Warning: Heavy Spoilers Below!
The original Godzilla from 1954 is far more than just a monster movie. It has more to say, and what it has to say is important. This is a somber film, very unlike the more lighthearted and fantastical entries, of which I am a huge fan as well. However, the original film brings more to the table than relentless Kaiju action. Before the series had become viewed as nothing more than silly kids movies, Godzilla was as sobering reminder about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, from a nation that was more familiar with the human cost of these kinds weapons of mass destruction than any other nation in the world. Godzilla was not simply a monster, he was metaphor for the atomic bomb. This was more than a film, it was a political statement spurred on by the events of the time.
On January 22, 1954 an otherwise unremarkable fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 and its crew befell a terrible fate, making the “Lucky” in the name quite ironic. The United States was testing H-Bombs in the Marshall Islands. There they unleashed just such a bomb with the largest explosion in the country’s history to date. Named Castle Bravo, this bomb had a yield of 15 mt. This test was more successful than the Americans had anticipated, and the explosion had expanded beyond the planned safe zone. Bad news for the Lucky Dragon, which had decided to fish close to the waters of the Marshall Islands because there would be no competition due to the secret American tests. If only they knew what was being tested. They heard the blast before they saw it. Even though they were miles away from the Castle Bravo explosion, they still suffered its wrath. The Lucky Dragon and its crew were enveloped in radioactive ash, which came to be known as the “death ash”. When the fishermen returned home they all began experiencing the symptoms of radiation poisoning. Seven months later a member of the crew, Aikichi Kuboyama died. His last words were, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.” These are not events from the film Godzilla. This really happened, and its important to know this story before getting into the meat of my review, because Godzilla is response to the Lucky Dragon incident, and a tribute to all those that had lost their lives to atomic weaponry, all of whom were Japanese.
Director Ishiro Honda took heavy subject matter and presented it in an unexpected way. Through the use of allegory and metaphor, Honda gave the world a film that was actually a desperate plea for the discontinuing of nuclear bomb testing. Its a statement more than a narrative. There is no protagonist. Akira Takarada ostensibly fills that role as Ogata, yet he doesn’t actually do anything that moves the plot along in any meaningful way. We are also without an antagonist. Godzilla cannot really be considered a true antagonist because has debatable agency. He’s merely awoken by the H-bomb and lashing out indiscriminately. In actuality, he’s really only a plot device. So, no clear antagonist or protagonist, but this was not a flaw in the storytelling, it was purposeful. This isn’t as simple as a “man against monster” story. That’s the set dressing, underneath is something completely different. Perhaps there is a protagonist, that being the whole of Japan. Its very conflicted protagonist, constantly arguing with itself, but all in service of a singular goal: to survive. And would not the antagonist be the US? They were the ones that dropped the bomb that incited Godzilla’s rampage, though they go unnamed and unseen in the film. We will return to this, for now let’s focus on the story itself.
The first shot of the film is of a boiling sea, left in the wake of a small unassuming fishing boat. Suddenly, the sea surrounding the boat glows and erupts, engulfing the vessel in flames. What does this scene bring to mind? Remember, the Lucky Dragon incident was still a very recent event, as it happened earlier that same year. The Japanese government scrambles to discover what happened under pressure from the families of the fishermen. They send a rescue boat. It goes missing. Another fishing boat goes to look for survivors of these disappearances, they go missing too, all except one. Masaji, a resident of Odo Island washes up on the beaches of his home, and he brings new information. Something has been doing this, something alive. Odo has a legend about such a creature that could do these things. Its name is Godzilla.
Odo Island is not only where the film explores the idea of Godzilla as myth, but also the primary theme of the film. The old ways are dying. Godzilla is a reprisal for anyone that does not honor their culture, at least according to one stubborn, old denizen of Odo Island that still clings to the island’s ancient traditions of ritual sacrifice. When the catch of fish was poor, a woman would be sent out to sea on a raft to appease Godzilla. Supposedly this would return balance to the island and bring the fishing back to normal. The old man believes they should revive the old traditions. The younger generations scoff and mock the old man. To them, Godzilla is nothing more than a silly legend. The old man is right about Godzilla, but he is wrong in his thinking that ritual sacrifice will assuage Godzilla. Godzilla is just a creature after all, one that does not distinguish between genders. However, the younger generation of islanders are also wrong in their complete dismissal. Godzilla is real, and he will appear again. They scoff at their history. There is a cliché for those that do not learn from their history. This point is echoed later in the film when a young woman makes a casual almost callous reference to having survived Nagasaki, and the prospect of evacuation for her is more of an annoyance than anything. This was a reflection of the apparent amnesia regarding the relatively recent tragedies among the youth in Japan, as director Honda must have seen it. The old ways are indeed dying, there isn’t anything that can be done to stop that, but you must take the proper lessons from the past to avoid repeating them and suffering the same consequences.
