WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS!
I don’t quite know when my obsession with Godzilla began, but I was very young. Already subsisting on a healthy diet of movies featuring various creatures and dinosaurs, it was only natural for me to be drawn to the King of the Monsters. What’s funny is that my “gateway drug” to kaiju cinema was one of the very films that helped inspire the birth of Godzilla himself: KING KONG. 1933’s KONG was a definite game-changer and led to a slew of films featuring prehistoric giants that terrorized humanity both in the past, and in the modern world.
But by most accounts it was 1953’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident) that really set things in motion. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka became interested in creating a giant monster film of his own, and put together what would become the veritable dream team of kaiju cinema. Ishiro Honda was hired on as director, Eiji Tsuburaya was tasked with creating the film’s special effects, and Akira Ifukube was given the duty of composing the film’s soundtrack. Backed by a talented cast and crew, Godzilla’s “founding fathers” were unknowingly about to create one of the most famous cultural icons of all time!
As GOJIRA begins, we bear witness to multiple tragedies at sea. Some strange phenomenon is causing freighters and fishing boats alike to burst into flame and sink, completely baffling Japanese authorities. Investigators and reporters soon arrive upon nearby Odo Island, where the superstitious locals believe that the legendary Gojira is to blame. Eager to appease the mythical sea monster, the islanders perform an ancient ritual. But it is all for naught as some living thing, under the cover of a raging storm, stomps a destructive path through the village one night.
The government then sends an investigative team headed by a paleontologist named Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) to Odo Island. Yamane is soon convinced that a large creature was responsible for the destruction in the village, as evidenced by gigantic, radioactive footprints, and the discovery of a once thought to be extinct trilobite. But it’s all conjecture until Gojira makes an appearance in broad daylight: The 164-foot creature peeks over the top of a mountain and roars, sending the puny humans fleeing in terror.
Armed with photographic evidence, Yamane returns to Tokyo to deliver his findings. He theorizes that Gojira is an amphibious creature that has survived for centuries deep in the uncharted depths of the ocean. The creature has only now appeared because H-bomb tests conducted by the United States have awakened it. Yamane is eager to study the prehistoric beast and figure out how it was able to survive its radioactive baptism, but is disappointed that the immediate response is to have Gojira obliterated.
A fleet of frigates is sent out to deal with Gojira using depth charges, but as night falls the populace of Japan discovers that if anything, it was the equivalent of leaving a trail of exploding breadcrumbs right to their front door. Gojira wades ashore and causes a bit of death and destruction in the nearby train yards before retreating back to the sea. Fearing the kaiju’s return, the Japanese military erects a protective “electrified fence” around Tokyo Bay, hoping that 50,000 volts of electricity will be enough to drive off their new unwelcome neighbor.
Once night falls, Gojira returns and easily smashes its way through the high-tension wires protecting the city, then marches its way through the heart of Tokyo. Landmarks are destroyed, people and buildings are scorched by Gojira’s atomic breath, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces prove to be utterly helpless. Eventually Gojira tires of its onslaught and is “chased off” by Japanese fighter jets. The following day, the people of Tokyo begin clearing rubble, removing the dead, and tending to the wounded. And one big question is on everyone’s mind: “What can we do if Gojira returns?”
As luck would have it, Dr. Yamane’s future son-in-law Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) has secretly (and accidentally) created a terrible device called the Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa revealed his secret to his bride-to-be, Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kôchi), who witnessed the invention’s ability to kill and atomize a tank full of fish. But Serizawa isn’t too keen on revealing his Oxygen Destroyer to the world, fearing that it will be misused much like the hydrogen bombs that disturbed (and mutated) Gojira.
Emiko and Hideto Ogata (Toho regular Akira Takarada playing “that guy I’ve been meaning to tell you about”) plead with Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer to defeat the prehistoric menace. Eventually Serizawa relents, leading to a final underwater showdown in Tokyo Bay with a groggy Gojira. Stuck in a love triangle, and armed with an untested weapon, the fate of Japan rests on the shoulders of Dr. Serizawa. Will he succeed?!
At the time it was made, GOJIRA was one of the most expensive (and secretive) productions in Japan. With a budget of approximately $175,000 (in U.S. dollars), the film became an unexpected hit, bringing in about 1.6 million domestically! (It also fared well when it was screened in the U.S. back in 2004 courtesy of Rialto Pictures. Despite being a limited theatrical release, GOJIRA made over $400,000!) Though the film critics in Japan weren’t especially kind towards the film, the Japanese public ate it up!
