Thursday, April 17, 2014

GOJIRA (1954): 30 Days of Godzilla


GOJIRA (1954)

A legend is born! As we count down to Gareth Edwards' big American remake of Godzilla, we turn our attention to the monster's origins in his surprisingly emotional, sad, and haunting Japanese debut.

While the invention of the atomic bomb ignited the American imagination and unleashed monsters across its 1950s pop-culture landscape, in Japan the very real horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- less than a decade old -- still lingered over the nation. At the same time that giant atomic creatures began to dominate the silver screen in North American double features, such sci-fi horror fantasy was rare if not unheard of in cinemas in Japan. And can you blame them? The international post-war arms race was heating up, and everyone was packing nukes, but Japan -- the victim of nuclear devastation -- was only slowly recovering as a nation and shrugging off the censorship and propaganda that marked the 1940s Japanese film industry. But it wouldn't be long before American pop-culture's fascination with giant monsters began to creep into post-war Japan.

While tonally antithetical to Gojira, The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms was a monstrous influence on Toho's now iconic King of the Monsters.
Gojira was no doubt inspired by the trend toward atomic monsters in American cinema. After the success of 1953's The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, in which a giant prehistoric lizard is unfrozen by a nuclear bomb and goes on to attack New York City, Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka approached the Toho film company and posed a simple question that would go on to launch a historic franchise: what if an atomic explosion unleashed a giant monster on Japan?

Despite the fact Godzilla films are known for their man-in-suit monster effects, Gojira's first 1954 on-screen appearance was achieved with the use of a hand-operated puppet, which was commonly employed for closeups and scenes in which Gojira unleashes his atomic breath
Gojira married the pseudoscience of popular Western sci-fi with a sombre, frightening, and dark anti-nuclear parable in what stands today as a remarkably unique film. Gojira premiered on November 3, 1954 and captivated Japanese critics. It was also a triumph of Japanese special effects. A tight production budget and shooting schedule put stop-motion animation out of Toho's reach, so producers turned to the monster suit effects that, while untested at the time, have become a hallmark of Japanese monster movies. Under the direction of Ishiro Honda and the groundbreaking special effects pioneered by special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, Gojira was in his original depiction more than just a monster. Gojira was not only a product of the nuclear age but a manifestation of the devastating power of the atomic bomb. State-side, monsters chewed up the scenery and were roundly defeated by good old fashioned American ingenuity, but Gojira's reign of destruction was profoundly more terrifying. It directly mirrored the hellish fury of nuclear fire that scarred the people, land, and psyche of Japan. And even in his defeat, victory is tainted by the suicide of Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and the inescapable message that we are the maker of monsters, and our ultimate destruction as a species is only as close as the invention of the next doomsday weapon.
Gojira's dark cinematography and ominous shadows not only helped hide flaws in the effects but also struck at the tragic heart of the film's anti-nuclear allegory and horror elements. 
 Although Gojira would later evolve into an anti-hero and then a preposterously kid-friendly super hero, it's hard to cheer for Gojira on his first outing. Would you cheer for a Tsunami? Would you applaud the destruction of a tornado or clap in the wake of an earthquake? Thousands of innocent civilians die in Gojira's wake, and the human toll takes precedent onscreen. Gojira is not a low-brow monster mash for attention-deficit kids. It's a bold and defiantly melancholy stand against nuclear proliferation and war itself.

It's also one of the greatest monster movies of all time. 


Join us tomorrow for the next installment of 30 Days of Godzilla when we look at how Gojira made landfall in the USA and became known to North Americans as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956).

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