Nearly ten years prior, Japan was at war with the world. They not only lost, but payed an incalculable price. After the war, the United States occupied Japan and placed restrictions on what could be shown in movies and taught to children in schools. Any education on WWII must portray the Japanese as being morally wrong. All films made in Japan about the war up to that point were destroyed, and any depictions of the Japanese military were forbidden from film during the occupation. Also, the newly formed democracy would have be portrayed as morally good and functional. America did its best to remove the core of Japan and replace it with an Americanized version. Two years after the occupation had ended, Japanese audiences were ready to see their military as heroes again, as well their disillusionment with the new government had seeped into the cultural zeitgeist.
Nowhere in the film is this disillusionment better illustrated than the scene in which Dr. Yamane gives a briefing on Godzilla. Residents of Odo Island had been attacked by Godzilla, and after Yamane goes to the island with a research party and witnesses the monster first hand, he concludes not only is Godzilla behind the recent attacks and disappearances, but after studying Godzilla’s radioactive footprints Yamane concludes that Godzilla was awoken from wherever he slumbered by the recent H-bomb test. The room erupts into a fervor. One group pleads to keep the information secret in order to preserve Japan’s diplomatic relations. With who I might wonder? Another group demands the truth be made public. “The truth is the truth, “ they say. The briefing devolves into infighting and incoherent matches of shouting. Two years ago it would have been illegal for a film to portray Japan’s democracy as being this impotent.
Our main characters are just a impotent really. An American film would normally emphasize the import of its heroes. Godzilla takes a different approach. Emiko and Ogata are two lovers that find their story being tied to events, but their actions do not save the day, their decisions do. Emiko is in an arranged marrige set up by her father Dr. Yamane, and she and Ogata are having an affair. The person she is engaged to is Dr. Serizawa, the far more important character and has the biggest impact on the plot despite having little screen time. Our ostensible protagonist Ogata has virtually no effect on the plot, and he is shown up by the very person he has stolen Emiko from.
Serizawa is a tragic character. He loves Emiko, despite knowing she has been seeing Ogata behind his back and intends to marry Ogata instead. Serizawa for his part, is far too busy with his work to be too concerned with this anyway. Having been scarred by the war, Serizawa turned his focus on helping the world. In his research on oxygen, Serizawa stumbles on something he hadn’t intended to. His discovery has the the ability to destroy all oxygen in any large body of water. Immediately he recognized how easily this “oxygen destroyer” could be weaponized, and he is horrified. He is faced with a dilemma of either throwing away years of hard work and research, or continue working, finding some way his invention could be used to benefit man kind.
There is similar conflict on in regards to Godzilla and how people view him. The Odo Islanders saw Godzilla as the mythological beast, but he is indeed very real and very dangerous. Everyone is unsure how to proceed. Most justifiably feel that feel that Godzilla must some how be destroyed, but they are at a loss for how to do this. After all, it survived the H-bomb. What could possibly kill it now? The government even calls on Dr. Yamane for ideas, but Yamane thinks that Godzilla should be studied. Perhaps from Godzilla, humanity could discover a way to be just as resilient to such destructive power. Moreover, Yamane does not like the idea of a unique species being needlessly murdered. After all, Godzilla is only lashing out because humans violently woke him. His home was turned into a sea of flames, so he would return the favor by turning the cities of man into a sea of flames.
