Godzilla (1954) in Tokyo

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The effect comes about from perspective, angle, shadow . . . .

The 1954 Godzilla was remastered, reprinted, and released in Tokyo today. The matinee screening I attended happened to have a Q and A with Akira Takarada, the lead actor. He told a few behind the scene stories and explained that the director and cinematographer had shot in a “Rembrandt” style of contrasting lights and darks, which we should be aware of while watching. He also underscored the usual reading of the film as the nuclear strike against Japan. He said we should try to place ourselves in the mindset of 1954 audience while watching. Doing so I noticed somethings which surprised me.

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. . . . but, as you see, looks can be deceiving.

March 8 and 9, 1945 the United States firebombed Tokyo killing 100,000 people (140,000 in total with other bombings on Tokyo during that period). That fact is often overshadowed by the nuclear bombings which killed 130,000.

Godzilla attacks Tokyo, not the southern cities. No doubt the nuclear powered Godzilla, and the images of people burned and dying in the streets, would have reminded many of the recent nuclear past, but it would have also been a vivid retelling of the fire bombings. Imagine a film about the twin towers falling being shown not even ten years after in New York. What would the destruction on screen mean and evoke for the people watching?

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The handprint of the lead actor in Godzilla, Akira Takarada. Notice the different stylings of Chinese characters.

In Japanese foreign words are changed into a different script called katakana. It’s a phonetic script so that hamburger would be “han ba ga” (ハンバーガー). Ideas and concepts which are absorbed into the culture are changed into Chinese characters, for example ‘baseball’ is changed into a Japanese word written in Chinese characters kyakyu (野球). In Japanese all the words connected to nuclear power have Japanese names, yet the weapon they build to defeat the monster in the movie is given an English name, the ‘oxygen destroyer’. The Japanese have appropriated the genie but put the allegorical weapon of even greater destruction is thrust back onto the Americans.

The film plays as three acts: a call to war, the battle, and the defeat. (No one wins in war.) A boat is attacked leading to a government investigation. Then another boat. Then an island. When we learn that there is a monster in the Pacific Ocean and the question the government debates is about trade routes — the very question that lead Japan into a war with the United States, the so called ABCD line. Then comes the war including civilians being vaporized by nuclear blasts and a poignant scene of a mother gathering up her three small children telling them they will all be with their father soon. More moving are the scenes after in the hospital which seemed modeled from photographs you’ll find in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorials. There is a weapon which can be used against Godzilla, but the scientist who develops it choses to detonate it himself with the monster, which reminded me of the kamikaze pilots and seemed almost a tribute to the men who sacrificed themselves to stop a threat in the Pacific Ocean.

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Godzilla (1954) is a time capsule of antiquated film techniques. To be honest I almost nodded off a couple of times. But the if you follow the advice of the lead actor and put yourself in the mindset of that 1954 audience you’ll see something much more than a man in a plastic suit.

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10 Comments on “Godzilla (1954) in Tokyo

  1. The Japanese monster movies were always my favorites when I was a kid. I haven’t yet seen the new Godzilla flick. I’ve read it was made with the blessing of those involved with the original film you’ve just seen. Only this time, San Francisco gets it bad, instead of Tokyo! Why is it we love seeing our own civilization destroyed in so many spectacular ways?

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    • Akira Takarada said that he was given a part in the movie, a cameo. I’m looking foreword to playing Where’s Waldo with him when it opens here.

      All the space aliens come to the US — Superman even relocated; we’re a magnet for the Apocalypse; and we’re ground zero for zombie attacks. America always at the forefront. 😉

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  2. You almost nodded off a couple of times because of the datedness of the production techniques, maybe ? Or because it simply wasn’t anything like today’s CGI ?
    Are you turning Japanese, Steven ? – “a tribute to the men who sacrificed themselves to stop a threat in the Pacific Ocean” … Not a terribly westernised version, eh ? 😉

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    • “You have to put yourself in the minds of the audience from 1954”, love. 😉 Besides, the men who were volunteered to fly those planes (it wasn’t their choice) either did what they believed was right or had no choice to step away.

      Actually, there have been several movies this past decade which deal with the kamikaze pilots. They’re good films which deal with young men who were forced to give up their lives to save their families. Not going in the planes would have meant their loved ones would have been ostracized, starved, and beaten to death. Oh, there’s a new animation called The Wind Also Rises which touches on war in a new way. You like animation?

      Godzilla was sluggish in places. For example, to show the mindset of the lead scientist, when he addresses the Diet (the Japanese congress) his tie was sticking out which he notices and corrects. It’s subtle but everyone watching understands that such a breech in protocol exposes the mindset for the character. Those devices in long extended shots are a bit tedious for my modern attention span of quick cuts which point out exactly what the narrator wants to communicate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That was so cool! I bet I’ve watched all the Godzilla movies a dozen times. 😀

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    • I love all those monster mashups. This one is the original. The “original” broadcast in the states is a recut with Raymond Burr, very different than this film.

      My favorites were always Mothera and Rodan. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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