Sunday, May 18, 2014

Stubs - Gojira (1954)

Gojira (1954) Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura. Directed by Ishirō Honda. Screenplay by Ishirō Honda, Takeo Murata. Story by Shigeru Kayama, Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka. Run Time: 96 minutes. Japan. Black and White. Science Fiction, Drama, Horror

Gojira aka Godzilla is perhaps one of the most famous films to come out of Japan. The giant monster would go on to star in 28 films produced by Toho Pictures. Originally brought to America in 1956, the original film was altered to add Raymond Burr, the future Perry Mason and Ironside, to the story while trimming nearly 16 minutes from the original’s run time. It was released here as Godzilla, The King of the Monsters where it was not only a success on the big screen, but would also become a staple on television.

It should come as no surprise that the film has been re-imagined by Hollywood, not once, but three times. Tri-Star took a stab at the story in 1996, moving the location to, where else, New York City and starring Matthew Broderick. The reception to this film was so poor both critically and more important, financially, that two planned sequels were scrapped.

In 2008, J.J. Abrams attempted to Nosferatu the Godzilla myth in Cloverfield. While the monster is not called Godzilla, it shares many of that monster’s characteristics, just as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) was a Dracula film in all but name.

And there is a new version made by Legendary Pictures and released in May 2014 to a very large opening weekend. Directed by Gareth Edwards, this new version was made to depict the monster in a style faithful to the original Toho films.

So, before viewing the new Godzilla, Trophy Unlocked decided to go back to the original film, Gojira (1954), and see what that’s like.

Japan in the 1950’s was still recovering from being the only nation on earth to ever have a nuclear bomb dropped on them. A necessary action to end World War Two, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still had a devastating effect on the psyche of the nation. Add to that the incident of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru aka Lucky Dragon 5, a Japanese fishing boat that was contaminated by fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, near the Marshall Islands. Fishing outside the declared danger zone, the test was for a bomb twice as big as announced and the Lucky Dragon 5, as well as other fishing boats, was caught unaware. All 23 fishermen onboard were diagnosed as having acute radiation syndrome.

At first the U.S. refused to disclose the composition of the fallout on grounds of national security, but went so far as to claim the crew of the Lucky Dragon 5 were on a spy mission for the Soviets who wanted to expose the crew and their catch to radiation to embarrass the U.S. and to gain intelligence. Eventually, the U.S. would pay victims’ families compensation equivalent to about $5500. The incident would give rise to an anti-nuclear movement in Japan. And it is in this environment that Gojira was made.

The film opens with an incident reminiscent of the Lucky Dragon 5, when a Japanese fishing boat is attacked by a flash of light near Odo Island and all communication is lost. Another ship is sent to investigate only to meet the same fate, but this time there are a few survivors.

The first ship to disappear doesn't know what hit them.

On Odo Island, a village elder tells everyone that the cause of the problem is a sea monster known as "Godzilla" and recalls how the villagers used to sacrifice girls to appease the giant sea monster. Word of the fishing boats disappearing and of Godzilla gets out and a helicopter arrives on the island with curious, but skeptical, reporters. Frightened natives perform a night-time ceremony to keep the monster away, but that night a torrential storm comes on shore, bringing with it something that causes death and destruction beyond storm damage.

Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) leads the investigation into what is happening on Odo Island.

The next day, in Tokyo, Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) suggests that investigators be sent to the island. On arrival, Yamane finds giant radioactive footprints, and a trilobite, a long thought to be extinct sea animal. When an alarm sounds, the villagers arm themselves with sticks and various weapons and run to the hills, only to be confronted by Godzilla, who is revealed to be an enormous dinosaur-like creature. After a quick skirmish, the villagers run for safety and Godzilla heads to the ocean.
That's not a rock formation. That's Gojira.

Yamane returns to Tokyo to present his findings and concludes that Godzilla was unleashed by a nuclear explosion. While it’s not stated, it is obvious the U.S. is to blame. Some want to conceal that fact, fearing international repercussions. But those who want the truth revealed prevail and Godzilla and its origins is announced to the public. Ships are sent with depth charges to try to kill the monster, but fail. Godzilla appears again, this time frightening patrons aboard a party boat, and causing nationwide panic.
While Officials appeal to Dr. Yamane for some way to kill the monster, he wants the monster kept alive and studied for scientific reasons. His belief is so strong that he banishes Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage sea captain in love with his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi), from his house for expressing a contrary opinion.

Hideto Ogata's (Akira Takarada) plans to ask for Emiko's (Momoko Kochi) hand go awry when
 he disagrees with her father on how to handle Gojira and is banned from the house.

Meanwhile, Emiko decides it’s time to break off her arranged engagement to her father’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). But while she’s unable to break off the engagement, Serizawa does swear her to secrecy before giving her a demonstration of a secret experiment, which horrifies her.

Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) makes Emiko watch his experiment.

That night Godzilla attacks Tokyo. Though the attack is over quickly, there is much death and destruction. The next morning, the army constructs a line of tall electrical towers along the coast of Tokyo Bay that will send 50,000 volts of electricity through Godzilla, should he appear again. Civilians are evacuated from the city and put into bomb shelters.

Gojira chewing on a railroad passenger car.

Godzilla does indeed attack again the next day. He easily breaks through the electric fence, melting the wires with his atomic breath. A bombardment of shells from the army tanks has no effect. Godzilla continues his rampage until much of the city is destroyed and thousands of civilians are dead or wounded. Godzilla descends unscathed into Tokyo Bay, despite a squadron of fighter jets' last-ditch attack.

Gojira has no trouble getting through the electric fence.

The next morning finds Tokyo in ruins. Hospitals are overflowing with victims, including those with radiation poisoning. Witnessing the devastation, Emiko tells Ogata about Serizawa's secret Oxygen Destroyer, going into details about the device he’s created which disintegrates oxygen atoms and the organisms die of asphyxiation while accidentally creating a new energy source. She hopes that the two can persuade Serizawa to use it to stop Godzilla.

Tokyo in ruins after Gojira's attack.

When Serizawa realizes Emiko has betrayed his secret, he at first denies, then refuses and ends up giving Ogata a cut on his head during a fist fight. As Emiko treats Ogata's wound, Serizawa apologizes for his action, but he refuses to use the weapon on Godzilla, citing what could happen if his device was used as a weapon.

Then a newscast shows the devastation Godzilla has caused. Choirs of children are shown singing a hymn. Finally realizing he is the only best hope, Serizawa decides he will use the weapon once and to be sure no one can use it again, he burns his life's research for the good of humanity. Emiko breaks down and cries when she sees this, understanding that Serizawa will sacrifice more than his life's work to stop Godzilla.

Serizawa decides the only way to stop Godzilla is to use his Oxygen Destroyer device.

A navy ship takes Serizawa to plant the device in Tokyo Bay. When it is disclosed that Serizawa has no experience with diving gear, Ogata decides to go down with him. Together they descend into the water, where they find Godzilla at rest at the bottom. Ogata returns to the surface as Serizawa activates the device, watching Godzilla die before cutting off his oxygen cord so that the secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer will die with him. A dying Godzilla surfaces and lets out a final roar before sinking to the bottom where he completely disintegrates, save for his skeleton.

Although the monster is gone, those aboard ship mourn the unexpected loss of Serizawa. Godzilla's death has come at a terrible price and Dr. Yamane believes that if mankind continues to test nuclear weapons, another Godzilla may appear again one day. At the bottom of the ocean, a giant beating heart is seen, no doubt Godzilla’s kept alive by the new energy source created by the Oxygen Destroyer.

At 96 minutes, Gojira is surprisingly slow paced with the monster on screen for less time than one would have expected. The story is somewhat burdened with the love triangle between Ogata, Serizawa and Emiko, but that only makes Serizawa’s sacrifice at the end that much more powerful. Having lost the love of Emiko, he has decided that life is not worth living and takes his secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer with him to his watery grave.

The storyline seems somewhat reminiscent of King Kong (1933), another prehistoric monster franchise that keeps being remade. But unlike King Kong, who is brought to civilization and treats the city like his own jungle, Godzilla brings the fight to civilization. While mankind’s meddling has brought him life, Godzilla seems to be taking revenge on humanity for doing just that.

For the most part the special effects are very low tech. To no one’s surprise, Godzilla is just an actor (Haruo Nakajima) in a rubber suit and the city and trains are obvious models spliced with real footage. The most memorable effect is the roar of the monster, which is by now as iconic as Tarzan’s yell.

A behind the scenes look at the making of Gojira.

It is interesting to note that at the time, the U.S. military had a very strong presence in Japan, and still does, but they are never asked to help with the fight. Japan is taking on Godzilla on its own. Perhaps this is part of the anti-American sentiments from the Lucky Dragon 5 incident and U.S. government cover up.

A common complaint with foreign language films is having to read the subtitles and while that was part of the Gojira viewing experience I would have to say there weren’t enough subtitles as none of the credits, or whatever was written on the screen at the beginning, was translated, at least in the version I watched. We are very used to audio cues, dialogue, etc. to help tell the story that reading lines at the bottom can take away from the visuals on the rest of the screen. But with its cheap effects, maybe the less you see the better.

Having just seen the original Japanese film, I’m wondering if the shorter run time of the Americanized-Raymond- Burr film and the English language exposition his character, reporter Steve Martin, provides would make it a more enjoyable experience or at least easier to follow. The original film suffers not from too much story or cheap effects, but by too little monster on the screen. 

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