Paleontologist Dr. Yamane Kyohei (Shimura Takashi) and his daughter Emiko (Kochi Momoko). © Toho Co. Ltd. Dr. Yamane wants to study Godzilla, but is that too dangerous in the face of the death and destruction it can cause?

The original 1954 Godzilla has been touring again as part of the ‘BFI Japan 2021: A Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema’ season which runs until December. The programme has been less accessible than other large scale events because of the pandemic, but screenings on BFI Player have been possible if like me, people yet haven’t got back into cinemas. These seasons have proved to be something of a mixed blessing I think. On the one hand they have certainly introduced new audiences to classic films. I’m exhilarated by the happy tweets of younger cinephiles seeing Seven Samurai for the first time. But there is also some regret that the opportunity to really explore a great national film culture has been limited.

The BFI has distribution rights to both a 35mm film print and a DVD of Godzilla. It has been on BFI Player, I think, but is currently not available. Keith posted something on the screening of the 35mm print in 2018 (find it here). I don’t need to repeat Keith’s analysis but I watched the film recently and noted a number of aspects that surprised me, especially in the reception of the film at the time.

Wikipedia tells me that since the 1954 film there have been 31 Toho Godzilla films as well as four Hollywood films, the latest in 2021. I wrote about the 2014 Hollywood version that claimed to be the closest to the original. However, my knowledge of ‘monster movies’ is limited to the original King Kong (1933) and these two Godzilla films. I’m not so interested in the genre as such or the franchise so here it is the ‘moment’ of 1954 which intrigues me and which has not been much discussed. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that in 1954 Toho released 68 films, including the three biggest-budget Japanese films up that date – Seven Samurai, Godzilla and Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto.(Thanks to the ‘Toho Kingdom’ website for details on this.) This shows the amazing resilience of the Japanese film industry and its biggest studio in recovering from the wartime period and the post-war ‘re-adjustment’. Japan had the world’s biggest industry in the 1930s and again in the 1950s.

What is also important to realise is that control over scripts in Japan had only just ended in 1952 with the withdrawal of the Allied (i.e. American) Occupation forces. This is particularly relevant for Godzilla. In 1955 Toho sold the rights to create an American version of the film to Edmund Goldman and later Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures would become involved. (Levine would later buy the rights Hercules from Italy in 1959 in a similar profitable move.) The US version cut the original film quite savagely, dubbed much of the Japanese into English and inserted a new angle in which Raymond Burr (who appeared in Hitchcock’s Rear Window in 1954) is an American journalist reporting on the monster’s rampage in Tokyo. The deletions seemingly removed all references to nuclear war and its impact on the Japanese population, reducing the film to a monster pic and not much more. The revised film, titled Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956) then moved into first North American and then international distribution. The original film wasn’t seen outside Japan until 2004. The obvious point to make is that the inference in the film that Godzilla is in some way a beast re-activated by radiation and that its formidable weapon is the ‘atomic breath’ it creates from nuclear energy, is a direct anti-American statement. But I think it goes much further than that.

The American poster for the dubbed and recut version in 1956

The beginning of the 1954 Godzilla sees a ship sunk by what at first appears as some kind of underwater explosion with sailors blinded by a giant flash. It was seen by Japanese audiences as a reference to a Japanese fishing vessel which was contaminated by radiation from an American nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in March 1954. I note too that when the handsome young salvage ship captain Ogata is summoned to the Maritime Safety Bureau, he must abandon his girlfriend Emiko and his ticket for a recital of the Budapest String Quartet – an interesting juxtaposition of war and culture. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned directly in the dialogue of the film, but in a sense they aren’t needed since the scenes of chaos and destruction and the overcrowded hospitals and disorientated crowds after Godzilla’s attacks make the same point in visual images alone. These memories of just nine years earlier would be very fresh in the minds of audiences. It also strikes me that Japan has a history of disasters, both associated with fire and with danger from the sea. The great earthquake and subsequent fire in Tokyo in September 1923 killed more than 140,000 people and destroyed many buildings, including film facilities and archives. In recent times the tsunami and nuclear power station disaster at Fukushima in 2011 demonstrated that the vulnerability of Japan still exists. This underlying theme throughout Godzilla would have been problematic for any American film release with the continuing programme of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. It’s also worth remembering that the UK began testing nuclear devices in the Pacific not far from the Americans in what is now Kiribati in 1957 and 1958. The American Godzilla arrived in the UK in December 1956 and was in general release by March 1957. I note that The Tatler carried a short review that identified Godzilla as a monster “which hydrogen-bomb experiments have driven from its sea-bed lair and made radio-active”. It seems that the American version didn’t totally remove the inferences.

The old man on Odo island repeats the local folklore

There are two other aspects of the film that interest me. The first is the early sequence on Odo Island (a fictional island) where a leading palaeontologist, Dr. Yamane Kyohei arrives on a mission to investigate sightings of Godzilla. Dr. Yamane is played by Shimura Takashi, who was also the leader of the Seven Samurai in 1954. His small team and its press entourage meet one of the old men of the island who tells the legend of Godzilla and suggests that the islanders need to sacrifice a young woman or else the fish will not return and the people will lose their only income. This is a familiar generic device in horror stories, raising folkloric traditions, but it also points to one of the features of this kind of Japanese film which brings together old and new, ancient and modern. If the man is in his seventies, he would have been born in the 1880s in the period when Japan was rapidly industrialising and modernising, but when remote fishing villages were still part of a culture that had changed little in the 250 years of the Tokugawa period.

Dr Yamane travels to Odo

The expectation might be that Dr. Yamane is to become the protagonist in the narrative, but fairly quickly he is sidelined as the younger characters come to the fore. Emiko is Yamane’s daughter and a few brief scenes see her interaction with her father which matches scenes in the family melodramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other directors of the period. This doesn’t develop but it links directly to the fate of the people displaced by Godzilla’s appearance and the disruption caused in the Tokyo Bay region. Emiko is in a relationship with Captain Ogata but she is also recovering from an earlier relationship with Dr. Serizawa Daisuke, the young scientist who is believed to have discovered a weapon that could stop Godzilla. Emiko finds herself caught between three men with different ideas about how to respond to the emergency. The script cleverly uses a set of family relationships and a romantic struggle for Emiko to drive the narrative forward to its conclusion with Ogata and Serizawa working together.

The four principal characters prepare for the finale. Dr Serizawa (Hirata Akihiko) is wearing the eye-patch
Emiko and Captain Ogata (Takarada Akira)

I was impressed by the script which manages to weave a serious discourse about scientific work, politics and international relations through the action narrative of evacuations, military mobilisation and media coverage. OK, the special effects are limited but the narrative still has power. Just like Seven Samurai, which remains one of the best action films ever made, Godzilla deserves its status as the classic monster movie. Director Honda Ishirô, co-writer Murata Takeo  and the whole cast and crew deserve to be celebrated.