Sounds of Suffering in Godzilla 1954

Sounds of Suffering

Godzilla 1954

6.24.2023 (revised 6.30)

After listening to audio of Godzilla (1954) almost every night for a month, I’m convinced that unrelenting sounds of suffering (distress, hardship, pain, terror) heard in the abundance cries and calls are a key defining feature that distinguishes Godzilla from all others. From beginning to end human suffering is upfront and center stage. The theme of suffering sets a somber tone throughout without a moment of humor or levity to give the audience reprieve. Even the brief moments of normality and pleasure enjoyed by the characters on screen are brief and suddenly smashed by the appearance of Godzilla.

Godzilla (1954)
Godzilla (1954) theatrical poster

The human suffering on screen is palpable, irresistible and inescapable. Suffering is a major focus and point of emphasis in Godzilla. The pain cannot be missed and should not be overlooked. Audiences are not eased into this story of human degradation and death but rather they are tossed into the terror that is Godzilla from the very start. Cries of suffering at sea bookend the film. At the start the scream of fishermen aboard the Eiko Maru can be heard as they are suddenly blinded by a great flash of light that engulfs their ship in fire. The last scene is a funeral dirge mourning for the loss of loved ones as Godzilla screams in an agonizing death. Sandwiched in between is a symphony of sorrow that rises and falls in intensity, pitch and decibels.

Listening carefully to these cries reveals their importance and function to set the film’s tone and theme. Human suffering divides and structures the film. In fact, if Akira Ifukube’s score was taken away, then these cries of sorrow could serve as its replacement. The sounds of human suffering are profound and make the film memorable. The screams, shrieks, screeches, sobs, shouts, solemn ceremonies and even moments of deafening silence shape the story of the first Godzilla like none other. These cries tell a compelling story all by themselves. The sounds are not simply recurring but follow a pattern forming a structure that supports the story along scene after scene in a way I hadn’t seen. until I listened more carefully. From start to finish these sounds tell a story of human suffering and sorrow. The cries are not only human. The film opens with the ominous footsteps and roar of a monster bent on getting revenge on humankind for his suffering. Godzilla is on the move in order to claim his first victims. Godzilla’s cry and roar is that of anger.

Sounds of Suffering in Godzilla (1954)
Sounds of Suffering in Godzilla (1954)

The Japanese mook ゴジラ Godzilla: The Visual Guide Book of First Godzilla (1983) divides the story into these five acts: Act 1: Ominous Omen (不気味な前兆), Acts 2: Monster of Odo Island (大戸島の怪物), Acts 3: Godzilla Lands in Shinagawa (ゴジラ品川に上陸), Acts 4: Godzilla Attacks Tokyo!! (ゴジラ、東京襲撃!!), and Acts 5: Prayer for Peace (平和への祈り). The act flows along moving through a series of cries that build to a crescendo. Acts 3 and 4 bring the plot and sounds of suffering to their climax. A look at and a listen to the cries across these five acts reveal their pattern, potency and function as a structuring device.

Select sounds of suffering in Godzilla (1954)

Act 1: An Ominous Omen (00:00:00)

There have been a series of mysterious shipwrecks. Suddenly, “SOS” was sent and three ships disappeared.1

Act 1 is a steady drum beat of cries that begin abruptly at sea. The film opens with Godzilla marching with the thunderous sound of his footsteps that sound like the bombs dropping from the sky on Tokyo during World War II. Godzilla’s cry gives way to the screeches of the Japanese fisherman on the Eiko Maru. The crew’s last cry is the S.O.S. signal frantically sent to the mainline, where concerns of family members turn to demands for answers. Back on the mainline the concerns grow as reports come in. The family members of the sailors demand for answers to the mysterious destruction of Japanese ships.

Particularly noteworthy are the reactions of Dr Yamane’s daughter Emiko. Her concerns, cries, screams with her range of facial expressions mark turning points in the story. In Act 1, her curious surprise in reply to her boyfriend Ogata upon learning about the demise of Eiko Maru turns into cries of sadness and sorrow.

Then Act 1 shifts to Odo Island where Godzilla is known for his attacks. There the human cries reach their highest pitch in this act. Survivors float off the shore shouting for rescue. Later, an island elder along with the young Shinkichi spotted his brother Masaji off shore. With his remaining strength Masaji can muster, he says Godzilla got his fellow sailors and their boat. The fear that the legend Odo Island turns into sounds of a local kagura that fills the night which gives way to an approaching storm that also brings Godzilla. The sound of his approach awakens Shinkichi who springs from his bed to the terrorizing sight of Godzilla. Act 1 closes with Shinkichi’s desperate scream for his mother and brother who are crushed beneath Godzilla’s feet.

Act 2: The Monster of Odo Island (00:14:48)

The damage to Odo Island could not have been caused by a mere storm, so an investigation team was dispatched.1

Back in Japan outside the National Diet Building reporters are assembled clamoring for more information. Inside, the boy Shinkichi wants the authorities to know it was Godzilla who attacked. A team made up of Dr Yamane, Emiko, Ogata, Shinkichi and others leaves for Odo Island to investigate. They depart with cheers and hopes of success. During their investigation an island alarm bell is sounded because Godzilla has been spotted. His footsteps grow louder as he approaches. The people cry, “It’s Godzilla… It’s behind Mt Hachiman.” Running with the crowd Emiko cries out for her father. Then suddenly Godzilla appears over the hill, turns and roars at the sight of the people who are screaming and stumbling back down the mountain path. Emiko trips and falls. She screams at the sight of Godzilla. Her shrill mixes into Godzilla’s roar in a horrific harmony. In the distance her father Dr Yamane calls for her. Act 2 closes with them looking in silence at the trail left behind from Godzilla’s departure into the sea.

