Godzilla (1954) review [The Godzilla Project]

Introduction

In search for a director to bring Tomoyuki Tanaka’s idea to create a Japanese monster film based on the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident, Toho ultimately offered the assignment to Ishirō Honda, who accepted because he could take this ‘ridiculous’ idea seriously.  

Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects directors, for that matter, wanted to use stop-motion for the feature film, yet the lack of infrastructure and know-how led him to pioneer Suitmation, a form of special effects where a performer in a suit interacts with miniature sets.  

Little did they know, that the journey they embarked on would not only result in a classic, but ultimately blossom into a multimedia franchise.    

Review

One day, near Ohto island, the freighter Eiko-Maru is destroyed by a mysterious flash (pika) and explosion (don). The Bingo-Maru, sent out to investigate this tragic but puzzling event, also quickly catches fire when it traverses the weird light that adorns the sea.

Some time later, three survivors are picked up by a fishing boat. On their way to Ohto Island, they meet the same disastrous fate as the two other ships. Unexpectedly, one fisherman, Masagi (-) makes it to the shore. In response to the complaints of the fishermen that there are no fish to net, a village elder (Kokuten Kōdō) states, much to the disbelief of the others, that Godzilla might have something to do with it. A storm, that very night, ravages the village and monstrous shape is briefly seen by some villagers.  

At the Diet Building, expert palaeontologist professor Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) persuades the government to send a research team to the island to uncover the truth of this disastrous situation. Soon, Yamane and his team discover a giant radioactive footprint and a long-thought-to-be extinct trilobite. Soon, the team lays eyes on the gigantic dinosaur (Haruo Nakajima, Katsumi Tezuka) that haunts the area.

Godzilla (1954) by Ishirō Honda

When approaching the original narrative of Godzilla, there is always a danger that one over-interprets this iconic figure. In fact, some scholars and commentators have fallen victim to such kind of seduction (General-note 1). Yet, it is the very fact that one can interpret Godzilla that is central to its function. Godzilla, as Ishiro Honda implies, is a visualisation of what escaped visual representation, of the Real that ravaged the flesh, wood, and stones of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (General Note 2). It is, in truth, by giving a monstruous image to the Real called the atom bomb and spinning a fictional narrative around it that Honda grants the Japanese spectator a chance to work through this (national) war-time trauma and undo the invisible Real from its traumatic dimension (Psycho-note 1).

The narrative elegantly juxtapositions the invisible Real and the visible fiction of the threat, the radical impossibility and the imaginary possibility to symbolize the traumatic Real. As Godzilla starts, for instance, the spectator is immediately made uneasy with a mixture of rhythmical sounds (e.g. the crushing impact of footsteps and outlandish roars) and music – the iconic musical piece that echoes the presence of something enormous and awe-inspiring. The disconcerting effect of this mixture is not merely function of its anticipatory character, but of the fact that it evokes the presence of a threat that is yet invisible – echoing the veritable horror of the atomic pika and don.  

Godzilla (1954) by Ishirō Honda

The opening sequence of Godzilla, moreover, emphasizes the very invisible nature of the atomic destruction by directly echoing the events of March 1, 1954, where the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, was engulfed with radioactive fallout from the U.S. military’s 15-megaton Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll (Narra-note 1). Later, when visualizing the storm that plagues Ohto island, Honda keeps Godzilla invisible by focusing on the horror of the faces of those villagers catching sight of him.

Yet, eventually, the invisible threat receives its image, receives a locality that enables the spectator to turn his lingering sense of anxiety into a fear that can be mastered. The effect of giving the horror of the invisible its monstrous image is heightened by juxta-positioning the ravaging monster with war-time-like imagery (e.g. frigates in the sea, the dispatching of tanks and other military material, the evacuation of people, firing cannons, a trail of destruction, city-blocks on fire, people evaporating, hospitals full of wounded people, … etc.). The fact that Godzilla’s rampaging echoes the destruction caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki further underlines that Godzilla function as a direct representation of the invisible atomic horror.  

