I was in the mood for watching something different. This film seemed to fit the bill: the first old Japanese film I’ve seen that wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa, and the first monster movie I’ve reviewed on this blog.
Godzilla (1998, the Hollywood version) was a film I didn’t watch for many years after its release, despite the fact that some Indian TV channel or the other was always showing it. Then, I happened to go on a monster movie binge, and ended up watching it. (More, later in this post, about what I thought of it). Importantly, Godzilla encouraged me to look out for the original Japanese film.
Gojira doesn’t appear onscreen in its own film for the first few minutes—but the devastation caused by some unknown force is splashed across the screen within less than a minute after the credits. The story begins on a freighter, on a quiet day. The sailors are going about their work, and some are lounging around, playing a guitar, singing, reading newspapers… when the surface of the sea starts churning.
Before they know it, the sailors are running, terror-stricken. Waves rise, the freighter is in flames, and the men in the radio room just have enough time to send out a distress signal, before they too are killed by whatever has hit the boat.
Back at the control tower, that distress signal—followed by the loss of all contact with the sunken freighter—makes the officer on duty immediately depute another freighter to go and search. The results are disastrous; exactly the same thing happens to this boat too. It sinks, but in this case, there are three survivors. Bruised and battered and barely able to keep themselves afloat on a bit of flotsam, the three sailors are rescued by fishermen from nearby Odo Island.
The entire population of the fishing village on Odo has gathered to see the rescued sailors being brought in, and they’re there when the last of the men dies in the arms of his rescuers. He’s only had time to gasp out the fact that they were attacked by some monster.
That’s a startling piece of news, and the villagers try to nervously laugh it off. One of the old men of the village gravely declares that this is certainly Gojira, a mythical monster. When some reporters arrive in a helicopter, he repeats the legend to them too.
The old man explains that whenever, in the long-distant past, the catch from the sea dipped (as it has, recently), Gojira has surfaced and wreaked havoc on land. To pacify Gojira, there used to be a tradition of sending out to sea, as a sacrifice, a young maiden. Those days, he hastens to add, are now gone, of course. But he has no suggestions to offer on what may be done to pacify Gojira.
That night, during a storm, Gojira attacks the village. The panic-stricken villagers cower in their homes (or, in some tragic cases, run out and are killed). Nobody is quite certain exactly what it is that has descended upon them—it is dark, the earth is shaking, their houses are falling apart, and there’s mayhem. The reporters’ helicopter is smashed to bits.
The next day, after word reaches Tokyo, the village is visited by a group of researchers. This is headed by the venerable zoologist and paleontologist Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura). With the professor is his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) and Ogata (Akira Takarada), the captain of a salvage ship—and the man whom Emiko loves, despite the fact that her father has bullied her into agreeing to marry someone else.
As they examine the ruins of the village, Professor Yamane makes some disturbing and puzzling finds. Water in the wells in the village shows a high level of radiation (while the wells on the other side of the island are uncontaminated). Water in puddles along the street—through which the worst of the devastation has happened—is also radioactive. And in one of the puddles Yamane finds something very astounding indeed: a trilobite, a 200-million year old creature, known only from its fossils.
They’re still puzzling over the trilobite when the alarm is raised: Gojira has appeared on the other side of the hill! Everybody, scientists, researchers, even villagers [a doughty lot, these Japanese] rush off up the hill to get a closer look at the creature. It’s terrifying [if you overlook the fact that this isn’t CGI], more than 160 feet tall, something straight out of the Jurassic period. There is a sudden and precipitate retreat, much screaming, and panic, but the creature goes away.
Yamane returns to Tokyo to report his findings. At a major conference, he gives a brief explanation about dinosaurs, trilobites, the Jurassic age, etc, and concludes that Gojira is a gigantic marine reptile of the subsequent, Cretaceous period. As evidence, he shows samples of radioactive sand which can be traced to Cretaceous strata in the seabed; he also shows the trilobite, which has come from the same source, dredged up by Gojira.
But how has Gojira stayed alive all these many millennia? How and why has it surfaced now? Yamane suggests that H-bomb radiation in the area has made Gojira rise out of the depths in which it’s been concealed all this while.
Yamane, however, is also not very encouraging when it comes to solutions. How can this terrible giant lizard be destroyed? Well, says Yamane, if Gojira withstood the H-bomb, it’s hardly likely to be affected by whatever they now throw at it.
Of course, nobody’s willing to accept that, so armed frigates are sent out to drop depth charges and put an end to Gojira once and for all. The result? Nothing. No seas of blood, no floating dead reptile. Despite that, almost everybody seems to be lulled into a sense of contentment: things are well, Gojira is dead.
[Yamane could well be renamed Cassandra, and no questions asked.]
Soon, Gojira is terrorizing Tokyo, upturning trains, crushing houses, setting fire (with its ‘atomic breath’) to entire streets, and massacring people. Hospitals and shelters are flooded with refugees and the wounded. The government is getting frantic: how can this seemingly invincible monster be stopped? Can it be stopped? Or is Japan doomed?