This is probably due in part to the film’s main attraction, the mighty Gojira. An allegory for the horrors of nuclear war, the fire-breathing creature mercilessly lays waste to Japan’s capital city. And the film pulls absolutely no punches in showing the carnage: In one scene a group of fleeing citizens falls screaming to the ground as Gojira’s fiery breath engulfs them. In another, reporters on Tokyo Tower sacrifice themselves to deliver a constant stream of news, even as Gojira chews the structure out from beneath them. And in yet another, a mother huddles in front of a building with her three children as the city around them burns, assuring them that they will soon be reunited with their father.
Yes it’s all very bleak and somber Vault Dwellers, but GOJIRA also sneaks in a glimmer of hope into its final act. Much like the titular kaiju is symbolic of the atomic bombing of Japan, Serizawa’s fictional Oxygen Destroyer is very much a metaphor for Japanese ingenuity. After World War II, Japan went from being a defeated nation (and still the only one to have ever been hit with an atomic warhead) to an economic powerhouse through perseverance and innovation. However, Serizawa’s discovery creates a moral quandary of its own.
The Oxygen Destroyer has no practical application, and could easily be used to terrible effect in destroying entire aquatic ecosystems. It could also prove to be a great military asset, as you could theoretically drop it in to any body of water and instantly kill off an enemy’s major food source. This is what Serizawa struggles with in several of GOJIRA’s more dramatic moments. Even after seeing the destruction of Tokyo on TV, and despite the entreaties of Emiko and Ogata, Serizawa steadfastly refuses to use the Oxygen Destroyer.
He fears what it could do in the wrong hands, and doesn’t want anyone to know that it even exists. Despite being the only kaiju removal tool that has a chance of working, Serizawa can only think of the possible repercussions his invention could cause in the world. His Oxygen Destroyer could very well be the next weapon of mass destruction, and even if he were to destroy his research and notes, he is convinced that someone could (or would) find a way to force him into recreating his work.
This all builds to Serizawa finally agreeing to use his Oxygen Destroyer, and ultimately sacrificing himself to not only destroy Gojira but make sure his invention can never plague humanity. But as all of us Godzilla fans know, despite his best efforts Serizawa’s worst fears are realized over forty years later when it’s discovered that the deployment of his weapon resulted in the mutation of a pre-Cambrian lifeform, leading to a new kaiju threat in 1995’s GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH!
The cast of GOJIRA is populated with numerous actors who would go on to appear in other Godzilla and kaiju films. Veteran actor Takashi Shimura, a frequent staple of early samurai cinema, plays Dr. Yamane. A respected paleontologist, Yamane spends most of the film troubled by the government’s complete lack of interest in studying Gojira. He feels that there is much to be learned from the creature as it survived the radioactive fallout of America’s H-bomb tests, and he is clearly upset when Gojira is destroyed. Lucky for him, a replacement kaiju appears the following year in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN.
Yamane’s daughter Emiko is played by Momoko Kochi (a role she would reprise in 1995), and she is the main driving force of the human drama in the film. Though she’s arranged to marry Dr. Serizawa (who is already married to his scientific research), Emiko sees him more as a brother and has developed a star-crossed romance with Hideto Ogata. Both she and her new suitor do attempt to come clean about their relationship, but far bigger things are occupying the minds of both Serizawa and Dr. Yamane.
Ogata was portrayed by then newcomer Akira Takarada who is now considered Toho royalty, and went on to appear in other Godzilla adventures, most notably MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA, GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER. Akihiko Hirata (another Godzilla series regular) plays Dr. Serizawa, the film’s tragic hero. His sacrifice at the climax is the emotional crux of the film, as he purposely cuts the air hose to his diving suit and dies alongside Gojira.
Serizawa does this not only to protect the world from the destructive might of both Gojira and the Oxygen Destroyer, but also to put an end to the awkward love triangle he was part of. While Emiko and Ogata never did get to have their “talk” with him, Serizawa was clearly aware of what was going on. (He may have been missing an eye, but he wasn’t blind.) And it is genuinely sad when he wishes them a happy life together before taking his own.
As for Gojira itself, the mighty terror of Tokyo was performed by both a mechanical puppet (for closeups) and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who donned an incredibly heavy 220-pound creature suit. Filmed in black and white with a high-speed camera amid a detailed miniature city, Gojira effectively looks bulky and enormous as it stomps through the sea of buildings. Coupled with incredible matte-work and skilled composite shots, plus the guiding hand of effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya, the illusion of a giant creature laying waste to a major city is still impressive sixty-five years later.
