Most horror-movie monsters are unleashed from somewhere deep within our collective id—the repressed fears which linger in “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality,” as Freud described it. We’re taught early in life that ghosts, vampires, and demons don’t really exist, but horror movies lure such terrors out into the open, agonizing the audience with a horrifying “what if…?” The one and only Godzilla, on the other hand—progenitor of all kaiju beasties and a pervasive influence on Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, et al.—is frightening and poignant because it represents the disturbingly real. A manifestation of nuclear holocaust and a warning against the self-destruction that humans can wage, Godzilla remains shocking in how boldly it visualizes Japan’s recent war trauma: less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the first (and to date only) cities to suffer a nuclear attack, Japanese audiences were ravaged by a beast awakened by atomic testing. The sins of humanity repeat themselves perpetually.
For decades, American audiences knew Godzilla only as the truncated (and bastardized) 1956 version Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, an anglicized re-edit featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter, interspersed with preexisting footage. It wasn’t until the film’s proper 2004 re-release that the sobering depth and humanity of the original became known to many international audiences: this might be the most compassionate horror film (if it can be called that) ever made, an elegy for those destroyed by the carnage of war.
Although the Japanese New Wave didn’t properly commence until the late 1950s (with the audacious work of filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara), certain stylistic precedents can be seen in Godzilla, beginning with the spare kettle-drum beat that initiates the film. While abrasive, minimalist scores became commonplace in later New Wave films like Onibaba (1964) and The Face of Another (1966), the haunting, heavy drum beat that begins Godzilla (courtesy of composer Akira Ifukube) hypnotizes the audience immediately while suggesting the monstrosity to come.
On the seas near Odo Island, a fishing boat is attacked by a shockwave of white light—within the first several minutes, the imagery of atomic war is exploited, its source terrifyingly unknown. Back on shore, a handsome ship salvager named Hideto (Akira Takarada) learns of the ship’s destruction and tenderly informs his fiancée Emiko (Momoko Kochi) he’ll be unable to join her at the symphony that evening. The tender rapport between the two characters—and the palpable chemistry between Takarada and Kochi—quickly imbue Godzilla with an ardent humanism.
Through a rapid succession of dissolves and edits, a flock of curious reporters and scientists journey to Odo Island, especially after two other fishing vessels are attacked under similarly mysterious circumstances. One villager portends that this is the work of “Godzilla”—an ancient sea monster buried deep beneath the ocean floor. This character is an example of the “eccentric old sage” who somehow knows exactly what’s going on before anyone else; in this iteration, though, the character also pays respect to ancient Japanese beliefs while suggesting that such cultural mythologies no longer apply to the modern era.
One of the scientists who arrives on Odo Island is Emiko’s father, a paleontologist named Dr. Yamane, played by the legendary Takashi Shimura (who starred in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released). Yamane finds the villager’s explanation increasingly hard to refute, especially when radioactive footprints and a long-extinct trilobite are found nearby. Dr. Yamane also warns the islanders that their well may be poisoned with radiation—one of many explicit references to radioactive fallout that can’t help but evoke memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s at this point that Godzilla is first glimpsed beyond the hills, sending the townspeople scrambling in fear.
At a press conference in Tokyo, Dr. Yamane cautions that the creature should be studied, not killed, and again alludes to Godzilla’s radioactive origins: “Repeated underwater H-bomb tests have completely destroyed its natural habitat,” the doctor asserts, leading to a hysterical debate over whether such facts should be leaked to the public. “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki—and now this!” cries one attendee. “Our fragile diplomatic relations will be further strained,” says another—a sadly ironic assertion, since “fragile diplomatic relations” led to the creature’s reawakening in the first place.
