image via Toho

Tale of Three Godzillas PArt i – Gojira (1954), A Legend Begins

Godzilla’s foundations are fortified beneath layers of deepest sorrow and tragedy.

March 1, 1954 A Date With Destiny

The neon haze of a new era was begun under the heated shadow of mushroom clouds. This marked a new achievement for man’s capacity to destroy his own kind and the atomic age was secured whether we wanted it to be or not. This date marked the first hydrogen bomb testing and – it would seem – Armageddon was right at Japan’s back door.

But this wasn’t the first time nukes touched down on their soil.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Previously, during WWII, a couple of bombs were dropped on two populated cities in Japan. The effects were catastrophic, although that is a puny word and pales in comparison to the trauma those unsuspecting citizens felt that day. It made history and shook the entire planet.

The homes of approximately 450, 550 people would be left in ruins due to the catastrophic effects of the bombs dropped on the unsuspecting population. When the clouds cleared, in the place where homes once stood, a wasteland had emerged where Hiroshima and Nagasaki once flourished.

Boy being tested after suffering burns from Hiroshima

The bomb had no pity. Women and children weren’t spared any more than the elderly. People melted into the sidewalk making it tough to differentiate where the people began and the cement ended.

Others who were far enough away to escape the initial blast would all-too-soon learn how cruel nature can be as they began feeling the sickly effects of radiation poisoning. Hell had been opened and there was no escape.

image courtesy of History.com

Now, just a few years after the a-bomb dropped on them, the same culture had hydrogen bombs being tested just a little ways off the mainland. It would seem nuclear horror inundated Japanese culture.

Some may say it was in poor taste for the US to go ahead with using Japanese land for a top secret testing ground (for nukes nonetheless). After all this was a nation already suffering the hazardous effects of radiation poisoning to last three lifetimes.

victim of radiation poisoning, image via newsweek

Some would also argue that this was American occupied territory and they had a right (maybe by some higher power) to do it. But the powers that be approved of the plan and the US started dropping nukes and playing like some Old Testament act of God.

The surrounding waters of the Marshal Islands were strictly off limits.

A new stroke of misfortune was on the rise though, as the crew aboard the Lucky Dragon set sail, dangerously close to the apocalyptic islands. The fishing crew hoped to make good on all the tuna just begging to be caught, and with no competition this seemed like a win win all around.

Were they simply ignoring the warnings surrounding the Marshal Islands and tempting fate or were there no real warnings laid down to begin with? It’s said that the project was so top secret that not even the Japanese government knew what the US military was doing out there.

Whatever the reason, the fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon weren’t so lucky.

To their horror a second sun appeared before their eyes and set the sky aflame with unnatural light. A deafening boom clamored overhead like a storm and with it the crew were knocked off their feet.

The bomb had gone off and their fates were sealed under the swift lambent vapors of a very cruel destiny. Already the H-bomb was claiming its first prey and the Reaper emerged out of the smoldering air as the crew quickly felt the sickening effects of radiation poisoning.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

This tragedy – along with the traumas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – deeply affected the nation.

Art For Exorcism

The opening sequence of Gojira strongly echoes the terrible misfortune that befell the Lucky Dragon. Incorporating a national tragedy into the film’s prologue set audiences up for the right tone of the film and prepared them for a new kind of horror movie.

This wasn’t going to be just a giant monster film. This movie dared to tackle recent – terrifying – topics that scarred an entire nation; brazenly the film makers chose to exorcise their demons through means of art rather than hide from them.

Bold, daring, and distinctly Japanese, this was going to be one helluva’n experience.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

For a lot of people when they think of Godzilla they think of the silly moments given throughout the franchise. Be it Godzilla dashing across the sky being carried by his atomic breath alone, or the tail-glide kick, or characters like little Minilla or Jet Jaguar.

Ok, there have been some fun shenanigans along the way, and that’s ok. That’s part of what’s embedded Godzilla into pop culture and made him accessible to younger audiences.

But Godzilla’s introductory film is far from campy. It is dark and very bleak, and not what many viewers expect it to be. It serves as both a metaphor for nuclear weapons and a warning against them.

Origins For Destruction

Sure there can be no denying that King Kong was also influential over the film project, as it was to all giant-monster cinema that followed it. And yet Godzilla was his own monster and became a hallmark for Japanese cinema. He rose from a fresh new Hell of mankind’s own making and stood as the devastating embodiment of humanity’s unbridled ambitions.

There’s no doubt about it. Godzilla is the monster of the atomic age.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

The film opens with the iconic roar we’ve all come to love. It’s a bold statement letting us know this is a film that stands apart from any that’s come before it. In other words, it’s not ‘just another big monster movie.’

For one thing, Gojia‘s been called a Japanese ghost story and for good reason. His rampage across Tokyo does feel like a supernatural force risen up against humanity. He’s a phantasm of the deathly affects left behind from nuclear weapons and rapidly begins to repay death with more death and none are spared before him.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

Others have called this a force of nature. For example: a tsunami ushers in Godzilla’s approach to land and a nearby village is completely flooded in the catastrophe, leaving survivors in a sodden ruin that was once their home.