Godzilla’s rampage happens over two iconic sequences. Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects are on glorious display, and in my opinion, they were the greatest effects put to screen up to that point. This claim may cause some of you to snicker, because the series as it progressed forward was dogged with a reputation for cheesy, and some of that is fair. In this film however, at the time this truly was the best, and it actually holds up well. Eiji Tsuburaya originally wanted to work with stop-motion animation, but that was too costly. Turning to the “man in the suit” method, or “suitmation” as it came to be known, was a decision that would work in the film’s favor and define the films to come. Tsuburaya had experience making very realistic models for propaganda films during WWII, and the model of Tokyo in this film is honestly fantastic. Lighting was put to great use, and being in black and white, the resulting images are striking. The whites are whiter, the blacks are blacker, and Godzilla appears as a great, big, towering silhouette which has the added benefit of hiding the suits inherent “fakeness”. Ambitious and risky composite shots that were done by exposing the same role of film to two different elements shot separately from each other, these do a good job of selling Godzilla’s presence among the screaming humans. All of that pales in comparison to the greatest effect in the film: the atomic fire breath.
Godzilla reveals himself to be not only an allegory for the bomb, he in fact is a walking atomic bomb, and he uses this power to indiscriminately destroy all in his path. It’s a thrilling scene, and the Japanese actually found catharsis in it. Godzilla was destroying the post-war Japan they had become disillusioned with. Systematically, the trappings of human society were taken down. The businesses, corporations, the vestiges of capitalism that had supplanted Japanese culture were demolished before the cheering audience. There were whoops and hollers when Godzilla destroyed the Diet building that represented the government that had cowed to American pressure. They empathized with Godzilla, despite the fact that his wanton destruction mirrored a tragedy which happened not even a full decade ago. Ishiro Honda plays with this dichotomy of Godzilla being sympathetic whilst also bringing to mind real world atrocities to great psychological effect on the viewer.
The wake of Godzilla’s rampage is horrifying. Now the reality of the monster once again sets in. A scene in which bodies are being carried to hospitals by the truck load must have almost seemed like a documentary. Emiko having learned of Serizawa’s invention cannot sit idly by while there is something that could kill Godzilla. She confides in Ogata about the oxygen destroyer, despite being sworn to secrecy by Serizawa. They both go to confront him, the film’s triangle comes to a head. Serizawa refuses to use the device, for fear of beginning a new terrible arms race. There are many comparisons to Oppenheimer to made in regards to Dr. Serizawa here. “A-bomb vs. A-bomb, H-bomb vs. H-bomb,” he says. Where would it stop? Only when on television a choir of hundreds of young women sing a prayer, a plea to a God that has left us to fend for ourselves, does Serizawa relent and agree to use the Oxygen destroyer. Serizawa destroys any physical documents concerning his work on the oxygen destroyer and when he uses it, he chooses to die alongside Godzilla. This he does for two reasons, to make sure nobody can ever pressure him for information about the device and so that Emiko and Ogata can be happy together without being burdened by him.
Once again, ritual sacrifice had been used against Godzilla. Humanity had not come far, and had not learned its lessons It’s an anti-climax and purposefully so, Just as quickly as the bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so too was Godzilla just a quickly snuffed out. Godzilla was ultimately innocent in all this. He was an ancient creature lashing out because he was angry and threatened. He would have continued slumbering beneath the ocean were it not for human folly and aggression.
Directior Ishiro Honda had been drafted into the Several Imperial Army several times. His experiences and the wake of the bomb had colored the rest of his work. When he was brought on to direct Godzilla, he brought his strong allegiance to pacifism to the project. When Dr. Yamane closes out the film to say that, “If humanity continues to test H-bombs, another Godzilla could appear,” that isn’t set up for a sequel, It’s the the films message laid out in black and white.
For many years Americans only saw this film in its highly sanitized, re-edited, Americanized version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Raymond Burr is placed into new sequences, because a white guy was seen to be needed to sell the film to American audiences. This version is just a surface level Monster movie. It has none of the metaphor or allegory, and nearly all reference to H-bombs are removed as not to implicate America. This version is entertaining in its own way, but where the original ended with a cautious warning about nuclear proliferation, this film ends on a note of optimism, somewhat undermining the message. I implore you to watch the original Japanese film, not only because it’s entertaining, not only because it’s a landmark film in cinema, but because of how important its message is. Perhaps now more than ever.
I hope this was an enjoyable read, and I hope you join me all month long while I review the entire series, I promise the rest of the reviews will not be nearly as long, but since this is the foundation on which all the others were built, and because of the subject matter in this film in particular, I felt it necessary to say as much as I could about this one. Anyway, thank you for reading, and on to the next one!