Saturday Editor’s Pick: Godzilla (1954)

by on April 29, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat May 5 at 4:00 at Japan Society [Program & Tix]

Japan Society hosts an Open House this weekend, so you can catch the original Japanese version of the grandaddy of monster movies for free. If you’d only seen the badly dubbed, American hackjob Raymond Burr version, you’re in for a totally different experience.
Wally Hammond for Time Out (London):

Forget CGI! Suitmation is back! Haruo Nakajima, the poor Toho Studios stuntman who lumbered around in latex as the nuclear-fire-breathing, cow-elephant shrieking, 40-metre-high rubber agent of apocalypse in this marvellous and highly moving 1954 Japanese original had a sweaty, dirty job. But it was no more dirty than the hack job the US distributors committed on Honda’s masterpiece when they released the 1956 Americanised, cut and dubbed version starring Raymond Burr that we’ve all grown to love and laugh at. We’ve waited 50 years to see Honda’s mega-budget original here. It’s an entirely different film. First of all – as restored early scenes of destroyed ships in seas facing the Bikini Atoll H-bomb tests, the Geiger-counters scanning children on the Odo islands or the ‘not-again’ conversations on Tokyo buses testify – Honda’s intention was to provide more than just a thrilling monster entertainment in the Ray Harryhausen mould (which it is). Deeply affected by witnessing the wartime Tokyo firestorms and the nuclear ruins of Hiroshima, he also wanted the film to be an allegory of nuclear warfare. However much this knowledge may deepen the impact of the fine performances (notably veteran Takashi Shimura as the idealistic palaeontologist and Akihiko Hirata as the brooding inventor of the potentially escalating Oxygen Destroyer), the meticulous model-work and superb production design of Eiji Tsubaraya and the minatory soundscapes of Akira Ikafube, we mustn’t forget that ‘Godzilla’ is after all a monster flick. But seen afresh in this cut, with Honda’s pulp poetry restored, this ballad of destruction reveals itself as one of the most exciting, enjoyable and moving of them all.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

The original Japanese version of Ishiro Honda’s groundbreaking 1954 monster movie—which is to say, with subtitles and without Raymond Burr. Is Godzilla, the gigantic rubber reptile awakened by the Bikini beach atom bomb tests, a metaphor for Japan’s nuclear trauma? Or is he, as Bruno Bettelheim might suggest, a fairy-tale projection of a child’s fears about his growing body and voracious appetite? Either way you look at it, Godzilla remains one of the most potent mythic structures of the 50s, and you get him here in full foot-stomping glory.

Michael Sragow for The New Yorker:

Time has not diminished this movie’s tabloid docu-horror allure. H – bomb tests awaken a four – hundred – foot sea dragon and send him wobbling into Tokyo, crushing trains and swatting down fighter planes like a fire – breathing King Kong. The monster is obviously an actor in a rubber suit, but the destruction is smashing in every sense of the word, and the director, Ishiro Honda, ladles out dollops of crude pop poetry, whether in his medieval mode (smoky tableaux of a remote Japanese island) or his futuristic one (an oxygen – depleting chemical sending fish skeletons plummeting to the bottom of a tank). In the underwater climax, the slow – moving Godzilla is as glacially creepy as the dragon in Fritz Lang’s “Die Nibelungen.” The immortal Takashi Shimura (“The Seven Samurai”) emerges as the indisputable star.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Magnificent and absurd, the gigantic radioactive reptile known as Godzilla is the great movie monster of the post-World War II era—in part because his Japanese creator, Ishiro Honda, seems to have conceived of this primordial force of nature as a living mushroom cloud. Remarkably, the film turns out to be its own sort of mutant—at once audaciously lurid and fearsomely grim. From the scary thuds and depth charges that accompany the no-frills titles to the bizarrely poignant final image of Godzilla standing alone at the bottom of the ocean, the movie is all business and pure dream. The giant lizard rises from Tokyo Bay to destroy the city amid a flurry of references to nuclear contamination, black rain, bomb shelters, and the incineration of Nagasaki. Godzilla’s effects may be laughably transparent but the movie is hardly camp. Its wire-service urgency and newsreel backdrop only make its outlandish monster all the more brutally irrational. (As in the “defiguration” paintings made by situationalist Asger Jorn, two wildly clashing representational codes are present on-screen.)
This spectacle of Kabuki destruction could be taking place inside the fevered brain of the atomophobe protagonist of Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 I Live in Fear.Repeated nightly, in the tradition of aerial bombing raids, Godzilla’s attacks on Tokyo are as somber as they are spectacular. There is an emphasis on civil defense and, even more, on collective solidarity in the face of purposeless, reptile-brain mass destruction. The movie is filled with images of panic: Children are evacuated, tanks patrol the streets. The monster not only sets the city on fire but leaves mass casualties, including orphans and crying babies, in its wake.
Godzilla is all about visualizing destruction and living with trauma. The radiation-burned Dr. Serizawa equates his secret “oxygen destroyer” with the H-bomb and is only persuaded to use it against Godzilla by the televised spectacle of schoolchildren singing the Hiroshima peace hymn. Jacques Derrida characterized nuclear war as a hypothetical event, “not something one can talk about.” But this was not true for Japan. As crass as it is visionary, Godzilla belongs with—and might well trump—the art films Hiroshima Mon Amour and Dr. Strangelove as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

