Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954, Japan)

Ishiro Honda's 1954 Godzilla launched the longest running film franchise in history. It is hard to overstate the enduring legacy of the Godzilla character. In contrast to later films in the franchise, I was surprised to find that Honda's original Godzilla has a gritty and bleak quality to it. In far contrast to later, goofier entries of the franchise, the original film is clearly a reflection on the nuclear age, and the imagery featured in the film - burned bodies, demolished cities - cannot be viewed outside of the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those events happened less than ten years earlier than the film, and one can tell that the people in the film lived through them.

     Honda's film is an examination on the uses of nuclear weapons, and the potentially disastrous consequences. The Godzilla figure would likely have been something else - he is a symbolic stand-in. His id-like nature, the fact that he destroys everything in his path, evoked the anxiety at the heart of the nuclear age. While Honda's film is perhaps known for its visual and creature effects, there are many other aspects of the film which stand out. One in particular is Akira Ifukube's score, which contains the first use of the iconic "Main Title" or Godzilla theme. The film also features a number of great performances, including long-term Akira Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura as the paleontologist Kyohei Yamane.

    There is a solemnity to the film. The scene in which the choir of girls sing the "Prayer for Peace" is deeply moving. Likewise the scenes of families dying together are moving. The American version of the film was heavily edited, and received the introduction of Ray Milland as an American narrating the events. Many imitations followed the original Godzilla, including Gorgo in the UK, Reptilicus in Denmark, and Yongary in Korea. It was a true phenomenon.


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