In the ocean waters of Tokyo, Japan, a couple of boats mysteriously disappear with few survivors. Two rescue ships likewise do not return. Some villagers are quick to attribute their misfortune to Gojira, monster of the sea, and when a hurricane destroys homes and ends lives, reports claim that a large animal is responsible for the destruction. The day after the hurricane, paleontologist Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) finds footprints with a radioactive signature and the body of the long-extinct trilobite. The professor theorizes that an atomic explosion may have upset the habitat of a creature from the Jurassic period, a theory proven correct when Gojira comes ashore and attacks the city. Yamane wishes to study the unknown creature, which seems to absorb radiation, but citizens and officials alike are looking for ways to kill Gojira.
Gojira (1954) — better known in the U.S. as Godzilla — was directed by Ishiro Honda, who also helmed several of the film’s sequels, as well as other entries in the kaiju (roughly translated as “monster”) genre, including Rodan (1956), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), and Mothra (1961), the latter a kaiju nearly as popular as Godzilla and featured in numerous series entries and her own films. (“Kaiju” is the name of the genre, though Godzilla and Mothra are more specifically daikaiju: “giant monsters.”)
The creatures in Honda’s films are different from the spider in Tarantula (1955) and the giant ants in Them! (1954), animals made monstrous by atomic radiation. In the case of Gojira, the titular beast is provoked by nuclear warfare, with the insinuation that he was previously content in his subaquatic existence. Professor Yamane represents the sympathy viewers may feel for Gojira, much like the monster in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Insects that have grown to astronomical size are monsters, but Gojira is an animal merely seen as a monster by the people who fear him. In the 1954 movie, everyone is terrified of Gojira before many of them have actually seen the creature do anything.
With the suggestion in the film that Godzilla/Gojira has been awakened, so to speak, by an atomic explosion, one can clearly see a connection to World War II and Hiroshima. However, the tragedy of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5), a Japanese fishing boat, is most often cited as the inspiration for Godzilla and the kaiju films. In 1954, the U.S. tested a hydrogen bomb, and the nuclear fallout from the detonation was so severe that the crewmen of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru suffered radiation poisoning, one of the men dying months later. The film opens with a fishing boat attacked by Gojira, unseen and signified by a glow on the water’s surface and explosive results.
Gojira initially received a very limited U.S. release in its original form. In 1956, it was released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. It was heavily cut and had sequences inserted with an American protagonist, reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr). The film opens with the aftermath of Godzilla’s assault, and a flashback with a voice-over from Steve provides most of the story. Burr interacts with new characters as well as characters from Gojira, such as Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), via doubles and help from the English dubbing. Unfortunately, many of the excised scenes include further development of Yamane’s desire to study Godzilla and the love triangle among Emiko, Ogata (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). The additional sequences were so extensive that Honda had to share directing credit with Terry Morse, but despite the new footage, King of the Monsters! still managed to be 16 minutes shorter than Gojira.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is generally considered a wholly different film from Gojira, the original proving far superior. However, it was the truncated U.S. version that played overseas and made Godzilla an international star. The edited version was a box office success and performed well in other countries, even Japan. Gojira was a merging of the Japanese words, gorira (“gorilla”) and kujira (“whale”), as the film’s star features traits from both animals. Some fans argue that “Gojira” is the proper anglicized rendering of the creature’s name and that the American name was possibly a mistranslation, while others claim that “Godzilla” was suggested for the U.S. film version by the Gojira studio, Toho. Whatever the case, the creature became known as Godzilla across the globe, and Toho has trademarked and copyrighted the worldwide moniker.
Actor Takashi Shimura had starred in numerous films from famed Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, including Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). Director and kaiju storyteller Honda likewise worked as an assistant director for Kurosawa in films such as Stray Dog (1949), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), the former two movies also featuring Shimura.
It’s a popular misconception that Godzilla breathes fire. As his power is essentially derived from radiation, the creature is in actuality exhaling what’s been called atomic or radioactive breath. Many times, before Godzilla releases his atomic breath, his dorsal fins will glow. This causes explosions and buildings and vehicles to catch fire, leaving the city in ruins and often in flames. However, in the 1978-79 animated series, a Japanese/American co-production and broadcast in both countries, Godzilla did indeed emit fire (possibly to simplify his power, as the show was aimed at young children).
Godzilla’s influence is indisputable. It’s difficult for films of the giant monster variety, such as Cloverfield (2008), to not draw comparisons to the famous kaiju, and place any person, child or adult, in front of a model-sized city, and one will witness a quick transformation into a roaring beast stomping its hefty feet to crush the tiny buildings. Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 movie is immensely entertaining, a superb debut for a creature who deserved his own series. If possible, viewers should seek the Japanese version, Gojira, in lieu of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, but they should also appreciate the U.S. edit, if for nothing else than introducing the world to the colossal film star. Godzilla may tower over us all, but he easily fits inside our hearts.
Sark is a frequent contributor to the Classic Film & TV Café site.