Kurosawa analyzed it a year later in I Live in Fear, yet Ishiro Honda had already pushed the thesis into its fullest expression, using a stout Jurassic dragon to embody atom-age trauma. Nature’s been contaminated in post-war Japan, a fevered flurry of images illustrates coastal vessels incinerated by an aquatic glow (“The ocean just blew up,” one survivor cries). The great name is first uttered by a village elder and derided as a “relic,” but this is a work about the past and the future, in which the prehistoric creature, roused by nuclear blasts, materializes like Poe’s Sphinx on “the naked face of the hill.” Military forces are mobilized, though an old paleontologist (Takashi Shimura) wants it studied; his daughter (Momoko Kochi) is vaguely torn between a seaman (Akira Takarada) and a scientist (Akihiko Hirata), the latter equipped with eye-patch and an aquarium full of unspeakable experiments. Godzilla’s arrival in Tokyo is greeted with evacuations, searchlights, and a giant electrified fence, the extended smash-a-thon that follows alternates between the majestic evocation of modernist shock and the primitivist illusionism of someone in a baggy lizard suit tearing through a diorama. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still fresh wounds, Honda remembers them acridly before the beast’s rampage (“The shelters again? That stinks!”) and somberly after it, focusing on trenchant human wreckage (wailing children, crushed families, tentative peace hymns). The visions used for childlike pop in the sequels are here invested with free-floating dread, contemporary anxiety given a scaly, lethal tail (King Kong is its forerunner, Larry Cohen’s Q its heir). Godzilla is a radioactive steamroller but, to quote Raymond Burr in Godzilla 1985, “a strangely innocent and tragic monster,” both marauding predator and product (victim?) of the epoch — when Hirata’s doomsday Alka-Seltzer is climactically launched into the depths of the sea, the behemoth receives it with the wounded gravity of a Ray Harryhausen creature. In modern times, a kraken pales next to the horrors forged by mankind.


David Edelstein for Slate:

