Now that I’ve wrapped up the first series of Godzilla films, it’s time to take a look back at the first 7 spanning 1954 through 1996. I watched all of these last year prior to launching this site but they are more than worthy of discussing here as my goal is to finish up all of the Godzilla movies by October. I’m on track, so let’s get started by going back to 1954.
Gojira was best known for many years by the American release title of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! While there has always been some editing done on Godzilla movies for the American audience, it really is accurate to say there are two versions of this first movie. The original Japanese version was directed by Ishiro Honda and he presents what really is the most serious, and perhaps darkest, of all Godzilla movies. Coming less than a decade after the devastation of World War II, some critics felt the filmmakers were exploiting the events of the recent past. Not surprisingly, Gojira had mixed reviews at best, despite becoming one of the top ten movies of 1954 in Japan. Over time, the movie gained more respect and would go on to become the definitive entry in the series.
Being filmed in black and white, it presents a very dark and bleak look at Japan. It also sets the tone that Godzilla is a destructive creature that must be stopped. This was years before Godzilla would defend Earth against space creatures or do little jigs after beating the bad guys. The movie is full of stark images, such as victims suffering from radiation burns. Here, more than any other movie that would follow in the series, we see the destructive power of Godzilla. We see the damage of the cities and the anguish on the victim’s faces. Honda tapped into his own memories of the atomic bombs in World War II, ultimately playing a key role in setting this movie apart from all others that would follow.
Godzilla is presented early on as a sea creature of massive size and power. Our story follows Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and a team investigating an island where Godzilla has been spotted. After a confrontation with the islanders, Yamane concludes Godzilla was unleashed by a nuclear explosion. After attempts at destroying him fail, Yamane is asked to discover a way to destroy Godzilla, yet he wishes to keep him alive and study him. Another storyline follows his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and a bit of a love triangle involving her fiancée Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Daisuke is working on a secret experiment that dissolves flesh, something that will come into play later on in the movie. Godzilla returns and is never more destructive than he is here. The black and white film really enhances the devastation as Godzilla rampages through Tokyo. Never again would we really see how much damage Godzilla really does. Ultimately, Daisuke’s experiment is used to destroy Godzilla. Because his device is clearly a weapon of mass destruction, he sacrifices himself in the end. Hardly an upbeat ending as the fear is that this is just the beginning and that more creatures will appear. If they only knew what the following decades would bring.
Outside of this version being played in limited theaters in the United States in the 50s and 60s, the version all of us grew up with was actually called Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Many scenes were cut in favor of new scenes starring Raymond Burr, who also provided narration, eliminating the need for a lot of dubbing. In 1956, this re-edited version was released to great success. It laid the groundwork for the Godzilla films that would follow but American audiences had no idea how intense the original version really was. After a limited release in 2004, which received universal positive reactions, it was finally released on DVD in 2006, on Blu-ray in 2009 and, finally, as part of the Criterion Collection in 2012. Whichever release you go for, I highly recommend this classic and strongly suggest you watch both versions as they really are two different “views” of the same story.
Next time, we check out 1955s Godzilla Raids Again, another black and white flick which brings a new Godzilla to the big screen.