Godzilla (1954) in Tokyo
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.
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?
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.
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.