The dilute Amercanization isn’t terrible, but it has nothing like the apocalyptic intensity of the Honda original. The movie is funereal—but that turns out to be a good thing. The early part of Gojira induces a trancelike funk, the perfect state in which to meet one of the most bone-chilling monsters that the movies have ever belched up. The film bestirs itself slowly, like a beast awakening on the ocean floor. On he comes—robotic and implacable. It occurred to me watching the risible American Godzilla of 1998—in which the beast looked like an actual lizard and darted quickly, like an actual lizard—that I didn’t want an anatomically correct Gojira. The 150-foot-tall monster of Gojira is a fusion of ancient and modern nightmares: a fire-breathing dragon whose fire is radioactive, part machine, part Golem, something summoned up out of all the dark forces of this world that can’t be destroyed by any of this world’s weapons. The Gojira who lumbers through a metropolis on two legs, erect, mechanically stepping on cars and smashing through skyscrapers, pitilessly training its nuclear breath on anything and everything he sees, his roar ending in a metallic shriek, is a vision of a scientifically engineered Armageddon.
The long section of Gojira—nearly 15 minutes—in which the monster destroys much of Tokyo is like nothing in any science-fiction film before or since. In the American cut, there are frequent inserts of Burr, yakking away on his mike as he narrates the creature’s comings and goings. The original, though, is nearly wordless. There is a Japanese TV announcer: He watches the devastation from a high tower; wonders, “Has the world been sent back two million years?”; and has time to report on his own death as Gojira moves toward his tower, closing with an earnest, “Sayonara.” Elsewhere, a mother leans against a wall and whispers to her little daughter, “We’ll be joining your daddy soon. Just a little longer.” It’s the last minute or two that is the most harrowing. The music stops, and in the silence Gojira walks between the broken buildings, the cityscape behind him aglow, seeming to contemplate his handiwork. For pure horror, the climax actually tops what has preceded it. Gojira is no masterpiece, but it has the power of a masterpiece: It’s the most emotionally authentic fake monster movie ever made.


Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Kong was a romantic, a simple brute with a thing for blondes; Godzilla had an incomparable malice, a toughness and a craving for destruction matched only by his innumerable (and increasingly preposterous) adversaries.In Godzilla’s half-century, American audiences are treated to a much darker aspect of the monster’s character that had hitherto remained hidden.
Does Godzilla represent “the bomb”? Yes and no. Certainly, the monster’s thorough sacking of Tokyo is seen in its aftermath as a site of total nuclear devastation, complete with make-shift clinics, grieving families, and orphans with radiation sickness. And yet, in spite of this, the film makes clear that the monster is merely a product of the bomb, one that extends its deadly effects. Godzilla is thus not the instigator of massive destruction; he is one of its many far-reaching upshots, the next in a series of disasters that will continue to mount with the arms race. At the film’s close, Takashi Shimura (fresh from his work in The Seven Samurai, released by Toho Studios the same year) delivers the film’s moral: that with nuclear escalation and the continued development of more capable bombs, there would be more Godzillas to come.
The Americanization of Godzilla has been a great loss to Western filmgoers, because the original version is as significant an anti-nuclear film as Dr. Strangelove. And in spite of its campy special effects, its dated romantic subplot, and its preposterous science, the film remains truly disturbing in its metaphoric implications. Now that Honda’s original film is available to us, Godzilla’s importance, as a historical document as well as a film, can be recognized.


Budd Wilkins for Slant:

“History shows again and again,” writes that unsung modern philosopher Buck Dharma, “how nature points up the folly of men.” Meaning, for those unfamiliar with Blue Öyster Cult’s 1979 monster hit, one Godzilla, 20-story-tall king of the monsters, and the most fearsome city-stomper in the history of cinema. Fifty years of sequels, tag-team monster mash-ups, and shitty Hollywood remakes have not blunted the sheer cinematographic force, let alone metaphorical heft, of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla. Rarely has the open wound of widespread devastation been transposed to celluloid with greater visceral impact. Put another way, Godzilla is the Germany Year Zero of monster movies.
Stylistically, Godzilla fluctuates between noir-refracted stylization (early scenes, for instance, are heavy on window blind-filtered lighting) and documentary verisimilitude (radio and television broadcasts abound). Honda bides his time, building up a free-floating atmosphere of atomic age anxiety by withholding any glimpse of the Big Bad until 20 minutes in, emphasizing instead the aftermath of Godzilla’s destructive path from maritime menace to the scourge of Odo Island, where it promptly takes out the sole survivor of its second ship-sinking, before wading its way into Tokyo Bay.
The artistry of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special-effects work encompasses far more than the sheer spectacle of a man in a rubber suit laying waste to those scale-model cityscapes. Tsuburaya and his team seamlessly integrate composites and matte paintings into the mise-en-scène; for every obvious—and potentially risible—miniature, there are a handful of effects-laden shots that still pack an affective wallop. In particular, Godzilla’s nighttime incursion into Tokyo proper, and the resultant swath of destruction, possesses a psychotronic potency, an air of abreacted absurdity, reminiscent of the Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now. As though implacable death from above were somehow intrinsic to the human condition. Then again, taking the long view of 20th-century history, perhaps it is.


