This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge
Godzilla is a franchise known primarily for men in rubber dinosaur suits fighting each other. However, to start my marathon review of every single Godzilla film I naturally go back to the first one and though I have seen it before, it always manages to surprise me with just how good it is. Much more than ridiculous giant monster action (that I’ll no doubt soon be reviewing with glee nonetheless), this film has a very strong dramatic presence. It’s no secret that this is a thinly veiled way of dealing with Japan’s shock from the then-recent Nagasaki & Hiroshima atomic bombings. It was taboo to make a film directly depicting the bombings or indeed war at all at the time, so Toho produced Gojira which manages at once to transpose the frenzy, horror, and despair of the events into an awesome monster movie.
The reptile in question isn’t actually visibly present for the first half an hour or so, with his attacks being presented from a personal, human perspective. It isn’t clear what is causing the disasters to happen and the civilian hysteria is coupled with a mixture of bemusement and arrogance in the political world, instantly hitting some very raw nerves from World War 2. The building tension throughout this section is brilliantly executed too. Some pretty horrific disaster scenes for the time and the complete mystery of the cause all comes to a head when our main characters first witness Godzilla looming over a mountaintop. This first glimpse is… well… actually, it’s pretty terrible.
It’s a shame that this first glimpse is so poor as many later scenes have pretty convincing effects, especially in longer shots where careful lighting and composition coupled with some great composite shots and miniatures really sell the difficult image of a 50-metre reptile destroying Tokyo. Close-ups do suffer in the same way as the first sighting we have, but the content of the film is good enough that these shots only take you out of the action for a brief moment. And you can’t be too harsh on a film that was made 60 years ago which pioneered the new ‘suitmation’ style of effects.
The destruction of Tokyo is certainly on a wide scale but never creeps over the line to be sensational as there are constant glimpses of the true, human horror of it, again echoing scenes from the real-life bombings. A particularly poignant scene featuring reporters broadcasting literally till the end stands out amongst many and when the destruction ends, truly affecting scenes in makeshift hospitals are painfully reminiscent of documentary footage from the real-life aftermath. The strongest hint of B-Movie styling comes from Daisuke Serizawa, the ‘mad scientist’, complete with eye-patch and pseudo-scientific babble. In practice though, Serizawa is a well fleshed out character and in the wider context of the film doesn’t simply avoid being corny; he provides the more difficult moral discussions in this film.
It’s fascinating to see how the campy monster movie was dissected to create a pretty balanced account of Japan’s recent history that would otherwise have been frowned upon. So too it will be interesting to see how faithfully these origins are treated in the following films. As for this film in itself, that the only real negative point I can make is about a few dated effects shots proves that it’s actually a fantastic film, not just for fans of monster movies – I would call it a truly essential classic, a precursor and template to the blockbusters that fill cinemas nowadays.