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Godzilla, 1954 - review

“I do understand. But if we don't stop Godzilla now, what's to become of us?”

Directed by Ishirō Honda, Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese), 1954, sees the titular monster at its most ferocious. It is the first instalment in the epic kaiju (Japanese for ‘strange beast’) franchise of the same name. Produced by legendary Japanese entertainment company, Toho Co., Godzilla follows a simple, but entertaining plot where a giant prehistoric monster arises from its underwater home, and wreaks havoc on Japan. Both Japan’s top authorities and most brilliant scientists must band together to stop this monstrous threat.

What struck me the most when watching the original Godzilla was how sinister it is in comparison to its successors. Composed by Akira Ifukube, Godzilla’s dramatic orchestral soundtrack creates a menacing aura whenever present. In the opening credits we are met with an outstanding orchestral “Main Title” song that really sets the drama in motion. The epic drums, violent strings, and moody horns all come together to create a truly iconic score. 

Towards the end of the film, there is a melancholy prayer song sung by a choir of young girls. Broadcasted across the nation, the sombre lyrics “Hear our song. And have pity on us. May we live without destruction. May we look to tomorrow with hope.” hit home after witnessing the devastation caused by Godzilla. Overall, I think the film’s musical elements are the film’s best feature. 

“No matter how you slice it, this is serious.”

The black and white cinematography further adds to the menacing aura, and goes hand in hand in painting an outmoded, weakened Japan that is woefully unprepared for attack by the famous monster. Demilitarised after her loss in World War 2, Japan throughout the movie feels almost archaic. Skyline views of the capital city, Tokyo, show it not to be the skyscraper megacity as we see it today. But rather, a low level city, easily squashed by the sizeable 165 foot tall Godzilla. This feeling of an old Japan not yet able to combat Godzilla truly separates the original film from the rest of the franchise in terms of inducing a real sense of danger. 

Godzilla itself is at his best in the wide angled shots. The visual of a shadowed Godzilla, towering over a destroyed Tokyo, lit up in flames, is a terrifying scene even by modern standards.  

The understated special effects in the film, at times, add to the fearful atmosphere. When we see Godzilla eventually lay waste to Tokyo, it is clear that the props used are miniatures of the real city. Easy to break, the toy-like visuals conjure up the feeling of a child-like imagined monster destroying a city. Even in the first scene where we see a crew of sailors terrified of a mysterious glow emerging from the sea, the modest special effects are in bloom. The fluorescent glow, although simple, does give a very unnatural feel. Moments later, the sailors are hit by something and their ship drowns in flames. These elements all helped contribute to the sense of fear and unease.

“If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.”

Another aspect of the Godzilla I enjoyed was how historically sound it was. The threat of Godzilla is brought by hydrogen bomb weapon testing by the outside world. These weapons trials end up destroying Godzilla’s underwater habitat and release a metaphorical Pandora’s Box on Japan. Its political undertones are heightened by the fact that Japan, the only country to have felt the devastation of nuclear warfare, once again find themselves grimacing at the birth of an even newer and more powerful advancement in human weaponry. Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a recluse scientist played by Akihiko Hirata, has coincidently created a ‘Oxygen Destroyer’, another weapon of mass destruction, and seemingly the only answer to defeating Godzilla. Dr. Serizawa enters a moral struggle, as he questions whether to share his scientific discovery in fear of the world mass producing his findings, thus elevating the already intense Cold War and putting the world at risk of annihilation.

Godzilla, however, is not without its flaws. The film loses itself during the second act, especially in the scenes that aren’t focused on Godzilla itself. The acting at times was subpar, particularly from Momoko Kōchi as Emiko Yamane. Kōchi often felt amateurish in scenes, either being overdramatic, or having faint smiles when supposed to be distraught or serious. Since her character was effectively the bridge to Japan’s salvation by way of her loveless engagement to Dr. Serizawa, who in turn shares his secret scientific work with only her, it was a shame to have a poor performance from Kōchi. 

I also did not care much for the film’s subplot which consisted of Dr. Kyohei Yamane, a palaeontologist played by Akihiko Hirata, who wishes for Japan to study Godzilla rather than destroy it. This resistance to immediately destroy Godzilla is further complicated by the aforementioned Emiko Yamane, Dr. Yamane’s daughter, who is caught in a love triangle between Dr. Serizawa and Hideto Ogata, a sailor in the Japanese Coast Guard who worked in salvaging ships played by Akira Takarada. I felt as though the acting was weakest during these plot points, as well as the character’s lacking depth and their motivation’s too unrealistic.

Though the special effects and cinematography had some good moments, there were also times where it fell short and hindered the film. There are some very old school scene transitions that really did not age well. Also, closeups on Godzilla’s goggling eyes alerted me to the fact that this film was very much made 70 years ago.

Another slight I had with the film was its predictable plot and ending. Perhaps due to me being well familiar with the kaiju genre already, I was never really surprised at any plot points. The film generally plays out how you’d expect, and with very little character depth. Saying that, I did not expect its political connotations surrounding nuclear warfare, and there was an epicness felt whenever Godzilla was on screen.  

“This is awful. Atomic tuna, radioactive fallout, and now this Godzilla to top it off! What if he shows up in Tokyo Bay?”

In conclusion, I thought Godzilla was a fairly solid monster movie. I have seen a few movies in its franchise, namely the 1998, 2014, and 2019 films. I would contend the original is better than them all. Godzilla (1954) does well to portray the kaiju as a mindless beast, instead of giving it a personality as it would in later films. I can understand why they felt it necessary to characterise Godzilla in order to make more films, but it definitely weakens the franchise. Viewers of the original will likely enjoy its epic musical score as I did, but will have reservations about mixed visual identity. There is a good amount of suspense, but don’t expect a story with great depth and characters. Overall, Godzilla is a well-worth-it watch and at times frightening addition to the monster movie genre.

Overall: 6.5/10

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