Scott Tobias for The Onion AV Club:

Nearly 30 sequels and countless knock-offs later, it’s easy to forget that Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla was not some kitschy monster movie with zipper-suited beasts, papier-mâché models, and screaming throngs of Japanese civilians. (Not that those aren’t present, mind.) Revisiting the film, properly restored without the distracting English-language overdubs, what’s striking is its raw emotion, the sense of an entire country coming to terms with the wreckage of the A-bomb and its fears of the H-bomb. In Godzilla, its radioactive rampaging creature, the film found a potent metaphor for a psychological trauma that was not easily addressed. Within a simple genre framework, Honda pours a vast inventory of nuclear references and cultural fears, including direct talk of the ethical responsibility of scientists, allusions to Hiroshima and H-bomb testing in the Pacific, and a moving swell of national resilience and pride.
There’s a fundamental sandbox appeal to Godzilla that carried over into the sequels and the culture at large: The sight of the beast trampling scale models, raining down fire in screen-filling swaths, has an element of play to it, a little boy’s fantasy of destruction. Shots of Godzilla’s head emerging from behind a hillside or the creature fighting through a tangle of electrical wires pack an iconic monster-movie thrill, as do the pounding offscreen sound effects and piercing screams. But watching those moments in context, those screams have a different resonance, and Godzilla ends on a distinctly sober note, leaving the impression of a country wearily grappling with tragedies past and promised.


Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot:

Though lacking the fantastic flourish of, say, a King Ghidorah or a Megalon, there’s something perfect, almost classical, in the form of Godzilla. His image is at once antediluvian and ultra-modern: a powerlifting prehistoric carnivore with skin like nuked-out blacktop, a coral reef for a spine, a stomp as regular and as percussive as a machine press, and an indelible roar that’s somewhere between the sound of screeching train brakes and a wounded bull elephant. Seen emerging from the bleary black-and-white night in his 1954 premiere, before infinite sequels and gravity defying, WWF battle-royale drop kicks reduced him to a Beastie Boys pop punch-line, he’s even genuinely impressive. His awkward, pear-shaped bulk, far from a liability, is key to his commanding presence. Herein lies the dismal failure of Hollywood’s recent “re-imagined” miscarriage; its slimmed-down, toned-up mega-monster, fleetly sprinting the avenues of nyc like a Jurassic jogger, seems too fragile in contrast to the unmoored, shambling volcano we’re accustomed to.
The re-release of director Ishiro Honda’s original cut reveals a film that’s fully deserving of its reputation, cured of the American version’s gross miscalculations of pacing. The optically printed bulldozing in Godzilla is prime smash-up fun, thanks largely to Eiji Tsubaraya’s painstakingly rendered mini-cityscapes, which crumble and vaporize enthusiastically as Godzilla wades through them. But what sets this Godzilla above the deluge of subsequent imitators is the way it explores an ambivalent balance between awestruck sequences of rubber-suited rampaging and a real understanding of epic suffering that seems very much of its time and place. After the Twin Towers came down in full Bruckheimer, blockbuster pomp, it’s impossible for any conscientious viewer not to feel reticent about corroborating with Hollywood’s penchant for flamboyantly destroying the world. The reptilian brain thrill of seeing mankind’s collective works atomized is undeniable, but that should compete with a terrifying knowledge—sometimes too-easily forgotten—of what a frail, precious, and perishable thing civilization actually is. So when Michael Bay smears Paris off the map as a mere adrenaline revving aside in Armageddon, I can only wonder what sick fuck wants to imagine, much less expensively visualize, such a possibility.
In one key moment—excised from the American cut—we see two Tokyo commuters, discussing the impending catastrophe, who place the Godzilla in the context of contaminated tuna and black rain. A young woman isn’t risking anything, she says, “Not after I survived the bomb at Nagasaki; I treasure my life.” It’s a digression that places cataclysm into the scale of the quotidian, and if there’s a greater accomplishment in the art of rubber monsters, I can’t imagine what it might be.



