It has been a long time (almost four years) since the last Grill 1544 event, though the original predecessor did not have the snappy title. These events are obligatorily viewers’ choice events (because the way you get people to come to the BBQ is to let them pick the movie, duh) and our first film, winning a very narrow battle for second place over the original Planet of the Apes was another original – the 1954 version of Gojira (that’s “Godzilla” for the unwashed masses) directed by Ishiro Honda.
You know the premise – gigantic monster arises from the sea and stomps through Tokyo. But Gojira the film is far more than just its premise. It has a plot, and it has poignancy. I’m not going to pretend to be a historian, but the backdrop here is 1954 Japan – only nine years removed from a devastating war culminating in two atomic bombs being dropped on the country. The memories of those bombs and their effects, along with the spectre of future weapons of mass destruction couldn’t but form the backbone of the national consciousness.
It all starts with three ships being destroyed off the southeast coast of Japan. We are introduced to Ogata, a coast guard member who has to call off a date with his girlfriend Emiko to join up on a rescue mission. Somehow it happens that shadows in Japanese films of this era inevitably call to mind the scars left on bridges and buildings where some unsuspecting body blocked the bleaching rays of a nuclear blast, and the blinds in their first scene together leave much the same effect. Of course, Ogata’s ship does not suffer the same fate as the earlier ones did – Gojira (as he always seems to do) has taken a break from his wanton destruction, recharging at the bottom of the ocean.
I suppose I gave the whole Gojira thing away (as we’ve yet to see him), but the monster responsible for sinking the ships soon takes to land, first beaching a few times on an island. His footprints contain some grand mysteries – one is a living trilobite, thought to have been extinct for 200 million years, and the other is a significant dose of radiation.
His first attack is brief, and by night, but when Gojira soon makes his second, daylight assault, the focus lies heavily on the people, terrified, and trying once more to escape a horrific fate. In a typical monster movie, this sort of direction is applied to avoid showing the beast too soon. To Honda’s credit, he gets his monster on screen relatively early and relatively often. He spends so much time on the people because, as I argue below, this isn’t really a monster movie.
Scientists are no slouches in this film. Yamane, a Paleontologist who coincidentally happens to be Emiko’s father (and played by Takashi Shimura, one of the most famous faces in Japanese cinema of the period) quickly figures out the score. Gojira is a remnant from the Jurassic period, awakened (and severely irradiated, to no apparent ill effect) by underwater nuclear testing. Hiroshima and Nagasaki may be rebuilt by now, but the effects from nuclear weapons are continuing to exact their toll on the Japanese people.
And then comes the love triangle, which you totally did not see coming. Emiko has a fianceé, and it ain’t Ogata. It’s a reclusive scientist named Serizawa whose upcoming marriage to Emiko was arranged by her father (Equinox Flower, anyone?), in an attempt to keep a good dose of science in the family. Serizawa, by the way, is rumored to be working on a project that could prove to be the key to defeating Gojira – how these rumors start is unclear, as he is terribly secretive of his work, which he does alone. Eventually he shows his secret to Emiko (but not to the audience, a clever point) under promise that she will not reveal it.
In the meantime, Gojira leaves the island be and begins to rampage through the higher-point-value realm of greater Tokyo. An electric fence erected to stop him (a fence that looks remarkably like existing power lines, naturally) has basically no effect, and the monster breathes fire and wreaks wanton destruction on the city until tanks and planes finally force him to temporarily retreat.
Even Yamane, who has to this point argued vociferously against destroying Gojira on the grounds that he is a paleontological specimen worthy of study, finally breaks down and admits that Gojira must be stopped at any cost. Emiko, having seen the results of Serizawa’s research, is the only one who knows that the means exist to stop Gojira. She tells Ogata of Serizawa’s invention – the Oxygen Destroyer. It’s a bit of cheesy science (it destroys oxygen molecules, turning them into liquid…huh?) plastered onto a very post-war Japanese concept: it has the potential to be such a powerful weapon that Serizawa is unwilling to even acknowledge its existence lest the governments of the world commandeer it as the next great weapon of mass destruction. (Of course, it only works in water, and it really seems to do nothing more than make a small patch of the ocean into a nice flesh-dissolving jacuzzi for a few minutes, not even damaging ships which are directly above it, but trust us – it could be a powerful weapon of mass destruction.) Ogata and Emiko beg Serizawa to allow the use of the Oxygen Destroyer on Gojira to stop the mayhem. Eventually Serizawa reads all the tea leaves correctly and relents. He first destroys all the records of his research so that his work cannot be replicated, and then he finagles a way to deliver the weapon personally to Gojira so that he dies (and his knowledge of how to make the Oxygen Destroyer with him) and Emiko and Ogata can be happy together.
I don’t know if there’s much more to be said about how the plot of the film relates to the prevailing psyche in post-war Japan. It just seems dreadfully obvious, while at the same time going several layers deeper than your typical monster movie ever dares to. But the human poignancy of the film deserves a bit more mention. The movie isn’t so much about the monster as it is about the Japanese people. Honda isn’t perfectly successful in putting the monster on the back burner for the film – in point of fact he can’t – but he manages to sprinkle the humanity in along the way.
A Japanese woman, facing her doom in Gojira’s fury, grabs up her children in a pose reminiscent of a Hiroshima scene and tries to comfort them, telling them that soon they will all be with their father again.
Emiko, inserting herself into the triage unit, comforts a young child whose mother has just been taken off in a stretcher.
And perhaps most hauntingly, in a respite between attacks an immense choir of children array themselves out in perfect formation and sing a song longing for days of peace for a radio broadcast to soothe the ravaged country.
These are not the fruits of a movie about a monster; these are the fruits of a movie about humanity struggling to heal itself of its warlike nature and the inevitable consequences. Honda finds small tragedies and small triumphs here and there amongst the wreckage and lets them steal the show. In the end, the only solution to this reign of destruction we brought on ourselves with our flagrant weaponry is a weapon yet more powerful, but Honda’s focus on the good in society gives hope that someday this vicious cycle might end.