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Movie Review: 'Gojira' ('Godzilla') (1954)

Southern Sea Salvage worker Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) is called in to assess a dire situation at sea. The Coast Guard received an S.O.S from the Eiko-maru, a 7500-ton steamship freighter, before it mysteriously vanished in the bay. Survivors claim that it was a sudden explosion – perhaps an underwater volcanic eruption – that engulfed the vessel. The state of affairs escalates when a rescue boat is similarly lost in the murky waters, seemingly swallowed by fire. After sailor Masaji (Ren Yamamoto) washes ashore, he mutters, half unconscious, that the cause of the devastation was a monster.

According to an ancient Ohto Island folklore, an enormous sea creature would rise up onto the land to feast upon humankind. Girls were routinely sacrificed to prevent the abomination from terrorizing the countryside. Because of the recent naval catastrophes, a few elders believe that the tremendous animal, Godzilla (originally Gojira), has once again returned for human blood. But the majority turns to scientific reasoning, such as blaming a ferocious hurricane. A fact-finding expedition is ordered to investigate a coastal village near Mount Hachiba that has been correspondingly demolished, with Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) leading the party. They discover a long-extinct trilobite near a massive radioactive footprint before being chased by the dinosaur-like juggernaut themselves. It’s determined that Godzilla is a two million year-old, intermediary giant, bridging the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, likely displaced from its natural habitat by recent nuclear testing and atomic bomb activities. An anti-Godzilla frigate fleet scours the waters, but is unable to easily locate or dispose of the behemoth.

The towering beast unleashing its mesmerizing roar and slowly emerging from Tokyo Bay are images that are nothing short of legendary. Far more intimidating than the rubbery, pitted, and scaly details of the hulking lizard, and its imperviousness to electrocution, machinegun fire, missiles, and other heavy artillery, is its iconic bellow, always indicating an impending onslaught. The sound effects were so impressive that they would continue to be used for all subsequent films, including the American remakes. Amidst the monster attacks and panicking civilians, the script edges in a complicated love story, with Emiko engaged to her father’s associate scientist, Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who wears a patch over one eye and has perfected experiments inside a fish tank that will undoubtedly contribute to Godzilla’s downfall. As Emiko plans to break off her betrothal in order to wed Ogata, she’s impeded not only by the goliath’s havoc but also Yamene’s dislike for Ogata.

As if to punish international researchers for flying in to assist, and eventually formulating a harebrained plan to build a soaring electrified fence around the evacuated coastal zones, Godzilla reduces the areas to rubble, leaving in his wake an ocean of flames. The destruction is exhilarating, even if some sequences are just a man in a puffy suit (certainly stiff and comical to modern audiences). With miniatures and smart camera angles, Godzilla becomes quite the memorable adversary for Japan – a King Kong equivalent that causes far vaster annihilation.

Not content focusing solely on combat, the film also tackles themes of the public’s right to knowledge (or censorship), truth at the cost of chaos, nature taking revenge, the intellectual approach of studying the creature from a radiological perspective versus quickly eradicating a dangerous new species, and the consequences of the inevitable weaponization of any private invention powerful enough to stop the menace. Although the solution for halting the leviathan’s cataclysmic course is hopelessly contrived (while setting up a resolution for the love triangle through martyrdom), and a preachy message about the potential horrors of nuclear experimentation surfaces, it’s still a well-paced, nicely balanced monster movie that sticks with a fittingly serious, somber tone. Brilliantly screeching violins and a catchy score further supplement this revolutionary science-fiction epic that would inspire dozens of sequels and American meddling; two years later, it would be retitled “Godzilla - King of the Monsters!” with scenes of actor Raymond Burr spliced into the picture, simply for a recognizable celebrity face.

- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)