Terrence Rafferty for The New York Times:

A surprisingly compelling pop-culture artifact: a picture of the strange forms nuclear anxiety took in an era that now feels nearly as remote as the Jurassic.

The most significant difference, really, between the Japanese “Godzilla,” directed by Ishiro Honda, and “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” which credits one Terry Morse as co-director, is that of tone. Honda’s “Godzilla,” while far from a great movie, has a distinctively haunted, elegiac quality, which surfaces only sporadically (and, in its new context, puzzlingly) in the choppy “King of the Monsters.” And Honda’s “Godzilla” is extraordinarily solemn, full of earnest discussions about how to respond to the apocalyptic threat — one thoughtful scientist, played by the perennially wise-seeming Takashi Shimura, argues that the monster should not be killed but studied for clues to surviving the effects of radiation — and long, mournful pans across the rubble of post-Godzilla Tokyo. (Some of these shots are eerily reminiscent of scenes from Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 thriller “Stray Dog,” on which Honda had worked as an assistant.) In “Godzilla,” the comic-book premise is never allowed to overwhelm the director’s clear intention — to measure the aftershocks of the nuclear obliteration, nine years earlier, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The outlandish metaphors of the science-fiction and horror genres are useful vehicles for imagining the unimaginable, speaking the unspeakable. In pop creations like “Godzilla,” the blunt metaphors, like the monsters themselves, tend to develop minds of their own: they run rampant, flattening even the sturdiest intentions. The most peculiar thing about Godzilla as a metaphor for the bomb is the creature’s simultaneous status as a legendary beast of Japanese islanders’ mythology: surely a more precise representation of the disaster that befell the country at the end of the Second World War would be an agent of destruction from far away, unheard of even in legend, not this native, almost familiar monster. Is Godzilla, then, also on some subterranean level a metaphor for Japan’s former imperial ambitions, which finally unleashed the retaliatory fury that leveled its cities?


    Agoura Hills, California
    For the first time outside Japan a book has been published on Japan’s foremost director of Fantasy Films: “MUSHROOM CLOUDS AND MUSHROOM MEN – The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda” by Peter H. Brothers (AuthorHouse, ISBN: 978-1-4490-2771-1, October, 2009).
    Known primarily for directing such classic Japanese monster movies as Rodan, Mothra, Attack of the Mushroom People and the original Godzilla, Ishiro Honda (1911 – 2011) has been an undeservedly overlooked figure in mainstream international cinema.
    MUSHROOM CLOUDS AND MUSHROOM MEN is the first book to cover in English print Honda’s life as well comprehensively evaluates all 25 of his fantasy films.  It is also gives objective and critical analysis of Honda’s filmmaking methods, themes and relationships with actors and technicians.
    Making use of extensive interviews from Honda’s colleagues as well as a wealth of original source material never before gathered into one volume (including previously-unpublished essays) and nominated in 2009 for a “Rondo Award,” MUSHROOM CLOUDS AND MUSHROOM MEN is an affectionate tribute to the most-prolific and influential director in the history of fantasy films.
    (Three-time “Rondo” Award Nominee Peter H. Brothers is also the author of the new horror-novel Devil Bat Diary).

  • Paul Gruendler

    Just. Wow. I have grandsons just entering Kaiju- eiga age. The challenges of finding this film in revival on a big screen will require superatomic, protean efforts to overcome. It will be for Gramps both a crusade and a pilgrimage.

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