Patiño’s Lores and Myths: Godzilla (1954)

Hello, dear reader! Welcome back for another round of movie talk with this here film geek. If you’re a returning reader, thanks! If you’re new, well, I hope you survive the experience, mwahaha! One thing, though. A slight change in the rhythm. I wasn’t expecting to come back to this blog, but life happens, so here I am. And I wanted to try something different! I delved deep into the recesses of my mind, climbed to the highest mountaintop of thought and shouted to the heavens for an answer. And in the blink of an instant, it came to me! The image of a God. And a King.

If you haven’t heard the news, there’s a brand new Godzilla vs. Kong movie coming out soon. Here’s the trailer:

Before you ask, yes. I have indeed watched the trailer. Twice. Three times. Fine, five ti—alright, ten! Ten times! It’s been a long year without movie theatres, man. This trailer gave me the blockbuster goosebumps. I apologize for nothing. (Pssst. It’s definitely more than ten.)

Anyways, when asked to come back, what immediately popped into my head was Godzilla vs. Kong, and voila! A plan set. Leading up to the release of GvK, I’ll be looking at a few of the original monster/kaiju films that defined a genre and launched the careers of two of cinema’s most iconic leading “men.” It’ll be a series of retrospectives of four of the classics ending with a review of GvK. Sound good? I hope so and that you, dear reader, enjoy the ride!

Let’s talk about the movie now, yeah? And there’s no better place to start than at the beginning.

Godzilla, original title Gojira, is a 1954 Japanese film about, well, Godzilla. Director Ishiro Honda, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Takeo Murata, brings the roaring atomic giant to life not only through groundbreaking special effects but in a thought-provoking cautionary tale wherein which Godzilla’s real power lies. Our story begins before the first frame of footage ever rolls. As was the norm then, the movie starts with an opening credits sequence. It’s a black screen accompanied by white text and the crashing booms of Godzilla’s footfalls. Then, the iconic roar rings out as composer Akira Ifukube’s incredible musical score rises, instilling an ominous mood right off the bat. It’s a hell of a start. We then get our first Godzilla attack within the first three minutes as he destroys a Japanese freighter out at sea. Although we don’t see Godzilla in full for another 20 minutes or so, I do appreciate how quickly these older movies just get on with it. Credit goes to the screenplay with how the story succulently unravels from this opening. At 96 minutes, this film maintains a tight, concise plot that delivers on thematic substance and monster mayhem.

With the destruction of this first vessel and no clues about the cause, officials send out more ships to investigate, only to have those destroyed too! Eventually, word gets out to the public, who demand to know just what in the hell is going on. City officials, reporters and scientists combine their efforts to uncover the mystery behind these strange, tragic events. It isn’t until the destruction of a village, in which the crushing damage appears to have been done by something large, that an investigative team led by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) comes face to face with the cause. A prehistoric creature right out of the Jurassic Era. A marine reptile evolved into a terrestrial creature standing 165 feet, long hidden in underwater caves for millions of years, roused from its habitat by a U.S. Hydrogen bomb test.

Irradiated. Angry. Vengeful. Monstrous.

Enter Godzilla.

1954’s Godzilla isn’t a Godzilla movie as we’ve come to know it. The original Godzilla isn’t a protector of the Earth, chomping down on big bad monsters and saving us humans. This Godzilla is THE monster. He destroys ships, crushes villages, burns Tokyo to ash, laying waste to buildings and people alike. But for all his ruinous capabilities, Godzilla isn’t a villain. He’s a metaphor—an imagining of the fear of what mankind may end up doing to itself. Look, it’s not a radioactively hot take to say, “Godzilla is an allegory for fears of nuclear power!” It’s been noticed and will continue to be by anyone with any sense, of which I have some. But just because a film’s themes are readily pieced out doesn’t denote poor storytelling. It’s about how well these ideas are explored on film.

Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) http://imdb.to/36KvcN1

In reality, the storytelling here is rather precise and powerful. The human stories, which tend to drag down these movies, are tied directly into Godzilla’s. It doesn’t feel like meandering B-plots. There’s a purpose to what the human characters are bandying about. Dr. Kyohei Yamane, delicately played by Takashi Shimura, is the film’s soul. As a scientist, he balks at the idea of killing Godzilla. He sees this as a rare opportunity to study an extraordinary creature, to learn from it. But the man is no idiot, and neither is this screenplay. A core conflict among certain main characters revolves around either killing Godzilla or surveying him. Whichever choice you make, a loss is inevitable. It’s a matter of choosing a lesser evil. Another standout among the human characters is Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), the creator of the Oxygen Destroyer, the one thing that may be able to defeat the fearsome Godzilla once and for all. But he knows that making his findings known would only lead to its further weaponization and exploitation by humans. The Oxygen Destroyer can stop Godzilla, but at what cost? A terrible force to meet a terrible force. It’s why this is all happening in the first place.

While broadly stated, these moral contemplations are told in earnest by a collection of filmmakers who lived under a cloud of a nuclear reality. At the time of Godzilla’s release, the world wasn’t even 10-years removed from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s an American H-bomb test that awakens ol’Lizzy. In reality, the U.S. H-bomb testing program was still in full swing when Godzilla was in production. The film’s opening alludes to a 1954 incident involving a Japanese fishing boat, The Lucky Dragon, which was caught in the fallout of a U.S. H-bomb test, sickening the men, one of whom died. The filmmakers tap into the genuine terror permeating the zeitgeist of the time. They bring a grounded, documentary-style approach to the action. The characters don’t act like idiots. Their response to a Titanic-sized lizard stomping about feels real-world and authentic. I don’t hate watching these folk figuring things out. It’s part of the charm.

Of course, the real reason we’re all here, and the reason why this movie has stood the test of time, is Godzilla. It’s not a man in a 200 lb. suit made of bamboo and chicken wire. It’s a real, horrific force of nature exacting tremendous retribution. There is monster action aplenty as Godzilla tears through district after district, smashing, stamping, and burning his way through richly detailed miniature sets. It’s impressive stuff considering the production’s budget and time limitations, not to mention the lack of precedence in what Godzilla was trying to do. As bombastic as the Godzilla sequences are, it’s what we see afterward that hits the point home. Devastation. Turmoil. Hospitals being overrun with injured and dying. Frightened children wailing as their deceased parent is carried off. News footage shows the crumpled, destitute remains of Godzilla’s rampage as a choir’s chorus plays atop it, punctuating the scene with a gut-punch of raw emotion. That’s why this movie holds up. Yes, the special effects are noticeably dated, and sometimes the acting is cheesy, but the film never loses sight of its humanity. That’s why it works, and why, nearly 70 years later, Godzilla’s roar is as resounding as ever.

The film’s moral compass is not pointing blame at any one nation or people. Sure, it’s an American bomb that shoots the **** into the fan, but that’s just harsh reality. We did these things. We have to own it. It’s the nature behind such things that Godzilla is getting at. Of humanity’s tendency to royally screw things up, regardless of intention or circumstance. Godzilla is as much a victim of nuclear weapons as the people of Tokyo. Godzilla is a rebounding force. A consequence of our weakness. Prof. Yamane ends the film by saying, “If nuclear testing  continues, another Godzilla will appear.” Which is to say, shape up, people, or we’re all ******

That’s a wrap for this entry, folks. Tune in next time as we go deep into the heart of Skull Island as we look back on 1933’s King Kong! In the GvK debate, I am full-on Team K. Don’t hold it against me! Kong’s got hops, yo.

— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.


Chris’ Bio:

Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. As a Tempo reporter, Chris writes film reviews for The Lewis Flyer. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s LotThe ShiningThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.


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