On November 3rd, 1954, Godzilla rampaged across Japanese movie screens for the very first time. Though critics lambasted the film, it was a hit with the public and this product of Japan's experience with the atomic age went on to become one of their biggest cultural exports ever. Not only did it prompt Toho to make more effects films but it single-handedly began the tradition of Japanese tokusatsu (special effects).
Today, 54 years later, it is still revered as one of the best films created in Japan, often considered to be second only to Akira Kurosawa's untouchable masterpiece, Seven Samurai. Though his popularity is waning along with the popularity of the kaiju genre in general, Godzilla still remains a huge icon of pop culture.
Now I'm not going to delve too much into the minutiae of the production or symbolism of this film very much here because not only have those subjects been beaten to death many times already, there are many people far more qualified to talk about it than I am. They have, actually -- I'd recommend picking up issue #10 of Japanese Giants if you're even the least bit interested as it is a fantastic read and probably the most comprehensive English-language material on the production of this film.
Allow me, instead, to reminisce a bit.
When I was three I was huge into dinosaurs. I mean really huge. I lived and breathed them, played with them, slept with them, ate with them. My dream for several years of my early childhood was to become a paleontologist, actually - something that's probably pretty standard for childhood fans of giant monsters. I remember one day in particular when I'd accompanied my mother to the video store and I recall insisting for her to let me check out - ah, some cartoon. Anyway, she decided instead that Godzilla King of the Monsters would make the better weekend entertainment. I, uh, kind of pitched a fit.
. . . Until we sat down to watch it and I was totally transfixed, mesmerized by this strange new beast I was being exposed to. Given how obsessed with Godzilla I would become. . . I think my mom has regretted that decision ever since.
Later I would get my first chance to see the original Japanese Godzilla in 2004, the year of its 50th anniversary of release - on my birthday, no less! Needless to say, I was blown away. It was possibly the best birthday present I've ever gotten.
Re-watching this film again a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by the raw, emotional power it has. I often get incredulous looks from people when I admit that Godzilla makes me cry and while I understand the uneducated response (Godzilla makes you cry?!), the film is filled with moments that really tear you up inside. This is doubly true for me now that I have visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. While the movie may ostensibly be about a giant monster on the loose in Japan, take the monster away and you're left with an eerie recreation of a firebombed Tokyo or ground zero after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts. The scenes depicting the dead and dying in makeshift hospitals look less like they were staged and more like they were lifted directly out of photographs of the ruined cities. The effect of all this is both tragic and frightening.
Toho never made another film quite like this one. Don't get me wrong, Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), and Mothra (1961) are excellent, excellent flights of fantasy with strong themes all their own but Godzilla is something else entirely. None of their other films have the same raw emotion or the same gravity that Honda's pleas for peace instill in Godzilla. This is further augmented by the stark, black and white cinematography, as well as Akira Ifukube's bleak, driving, lo-fi score - in my opinion a scored he never topped. Yes, he wrote better stand-alone tracks for future films but as a single, unified score, none of his others come close. Godzilla's theme is thunderous and frantic, the military's brassy and proud, and the "Prayer for Peace" that plays over the sequences depicting the smoldering wreckage of Tokyo is nothing short of heart-wrenching.
Later, of course, our radioactive friend would slowly morph from this terrifying destroyer into a hero, defending the planet from a plethora of colorful adversaries. Some may find these later films silly and a large part of them are - but so much fun! Still, they certainly don't appeal to everyone. That said, I do feel that everyone ought to at least give the original Godzilla a watch, regardless of how they may feel about the rest of the series. It is a fantastic film that deserves more recognition.
Happy birthday, Godzilla.
* * *
By the way, you can pop over to my personal blog, An Empire Generic, and check out the art I drew in celebration of my favorite movie star's birthday. And that one was actually finished on the right day too.
Author's note: A thousand apologies for this being so late.