There are few suppositions I would make, but one I think I am safe in making is that almost everyone, even if they have not seen any of the movies, has heard of Godzilla. Sometimes a force of destruction, sometimes the protector of Earth, he has represented everything from the atom bombs dropped at the end of World War II to the angry spirits of Japan's war dead. There are cartoons, there is anime, and there are (approaching) nearly 50 movies, both made in Japan and in the U.S.
It is a worldwide phenomenon that sprung from Japan in the 1950s. Influenced by such movies as the original King Kong, Ishiro Honda and his collaborators decided to make their own giant monster film, and Toho Studios decided to go with it. The movie ended up being one of the most expensive for the studio, but also one of the most profitable of 1954, along with such classics as The Seven Samurai. In addition it got dubbed, recut and had Raymond Burr inserted rather clumsily into it for an American audience. While it took away some of the impact of the film it still became a hit and helped spawn an entire menagerie of giant monsters in both the U.S. and Japan, even spreading the trend into Europe.
When ships begin to mysteriously disappear the Japanese Coast Guard begins to investigate. Eventually survivors make it back to Odo Island, followed by a mysterious creature that tramples a village during a typhoon. Salvage expert Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) and paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) are sent to investigate. At first they find a radioactive footprint made by the animal, and soon the villagers and Dr. Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) encounter the beast itself, a prehistoric monster that towers above a local hill.
Yamane wants to study the creature but, because of the hazard it poses to shipping lanes, the Japanese government has other ideas. Their side wins out once Godzilla comes ashore on the mainland and causes major destruction to Tokyo, leading Emiko to reveal the secret project her one-time fiancé Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Herata) has been working on. While bullets, depth charges and rockets have all been ineffective against Godzilla, Serizawa's invention, the Oxygen Destroyer, may be the one thing that can stop the monster.
The original Japanese version of the movie played in Japanese-American theaters in 1954 before the English dub arrived. From then, until the early 2000s, the American version called Godzilla: King of the Monsters was the only one available. Since then the original Japanese version has been made available and it is definitely the preferable one. While even the American version made it clear that Godzilla was the result of testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific Ocean by the United States, and the destruction of Godzilla an allusion to that caused to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese version is even clearer on that point. Discussions involve mention of Nagasaki as well as the state of post-war relations with the U.S. leading to Japan's reluctance to seek outside assistance against Godzilla.
The other reason for watching the original is that the dubbing, as is usual for most of these movies, is highly inaccurate and adds unintended humor. While there is much intended humor in later installments, this first time around was meant to be taken seriously, and messing with the dialogue or making the acting look unnecessarily bad was a mistake on the part of Terry O. Morse, who was responsible for the re-cut. Still, in both, the scenes of Godzilla destroying Tokyo are the most memorable, even if this is one of the few movies in the series where the humans have an important place.
The reason for a man in a suit is because stop-motion effects, such as those by Wesley Willis and Ray Harryhausen, take a long time to film. Japanese film schedules were tight and, in addition, there was no one in the country that had a lot of experience in stop-motion. There still are a couple of scenes in the movie - one of Godzilla's tail smashing some buildings, and another of a firetruck crash - but mostly this is Haruo Nakajima stomping around in a polymer suit (and sometimes a cement one), trying not to collapse from heat exhaustion. The suit was something that was completely new technology as well, and it would be honed over the next few films, but for the time it added some reality, as the finely detailed models of Tokyo were on a raised platform that allowed the action to be viewed from ground level.
Because of the advances in technology since then many of the effects may look quaint. One of the rods manipulated Godzilla's tail is on full display at one point, while the wires guiding the model airplanes are quite visible on modern prints. Unfortunately this may be distracting to a modern viewer, used to not seeing the strings and wires in even a lot of the older films. There are also some other goofs, such as repeatedly saying that Godzilla, supposedly from the Jurassic period, is two million years old, which is off by about 250 million years or so. It would be believable that Godzilla's species, which is able to survive both on land and sea, was sealed off for that long, but the mistake is giving a specific era.
Although he is not in it much Akihiko Hirata strikes an imposing figure as Dr. Serizawa and does a great job of not turning him into a mad scientist, but rather having him not want to be the one responsible for releasing something worse than the hydrogen bomb upon the world. The rest of the crew is solid, playing all the usual parts - the older scientist, the square-jawed hero and the love interest - that are almost required for this type of movie. The star, though, is still the big lizard himself, and even this early on he has both a menacing and tragic persona.
Despite its age, and the age of its effects, the original Godzilla remains a classic monster film due to its engaging story and often bleak visual tone. It is a far cry from the more playful tone that would follow, but Ishiro Honda soon found out he literally had a monster on his hands.
Time: 96 minutes
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Haruo Nakajima
Director: Ishiro Honda