Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

Posted: May 17, 2014 in Movie Review
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)

Directors: Ishirō Honda (1954 original Japanese) & Terry O. Morse (1956 American additional scenes)

Starring: Raymond Burr, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura

The history of our world has seen many turning points over the years. One such event of importance fell between the days of August 6th and August 9th of 1945. Those were the dates of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States, actions which led the Japanese to surrender and finally bring an end to World War II. The debate over the moral and ethical justifications for dropping nuclear weapons on civilian populations will rage on forever. What is not in question is that the aftermath of this was such that several countries around the world all began stockpiling and testing nuclear arsenals in fear that one or another of the others with similar capabilities might attack them first. It makes perfect sense that Japan would begin exploring options with Atomic or Hydrogen bombs, considering that no other nation on Earth has firsthand experience. Still, rash decisions never come without consequence.

The first scene in the movie draws from the absolute horror of nuclear devastation, imagery that still held a certain immediacy for 1954/’56 audiences, showing the city of Japan in utter ruin. Because of the emotions which this opening scene is able to draw upon, it is also the film’s best scene. It clues us in on the fact that much of the film will be told in flashback, with American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) relating to us how he himself has only barely survived the city’s destruction. The power of this initial sequence is such that the movie hooks you almost immediately. We then flashback to the first warning signs that something was amiss. Several Japanese ships have been sunk without warning or provocation. Only one survivor is picked up, but he too dies soon after. Strange burns on his body are linked to the man’s passing, markings which are later determined to have been caused by radiation. Before he died, the man had spoken of some giant creature being to blame for all that has been happening, a claim which the island’s inhabitants accept as fact. They are soon proven right, and all attempts at harming keeping the monster at bay are fruitless. Godzilla, as the monster is referred to, marches on through Tokyo and threatens to progress even further.

As all of this is going on, there is also a love triangle that is explored. For most monster movies (and most action films in general) this would only be a distraction, but the three actually serve the greatest purpose of all. There is the Naval officer Ogata (Akira Takarada), his arranged bride-to-be Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) and the man to whom her heart truly belongs, the one-eyed scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Only Dr. Serizawa’s “oxygen destroyer” may be the answer to stopping Godzilla, but he is as reluctant to share this terrible weapon as were those who first conceived of the atomic bomb. He tells Emiko about it, but makes her promise to keep it a secret, a promise which she later breaks by telling Ogata about it when there seems to be no hope left.

Godzilla is one of the best and most popular movie monsters of all-time. I’m told the original Japanese version without the Raymond Burr inserts is much better. This version does give the appearance that it was edited so as not to offend those still harboring ill will towards Japan, and also not to confuse those perceived to be either too poorly educated or too lazy to read subtitles. However, even this version stands up just fine against its counterparts from six decades later. “Godzilla” also marked the first time North American cinemas screened a movie featuring Japanese in lead, heroic roles. That seeing the destruction of Tokyo affected audiences in a positive way only a decade after World War II may be the movie’s best achievement.

In terms of monster movies I am partial to a different film from 1954, an American story centered around abnormally sized ants entitled “Them!” Both “Godzilla” and “Them!” share in common a topical theme that is still relevant today, but was so fresh sixty years ago that they probably scared the hell out of my grandparents’ generation. Both films show, in their own way, how nothing good can come from the use or even the testing of nuclear weapons. I don’t find it all that scary (except for that opening shot, which just outright creepy), but I can forgive the crudeness of the special effects and for two reasons: 1) It’s the 1950’s, so one shouldn’t expect things to look as real as they can today and 2) pretty much any movie not produced by Hollywood is going to look cheap by comparison. So, the obvious toy-sized models being smashed don’t even enter into it.

Products bearing the name of “Godzilla” don’t always get it right. Take the insufferable 1998 American in-name-only release. No, really. Take it away. Far, far away. It’s the poop-filled baby diaper of the franchise. At its core, it’s a remake not of “Godzilla,” but of the U.K.’s 1961 monster flick, “Gorgo.” Playing it that way showed how much those in charge didn’t understand what Godzilla is all about. The best thing to come out of it was the Taco Bell commericals where the chihuahua says, “Here lizard, lizard, lizard!” Best. Commercial. Ever. Sixteen years have passed since that stinker. Some would say that’s not long enough. Still, there’s a new “Godzilla” that has just invaded theaters. The trailer gave me chills. Now that I have officially seen and approved of the original, I’m ready to give the new edition my fullest attention. With any luck, that won’t be a decision I’ll come to regret.

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