Perhaps the planet has sent him with a mission to show mankind the dire follies of their careless handling of science and the destruction wrought thereof. The disaster Godzilla causes is no less effective than that of a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or fire. In fact, Godzilla manages to embody each of those disastrous traits as he slowly looms over the city and crushes buildings and bones with equal ease. Steal, iron, and stone are impervious against his path and prevent nothing.

image via Criterion Collection courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

Not even the army has a chance at slowing him down.

So a living force of nature, a vengeful ghost, and the atomic monster. And this is still the opening of the movie!

Once we do finally get the first glimpse of the titular kaiju we see Godzilla’s head slowly crowning over a hilltop. It’s undeniable the haunting imagery bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a mushroom cloud ascending.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

Even the design of Godzilla’s skin was based on the radiation burns victims of the bomb came back with. So rather than being a green lizard covered in scales, Godzilla is a coal-black body of radiation scarring.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

This is some pretty heavy stuff for a kaiju film and is nothing short of a true horror story.

After giving the film yet another re-watch I was struck by how easily this movie can stand alongside the classic horror heavyweights like Dracula and Frankenstein. But there’s something more to Godzilla that those other guys didn’t have – originality. More akin to his predecessor Kong, Godzilla didn’t have a graphic novel to inspire his lore. Gojira, like King Kong, is a work of imagination on the film makers behalf.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

Audiences will sit through some uncomfortable moments. Like a recently orphaned little girl looking down upon her dead mother’s body. It leaves you with a cold sense of silent revelation. A revelation that even if humanity stumbles upon a means to rid Tokyo of Godzilla the lingering after affects of his titanic carnage will never be remedied for so many, many lives.

Everyone seems to pick up on another emotion-fueled scene as well. I’m speaking of the mother sitting in the shadow of all the destruction while encouraging her little ones that soon they’ll be with daddy again. It’s a fierce moment featuring a doomed mother who’s come to realize there’s no chance for her or her children. The only thing she has left to offer is the meager comfort that at least their family will be reunited again after death.

There’s a reason why we all focus on that scene. It pulls at the heart and brings to light just how dire everyone’s situation really is. And the film masters these sobering moments and tricks us into thinking we’re not watching a monster movie. It elevates what should be a B movie to A-list quality.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

The tone and story lines of the ensuing films would lighten up significantly and Godzilla would evolve from his initial role of being mankind’s ultimate destruction to humanity’s conquering protector.

And that’s how I like my Godzilla most, as the protector. Nevertheless I admit there’s something imperially satisfying about seeing Godzilla wreck havoc across unsuspecting cities. At the end of the day, fans have a multilayered monster to adore which isn’t bad for a man in a rubber suit.

actor Haruo Nakajima, image via Toho

Speaking of which, actor Haruo Nakajima, the man who brought Godzilla to life (from inside the suit), said he based his movements on what he saw from bear behavior. It does give Godzilla a more natural feel, something organic and feral.

That beautiful man’s performance is what has kept Godzilla the ultimate King of the Monsters all these many decades later. Nakajima played the roll from 1954 all the way into 1972 and laid the unshakable foundations that none have strayed from as they fill his giant-monster shoes in later roles. His spirit lingers on and is felt even in 2016’s Shin Godzilla.

This master of monster art is responsible for bringing fans some of the most iconic battles seen throughout the entire franchise. His Godzilla was first to stand against the likes of King Kong, Rodan, Gigan, and his archenemy King Ghidorah! He introduced us to the gigantic world of larger-than-life fantasy! He suffered inside that hot, sweaty, bulky suit to bring us a beautiful film series to believe in and be enchanted by.

Lost in Translation

Unfortunately, many Western audiences associate the first Godzilla movie with Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) which was – to be fair – technically the first Godzilla movie released in the US. However it suffers from a ton of re-editing.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

The two films may share the initial concept story but they honestly couldn’t be further apart from each other. In terms of tone, atmosphere, and pacing Gojira wins hands down.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

I’m not saying GKOTM (1956) is a bad movie but it does lack the very things that made Gojira a masterpiece. By purposely cutting out the political message and removing significant scenes of tragedy the American re-edit lacks the heart and soul of Gojira.

Because of this, the Americanized version feels more like a typical ‘50s nuclear monster movie akin to Them. And that’s not a bad thing…I love those kinds of movies. But compared to Gojira you see how malnourished the Western edit is.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

So even if you’ve seen Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), and not Gojira you’re missing out. Gojira is a cinematic achievement just as much as the original King Kong was.

Thanks to the Criterion Collection a very nice edition of Gojira has been made available to fans. Be sure to check it out here. There’s never been a better time to catch up on our favorite kaiju’s apocalyptic roots.

Sixty-six years later and still going strong, Godzilla’s adamant sovereignty is proven just as indestructible as himself! And given the success of his reintroduction to newer audiences – largely thanks to Legendary – his fame has hit an all-time high thus assuring his place in history… as if there was any doubt.

image courtesy of Toho, ‘Gojira’

This has been Part 1 of a 3-part look into the three Godzillas. Next time we’re going to dare take a look at that, yes that, Godzilla movie that came out in 1998.

I’m Manic Exorcism and if you need to satisfy any further Godzilla goodness be sure to check out my previous articles both here and here. Don’t forget to give us a like and let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

You can follow my shenanigans over on either Instagram or Facebook @thetruemanicexorcism

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