mag·nif·i·cent/magˈnifəsənt/ (adj.)

1. Impressively beautiful, elaborate, or extravagant; striking.
2. Very good; excellent.

Synonyms: splendid - gorgeous - grand - superb - glorious

WARNING: Some spoilers may be bound but I try to keep them light.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Gojira (1954)

     "As a scientist, no, as a human being, I can't allow that to happen!"

Gojira (1954) (ゴジラ), also known as Godzilla,  is the very first in a long line of Toho kaiju (monster) films. Director Ishirō Honda set out to make a very Japanese version of the very American giant monster movies like King Kong (1933) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), however unlike those films which used the major time consuming stop-motion method to achieve its special effects, Honda hired special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya to design a much quicker "actor in a suit" method to achieve a similar effect on film in far less time.

Gojira tells the story of a group of people affected by a giant half-mythical, half-scientific monster seemingly awakened by the recent increase of nuclear weapon use.

[Note: this review will refer to the 96 minute, original Japanese cut of the film.]

The score of this film by Akira Ifukube (who would go on to have a long career as a composer in Japan mostly on other Kaiju films) is a bit too repetitive for my taste but you can't say the main theme isn't memorable. It's strong powerful and really fits the film in a unique and wonderful way.

There's also a kind of interpersonal love triangle between a few of our main characters that, while I appreciate it being there a midst the larger events going on in the world, it didn't really do much for me and is almost too delicately handled for my tastes. But I like the way the relationships with Emiko actually helped tie into the defeat of Godzilla in the end. A lot of other films and stories can't combine the macro and micro stories in the end as well as this film did.

Honestly I don't even have much to complain about this film. Some of the models are very clearly less detailed models which can kill the illusion sometimes. This is mostly only evident with miniature planes and cars as the models of buildings are really spot on and for most of this film it's composed in a way that I really couldn't even tell Godzilla was a man in a suit!

One of my favorite things about this film is it's use of a giant monster as a war analogy. The way Godzilla strikes very suddenly, causes massive amounts of damage and then disappears without warning throughout most of this film really works as a stand it for war, weapons of mass destruction, or whatever other human-created hatred you can imagine. Also like all good war films, this film does a great job at showcasing the people and the families affected by the disaster. It's very hard to watch Ishiro Honda's beautifully laid out shots with the great amount of time he takes to show the destruction both (physically and emotionally) caused by this crisis and not think about turmoil and sorrow the people of Japan had recently faced not long before this film was made.

And in case you missed any of that there's a far less poetic approach bring your awareness to this by the characters discovering and clearly stating that this giant monster in front of them is the direct result of nuclear weapon use. The beautiful thing about all of this is it all plays out very much just like a moral tale, or a "what if" story with a warning without placing any blame on events of the past. Quite respectable and honorable in my opinion.

The major difference between King Kong (1933) and Gojira is the acting here is really quite superb. You may recognize a lot of the actors from Seven Samurai (1954) and other Akira Kurosawa films, and as I said before even though I didn't really care for some of the human element of the story but even so the film's actors are so great and believable that it really helps you get wrapped up in the story, which is SUPER important in a movie about a giant nuclear dinosaur coming from the sea to destroy Tokyo.

I also this is a small thing but I really enjoyed the "very Japanese" touch of our main characters debating the morals of "should we kill it?" Here's a giant monster from the sea and only the Japanese would have the sympathy to realize this is part of nature and argue that maybe we shouldn't kill this living creature. And (although achieved in a different way) it has a similarly bittersweet emotional coda at the end as King Kong has, where although we defeated the monster there's a potent feeling of sadness at the same time. Really beautiful actually.

And I can't end this review without talking about some of the more nuts and bolts filmmaking of this movie because it really is quite a masterpiece. So much of this film is well thought out and masterfully constructed that I really don't know where to start! Story-wise I love the way the film doesn't show Godzilla for the entire first stretch of the film, there's at least two attacks before we even seen the creature and even then it's only brief glimpses until at least the halfway point and after that the camera never even holds on him for long at all. Behind the scenes, lot of this was probably decided due to not being able to show the models and costumes for too long at a time but it really helps the viewer picture much of the horror and fear in their mind and build the anticipation far before Godzilla actually appears on screen.

The masterful cinematography of this film helps to sell a lot of it too. Well thought out upshots at the monster and really low lit, overall dark scenes of Godzilla against a dark sky just really sell the illusion. Also like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and King Kong the film has great special effects shots combining costumed monster shots with real stock footage and shots of people running away edited together really masterfully.

Gojira (1955) is really, really great film, it truely combines art and action masterfully. It's easy to see how it started such a long dynasty of Godzilla films, kaiju movies, and even Ultraman and Supa Sentai shows can trace their origins back to this single highly influential film.

5/5 Stars.

Happy watching!

I'm tackling all or most of the early Toho Studios' Godzilla and Kaiju films in anticipation of the newest Godzilla (2014) movie. Check back next time for this film's sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955).

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