The Empty Balcony: Gojira & Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Gojira is a very serious film. To watch it is to glimpse how grievously Japan was traumatized by World War II. Released only nine years after the end of the war, the film is heavy on imagery meant to invoke memories of the destruction that swept Japan’s cities. The origins of the monster Gojira are a pricking of the wounds left over from the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebomings that destroyed almost all large Japanese cities. What we see in this film is a generation of people still trying to cope with events from a decade past. At times, in scenes that take place in overflowing hospital wards or on streets where characters are surveying the devastation, I was struck by the realization that these people on screen were drawing from their own memories in their portrayals.

Gojira, is, of course, the gigantic irradiated dinosaur that we know in this country as Godzilla. Pop culture icon, kitsch, etc., whatever Godzilla is now, the original film lacked the massive string of schlock that pollutes our perceptions of Japanese monster cinema today. In 1954, Gojira was one of a kind. And, the monster itself is only part of the story. The subtext of Gojira, those lingering effects of the war touched on above, is the film’s most powerful element. That’s saying something, considering the literal events of the film involve a giant monster that destroys everything it sees.

The film opens with the mysterious destruction of a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean. The crew hears a strange sound, looks towards the horizon, and there is a blinding flash. The film isn’t even five minutes old, and already we have our first instance of provocative imagery. Earlier in the year in which Gojira was released, the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru was exposed to fallout from a thermonuclear test conducted by the United States on Bikini Atoll. The crew returned to Japan covered in radiation burns. One of them subsequently died. This event would have still been fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences, and marks early on the direction the film would take.

On the mainland, an S.O.S. was received, and frantic efforts are made to find out what happened to the missing vessel. More vessels are lost, and the action shifts to a small island, where a village that subsists on fishing, quaintly untouched by Japan’s modernization, is Gojira’s first stop on land. During a nighttime fury of wind and blowing rain, which may or may not have been caused by the monster itself, Gojira destroys much of the village. There still hasn’t been a reveal of the monster yet, but the villagers have seen it. They look up into the rain-swept sky with terror on their faces, soaked from head to toe calling out in vain for loved ones caught in the path of the beast. This may be the best scene in the film.

At first the authorities aren’t willing to believe the destruction was caused by anything other than wind and water, but a team of scientists is dispatched to the island to investigate the wild claims of eyewitnesses. The team is led by Dr. Yamane, a zoologist played by Takashi Shimura, recognizable to American film buffs as having appeared in a large number of Akira Kurosawa’s films. That very same year, he starred in Seven Samurai, arguably Kurosawa’s crowning achievement. The man was a serious and prolific talent in Japanese cinema, but in no sense of the word is he slumming it by appearing in Gojira.

While on the island, Dr. Yamane and his team discover that whatever destroyed the village left behind radioactive contamination, and they speculate that the event could be related to nuclear bomb testing then taking place in the Pacific Ocean. While still on the island, Gojira deigns to make his first visual appearance, poking his head above a ridgeline, and now we get our first big laugh out of the film. Despite Gojira being a very grave film, the seriousness of the subject matter unfortunately did not translate very well to the creature itself. I can’t speak to how the creature looked to audiences in the 1950s, but today, it looks like a joke — a mottled-skin cousin to Grover or the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. No kidding, the initial reveal was that outrageously funny. It’s such a stark contrast to the tone of the film that a viewer has no choice but to let it go, to not hold it against the filmmakers. They were working their hardest to bring a 50-meter tall monster to the screen using revolutionary techniques in Japanese cinema at the time, and once a viewer can get past the absurd look of the original Gojira, they can dive right back into what is still an engaging story.

Eventually, Gojira makes his way to Tokyo, and treats the city the way a child would a line of ants crawling along the sidewalk, stamping them down with abandon. Gojira can even breathe nuclear fire from within his gullet, melting everything in range with the blast. He lays waste to the city, and it is here that director Ishiro Honda injects his next great round of evocative images. The survivors of the attack regroup, try to provide care and heal the wounded, and a viewer is left wondering how many of the extras playing nurses in the makeshift hospitals had been doing the same in real life only ten years earlier.

