Original release: November 3rd, 1954
Running time: 95 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Ishirō Honda
Writers: Ishirō Honda, Takeo Murata
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
In spite of two nuclear bombs having such a devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Japan swiftly announced its surrender to the Allied Forces officially ending World War II, nuclear weapons testing was still in its infancy in 1945. After the war, between 1946 and 1958, a place reminiscent of paradise on Earth, called Bikini Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean the South of Japan, was the site of more than twenty nuclear weapons tests.
Although this was in the news in the Western hemisphere, the oddity of Frenchman Louis Réard thinking that it would be a splendid idea to name his newly invented swimsuit for women after the islands testifies to just how much people didn’t understand the magnitude and significance of the events at Bikini Atoll.
The Japanese – inevitably – had more of an in-depth view on the tests that essentially took place in their backyard. When the nuclear bomb named Castle Bravo was detonated in 1954, its yield well exceeded initial expectations, which resulted in the nuclear fallout poisoning local islanders as well as the crew of a Japanese fishing boat. Director Kaneto Shindo made Lucky Dragon No. 5 in 1959, a film based on this event from the perspective of the fisherman and the effects of the contamination on their health.
Even before that however, Castle Bravo, the most powerful bomb ever detonated by the United States, also unleashed one of the most famous monsters in the history of cinema: Godzilla.
The iconic Kaiju film, directed by Ishirō Honda, was only the first in a long line of works featuring the radioactive creature that rose from humanity’s destructive nature. Godzilla is iconic for very good reasons; blockbuster entertainment very rarely merges with such strong message and upfront political statement. The film’s dialogue blatantly utilises the end of the censorship era after the American occupation ended in 1952. It reinforced public opinion in Japan in the wake of Castle Bravo and the widespread outrage that followed while also telling the world that nuclear weapons can bring about unseen consequences.
Apart from being highly critical of the United States and the use of nuclear weapons, Godzilla also looks at the larger picture of a future where nuclear technology is part of our lives. As the nuclear monster makes frequent and increasingly destructive trips into human territories from the depths of the ocean, it becomes clear that the military has no way of causing harm to the creature. Godzilla advances closer while powerful weapons are replaced by a more powerful weapons and nothing works.
The weapon that eventually overcomes the monster is a fictional one; a young scientist’s (Akihiko Hirata) secret experiments result in a device potentially more destructive than nuclear weapons. The troubled scientist terrified by his own invention and the prospect of politicians getting their hands on it reluctantly agrees to use the ‘oxygen destroyer’ against Godzilla. Before the final confrontation however, he destroys his papers and is ready to eliminate the one last place where knowledge of the weapon can be found: himself.
I can’t tell whether Godzilla wants to entertain me or make a serious point because it does both so well. It’s interesting to see scenes like the debate whether the existence of Godzilla should be concealed from the public to avoid causing difficulties on the international stage. The two sides of Japanese politics of the time are represented in contrast: the appeasers argue with those who want no secrets that would essentially protect the interest of the US. Meanwhile, a giant monster rampages through the skyscrapers of Tokyo.
The film makers didn’t use stop motion to visualise the monster, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Several scenes look surprisingly impressive with the actor (Katsumi Tezuka) in the ‘Godzilla suit’ juxtaposed with dozens of civilians running away without the ‘jerky effect’ of stop motion. Other scenes perhaps are more visually crude for our 21st century eyes, but the overall effect of the film makes it a tremendously fun watch.
Godzilla is rightfully a renowned classic that warrants the countless sequels, remakes and reboots that followed and will follow the birth of the nuclear monster.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.