Written by Nick McCann
Pretend, reader, that you were a citizen of Japan in mid-summer of 1945… yeah that sucked. The atom bombings of World War 2 left a permanent stain on that country and the world. The nuclear age was born and affected everything that followed. Cinema of course took notice. While America was taking advantage of this themselves, the land of the rising sun was brewing something straight from the heart at Toho Studios. That turned into one of the greatest monster movies ever.
This first outing in the long running series does not mess around. Instead of tongue-in-cheek fun as seen in most American sci-fi, “Gojira” tells a grim tale with a blunt real-world parallel. There is suspense from the start and director Ishiro Honda maintains a solid pace throughout. Frankly it can get horrifying! As a viewer, you are always reminded of the gravity of the situation. It leaves little room for respite and earns its tone. Even when the message is dead obvious, it never feels intrusive. It works both as a monster movie and a stern warning for what destructive power awaits us in our future.
That power is encapsulated in Godzilla himself. He still looks threatening to this day. His design iconic and the performance by the suit actor–great. He may be a guy in a rubber suit but he always feels like a looming presence, on and off screen. The special effects are of course dated in spots. Yet Godzilla’s rampages still have a dark and explosive quality, be it a collapsing model building or raging fire. Sound design is also intense, between Godzilla’s mean, echoing roar and a barrage of cannon and machine gun fire.
Accentuating this is some gritty camera work. The low angle coverage and overall look of the black and white film stock makes it all the more foreboding to watch. It’s directed as if this were an actual event, capturing all aspects of the chaos and subsequent aftermath. Lain over top is a grim score by Akira Ifukube. With it’s brash sound, it gives everything heightened power. Not to mention the times when it doesn’t play and lets sound effects take over are quite effective.
Last of note is the cast. They may not have the most deep personalities or dynamics, but they are well on the money in their performances. Akira Takarada is a dependable leading man while Momoko Kochi is a good emotional center as she takes in more of the situation. Two standouts though are Takashi Shimura and Akihiko Hirata. Shimura as the paleontologist Yamane has a wise presence and shows heartfelt sorrow for Godzilla’s scientific potential. Then there’s Hirata as Dr. Serizawa, a man troubled by his creations and feels guilt at the possibility of what it could entail. As he becomes more involved, you can track how much everything weighs on him.
Anyone who says monster movies are trite need only look to this movie for proof of a quality execution. “Gojira” is just as much of an eye-opener of social commentary as it is a thrilling monster movie. Through its titular creature and blockbuster filmmaking, it’s dour story is a stern warning as to what nuclear power means for humanity. It also laid the stepping stone for what has now become a legendary franchise. Don’t miss out.