A young girl has a Geiger counter pointed at her chest, and the doctor examining her silently signals that this child has gone too far, been exposed to too much of Gojira’s radiation, to survive. In the next shot we see the corpse of a woman laid out on a mat, next to her a daughter who now has to accept that she is alone in the world — an orphan. None of this was new to the filmmakers, actors, or the audience. These images would have been impossible to convey authentically had they not already happened. Here it is again, a country still trying to claw out from its collective PTSD, and Honda used it to tell his story with effect.

Interestingly enough, Japanese film critics at the time of the film’s release panned Gojira for all the imagery invoking the war and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident. They largely felt that it was exploiting the trauma left behind by these events in the search for profits. The success of the film at the box office (the public had spoken) and changes in opinions among the critics after they considered the film further largely erased these earlier attacks, but their initial qualms were quite understandable.

As the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches in this city, that event is still an open wound and an untouchable subject for many here, especially relatives of victims. No matter how much time goes by, there will always be those who feel that entertainment which brings forth the memories of real tragedy are never justified. And in this country we’re talking about an event that lasted for a far shorter amount of time, months from the day of the attack to when the fires finally went out, compared to a years-long series of events that devastated whole cities and consumed millions of lives in the oxygen eating hell of the firestorms, capped at the end by Little Boy and Fat Man.

Thankfully time always wins these battles for the storytellers. Society and culture just can’t afford to wait until all the wounded have passed on to address these tragedies in our mediums of mass communication. Also, people are generally smart enough to recognize exploitation of real tragic events when they see it, and Gojira, despite the outrageous premise, is not a film that exploits the recent tragedy that Japan went through as it pursued its disastrous war and lost. It is a film full of introspection, and also a fair amount of blame.

The word ‘American’ is not mentioned once in the film. But Japanese audiences, and American, for that matter, would have known exactly who was blowing up nukes in the Pacific, who it was who had unleashed this terror that was sweeping uncontrollably through the island’s largest urban area. Once again, the subtext is there. The Japanese sitting in the darkened theaters would feel the old memories of the past rush to the surface as one of the characters laments having to go back into the shelters, and remembering who it was who had driven them there in the first place. They would have cringed at the site of families piling their possessions on hand-drawn carts and fleeing areas of danger. They would have looked upon Gojira, released from the depths by the American bombs, and there is the film in a nutshell, the final, inescapable symbolism.

The United States unleashed an uncontrollable weapon on the world — on Japanese cities — and now here comes Gojira, bastard progeny to that effort, aimed once again at Japan and once again beyond the power of man or machine to stop it.

Even the savior of Japan in this film, the man with the key to destroy Gojira once and for all, is a representation of the torturous conflict between scientific discovery and the use of said discovery in weapons applications of extreme destructive power. He is Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a reclusive scientist disfigured during the war. In his isolation, he has developed a weapon of unimaginable destruction, one that can destroy oxygen in whatever area of the ocean it is introduced, instantly killing all life within. He is cursed with the knowledge of the horrible potential his invention has as a genocidal force. He has kept his discovery secret from everyone, even his closest friends, in the hope that he could find a practicable application to justify the horrible thing he has done, the years spent in relentless study and development of a process that has so far only shown success as a destroyer of worlds. The man may as well have invented Ice-nine.

In an indictment of the thought processes that led the brilliant minds at Los Alamos to set aside their own reason and consciences in developing the weapons that brought Serizawa’s country to it knees, we get this wonderful quote from him:

“Used as a weapon, this would be as powerful as a nuclear bomb. It could totally destroy humankind. But, I believe I can find a use for the Oxygen Destroyer that will benefit society. Until then, I won’t reveal its existence.”

Take that, Oppenheimer. This sequence of the film is no less than a rhetorical assault on those who developed nuclear weapons, those that struggled with the doubts of conscience and still decided to proceed. Another message reveals itself, one of moral obligation on those who firebombed Japan so severely during the course of the war, and then so devastatingly with atomic weapons. These are the musings of the traumatized. This film is their confession that nine years on, things are still not right. And while blame towards America is implied yet never stated outright, so Japan’s own culpability in the war is never addressed. It is something that happened, something that changed life as the Japanese knew it, and Gojira is the poison left behind, Japan once again paying penance. Even if there was no provocation that brought on such destructiveness with Gojira, it was still there in those faces, those great moments when the actors and actresses who had seen cities burn for real, were asked by the director to relive those moments — to open old wounds. While Japan was now rising again, it took the violent destruction of their way of life, and now Gojira was forcing them to start all over. Powerful stuff.

