Godzilla has long stood as a universal symbol of destruction – a mighty metaphorical monstrosity whose roots are embedded so deep into the cultural zeitgeist that few corners of the world would be caught unfamiliar with the city-toppling beast. With over 28 films featuring his prehistoric personage, countless pop culture references and a slew of television, comics, video game, and toy appearances featuring the original kaiju, generation after generation have been clued into the lasting impact of this reptilian icon. But even with such a long line of successors, no film in its pantheon – or in the monster movie oeuvre at large – has left as large a footprint in the world of film and pop culture as Ishrio Honda‘s original 1954 Godzilla. Today, you may be able to pick out a man in a rubber suit but the satirical and tragic symbolism live on in robust, fiery glory.
Rialto Pictures have spearheaded this latest restoration in junction with the film’s 60th anniversary. Their previous endeavors have included such films as Breathless, The Battle of Algiers and The Third Man and have earned them the title of “gold standard of reissue distributors”. With their latest clean-up, the Godzilla of the past looks fit for the big screen again.
As all films age, they lose their original sparkle and dazzle. Not only does a shift towards new groundbreaking technology date older films in the context of the latest and greatest but the original material itself loses its cinematic punch over time. Sound gets stuck in its throat, pictures fuzz and skip, the film becomes washed out. Like a debutante out of her prime, it sags. You’ll be happy to hear then that this newest makeover of Godzilla looks and sounds, quite simply, rip roaring. The bellows have bark, the black-and-white cinematography has bite and the picture, all captured in gloriously old-fashion Academy ratio, is as epic as ever. Though some larger scale set pieces look like they could have been filmed in a sudsy bathtub, the chaotic swirl of Honda’s camera locks you tight in the moment. Dated or no, Godzilla is still a behemoth to behold.
For those who’ve never actual seen the film, a quick plot synopsis. When a skiff full of fishermen sinks into the sea under mysterious circumstances – with a bubbling vortex reminiscent of a Kraken’s turning the crew to screaming jetsam – authorities are left baffled, and wives and children are left to cry and swoon. As the town seeks an answer, only an elderly islander can rightly identify the beast lurking in their waters. Godzilla, he mutters. Godzilla.
As the buzz of rumors swarm the town, Godzilla finally reveals himself a fire-breathing menace to the scurrying populace of Japan’s coastal regions and greatest cities. A tangential subplot involving young Japanese maiden Emiko and her beloved, but not betrothed, salvager, Hideto Ogata, takes us through the human end of this larger-than-life saga. As Hideto and Emiko flirt around revealing their forbidden love to Emiko’s archeologist father, Serizawa, to whom Emiko is engaged, invents a weapon capable of bringing down the beast that’s bringing down their city. Young love lives in one corner while mass destruction is pondered a few doors down. The juxtaposition of such youthful hope against calloused calamity feeds the tension to Serizawa’s conundrum. If he is to use the likes of such a catastrophic weapon, it would unveil a new level of destructive prowess to the world’s already thirsty superpowers. But the alternative involves the likely death and destruction of his entire country. Decisions, decisions.
This junction of themes of war-time morality, superstitious mythology and thoughtful historical reflection are set against a Japan decidedly haunted by Big Boy. Godzilla even looks like a nightmarish atomic bomb personified. Unnaturally pot-bellied and rounded out like the ghastly hourglass of the world’s most destructive weapon, his figure itself portends destruction.
As a metaphor for WWII-era America, the beastly, thoughtless rampager seems less a condemnation of Japan’s former enemies than an admission of invitation. Honda’s is a film that doesn’t place blame on the enemy for Japan’s history. Rather, Honda takes head-hanging responsibility for Japan’s great calamity. Godzilla is a dark beast awoken, his vengeance hot, his destruction wanton but warranted. Honda’s song is solemn and ponderous, his voice rings through Serizawa’s soulful mantra. There’s a remorseful sense of deservedness to Honda’s waxing morality.
Gojira (Japan’s word for Godzilla) is a hybrid of two Japanese words: gorira, meaning gorilla, and kujira, meaning whale. Originally, Godzilla was seen as a whale-like figure come to roam Japan’s shorelines after a bout of radioactive alteration. It seems a far cry from the spiny, T-Rex-like monster we’re familiar with today, but Godzilla does live on as a whale of a property. With a new version to hit theaters on May 16 of this year and who knows how many more on the horizon, we’re left hoping that the spirit of Honda’s brooding black-and-white monsterpiece can be replicated, or at least properly homaged going into the future. For those who are longtime fans or still unfamiliar with this original classic, be sure to make it out to see Godzilla roam the big screen. Otherwise, you might have to wait for the 75th or, God forbid, 100th anniversary.