The first time I encountered Godzilla was in the form of a movie book when I was a kid. The book was about the 1956 version of the film that was heavily re-edited for the U.S. (which featured an inserted Raymond Burr). I had no idea that there was another (much better) version of the film until 10 years ago when a 50th anniversary release of Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Japanese version was screened at Film Forum in New York City. I was quite surprised by the critical acclaim this version had garnered. I never got to check it out back then, and it would be another 10 years before I finally got to see it on the big screen. Film Forum recently played the film in a brand new DCP restoration for a week-long run to commemorate its 60th anniversary (as well as the new big-budget Gareth Edwards reboot). I was glad that I managed to catch a showing of the film; it wasn’t quite what I had expected it to be, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how good the Japanese original really was.
1954’s Godzilla (aka Gojira) starts with an attack by a flash of light on a small Japanese fishing boat near Odo Island. A ship is sent out to investigate but meets a similar end. After a village on the island is attacked, a paleontologist named Dr. Yamane travels from mainland Japan to the island with investigators and finds giant radioactive footprints along with a tiny creature that’s been extinct for millions of years. Yamane, his investigators, and the villagers then encounter Godzilla, a giant prehistoric beast, who heads back to the ocean. Yamane returns to Tokyo and reveals that Godzilla must have been awakened by the nuclear bomb testing that Japan was conducting. Efforts to destroy the creature are unsuccessful, prompting Godzilla to rampage through Tokyo, causing widespread destruction. Yamane’s daughter tries to convince her ex-fiancée Dr. Serizawa to use his oxygen destroyer on the creature, but Serizawa fears what the device will be used for afterward if it’s successful. Serizawa’s ultimate decision will either save the lives of millions or doom them.
The performances were quite good. Takashi Shimura is always a welcome presence, and he lends credible weight as the paleontologist who’s fascinated by the emergence of Godzilla but remains weary of the destruction the creature brings. Akihiko Hirata is the other stand-out as Dr. Serizawa, the scientist whose tortured about whether or not to use his oxygen destroyer. Hirata creates a complex character who has to make some difficult decisions that will affect the lives of millions. Akira Ifukube wrote a terrific score with a memorable theme for Godzilla himself. As soon as I heard the opening music I recognized that this score was a major influence on Michael Giacchino’s 12-minute overture from 2008’s Cloverfield (which played during that film’s end credits).
The black-and-white cinematography by Masao Tamai was very effective, especially in the lighting of Godzilla. Director Honda was wise in slowly showing us the creature. Editor Kazuji Taira keeps the film going at an excellent pace, creating an atmosphere of dread and establishing how big a threat Godzilla is before the audience catches its first glimpse of him. A lot of the time Godzilla is seen mostly in shadows, which helps maintain how serious of a threat he is. Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo is one of the film’s biggest highlights. A combination of matte paintings, miniatures, and dark lighting effectively convey the destruction brought about by the creature. There’s one shot in particular that’s haunting: a static shot with Godzilla hardly lit, a burning city in the background, and people scrambling to escape at the bottom of the frame (the special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya were very good). Overall, Godzilla serves as a metaphor for the dangers of the nuclear bomb in the postwar period and how close we are to bringing about our own destruction.