But the entire GOJIRA package would not be complete without the musical artistry of composer Akira Ifukube. His score for the film is outstanding, from the catchy military marches to the immortal “Godzilla Theme,” and he is also responsible for creating Gojira’s booming footsteps and iconic roar. To put it one way: If Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Honda were the mind, body, and heart of GOJIRA, then Ifukube would be the soul!
GOJIRA is an absolute classic, and in my eyes, one of the most important films ever made. It’s a monster movie with a message, and kicked off the longest running film franchise / cinematic universe of all time! While it is admittedly a bit melodramatic at times, GOJIRA is damned near perfect in my eyes, and I cannot recommend it enough to both film buffs and fans of classic creature features! GOJIRA has earned my undying love and respect, and I hereby award it with my highest honor of:
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956)
Not Rated / Black & White / 80 minutes
Directed by Ishirô Honda & Terry O. Morse
Also Known As: Godzilla, The Sea Beast
Purchase it: Amazon.com (DVD) | Amazon.com (Blu-ray)
Two years after making a splash in Japanese theaters, GOJIRA eventually made its way to America, albeit in a vastly different form. Picked up for international distribution by Jewell Enterprises Inc., backers Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine helped finance an all-new edit of GOJIRA that would cater to American theatergoers. The end result was GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, which is probably the version of the film that most of you Vault Dwellers are familiar with.
KING OF THE MONSTERS begins with the aftermath of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo. American news correspondent Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) has survived the ordeal and awakens the next morning in a hospital. Through the power of his narration we flash back to the events that occurred days earlier, which led up to him being buried a pile of rubble in the center of a shattered metropolis.
On his way to Cairo, Steve is briefly detained during his layover in Japan and questioned by a JSDF officer named Tomo Iwanaga (Frank Iwanaga). There was a disaster at sea and Tomo wants to inquire if Steve saw anything strange while flying over the Pacific at night. Martin didn’t, but senses that a big story might be breaking so he remains in Japan to cover it. The remainder of the film mostly plays out the same as the original GOJIRA, with the chief difference being the presence of a young Perry Mason.
The inclusion of Raymond Burr’s Steve Martin (who would return decades later in GODZILLA 1985) is skillfully done. Through clever editing and the utilization of stand-ins dressed exactly as GOJIRA’s leads, it seems like Steve is interacting with the original Japanese cast. However, if you happen to watch GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS back to back with GOJIRA, the illusion isn’t as seamless. In fact, Burr’s scenes seem downright silly as he is often standing off to the side with a pipe in his hand (or mouth), requesting expository translation from his sidekick Tomo.
KING OF THE MONSTERS also features a few other noticeable changes to the story. To avoid offending U.S. viewers, the love triangle between Serizawa, Emiko, and Ogata is pretty much excised, and the movie’s anti-nuclear message was scaled back. While Godzilla’s H-bomb origins are still mentioned, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not. In the interest of “good taste,” the film’s main theme was swept under a rug, thus relegating GODZILLA to a standard Atom Age monster movie, like THEM!, TARANTULA, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, and numerous others.
Released to U.S. theaters in 1956, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS did remarkably well, raking in about two million dollars! This version of the film also made its rounds in Europe and South America, introducing the world to the appeal of Japanese kaiju cinema! And by 1957, Terry Morse’s KING OF THE MONSTERS made its way to Japan under the title of KAIJU Ō GOJIRA (aka MONSTER KING GODZILLA), where it gained some popularity.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is a surprisingly well done re-edit of GOJIRA that sacrifices some story elements in order to make the film a tad less grim and more accessible to foreign (i.e. American) audiences. And honestly, it isn’t a bad place to start if you’re introducing someone to the franchise. While I don’t consider it to be as good as GOJIRA, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is a classic in its own right and has earned itself a rating of:
When Dino de Laurentiis announced his KING KONG remake in the mid-70s, Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH, CONTAMINATION, the Lou Ferrigno HERCULES films) was inspired to take advantage of the publicity and wanted to book a giant monster movie to show in Italian theaters. Initially he wanted GORGO, but the King Brothers demanded too much money. Cozzi then decided on GODZILLA, which he had fond recollections of seeing on the big screen back in 1956.
After negotiating with Toho for the film, Cozzi was only able to obtain the original negative for the 1956 Americanized version featuring Raymond Burr. Then further complications arose when his regional distributors refused to screen the film because it was in black and white! Undaunted, Luigi Cozzi decided to colorize the film (with Toho’s permission of course), and within three months had morphed it into a bizarre “grindhoused” version of KING OF THE MONSTERS.
