Arguably one of the most popular monsters in the history of cinema, Godzilla turns 60 this year. He’s gone through many changes over the years, but he made his first appearance in the Japanese film Gojira, directed by Ishiro Honda and released onto the screen in 1954. The film was released through Toho Co., Ltd., beginning the studio’s longtime association with the character over 28 movies. The film’s tale was a cautionary one, delving into the impact on the environment caused by the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. Godzilla was a giant prehistoric creature awakened by these nuclear blasts, causing him to rise up and wreak havoc on the modern world. Gojira was the first of many films featuring kaiju (giant monsters), and has inspired a wide range of giant beasties to trounce cities into rubble, including many who would later appear on the screen next to Godzilla. Among these was the flying pterodactyl like Rodan (1956) and the giant moth Mothra (1961).
Gojira’s plot was fairly straightforward, beginning with the destruction of a fishing boat off of Odo Island. A scientist, Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), goes to investigate, finding giant footprints containing a prehistoric creature called a trilobite and registering as radioactive. He witnesses the creature coming ashore and destroying a native village, and returns to Tokyo, where the public cries out for ways to destroy the creature. Yamane wants to study it instead, but the people persist. Meanwhile, Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), is seeking to break off her engagement with a colleague of her father’s, the brilliant scientist Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), as she has fallen in love with the captain of a salvage ship, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). In speaking to Serizawa, Emiko is shown the product of his latest research, a device that destroys oxygen in water. As this human drama unfolds, Godzilla enters Tokyo Bay and proceeds to destroy the city, despite the best efforts of the military to stop him. In the end, Serizawa is convinced to use his oxygen destroyer to attempt to kill the monster, in a fairly emotional scene as he listens to a children’s choir sing over the radio. He and Ogata descend into the ocean, where Serizawa sacrifices himself while using the oxygen destroyer. We see Godzilla reduced to a skeleton on the bottom of the sea, presumably the end of the creature. The movie still holds up fairly well, enhanced by the terrific musical score by Akira Ifukube, which gave us Godzilla’s iconic theme that would be used across his many movies.
With the success of Gojira in Japan, TransWorld Releasing Corp. decided to bring the film over to the United States. In order to make things more relatable to American audiences, extra scenes featuring actor Raymond Burr playing reporter Steve Martin were inserted into the Japanese film. The movie was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and hit American theaters on April 27, 1956. The film was a modest success with American audiences, the first post-World War 2 movie to show Japanese characters in a heroic and sympathetic light as they dealt with the disaster befalling the city of Tokyo. The film definitely has a different feel to it, even though the original cast from Gojira were used in interacting with Burr’s character. Terry O. Morse came in to direct the scenes featuring Burr, and shares a directing credit with Ishiro Honda on the film. The film ended more or less the same, but had Burr uttering some narration over the final scene, saying, “The menace was gone, and so was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.”
That it could. But as it will be seen, you can’t keep a good movie monster down. Stay tuned for our next installment in this month long salute to Godzilla, King of the Monsters.
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