Godzilla (Japan, 1954)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
The original Godzilla (or Gojira, as its die-hard adherents refer to it), released in Japan during 1954, officially ushered in the Japanese movie monster craze that would, in due time, become a subgenre all to itself. When the film reached U.S. shores in 1956, it had undergone significant alterations. Roughly 40 minutes of the movie had been cut, about 20 minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr had been spliced in, and the dialogue had been dubbed into English. This version, called Godzilla, King of the Monsters, proved to be popular, and it paved the way for future American editions of Japanese monster movies. Yet it has taken the movie's 50th anniversary for the original, uncut feature to finally reach United States screens.

Like Halloween, Godzilla spawned a type of cinema of which it wasn't really a part. Those who are familiar with the umpteen Godzilla sequels will be surprised at the lack of camp evident in the first movie, which is a straightforward allegorical melodrama. The tone is grim and the photography is black-and-white - characteristics not often associated with Japanese monster movies, which are seen by many fans as being escapist entertainment at best and unintentional comedies at worst.

Godzilla represents an attempt by director Ishirô Honda to wrestle with his country's post-World War II nuclear phobia. To date, Japan is the only country to have been the wartime destination of a nuclear bomb, and what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki fractured the people's psyche. Godzilla is a morality play about the evils of nuclear experimentation, as well as an examination of the ethical dilemma faced by scientists who, in the pursuit of knowledge, make dangerous discoveries.

The film opens with about 30 minutes of set-up as we meet the main characters: paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura) and his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi); and Emiko's two suitors, military man Ogata (Akira Takarada) and scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). The lives of all four are impacted by the appearance of a 150-foot tall mutated creature that is a throwback to the Jurassic Age and has been brought to the ocean's surface as a result of nuclear testing. Godzilla, as it is called, represents a mindless destructive force that sets its sights on Tokyo. When bullets, missiles, and electricity fail to stop the creature's rampage, all hope seems lost - until Serizawa reveals that he has created a doomsday weapon, the "Oxygen Destroyer," that can kill Godzilla. But Serizawa is reluctant to use his discovery, believing that some forces should be left untapped.

This is the one Godzilla movie in which the title character plays second fiddle to the humans. While the film's moral and ethical situations are interesting, they are not as compelling as the film's adherents would have us believe, and their resolutions are simplistic. The love triangle between Emiko, Ogata, and Serizawa takes up an inordinate amount of time for a three-pronged relationship that is neither emotionally involving nor especially interesting. Indeed, one of the problems with Godzilla is that the human beings aren't all that compelling as characters. I didn't feel a sense of loss at Serizawa's sacrifice because he never seemed like a real, three-dimensional individual to me.

The Godzilla of this film is far more convincing and menacing than the creature that populated the sequels of the '60s and '70s. Part of the reason is that the bulk of the film takes place at night, and the darkness enhances the believability of the man in the monster suit. It also hides the inadequacies of some of the miniatures. Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo is one of the more sobering scenes of movie monster destruction because of the way in which Hondo chose to film it. In his view, this attack was a tragedy, not a gratuitous orgy of destruction designed to sate the appetites of disaster-hungry viewers.

There's little doubting that the original, uncut Japanese Godzilla is superior to the Raymond Burr bastardization. One could also argue that the first movie is the best of the long series, although it bears little resemblance to its successors. (Like Dr. No, it represents the introduction of a famous cinematic figure before the formulas were established.) However, the relevance of the film's allegorical message has been dimmed by the passage of years and its melodrama is dated. The arrival of the uncut Godzilla is a great boon to monster movie fans, but will have limited appeal to others.

Godzilla (Japan, 1954)

Director: Ishirô Honda
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai
Screenplay: Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Music: Akira Ifukube
U.S. Distributor: Rialto Pictures
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Japanese.
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1