Director: Ishirô Honda
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada
Plot: American nuclear weapons testing results in the creation of a seemingly unstoppable, dinosaur-like beast.
Genre: Drama / Horror / Sci-Fi
Rating: PG for some disturbing images.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Not many know that Ishiro Honda worked with the great Akira Kurosawa on numerous occasions as an assistant director in films such as Stray Dog (1949), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). Well, that is because he was much more famous for his legacy of kaiju (meaning ‘strange beast’) movies made from the 1950s to 1970s.
Honda's most influential work is none other than the original Gojira, a film that has, for better or worse, spawned thirty sequels, some of which have been directed by the man himself. It also 'inspired' the Hollywood remake Godzilla (1998) by Roland Emmerich that I shall say no more.
A filmmaker with a cult following, Honda has made spectacular special effects films for a select audience who revel in their campiness and sheer comic outrageousness. These are monster B-movies that go by the name of Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975).
Gojira, on the other hand, is considerably more serious, more A-movie-ish if you like. It is a black-and-white drama with a terrorizing monster, not a funny-looking monster in a pseudo-drama. Godzilla’s rampage across Tokyo is brilliantly constructed through photographic effects and the use of perspective to create a larger-than-life monster from what is essentially a perspiring man in a suit.
The use of shadows also enhances the monstrosity of the creature, creating horror and mystery in equal measure. Honda expertly combines matte paintings with model work, giving an illusion that everything is occurring as a single whole rather than through an amalgamation of separate techniques and forms. For its time, it is almost perfect, though some parts involving the collision or destruction of vehicle models break that illusion.
Gojira rises above the generic monster movie due to its searing postwar commentary, in particular the topic on the perils of using nuclear energy, which remains uncannily relevant in today’s context, especially with the recent Fukushima disaster. However, the commentary might feel too overt and preachy for some.
The last act suffers from poor pacing that is inconsistent from the first two acts. For much of the film, the editing is distinctly economical and fast-paced. But the final twenty-odd minutes feel too lengthy despite some strong rhetoric on the postwar situation and an underwater sequence that is quite excellent.
Gojira is a must-watch classic for fans of Godzilla or the monster movie. The opening titles with the creature’s frightening roar mixed with the main theme by Akira Ifukube will most certainly perk you up.
Verdict: A searing postwar commentary on the perils of nuclear energy packaged as a monster movie with special effects that were ahead of its time.
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