Burnin’ Down the House of the Rising Sun: Godzilla and Humble Beginnings

It’s the same old story. A film is made for the purpose of entertaining solely in that runtime, the story ending with the credits. But then the money talks and… well you know the rest. Sequels, along with remakes, are a major part of the evil that is Hollywood today. The studios are more concerned with making money by exploiting the public’s erroneous stupidity rather than making good films. Now, granted, there are a lot of good films being made today. But the overall product that Hollywood continues to churn out every year is very disconcerting. The current money making trends are military dramas, such as American Sniper and 13 Hours, faith based films, such as the upcoming Risen and The Young Messiah, and, of course, the generic, factory produced bore fests known as superhero movies.[1] These movies are, most of the time, utterly devoid of worth or entertainment. I go out of my way to avoid these movies and see the good films being put out, such as the recently released Hail, Caesar! or the upcoming films The Witch or Keanu. So there is still hope for Hollywood’s future. The fatigue is coming, which will then start new, hopefully more rewarding trends. Anyways, a film is made as a film and then it makes money, dooming it for sequels. There is probably no better example for how an original film has been exploited this way than Godzilla.

Godzilla was a film that meant a lot for the Japanese culture of 1954. Less than a decade after the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was crippled not only by radioactive fallout and economic depression, but also hungered for a pop culture resurgence. This resurgence would come in the form of two movie genres: the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and kaiju films. Kaiju films are specifically unique to Japan, drawing from the success of American monster movies such as The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms. Kaiju films have become a pop culture mainstay, being laughed at and even parodied by the phenomena known as Kaiju Big Battel, which is a combination of kaiju monsters and pro wrestling that need to be seen to be believed.[2] All of this zany mayhem comes from one source: the original Godzilla.

            Godzilla opens with the mysterious sinking of several freighters near Odo Island. A team of researchers and reporters are sent to Odo Island, where they encounter a 164 foot tall dinosaur that soon escapes into the sea. The findings of the team are soon presented in Tokyo, where the dinosaur is dubbed Gojira (Godzilla in English) after a Japanese tradition. The human characters are a big part of the film, as most of the sequels would attempt to follow. Zoologist Yamane, his daughter Emiko, her fiancée Ogata, and the eye patch wearing Dr. Serizawa are the main four. Yamane wants to keep Godzilla alive to perform research, which is contrary to the belief of the Japanese government and citizens. Godzilla soon makes its way to Tokyo, where it performs total destruction. Dr. Serizawa is soon forced to have to use the Oxygen Destroyer, which, when put in water, will kill any living animals present. He takes it to the bottom of Tokyo Bay and activates it, killing himself and Godzilla.

            The film has very little plot and focuses more on the destruction of Godzilla. It is well known that Godzilla represents nuclear weapons and their effect on the environment and humanity. Godzilla itself is said to have been awakened or created by the testing of nuclear weapons, which is akin to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, which occurred the very same year that Godzilla was released. Godzilla’s wake of destruction is similar to the dropping of an atom bomb, making for very disturbing and realistic scenes of aftermath. Godzilla is portrayed by a man in a rubber suit, which looks very good even for today’s standards in this film. The suit is shot from low angles and is shrouded by smoke and models, accomplishing not only a sense of realism but also breathtaking black and white visuals.

Godzilla received mixed reviews in Japan at the time, its critics saying that it exploited the devastation that Japan was enduring after World War II, even though the film was using that as its message. It was reedited in America into the film Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which was also dubbed into English and starred Raymond Burr. The film immediately spawned a sequel the next year titled Godzilla Raids Again, where Godzilla fights a monster called Anguirus. There was an eight year hiatus that seemed to be the end of Godzilla, until King Kong vs. Godzilla. After that, there has been sequel after sequel, totaling in at 28 Japanese films and 2 Hollywood films, as well as comic books, television shows, toys, and other merchandise. Godzilla will literally not die. There are also the other kaiju monsters that gained popularity after Godzilla, such as Mothra and Rodan, who starred in their own films.

Godzilla is a reluctant success story, having transcended its original film by light years to become a pop culture icon. But that was not at all the intention of Ishiro Honda, the film’s director, who would go on to direct many more Godzilla films. Godzilla was made with the humble qualities of a serious drama about a problem that threatens humanity. It was made in the wake of unforgiving destruction that was affecting every single Japanese citizen. It was made not only to entertain but to also, I think, show other countries what Japan was going through. Even though the Japanese committed heinous acts during World War II, Godzilla shows the consequences of their actions, no matter how deserving. It is a crowning achievement of what a metaphor can do.

I recommend this film for a glimpse of post-WWII Japan the fear of the future. It is not always entertaining, however, as the human storylines tend to drag on a bit too long. Godzilla is not full of the whack a doodle clichés that pervade through the sequels, which is both positive and negative. Three and a half stars out of five.

[1] The superhero fatigue set in for me a while ago. I’m looking at you Marvel, you self-important stooges.

[2] Rather than explain it further myself, let this video give you a glimpse into the madness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SU8J7o4kHu8