Godzilla (1954) by Ishirō Honda

Of course, Godzilla also needs to be read as a social critique. Beyond giving the invisible destruction of the atomic bomb a face, Honda also introduces this monstrous appearance as an effect of the societal or political thirst for attaining military power and waging war (General-note 2). By doing so, Honda also turns Godzilla into a symbol against the phallic obsession with power, an obsession that propels imperialism, nationalism, militarism, and the likes.         

This social critique is made explicit via the character of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). This one-eyed scientist has found, following the thread of his research, a method to weaponize oxygen atoms. Yet, he refuses to use his horrible invention against Godzilla on the grounds that by showing off its destructive power an imaginary political conflict will break out between governments to seize it and add it to their ‘phallic’ arsenal to strengthen their international symbolic power. In other words, he does not want his invention to be exploited by those who aim to merely utilize it in their games of power.     

Godzilla (1954) by Ishirō Honda

The emotional finale of Godzilla can be interpreted in two different ways. As Godzilla is both an image for the subject to work through the trauma of the atom-bomb and a symbol against the phallic conflict for power that culminated in the development and the use of Big Boy and Fat Man, the finale acts as both a message of hope for the Japanese subject (i.e. The trauma of the war can be overcome) and a peace-statement (i.e. Together, we can defeat the phallic thirst that ravages countries and sucked imperialistic Japan into its veritable tragedy). Godzilla does thus not simply evoke an Anti-American sentiment as some academics have argued, but delivers, due to him being a victim of the weapon race himself, an anti-nuclear and anti-war message, a protest against those who have led, under whatever signifier whatsoever, the common folk to their untimely death.  

The composition of Godzilla is pretty straightforward, offering a balanced mix of static and dynamic shots. Honda’s composition, while being somewhat rough around the edges, is serviceable and does what it needs to do: visualize the post-atomic-bomb tragedy and present Godzilla in all its destructive glory to the spectator.   

Godzilla (1954) by Ishirō Honda

The miniature sets and special effects, while of course dated, still succeed, after all these years, to engage the spectator and draw him into the narrative. This is not only due to the exquisite quality of the miniature sets, but also due to the fluid concatenation and combination of these shots with shots with actors and actresses. It is, in fact, by creating an elegant and exquisite sense of spatial continuity that Honda and Tsuburaya enhance the overall believability of the special effects – on miniature sets or not – and succeeds to echo the horror of the atom bomb with a refined precision.  

With Godzilla Honda crafted a timeless classic monster movie. While its anti-nuclear and anti-war message is far from subtle, the effective visualization of the atomic-horror, the destructivity of the invisible, still hits the contemporary spectator emotionally. Godzilla plays out like a tragedy, but a tragedy that, beyond its social critical nature, has granted the Japanese spectator a way out of the claws of the war-time trauma.  

Notes

General Note 1: One example of such kind of excessive interpretation is by the hand of Marc Jakobson. By calling Godzilla “a reptilian id that lives inside the deepest recesses of the collective unconscious that cannot be reasoned with, a merciless undertaker who broaches no deals”, he does not only vandalizes Freudian psychoanalytic theory, but misses the essence of Godzilla as a representation.

General-note 2: Director Ishirō Honda did not only utilize the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the Tokyo rampage to live but also stated that “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.” (Ryfle, S. (2005). Godzilla’s Footprint. Virginia Quarterly Review. 81 (1): 44–68.)

Psycho-note 1: The trauma is, to be clear, the ravage caused by the war in general and the unprecedent destruction caused the atomic bomb in particular. What makes this violence traumatic is the fact that it resists symbolization, it resists being narrativized.  

By giving the invisible shockwave of the atom bomb a monstrous image, Honda grants the subject an anchor point to start symbolizing the war-time trauma and, as a result, dissolve the traumatic impact of these events.    

Narra-note 1: The light evokes nothing other than the ‘pika’ while the explosion resembles the ‘don’. By combing both elements to visualize the under-water explosion, Honda directly calls the mind the invisible effect of an atomic bomb.

General-note 1: This aspect is underlined by Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka in his statement that “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” (Ryfle, S. (2005). Godzilla’s Footprint. Virginia Quarterly Review. 81 (1): 44–68.

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