Indeed, it’s hard to overstate just how fragile those relations were at the time of Godzilla’s release. American forces had occupied Japan from the end of the war until April 1952, during which time the American occupiers censored Japanese books and movies to eliminate most references to the atomic bombings (which partially explains the belated predominance of this theme in Japanese media). While Japan was a free state again at the time of the film’s 1954 release, its attitude towards the U.S. was re-aggravated by the Lucky Dragon 5 debacle: in March 1954, a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to radioactive fallout when America tested a nuclear device near the Bikini Atoll. Several fishermen were perilously irradiated, including the ship’s radioman, who died several months later. According to Godzilla’s producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, this tragedy directly influenced the making of the film (along with the popularity of the 1953 American creature feature The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). It’s not a stretch to infer that every reference to nuclear radiation and H-bomb testing in Godzilla acts as a veiled critique of American imperialism. It was this vehement confrontation with the country’s recent real-world turmoil that caused many Japanese critics to denounce Godzilla upon its release, though such unflinching commentary is also what makes the film so complex and cathartic.
This political subtext runs beneath a scene in which hordes of overzealous fishermen take to the seas in order to find and kill Godzilla (a moment repeated almost verbatim in Jaws). The Japanese Army concocts a plan to line the shore with electrified towers, though when Godzilla finally does come inland for its climactic blitzkrieg, the electricity does nothing to deter it. What could kill a monster borne of nuclear radiation? The link is again made explicit by Dr. Yamane, who claims, “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head.” The dialogue is didactic, but appropriately so: the filmmakers make sure there’s no avoiding the film’s political outrage.
Japan’s only hope, it turns out, is another potentially apocalyptic weapon called the “Oxygen Destroyer,” developed by Emiko’s former lover Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). This device, when plunged into water, disintegrates oxygen atoms, asphyxiating any nearby wildlife. Well aware how this creation could be used to obliterate mass populations, Serizawa pledges never to reveal the Oxygen Destroyer to the public—though as Godzilla’s carnage continues to mount throughout Tokyo, he is forced to reconsider. At what point, the film asks, do the immediate dangers confronting a country call for similarly extreme measures? Or is the potential for genocide something to be avoided at all costs? Obviously, there’s no easy answer to this question—one of many themes that makes Godzilla a complex, unsettling statement on human nature and political violence. Repeated shots of birds in cages serve as pointed visual motifs: all of us are trapped in cages built by our own inhumanity.
Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo has been lambasted by critics as primitive and unconvincing—notably by Roger Ebert, who dismissively wrote, “In these days of flawless special effects, Godzilla and the city he destroys are equally crude. Godzilla at times looks uncannily like a man in a rubber suit, stomping on cardboard sets, as indeed he was, and did.” But so what? The effects may be crude but their meaning is profound: when we see a model set of Tokyo melting under Godzilla’s gaze like wax in the sun, a history of unthinkable trauma rises to the fore. In any case, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects are unique to contemporary eyes that have been assaulted by countless big-budget blockbusters equipped with limitless technological resources: after seeing cities demolished by computer graphics hundreds of times, a man in a rubber suit stumbling through a studio becomes more fantastic, more bizarrely transfixing. The pristine kaiju-mecha fights in Pacific Rim (2013) are technological marvels and nothing else; they lack the humanism and haunting consequences that make such devastation powerful in the first place.
None of the human characters in Godzilla are villains: not the hermetic Serizawa, who refuses to reveal the weapon that might destroy Godzilla; nor Dr. Yamane, who fruitlessly tries to convince his countrymen not to kill the creature. Astoundingly, though, the monster itself isn’t a “villain” either, as suggested by its countless appearances in later sequels and offshoots. It’s simply a living thing awakened by powers outside of its control; ripped from hibernation by the idiocy and violence of men, why wouldn’t it want to destroy us? The only thing vilified in Godzilla is the machinery of war. As the film shows us children tested for radiation poisoning and masses of Tokyo residents ushered into bomb shelters, we soberly realize that we’ve seen this story before. Is the devastation wrought by Godzilla any more calamitous than our own?
Written by Matthew Cole Levine
This review was originally published by Joyless Creatures on May 9, 2014.
Runtime: 96 minutes
Country of Origin: Japan
Japanese Premiere: November 3, 1954
Director: Ishiro Honda
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Writers: Takeo Murata, Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Kayama (story)
Music: Akira Ifukube
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Editor: Taichin Taira
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai, Toranosuke Ogawa, Ren Yamamoto, Hiroshi Hayashi