The Ones That Started It All: Gojira and The Return of Gojira

With this weekend's anticipated release of Godzilla, Andrew breaks down the films that started it all.

"Must. Destroy."
With the recent release of Gareth Edwards' hotly anticipated re-imagining of one of the world's most famous movie monsters of all time, it's inevitable for critics to reflect on the big fella's grassroots and why his existence is as important today as it was in 1954 for Japanese audiences.  With this I decided to look back not at the 30+ entries that led the beast to where he is now, nor do I wish to discuss American cinema's disastrous attempt at re-filming the monster with 1998's Roland Emmerich bomb.  Rather, the fear and awe I felt in the initial trailer for 2014's “Godzilla” was something I hadn't felt since I saw “Godzilla 1985” (the American-ized version of “The Return of Gojira”).  Somehow, Gareth Edwards understood what it was about “Gojira” and “The Return of Gojira” that resonated with audiences around the world.  “Godzilla” isn't so much a classic movie monster deeply entrenched in Japanese culture and franchise icon as it is a metaphor for the horrors of steadily advancing technological warfare and nuclear holocaust.  At once a special effects phenomenon and a downbeat rumination on post WWII-Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both films capture the stark terror of witnessing a tornado or tidal wave firsthand while lamenting our own complicity in the creation of the disaster.  With this, let us move forward with a reflection on the two Japanese kaiju movies that saw the beast emerging from the mushroom cloud.

Gojira (1954 – directed by Ishiro Honda)

Ishiro Honda's “Gojira” is the one that started it all, second to King Kong as the penultimate monster movie.  It's at once a spectacle of special effects miniatures depicting the rise and fall of a giant radioactive amphibian wreaking havoc on Japan as well as a tragic metaphor for the Japanese man transformed by the aftermath of the nuclear bomb.  It announces itself with the simplicity of thundering stomps followed by the creature's great death roar (created by a slowed down recording of a violin) as the title cards unfold, striking terror into the hearts of all who hear it for the first time.  The movie opens on a series of bizarre flashes of light which consume a number of fishing boats and ships near them.  Villagers blame the disappearance of the ships on a mythical sea creature they call Gojira (renamed 'Godzilla' by US distributors).  Soon giant footprints, creatures extinct since the Cretaceous and finally the creature itself turn up.  Concluding the creature is the result of nuclear testing, orders are dispatched to destroy the creature which ultimately prove to be futile, as the beast bulldozes over Tokyo, Japan night after night, leaving in it's wake a hellscape of death and destruction.  Only a scientist secretly developing an ultimate weapon of destruction holds the key to kill Gojira, but will he be convinced to allow his deadly toy to be put to use before the creature wipes out everyone and everything?
"You see that? I think it's giant poop."

While many reflect on 'Gojira' as the charming science fiction monster movie classic that spawned an entire franchise of increasingly silly kaiju battle movies of the creature doing dance moves, using his tail to fly, or using his fire breath to fly in the air, many who see 'Gojira' for the first time will be surprised at just how profoundly depressing and bleak the thing really is.  While yes the visual effects by today's standards are hokey (and according to Roger Ebert, beneath the quality of other visual effects bonanzas released before and around the same time), for Japanese audiences, many relived the experience of witnessing the atom bomb being dropped firsthand.  The aftermath, with long dolly shots of Tokyo in flames and ruin, accompanied by scenes of Japanese civilians bloodied and bruised in hospitals as young crying children clinging to their dead parents, can't help but tug at our basic human emotions and remind of the destructive power of nuclear war.  The creature itself, with its coarse scales and reptilian eyes, could be read as the Japanese man stricken with cancer having been burned by nuclear fire and radiation fallout.  An evocative score by Akira Ifukube, alternately epic in action scope, dread of the beast, and finally, somber as a requiem, works furiously to run the audience through a gamut of emotions and ultimately drain the viewer dry.  The ultimate tragedy of Gojira is the acknowledgment that humanity itself is responsible for the surrounding apocalypse and maybe, just maybe, a notion that Japanese pride in the face of the enemy deserved every bit of Hell the creature brought upon them.  In the age of Japan still without renunciation for their involvement in the second World War, it's a remarkably anti-war statement, blaming both advancing technological warfare and finally themselves for courting the warfare in the first place. 
Lastly, the greatest source of inspiration to Gojira goes back to an incident known as 'The Unluckiest Dragon' about a Japanese fishing boat named 'Lucky Dragon 5' that happened to be near a US testing site for the Hydrogen Bomb.  Due to a miscalculation based on how many megatons were being used, many believed to be in the safety zone (including the Lucky Dragon 5) were subject to radiation poisoning.  Fish and livestock within range were transformed by the blast, and overwhelming fear of the unpredictable nature of nuclear arms as well as national regard for the testing as thoughtless and uncaring, began to take shape in Japanese public opinion.  Clearly, the Unluckiest Dragon was there on the wall for the filmmakers to run away with, functioning as the inspiration and subtle reminder of the tragic incident that claimed the lives of those who were aboard 'Lucky Dragon 5'. 

