Friday, 2 September 2016

Godzilla

Gojira; fantasy / disaster film, Japan, 1954; D: Ishiro Honda, S: Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi

Something strange is going on around the island of Odo: ships sink mysteriously while the fish have gone from the sea. Paleontologist Yamane and his crew are sent to investigate and stumble upon Godzilla, a giant dinosaur-like creature that every so often emerges from the sea to feed on land. Yamane concludes that Godzilla is an ancient reptile that left his natural underwater habitat after a nuclear testing in the area disturbed it. Godzilla even attacks Tokyo one night, causing thousands of casualties, and seems unstoppable. Yamane's daughter, Emiko, thus persuades scientist Serizawa to use his invention, a special chemical that dissolves flesh, to kill Godzilla, though he dies himself in the process.

The originator of one of the longest film franchises that spanned almost 30 inferior sequels in the next 60 years, Ishiro Honda's "Godzilla" is universally considered the best film in the series by the critics, and was originally an unlikely candidate for so many sequels and remakes since it was designed as a very uncomfortable, pessimistic disaster movie, an allegory on the nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction of the modern age that threaten to go out of control, which may lead to an apocalypse, with several bitter analogies for the Japanese society, especially in Godzilla's rampage across Tokyo, with scenes of refugees being evacuated by the military from the area. A somewhat cathartic, implicit incarnation of the subconscious fear of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the title monster is at the same time a symbol of Japanese' mythical fascination with Gods and demons that walked the Earth in the legends, and thus proved highly influential in molding the epic giant monster subgenre in Japan that followed, from the so called "kaiju" up to the "mecha" genre, from "Mothra" to "Evangelion".

The special effects were weak - it is basically a man in the rubber suit stomping on toy trains and buildings - and thus it was clever from Honda to shoot the film in black and white cinematography, which alleviated all this and made it somewhat expressionistic, though, ironically, the future films did little to offer any technical improvements to this despite a bigger budget. The opening 20 minutes - where the giant monster is absent, but is hinted at since the people are speculating at what might cause all these mysterious events on the island - causes anticipation and suspense, whereas Godzilla's first appearance, emerging its head behind a hill after people went to climb towards it to hear what the noise was about, is iconic and offers a very good pay-off. The human characters are, unfortunately, pale and one-dimensional, except maybe for scientist Yamane who is reluctant to attack Godzilla and just wants to study it, and thus the storyline suffers from it, especially in the pale love triangle involving his daughter Emiko. A little more ingenuity would have worked wonders, which was demonstrated already in "King Kong" 21 years earlier. Still, "Godzilla" remains an audacity for a 50s movie outside the English-language cinema, a daring monster movie, and thus rightfully enjoys respect even today despite its flaws.

Grade;++

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