Cozzi’s GODZILLA IL RE DEI MOSTRI (henceforth COZZILLA) begins with the ATOMIC BOMBING OF JAPAN. (Yes, you did just read that correctly.) A bomber flies over the bustling city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and drops its payload. After the resulting mushroom cloud, we bear witness to the carnage via a montage. We see closeups of charred bodies plus miles and miles of leveled buildings, all while Vince Tempera’s score thumps away in the background.
After the opening credits unspool we leap ahead to August 6, 1954, where we discover reporter Steve Martin buried in the ruins of Tokyo. The film then plays out just like GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, with one very noticeable difference: All of the scenes of destruction contain added stock footage that doesn’t always quite match up with the original film. This was done to both bulk up the film’s running time (the original 80-minute length was too short for theatrical distribution in the ’70s) and also to “update” it for modern audiences.
When Godzilla marches through the train yards, scenes of crashing coal-powered locomotive are added in. When the Japanese frigates attempt to destroy Godzilla with depth charges, there’s about fifty percent more watery explosions. The sequence where Japanese fighter jets arrive and bombard Godzilla with missiles? That now kicks off with stock footage of World War II fighter planes taking off. As an added touch, footage of a crashing plane was inserted to give the illusion that Godzilla knocked one out of the sky.
But the madness doesn’t stop there Vault Dwellers because more additions were made that range from horrifying to head-scratching. During Godzilla’s main rampage, a brief scene of a HUMAN BEING COLLAPSING TO THE GROUND IN FLAMES was inserted. But that’s just a small appetizer to the disquieting montage of dead bodies that follows Godzilla’s departure from Tokyo, the random duel between a shark and a squid that Serizawa “witnesses” before setting off the Oxygen Destroyer, and the completely unexpected naval fusillade that occurs just before Godzilla’s lifeless body sinks to the bottom of Tokyo Bay.
The colorization of COZZILLA was undertaken by visual effects artist Armando Valcauda through a lengthy procedure that used gels to add color to each frame of film. Underwater scenes were given shades of blue and green, while the majority of action scenes changed to hues of red, yellow, and orange. Wanting to sell more tickets, Cozzi decided to call the coloring process “Spectrorama 70” in order to give COZZILLA a “bigger” feel. Showmanship aside, the end result is actually kind of successful.
But colorizing the film and injecting it with unsettling imagery apparently wasn’t enough. Cozzi’s GODZILLA was upgraded with an all-new “Futursound” magnetic soundtrack. Similar to the Sensurround process used for films like EARTHQUAKE and ROLLERCOASTER, the newly created soundtrack contained additional sound effects, and was intended to make the film more immersive. Those lucky enough to see COZZILLA as it was intended back in ’77 could actually feel the explosions and Godzilla’s booming footsteps in the theater!
The anti-nuclear theme of GOJIRA, which was sort of glossed over in KING OF THE MONSTERS, is back with a vengeance in COZZILLA. And because Italian filmmakers aren’t known for their subtlety, Cozzi unapologetically surrounds the film’s metaphorical monster with heaps of World War II era footage that drives home the historical point that Japan witnessed a nuclear holocaust firsthand. It’s a bold creative decision, and I’m not entirely sure that Cozzi’s efforts would have been accepted by Japanese or American audiences back in the ’70s, which likely explains why COZZILLA has only ever been screened in Italy and Turkey.
Through sheer force of will, Cozzi forged GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS into an exploitation film, colorizing it and extending the running time in order to guarantee its theatrical rerelease in 1977. (And if that doesn’t prove that he’s a diehard Godzilla fan, then I don’t know what will!) While it is definitely not my preferred version of Godzilla’s origin story, Cozzi’s ambitious “fan-edit” is definitely a fascinating piece of cinematic history. It’s a little rough around the edges, but overall COZZILLA is worth a look and deserves a rating of:
For Godzilla fans that are curious about this film: The complete 105-minute cut of COZZILLA has never seen a legit release on any home video format, but a battered 89-minute VHS-rip (with English subtitles) has leaked to the web HERE. There is also a fan-made “restored version” (without subtitles) HERE that has a ninety-three minute running time. Also, for more detailed information about the creation of GODZILLA IL RE DEI MOSTRI, read this fantastic interview with Luigi Cozzi that Sci-Fi Japan posted back in 2009!