October is a monster month here at Akira Kurosawa info, for our film club will be discussing Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla (ゴジラ / Gojira), which features the titular gorilla-whale (gorira + kujira = gojira) that comes from the bottom of the sea to wreak havoc on Tokyo.
According to Inuhiko Yomota’s essay “The Menace from the South Seas” (reprinted in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, edited by Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer), from which most of my background knowledge of the film comes, the moving force behind the creation of Godzilla was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, whose over 200 production credits also include seven films directed by Kurosawa (from The Lower Depths to Kagemusha) as well as many written by him. The other central forces in the film’s creation included special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, who also worked on Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and whose work was much influenced by German Expressionism, screenwriter Takeo Murata and composer Akira Ifukube. Yomoto also notes that many of the people in the crew were veterans who had previously worked for Mikio Naruse.
Godzilla was directed and co-written by Ishiro Honda, who had previously been the principal director on eight feature films. Honda, who was born in 1910 just like Kurosawa, had apprenticed with Kurosawa under Kajiro Yamamoto and also helped him with the 1949 film Stray Dog. Honda and Kurosawa were lifelong friends, and although Honda retired from the film industry in the 1970s, he returned again to help Kurosawa with his last films from Kagemusha onwards.
It is therefore not particularly surprising that Godzilla has certain links with Kurosawa’s contemporary works, not least with Record of a Living Being (1955) that we have paired Godzilla with in our film club schedule. Both films were made at a time of increased worry in Japan about nuclear weapons tests conducted at the Pacific Ocean. The March 1954 Lucky Dragon 5 incident, which I also mentioned in my introduction to Record of a Living Being, had claimed the first Japanese nuclear bomb radiation casualties since the war. Honda’s film dealt with these fears through the metaphorical context of a monster film, while Kurosawa approached the topic more directly as a psychological drama.
Another Kurosawa film with which certain parallels can be drawn is Seven Samurai, released in the same year as Godzilla. In both films a community is threatened by overwhelming forces, and in both cases it is a character played by Takashi Shimura who leads the efforts to understand and fend off the aggressor. Incidentally, both films also feature Kokuten Kodo as a village elder.
However, and perhaps most importantly, Godzilla and Seven Samurai can both be viewed as a recollection of the wartime experience. This is especially true of Godzilla, which frequently references these memories.
When Godzilla was released, critical reception in Japan leaned towards the negative, but the film was nevertheless a major box office hit. It spawned numerous sequels and remakes, many of which directed by Honda, and the next of which is scheduled for 2014. Among the films that followed the original Godzilla is famously also Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956), which was an American re-edited and dubbed version of the original that also inserted a new character into the film, an American reporter played by Raymond Burr. This was the version most Americans first saw Godzilla in.
Godzilla was of course not the first monster film out there, with its predecessors including such classics as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). But perhaps the best companion film for Godzilla would be the 1953 Hollywood film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Released a year before Godzilla, the film features a story very similar to that of the Japanese film: a nuclear bomb test awakens a hibernating ancient dinosaur which makes its way to New York to smash things. There are, however, some rather interesting differences, including the fact that the beast in the American film is killed with more radioactivity, supposedly reinforcing the belief in the protective powers of the American nuclear arsenal. This is pretty much the opposite to the overall message in Godzilla, in which the character played by Shimura repeatedly considers the idea of using the monster to research how to survive the nuclear age, and in which the scientist goes on a suicide mission after destroying his work on the Oxygen Destroyer which, if left in the wrong (or, as the film puts it, “politician’s”) hands, will be weaponized for its destructive power comparable to that of the atomic bomb. To make sure that the message gets across, the film ends with a statement given by Shimura’s character, pleading us to end nuclear weapon tests.
Thanks to its cult following as well as the serious critical attention that the film began to gather years after its release, the availability of Godzilla on home video is fairly excellent, with region 1 best served with the trusty old Criterion (also on blu-ray), while BFI’s region 2 print is also generally available, although the subtitles could be better. For those down under, or otherwise dependent on region 4 discs, Madman has at least a box set available.
Next month, we move forward in our Kurosawa chronology and towards a more Shakespearean realm, with Throne of Blood on our schedule. For availability, see Kurosawa DVDs. Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptation will be followed in December by Orson Welles’s 1948 Macbeth. For the full film club schedule, see the film club page.
But as I said, October is a monster month. What’s your opinion of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla? Are you mesmerised, terrified and awe-inspired, or do you have trouble seeing the monster from the rubber suit? What do you think of the story, and how does Honda’s direction, including his use of the wipe cut, compare with Kurosawa? Where were you when you first saw Tokyo destroyed?