In the midst of this, people are battling their own personal problems, too. Professor Yamane, at heart a zoologist, feels that it is important to study this creature, to approach Gojira from a scientific point of view. He is not in favour of this all-pervasive desire to kill Gojira.
And Yamane’s daughter Emiko, in love with Ogata but formally engaged to the scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) realizes that she can’t continue with this farce any more. She admits to Ogata that while she has been friends with Serizawa for years, she has always regarded him in the light of an older brother. It is Ogata she loves, not Serizawa—and it’s about time that she told Serizawa the truth.
But when Emiko goes to visit Serizawa, she never gets a chance to tell him—because Serizawa shares the findings of his latest scientific experiments, and a terrified Emiko comes away, shaken and scared.
The Toho Co. Ltd, which produced Gojira, went on to create a total of 28 films centred round Gojira. This one was the first, a monster movie that went on to become a cult classic, to the extent that fans trashed the 1998 Hollywood Godzilla because “the monster wasn’t Gojira”.
As you can see, I’m not doing separate sections on ‘What I liked’ and ‘What I didn’t like’ for this film, because all of that will be covered in this section—the comparison with the other Gojira film I’ve seen, the 1998 Hollywood version, Godzilla (starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno).
Godzilla uses a similar premise as did Gojira: nuclear tests (this time in French Polynesia) cause the creation of a mutated giant reptilian creature, which makes its way to a major city (in this case New York City, where else?!) and proceeds to destroy the place, left, right, and centre. Trying desperately to stop the monster is a team headed by the mayor, an army colonel, and a scientist who’s been studying radiation-induced mutations. Also on Godzilla’s trail is a small undercover team of French Secret Service agents, here to ‘clean up the mess’.
There are nods to the Japanese film. For example, the 1998 film begins, too, with a boat out at sea being attacked by something mysterious and very vicious. There’s the scientist, the romantic angle, the reporters who are trying to report every single move of the monster.
But more than the similarities, there are the differences. Not merely in the physiology of the animal (unlike Gojira, Godzilla breathes fire, not radiation; is differently shaped; and is pregnant), but in the way the story proceeds. This is a film with a much more frenetic pace, with sudden twists and turns, high-speed chases, and escaped-by-the-skin-of-one’s-teeth close squeaks.
Where Godzilla scores is in the special effects. Nothing surprising there, since it was made over half a century after Gojira, and could use everything from CGI to animatronics, whereas Eiji Tsuburaya (special effects expert for Gojira) had to put a man in a giant lizard costume. (Little bit of trivia: Haruo Nakajima was the man playing Gojira; the latex costume initially designed for him weighed 200 pounds).
Where Godzilla loses is in just about every other sphere. Yes, it’s spectacular, and Godzilla is scary.
But the people? The people populating this film are one-dimensional, almost ridiculous in their sheer unbelievability (and the heroine’s ethics are about on par with her sense—both nearly non-existent). Plus, in its attempt to make every escape as narrow as possible, Godzilla does things that are fantastically stupid.
I mean, if you’re running for your life and have an escape route ahead of you, with a horde of monsters snapping at your heels, will you really stop to:
(a) chat with friends and ask them where they found the guy who’s rigged up your escape route
(b) gape at the monsters (possibly in the hope that they will turn out to be illusions?)
This is exactly where Gojira wins: the panic of the people is palpable. These are folks who are bound to die horrendous deaths if they don’t run. They know it. Which is why they don’t waste time staring or looking over their shoulders, or (worst) resorting to snappy one-liners.
Also, Gojira takes the time to actually do some amount of character development. We see something of Emiko’s struggle to not hurt Serizawa, and (later) her attempt to keep the promise she gives him. We see how Serizawa struggles with his own conscience, and how Yamane faces a conflict between his desire to study Gojira, and the increasing need—even if it’s against his beliefs—to destroy the creature. This isn’t merely a story of man vs. monster, but also man vs. man and man vs. self.
Ultimately, what impressed me about Gojira (especially when compared with Godzilla) was the dignity of this film. It touches upon subjects such as the ethics of science; it looks at people as people, not trite cardboard cut-outs; and it has a dignity that is more appealing than the farce that is Godzilla. Yes, perhaps not so scary or so realistic, but a more believable film. It has its flaws (the special effects are dated, the science is slightly dodgy, and the resolution of the Emiko-Ogata-Serrizawa love triangle is very Hindi film-ish), but it’s a good, solid monster movie.
Another little bit of trivia: ‘gojira’ is a portmanteau word: it combines the Japanese words gorira (‘gorilla’) and kujira (‘whale’), which was what the monster had initially been visualized as—a cross between a whale and a gorilla. Even when the final creature design was changed, the name was retained. It’s become so iconic that a dinosaur, Gojirasaurus, has been named for it.