it initiated a sea-change in my movie mindset. It was indeed an unsettling, somber and sad movie… completely unlike the sequels which were just down right humorous (G vs This, that and the other) This Godzilla (yes, with interjected Raymond Burr) and Howard Hawks The Thing from Another World – which also ran for a week on MDM – evolved my movie consciousness from the Frankenstein / Dracula genre into the (scary? exciting?) new world of which I was just beginning to be a member. I still enjoy this movie – on it’s own and as an ‘artifact’ of my ‘coming of age’, (and all things science fiction to this day ;-) -sm

  2. DrSerizawa

    Amazingly the Raymond Burr version is excellent as well. In hindsight the importer had no choice but to Americanize the movie because American audiences in no way would have accepted the straight Japanese version so soon after WWII. The Burr version still maintains about 90% of the original content.

    Your excellent review keeps DrSerizawa from readying and deploying another oxygen destroyer device.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The US art crowd might’ve been okay with it as Japanese, but that pretty obviously wasn’t the target. (I don’t know if my parents were just incredibly tolerant, but I never heard a single racial slur when I was young — certainly nothing anti-Japanese. At the same time the knowledge that my great aunt Dorothy married a Japanese man in the late 40s was kept from my grandfather till he died in 1967.)

    The Japanese version was certainly warmly received tonight (and we were packed, too). I haven’t seen the US version in years. Maybe I’ll give it a spin while the original is fresh in my mind.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well, I gave it a spin. I definitely prefer the original. The Americanized version is shorter (even with the added footage, it’s about 15 min. shy of the original’s running time) and probably faster-paced. A few things surprised me. While the anti-nuke message of the original has been blunted, it actually makes a bigger deal out of the sailors’ radiation burns. No attempt was made to change the overall downbeat tone of the original, or to goose the excitement with different music over the ending scenes. But what really surprised me was that such a solid attempt was made to make the intercut footage match and not feel altogether slapdash (dicey dubbing notwithstanding).

  5. DrSerizawa

    I have the 2-disc Gojira set (as you would expect by my handle). And while the Japanese version is superior I still have a soft spot for the Burr version because I watched it every night on “Million Dollar Movie” in LA when I was a kid. And after that I watched it every chance I got. The rest of my family got heartily sick of it. It certainly opened the door for more Japanese output. Too bad most of it was aimed at children.

  6. Ken Hanke

    True, but at least the Honda films often tended to retain something of that post-Hiroshima fixation on radioactivity and even the specter of the war, giving them a sense of having something on their mind.

  7. Erik Harrison

    I unabashedly love Gojira. I would probably love it even if it were of a piece with the stupid monster movies that it spawned just because I love old science fiction flicks and Takashi Shimura. But it’s so much better than that.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Oh, I have soft spots for several other Toho offerings — including some pretty dubious ones like Atragon. Reminds me, I need to watch The Mysterians again.

  9. DrSerizawa

    MYSTERIANS is good. I spent the entire weekend watching all 4 matinees when it came out. The english voice track on the DVD is worse than the one on VHS tape though.

    GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN wasn’t quite kids fare.

    THE H-MAN is good too. I also have a soft spot for ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM people just because it’s so damm weird.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I have never watched the film (well, since childhood) with the English track.

    Godzilla Raids Again isn’t quite kiddie fare, but it’s a pale imitation of the original.

    I like both The H-Man and Mushroom People a good deal.

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