And then there was the American release. Two years after the release of Gojira in Japan, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! hit American theaters. Purchased from a catalog that Toho Co., Ltd., the makers or Gojira, would produce on a yearly basis to try and sell its titles overseas, Gojira was picked up by Jewell Enterprises for wide release after limited showings on the coasts of the original version with subtitles.

Jewell wasn’t about to take a chance on a film that was so damned foreign, especially one that starred a culture that was our sworn enemy only a decade before. Honestly, it was a wise business move to realize that the racial stereotypes that we used to such effect during the war had not completely faded, and a film with an all-Japanese cast with subtitles would be a bomb over here. So, Jewell decided the next best thing was to add in scenes with an American actor, interspersed with scenes from the original movie, in order to give the film more appeal to American audiences. After all, while Gojira was a huge hit in Japan, the mid-50s in the United States saw the rise of the creature feature — low-budget flicks cheaply made, quickly filmed and distributed, and giving high return on investment. Cut the right way, Gojira could fit right in, provided there was an American in there to make sense of it all.

Enter Raymond Burr as American journalist Steve Martin, an exceedingly serious man. Unlike Gojira, which built up the story before Gojira began destroying cities, Godzilla is told in the form of a flashback. The movie opens with scenes of Tokyo destroyed, and Martin narrating a horrible tale of what happened. We see scenes that played in the middle of the original production now tacked on to the beginning. But no matter. I thought this was the one thing the American movie did correctly — reordering the action just a bit to draw the audience into the film with a teaser of what is to come. It’s a cheap method in film, but here it works quite well, and it’s also the last thing the American release does right.

After the introduction, the movie follows a linear plot. Laying over in Japan for a few days on his way to a conference in Cairo (I know, even back then this flight seems like a bunch of poppycock), Martin happens to arrive at the same time the Japanese merchant vessels begin to fall pray to Godzilla in the ocean. What follows are countless awkward shots of Raymond Burr standing behind stand-in Japanese people as shots switch back and forth between his stoic gaze and footage from the original film. Burr’s narration, combined with explanations from his interpreter, explain what is happening during the course of the movie. At times, the main characters from the original production are clumsily dubbed into English in scenes where the writers couldn’t manage to find a reason for Burr to be present, or when it just made it easier to move the plot forward. Worse, there were times when Burr was forced to interact with these people, which meant body doubles and bad voiceovers. Yuk.

The worst ting about this treatment is that the original Japanese production was well done. Its seriousness and determination made what could have been a laughable tale into a very serious and considered one, even with the at times hilarious Gojira effects.

But the filler scenes with Raymond Burr and stand-ins for the Japanese cast are just embarrassing. There are characters that are supposedly native Japanese whose grasp of the language is so poor that even I could spot their terrible accents.

Godzilla is a butchered mess that in this country turned what was a fine, tense, serious, though crazy, film into something no more worthy of Burt I. Gordon. For shame.

If it is at all possible for a viewer in this country, I would recommend seeing the original Gojira. And not just because it’s a classic monster film. It is a surprisingly powerful commentary on the struggles of a nation trying to put a devastating war behind them. The fear that another catastrophic event is just around the corner waiting to ruin all the effort put forward into rebuilding a war-torn country, then to have that effort destroyed in a matter of hours, justifying said fears, is a frightening one.

Finally, who is Gojira? Is it the Americans? Is it the uncontrollable force of atomic energy that they released, something that is now the world’s problem and no longer the providence of Washington? Or is it Japan’s sense of its own guilt and grief? I don’t know. These were questions that I wish I could have asked in 1954, when those involved on the project knew exactly how they felt about the war. I’m sure they knew how a 50-meter tall unstoppable machine of chaos fit into their perceptions of history. I can only guess at their motivations.

Since the butchered American release, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was so bad, I have to treat it as an entry in Shitty Movie Sundays. Right now, Alien: Resurrection is riding a hot streak. The last four shitty movies have been beat by that dog. Make this number five. Alien: Resurrection is a better film than Godzilla, King of the Monsters!