The Return of Gojira (1985 – directed by Koji Hashimoto)

"We're going to make
beautiful babies....

In the years since Ishiro Honda's 1954 creation, 'Gojira' in the process of thirty-something sequels depicting the beast battling other monsters (guys in rubber suits) against a fake miniature backdrop, devolved far from the terrifying beast he once was.  By this point, the big fella had become something of a clown figure, culminating in the ridiculous children's movie 'Godzilla's Revenge'.  After 1975's “Terror of Mechagodzilla”, which depicted yet another “Destroy All Monsters” kind of epic monster fight, the beast was shelved until 1985 when Toho Studios proposed a return to the dark and brooding 'Gojira' that first appeared in 1954.  An offer was made to Ishiro Honda to bring the beast back to his depressing glory, but the decline of the creature's image soiled Honda's interest in the project and the closest he would come to rekindling the classic imagery of nuclear fears found its way into 'Mount Fuji in Red', a segment Honda directed for “Akira Kurosawa's Dreams”.  The task of directing eventually went to Koji Hashimoto and thus began Toho's attempt to rehabilitate their beloved monster's image.

Serving as a direct sequel to the 1954 film, ignoring all of the sequels in between, 'The Return of Gojira' once again finds a fishing boat bearing witness to the blinding nuclear flashes of the beast rising from a rocky mountain and roaring to life.  A news reporter stumbles upon the boat and rescues its one remaining passenger, who reports to the press that Gojira appears to have returned.  Afraid of creating panic, the story is withheld from the public until a secondary incident involving Gojira destroying a Russian submarine, thus creating tensions between the US and USSR (germane to the time the film was made).  In an effort to ease tensions, the news is broken that Gojira is in fact back and is heading for Tokyo.  A proposal to use nuclear arms is made by the US and USSR to Japan, who flatly refuses any involvement in, fearing it would only feed the creature rather than destroy it.  Eventually, the beast appears upon Japan and thus begins his destructive onslaught.  Scientists studying the creature from afar discover a link between Gojira and birds, as the beast aborts his evisceration of a nuclear factory to pursue a flock of seagulls nearby.  This is the first time it's suggested the beast might in fact be a dinosaur, as endless paleontological studies have shown a clear evolution between the prehistoric creatures and the airborne egg-laying vertebrates which greet our every morning. 

"MMMM.....I can't stop.....eating...
While notably darker in tone as well as restoring the creature's impersonal regard for the destruction he's wreaking, 'The Return of Gojira' doesn't quite reach the gloomy depths of its 1954 predecessor.  A scene of the beast blasting a hovering helicopter with a fireball, cutting to a shot of the airplane falling next to a 'Ghostbusters' poster, seem to suggest the film is something of a 'Gojira-for-the-Ghostbusters-generation'.  It's fun at times, with some comic relief added in involving a bum mouthing off to the beast about the city not being big enough for the both of them.  Curiously, upon Americanization (which once again brings Raymond Burr into the picture), a scene involving a Russian officer attempting to stop the launch of a nuclear bomb upon Tokyo was re-edited to make it seem as though he were trying to launch the bomb, exacerbating the tension between the US and USSR at the time of its release.  Even more curious is the fact that of all the Gojira films released in the United States on DVD, 'The Return of Gojira' is the only Gojira entry yet to garner an official US release.  Perhaps with the release of the new 'Godzilla' film by Gareth Edwards, we will finally be granted 'The Return of Gojira' on home video (beyond old VHS tapes and laserdiscs of 'Godzilla 1985').  As for now and for those who have managed to see it, 'The Return of Gojira' is a somewhat successful attempt at reminding audiences of what it was that catapulted the creature into pop cultural consciousness in the first place.

-Andrew Kotwicki