A new Godzilla film is out, that is cool but how many of you have actually seen the original Japanese film Gojira? After 29+ movies, Godzilla is a brand defined by a series of goofy low-budget monster Smack-Down spectacles with our heroic monster saving the world. Most of the films are undeniably fun but personally they feel too much like empty calories. It never made sense how Godzilla, a giant reptilian monster that can flatten a city block with his ATOMIC BREATH, became a friend and hero to all of humanity. In my opinion, Gojira is still superior partially because the monster transcends itself as one and becomes a message of doom.
Gojira is an allegory for the nuclear arms race from the perspective of Japan; the monster itself represents the results of an atomic bomb. Given that the atomic bomb is reinterpreted as a giant dinosaur it should seem goofy but it works because of the human drama surrounding it. The film actually delves into the complex issues like the arms race, environmental issues, and Governments withholding information with a sense of wisdom that hundreds of Cold War films never seem to get right. Moments like when characters mentioning how they barely escaped Nagasaki reveal a setting that know the true effects of a nuclear war, which is pure horror. A Cold War film that is actually more concerned for the people and not “The Nation” is rare in the fifties, which is what makes Gojira so refreshing.
The tone of dread is represented throughout the film by the dark cinematography of Masao Tamai and the directing by Ishirô Honda. Gojira is filmed in stark black and white, which is important because it covers much of the more fake looking special effects but it also enhances the bleak mood of the film by bathing the destruction in shadows. Frankenstein and the trendy film noir flicks of the time used this dark style in a strikingly similar fashion. Watching Tokyo burning with blinding white flames in a jet-black night is as beautiful as it is horrifying.
This is feeling redundant, Gojira is dark, bleak and horrifying film and that is what makes it so great. The film reaches into the horrors of the Cold War era but it does so in a beautifully unpretentious manner. The camera work is a magnificent example of how black-and-white film can strongly emphasize apocalyptic moods. Godzilla the creature is brilliant in its own right and it deserved to become a phenomenon but I worry that people will forget about the origins of this monster. Overtime people will forget the dark metaphor behind Godzilla and remember it as just another weird Japanese relic. The point is that great fun can be found in the weird but gravitas can be found as well.
Godzilla: defying gravitas. Wicked jokes are still funny, right?
(Godzilla (Gojira) can be found on DVD and Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection and I must admit that it is a fantastic package. The picture quality is pristine and the special features also include Godzilla, King of The Monsters, which is the American re-edited version featuring Raymond Burr. Personally, I am mixed about that film but it’s a great way of showing how monster films like this were distributed.)