*I will be referring to this film as Godzilla, it’s just easier that way.
On the 6th August 1945, the atomic bomb codename “Little Boy” fell on Hiroshima, then on the 9th, “Fat Man” fell on Nagasaki. The two incidents are seen today as humanity’s darkest and chaotic moments with up to 225,000 people killed and many other dying from radiation poisoning and burns. When you disregard the sense of modern, epic action, Godzilla is the most significant cinema character symbolically, culturally, politically and many other things. The 1954 film stands as a remarkable cinematic achievement for many reasons, so let’s talk about them.
Directed by Ishirō Honda, The film starts with Japanese freighter and fishing boat being destroyed near the fictional Odo Island revealed to be the work of ancient creature known as Godzilla. One of the residents of Odo Island Shinkichi Yamada (Toyoaki Suzuki) travels to Tokyo to plead for help, she gets it in the form of paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) who visits Odo Island to discover giant radioactive footprints, a prehistoric trilobite and ultimately, the creature itself. Yamane figures out that it was the testing of a hydrogen bomb that awoke Godzilla and believes the creature is unkillable and must be studied. We follow the efforts of the Japanese military to destroy the monster as well as being introduced to Yamane’s colleague Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) who has been secretly working on something that could be used to repel Godzilla’s rampage.
Today, when audiences watch a Godzilla film, there is an expectation that a lot of the film will be devoted to showing off the spectacle of Godzilla ploughing through city buildings and fighting other giant monsters (or kaiju). Now while I’m not wholly opposed to this as I can always find time in my cinematic appetite to watch giant creatures slug it out, I think it has become a big stagnant. Godzilla 1954 does not follow the ruling of a modern Godzilla film as the devastation is not on Godzilla himself, but on the effects his attacks have on the people. The film provides a very solemn tone when it shows people suffering and grieving as a result of Godzilla’s attacks. There’s a very tough scene in which a mother is consoling her children during Godzilla’s rampage saying they’ll be able to see their father in heaven soon. Although it’s not the focus as we discussed, Godzilla’s attacks give off a similar haunting vibe as the scenes in which Godzilla walking through Tokyo with fire around him, together with black and white is a terrifying sight. When you think about the fact that the people who saw this film in 1954 in Japan were also the people who saw the devastation of their own country, it gives you an idea of how Japan was feeling collectively after the bombs fell, it must have felt like a monster attack.
At the same time however, Godzilla can also be seen as postwar catharsis, certainly in Japan. The fear of another careless incident of nuclear weapons was very real. In the same year this film was released, a Japanese fishing boat got caught in a US nuclear weapons test which contaminated the crew and irradiated the boat. This event undid years of coping so there was no way to escape their fears, that is until this film was released. Godzilla showed to audiences what kind of carnage the country had gone through but that even something as devastating in nature as Godzilla could be overcome.
For designers, Godzilla is a masterclass that they definitely should be inspired by. The absolute dedication of the suits wearer Haruo Nakajima, to putting on a 220 lbs., rubber suit with limited flexibility, difficult to breath in and freezing cold day in day out is astonishing to read about. If something like that we’re to happen in this day and age, production would be shut down for safety violations. I also have to mention the effort put in to making Godzilla’s rampage so believable. When you read about how certain effects were made in films, it’s the same feeling of knowing how a magic trick is done. I’ve seen this film many time and I still learn things from stories about the production of this film. I never knew that the filmmakers sprayed buildings with gasoline to make them burn easier when Godzilla shoots his atomic breath. I never knew that one of the set buildings, a castle, cost 500,000 yen (about £3000) and took 23 hours to build, and it was destroyed in 10 minutes. I never knew that the films optical effects were done by 400 people, half of which had no experience. There’s no wonder then that this film established the use of heavy special effects in Japanese visual media (Tokusatsu).
This film may not be in my top 10 list of favourite films, but if I were to make a list of my top 10 appreciated films, there’s no doubt that Godzilla would be at the top of that list. The expression “right place, right time” is something that absolutely hit the hammer on the nail when it comes to Godzilla. This film is an achievement in cinema that filmmakers wish about happening to them just once in their career. I don’t think there is ever going to be a time when cinema as a collective get tired of Godzilla because when your not exploring the epicness of the creature, you explore the symbolic nature of it, then the historical and so on and so forth. To oversimplify my feelings towards this creature and franchise… #TeamZilla.