Act 3: Landing at Godzilla Shinagawa (00:23:12)

The monster that appeared on Odo Island was named Godzilla. The reason why Godzilla appeared with radioactivity in his body was thought to be that his safe haven was destroyed by a hydrogen bomb. Before long, Godzilla appeared in its entirety for the first time in Shinagawa, Tokyo.1

In Act 3, the story of Godzilla begins to peak, reaching its midpoint. Back in Japan at the Diet Building a photo of Godzilla is revealed. But Ms Ozawa demands the identity of the monster not be kept secret. In Tokyo, people are clamoring at the news. Dr Yamane is at home sitting in the dark, in seclusion and silence contemplating the significance of Godzilla. When Godzilla enters Tokyo Bay passengers aboard a pleasure ship shriek in terror at his appearance. Emiko learns of the secret weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer, created by Dr Serizawa has discovered. She screams in horror by its deadly effectiveness. Her reaction in Act 3 and the telling of her experience to Ogata in Act 5 bracket Godzilla’s attack in Act 4.

Back at Dr Yamane’s home, the sounds of Godzilla’s footsteps begin as he approaches Tokyo. Sirens are sounded and the city is noisy. People are screaming and running. Conductors’ scream is not heard as their train slams into Godzilla crossing the tracks. The passengers jump from the wreckage screaming, “It’s Godzilla!” The people are in a panic, hiding and panting. Act 3 closes once again with Dr Yamane, Ogata and Shinkichi watching in silence watching Godzilla’s departure. Godzilla’s roar brings Act 3 to a close.

Act 4: Godzilla Attacks Tokyo! (00:47:52)

To prevent Godzilla from re-landing in Tokyo, a 30-meter-tall barbed wire fence carrying 50,000 volts of electric current was built along the coastline. However, Godzilla breaks through the defense net without difficulty. While blowing radioactive flames, Tokyo will turn into a sea of fire…1

As Japan prepares its defense strategy against Godzilla the frightened residents are running for safety. Later, Emiko cries after listening to Ogata pushing back on her father expressing regret that Godzilla cannot be studied. Then Godzilla appears in Tokyo once again. He roars and sends the people scrambling. Godzilla covers the city and his fleeing victims fleeing with his atomic breath. Sirens can be across the city. An officer shouts “Evacuate!” moments before Godzilla consumes him in fire. On a Tokyo street a mother prepares her clinging children for imminent death. Moments later the Wako building clock in Ginza sounds for the last time.

The voices of announcers sending reports, making phone calls, reporting the news and sending orders, set the pace across all five acts. In Act 4, their cries reach their height when two report Godzilla’s destructive power blow by blow report until he takes even their lives. The first says, “I can’t believe it [信じられません]… It’s absolutely unbelievable [全く信じられません]… This is an incredible incident [しまも その信じられない事件が]…”  The second signs off moments before his demise saying, “He’s getting closer and closer… It’s finally the end… Goodbye everyone, goodbye.” Back in his lab, Dr Serizawa listens in silence as Godzilla turned Tokyo into a sea of fire. Act 4 closes with Shinkichi’s curse and the people’s cries turn into cheering as the air force fires on Godzilla retreating to the sea. Godzilla departs the people wonder what can him.

Act 5: Prayer for Peace (01:09:07)

Emiko sees the people injured by Godzilla’s attack and confesses to Ogata. Dr. Daisuke Serizawa has a drug that can defeat Godzilla. However, Serizawa did not consent to its use!1

Act 5 opens with the scenes of Tokyo’s destruction that give way to the sound of a radio announcer and a hospital full of the injured. A small child staring at her wounded mother suddenly breaks into crying when she dies. Surrounded by such sorrow, Emiko breaks her promise not to reveal Dr Serizawa’s weapon. She tells Ogata of her horror and screams at what his weapon can do. They demand that Serizawa his weapon be used to destroy Godzilla. A fight ensues and a heartbroken Emiko cries out to them to stop. Ogata is injured. While Eriko tends to his head wound, Dr Serizawa is captured by the television broadcast of the devastation of Tokyo set to the prayer for peace performed by a chorus of young girls. In a moment of deep sorrow and regret, Serizawa cries out having a change of heart. He decides to use his Oxygen Destroyer this one time to stop Godzilla. As he burns the plans to his weapon, Emiko weeps.

The last act shifts to the deck of the Shikine where an announcer declares the decisive moment has drawn near. The sounds of a Geiger counter pinpoint the exact location of Godzilla. As Dr Yamane, Eriko, Shikishi, the ship’s crew and passengers watch, Dr Serizawa and Ogata descend into the depths of the ocean to detonate the Oxygen Destroyer to Godzilla. But when Serizawa does return to the surface Ogata feverishly calls him again. Serizawa sends best wishes to the young couple and signs off for the last time bidding them goodbye. Ogata screams his name again and again. Yamane calls out also. Then Emiko is struck with fear as Godzilla in distress and pain rises from the sea once last time only to descend to his final resting place. The announcer pronounces Godzilla’s corpse sinking deep into the ocean’s floor. Dr Yamane sits in disbelief. Shinkichi tears up. Ogata is grief stricken. And Emiko falls to the deck in tears. A sober Dr Yamane offers the final reflection on Godzilla followed by a salute and the voices of the chorus bring the final act to a close.

There are so many features that came together to make Godzilla (1954) the defining film of a new genre of cinema. The story, special effects, and sound track stand out as shining examples. But among them must be included the unique sounds of suffering that left a lasting impact on its moviegoers.

1 SuperVisual Series Town Mookゴジラ Godzilla: The Visual Guide Book of First Godzilla (12/5/1983), p 18, 26, 32, 42, 58