Godzilla (1954): Ishirō Honda’s Original Monster Feature, Launching Long Franchise

Ishirō Honda directed Godzilla (Gojira), co-written by him, Takeo Murata, and Shigeru Kayama, and produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya.

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Godzilla as featured in the original 1954 film

Produced and distributed by Toho Studios, it’s the first film in the Godzilla franchise.

The film stars Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, and Takashi Shimura, with Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka as Godzilla.

The plot concerns a group of scientists and politicians, who explore the sudden appearance of a giant monster known as Godzilla, whose attacks trigger fears of nuclear holocaust during post-war Japan.

Tsuburaya first chose a giant octopus before switching to a dinosaur-inspired creature. Godzilla pioneered a form of special effects, suitmation, in which a suited stunt performer wearing interacts with miniature sets.

Theatrically released in Japan on November 3, 1954, Godzilla was heavily re-edited in 1956 for its “Americanized” version, retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Godzilla went on to become international pop culture icon, spawning a multimedia franchise–the longest running series in film history. (The James Bond franchise began in 1962).

The tale begins when the Japanese freighter Eiko-maru is destroyed near Odo Island. When fishing catches mysteriously drop to zero, the blame is put on an ancient sea creature, known as “Godzilla.”

A villager tells reporters that “something” in the sea is ruining the fishing. That evening, a storm strikes the island, destroying the reporters’ helicopter, and Godzilla destroys 17 homes, kills 9 people and 20 of the villagers’ livestock.

Odo residents travel to Tokyo to demand disaster relief.  The government then sends paleontologist Kyohei Yamane to investigate, and radioactive footprints and trilobite are discovered. Yamane and the villagers rush to see the monster, only to realize that it is a giant dinosaur.

Yamane estimates that Godzilla, which is 50 meters (164 ft) tall, derives from an ancient sea creature–a terrestrial dinosaur like reptile. There’s speculation that that Godzilla was disturbed from its deep underwater natural habitat alongside others of its kind by hydrogen bomb testing.

As a result, debate ensues about whether or not to notify the public about the danger of the monster.

When Godzilla survives the attack, officials appeal to Yamane for ideas to kill the monster, but Yamane tells them that Godzilla is unkillable, having survived H-bomb testing.

Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, then breaks off her arranged engagement to Yamane’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa, because of her love for Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain. When a reporter arrives and asks to interview Serizawa, Emiko escorts the reporter to Serizawa’s home.

Serizawa refuses to divulge his work to the reporter, and he shows Emiko his recent project asking her to keep it a secret. The demonstration horrifies her and she leaves without breaking off the engagement.

Godzilla surfaces from Tokyo Bay and attacks Shinagawa, and after attacking a train, the creature returns to the ocean.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces construct a 30-metre-tall (100 ft), 50,000 volt electrified fence along the coast. Yamane is dismayed that there is no plan to study Godzilla for its resistance to radiation.

When Ogata disagrees with Yamane, arguing the threat Godzilla poses outweighs any potential benefits from studying the monster, Yamane tells him to leave. Godzilla resurfaces and breaks through the fence to Tokyo with its atomic breath, unleashing more destruction across the city. Further attempts to kill the monster with tanks and fighter jets fail and Godzilla returns to the ocean.

Hospitals and shelters are crowded with the maimed and the dead, and some survivors suffering radiation sickness.

Emiko tells Ogata about Serizawa’s research, a weapon called the “Oxygen Destroyer,” which disintegrates oxygen atoms, causing organisms to die of  rotting asphyxiation.

Emiko and Ogata go to Serizawa to convince him to use the Oxygen Destroyer but he initially refuses. He claims that if he uses the device, the superpowers of the world will force him to construct more Oxygen Destroyers for use.

However, watching a program about the nation’s tragedy, Serizawa changes his mind and accepts their pleas. As Serizawa burns his notes, Emiko breaks down crying.

After finding Godzilla, Serizawa unloads the device and cuts off his air support, taking the secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer to his grave. Godzilla is destroyed but Serizawa dies.

The film ends on a cynical note.  Yamane holds that if nuclear weapons testing continues, another Godzilla will rise.

For many, Godzilla symbolizes nuclear holocaust from Japan’s perspective–a metaphor for nuclear weapons.  The movie contains cultural undertones, attributed to what the Japanese had experienced in WWII and that Japanese audiences were able to connect emotionally to the monster.

Moreover, since the atomic bomb testing that woke Godzilla was carried out by the US, the film is seen by some as a critique of the US role in the problems experienced by innocent Japanese civilians after WWII.