I’ve gotten into several arguments lately about the upcoming Godzilla adaptation for western audiences. I’ve argued, vehemently, that the film will be a monstrous disappointment.
But I’ve gone on hate tirades in the past on this journal and it’s never worked out well. So, instead, I’m going to rip the upcoming reboot completely out of the equation on this one and talk about what makes the 1954 film the giant that spawned not only the Godzilla franchise but in many ways the entire Tokusatsu genre.
See guys! He was only trying to catch a trai… I’m just going to stop.
I’ll explain a bit. Tokusatsu is the term used in Japan used for works that employ a lot of special effects. The term literally means “special filming” in Japanese. It’s often recognized by a portion of the techniques used in Tokusatsu called Suitmation wherein you’ll have an actor dressed up as a “rubber suit monster” as is the popular term. It’s basically what we in the west call “That Power Rangers crap.”
By combining suitmation and the careful use of miniatures the very film that started it all, Godzilla, is considered the genesis of Tokusatsu as it is known today. Now Tokusatsu is being considered a lost art as more and more effects are moving into computer generated territory. Many in the field have come to look at this as a tragedy as there are less and less young workers who wish to learn in their footsteps.
Godzilla itself is largely inspired by the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, released in 1953. There’s a complicated story behind that film and it’s similarities to a Ray Bradbury short story called The Fog Horn. I’ll skip that for brevity’s sake. Conceptually, the plot is similar to that of Godzilla, a creature from the depths is woken by an atomic blast and assaults a major city (New York in this case) until it’s struck down with a special weapon (in this film it’s a radioactive isotope).
Fuck they even look similar.
So why is Godzilla so famous and this is the first time you’ve heard of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms? Well it isn’t like it was badly made. Ray Harryhausen, the king of stop motion himself, put his heart and soul into animating that monster. I mean, in The Beast they do ride a roller coaster to kill the monster but is that it?
Here’s what I think why Godzilla stands out among so many of its contemporaries, even within its own canon. Gozilla is as much a movie about war and the advent of the atomic age as it is a monster movie.
When I compared the two I noticed something unique about the way Godzilla was shot. The first twenty minutes of Gozilla is, in reality, a series of shots of people reacting to a series of close encounters with Gojira… sorry Godzilla.
It’s sort of a writing cred thing to say his original name.
These are massive tragedies in scale, entire ships are lost and then the rescue ships are lost with only one survivor to barely describe what happened. Rather than taking the time to slowly set each scene the film rapidly establishes a crisis.
Throughout all of it are people reacting to this crisis. People in panic, worried about their loved ones. It becomes quite clear that this is a film talking about the tragedy of atomic warfare. There is as much commentary on the need to kill Godzilla in this film as there is Godzilla. In no way at any point do any of the measures used to waylay the king of monsters result in anything more than minutely slowing his progress.
As a creature awoken by atomic testing Godzilla is immediately portrayed as humanity’s fault rather than as some accident. The destruction of the ships in the opening is an actual reference to a real life atomic weapons test in Japan where a nearby fishing ship was destroyed with all hands.
Just as much is the case with the weapon that kills Godzilla, the Oxygen Destroyer. Its story is identical to that of atomic weapons, a technology originally used for peace but warfare applications were discovered. Dr. Serizawa fights at all turns to avoid using his own creation against Godzilla despite knowing it is likely the only thing that can kill the great beast.
In the end of the film Serizawa takes his own life and dies with Godzilla, taking his own technology to the grave so that it cannot be used to make more weapons and possibly prevent something else like Godzilla from arising from his own technology.
Though, ironically that would happen in the film Godzilla Vs. Destroyah wherein a creature (Destroyah) is created from the Oxygen Destroyer’s detonation and pre-historic creatures that were mutated from the experience. I don’t know how well that’s explored in that film though.
The ending keeps that same theme of tragedy right up to this point, that this is not a victory. Whatever knowledge that could be gained from Gozilla’s existence and from Serizawa’s own brilliant mind is lost. That is not even counting the untold lives lost when Godzilla assaulted Tokyo.
The film plays this completely straight. You can’t really make fun of any of the suit acting or effects. Too many people are being shown suffering and dying outright.
I mean there’s this shot but it lasts like two seconds.
It’s a truly strong commentary against war and the fact that despite the fact that they may be fighting for the right reasons, people still die needlessly in war. It warns openly against the use of such weaponry by humanity as it will only lead to more destruction.
It’s that strong underlying theme that makes it stand out among monster films and why Godzilla is the one true king of all monsters. Also he should have totally killed King Kong that one time! That was bullshit!
And so too does this work exist.