It’s a testament to how much of a bad rap the film Godzilla has received over the years that any discussion of the movie always has to start with a clarification of which film you’re talking about. No, it’s not the 1998 abomination with Matthew Broderick; no, it’s not the re-edit with Raymond Burr and a bunch of dubbed Japanese actors; and it’s not even any of the sequels you maybe dimly remember being showed on TV during the holidays. It’s the very first Godzilla film, made in 1954, released in Japan under the title of Gojira, and it’s a masterpiece.
On paper, you could be forgiven for thinking that you probably had seen it already, as many of the elements that would define the series are present and correct from the start – a man in a rubber monster suit smashing up miniature replicas of Tokyo, the anti-nuclear subtext, hundreds of Japanese people screaming in panic… But whilst subsequent Godzilla films have their moments, they’re a world away from the heart and soul that you’ll find in the very first film. There is absolutely nothing camp about this movie; instead it’s a stately, emotional and at times even harrowing film that treats its subject matter thoughtfully and with gravitas.
Godzilla is of course an ancient monster woken up after millions of years and given terrifying powers by the Japanese H-bomb tests. Obviously, this puts the theme of nuclear weaponry front and centre in the film, but to describe it as simply an anti-nuclear polemic is an over simplification. Godzilla is far more multilayered than many subsequent horror and sci-fi movies that use a simplistic environmental warning as a narrative rationale for monsters and zombies; instead, director Ishiro Honda’s triumph is the way he rejects upfront preaching for a sophisticated threading of ideas throughout the film. Godzilla indeed represents the destructive power of the atomic bomb both on a literal and an allegorical level; however, Serizawa’s dilemma over the deployment of his Oxygen Destroyer (which occupies most of the second half of the film and is written off too easily by many critics as a simple plot device) reflects the wider issues surrounding the ethics of atomic power: should a discovery be suppressed if there are many ‘bad’ applications for it above and beyond its immediate advantages? And once a discovery has been made, can there ever be any turning back? That the Oxygen Destroyer ultimately saves the day, despite being an even more destructive superweapon than those lamented in the film, suggests a thoughtful ambivalence about the nuclear issue, rather than the soapbox grandstanding of lesser directors.
But as well as brains, the film has a very human heart to it as well. Honda deliberately resonates with recent events that would sit very heavily in the Japanese national memory; characters discuss openly the horror of nuclear warfare that hit the country only nine years previously, and the opening scene on the boat is uncomfortably close to the Castle Bravo test earlier in 1954, where the crew of a Japanese fishing boat was poisoned by the fallout from American nuclear testing. These are scars that run deep, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes surrounding Godzilla’s first attack on Tokyo. Subsequent films shied away from showing the human cost of the monster’s rampages but here it is in full force: orphaned children in hospitals sending Geiger counters into overload; a hysterical mother sitting with her two babies on her doorstep shouting that they’ll all be joining their dead father soon; schools of children praying for an end to the onslaught. It’s sobering, harrowing stuff, made all the more emotional by the dispassionate way Honda’s camera simply records the events as they unfold.
Crucially, the effects – although creaky by modern standards – don’t let the side down. This is partly helped by the noir-ish black and white look of the film, where most of the monster action takes place at night, but equally it’s hard not to be impressed by just how well Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo is realised. Unlike the friendly green dinosaur he would later become, here the monster is a dark, brutish killing machine who towers over the city with ominous force. Helpfully, the actors play it for real as well with no mugging to the camera, and it’s hard not to find at least some pathos in the central love triange of Serizawa, Ogata and Emiko.
Honda and his team made plain their debt to King Kong nearly twenty years earlier, and whilst that film may have been the first to successfully realise the concept of a huge creature running rampage in a major city, to my mind Godzilla remains the finest giant monster movie ever made. The spectacle we expect from such a film is there if that’s what you’re looking for, but almost uniquely for the genre, it is overshadowed by the concepts, ideas and genuine emotion. In subsequent films we root for the monster and cheer when he knocks down another skyscraper, but here Honda successfully conveys the sheer terror of living through such an unstoppable onslaught. Godzilla is never preachy or presumptive in its nuclear subtext, but instead offers a harrowing and heartfelt yelp of pain from a culture that had all too recently suffered the worst destruction that science could then concoct.