by Matt Levine
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—the progenitor of all kaiju beasties and a totemic influence on Spielberg, George Lucas, and Guillermo del Toro—is terrifying (and empathetic) because it represents the disturbingly real. A manifestation of nuclear holocaust and a warning against the self-destruction that human beings 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.
Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul
Director: Ishiro Honda
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Writers: Ishiro Honda, Takeo Murata, Shigeru Kayama
Cinematographer: Masao Tamai
Editor: Yasunobu Taira
Music: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai, Toranosuke Ogawa, Ren Yamamoto, Hiroshi Hayashi
Premiere: November 3, 1954 (Japan)
US Theatrical Release: May 7, 2004
US Distributor: Rialto Pictures
For decades, most 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 pre-existing footage. It wasn’t until the film’s proper 2004 re-release that the sobering depth and humanity of the original film 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 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 implicitly evoked, its source terrifyingly unknown. Back on shore, a handsome ship salvager named Hideto (Akira Takarada) learns of the ship’s evisceration and sweetly tells 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 a poignant 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 destroyed 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 (a trope which has appeared in everything from Macbeth to Piranha 3D); in this iteration, though, the character also pays respect to ancient Japanese beliefs while suggesting that such cultural mythologies may no longer apply to the modern era. (The villager also admits that women used to be sacrificed in order to fend off monsters like Godzilla).
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 the same year). 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 overtly alludes to Godzilla’s radioactive origins. “Repeated underwater H-bomb tests have completely destroyed its natural habitat” of sub-oceanic caves, the doctor asserts, leading to a hysterical debate whether or not 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 morbidly ironic assertion, since “fragile diplomatic relations” indirectly 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 somewhat belated predominance of this theme in Japanese media). While Japan was a free state once again at the time of the film’s 1954 release, its attitude towards the United States was re-aggravated by the Lucky Dragon 5 debacle: in March 1954, a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to radioactive fallout when the US 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 travesty 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 no exaggeration to claim that every reference to nuclear radiation and H-bomb testing in Godzilla could be construed as an allusion to this tragedy, and therefore as a veiled critique of American diplomacy (or lack thereof). It was this vitriolic confrontation with the country's recent real-world turmoil that caused many Japanese critics to denounce Godzilla upon its release—although such an unflinching political 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 annihilative weapon: an invention ominously 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? There is, obviously, 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 caged birds serve as an unexpectedly subtle visual motif: we’re all trapped in cages constructed by our own inhumanity.
Godzilla’s rampage throughout Tokyo has been lambasted by some 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 significance is vast: when we see a model set of Tokyo melting under Godzilla’s gaze like wax in the sun, a history of unthinkable trauma rises disturbingly to the fore. And in any case, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects are unique to contemporary eyes that have been inundated with countless big-budget blockbusters equipped with limitless technological resources: after seeing cities demolished by computer graphics a hundred-some times, a man in a rubber suit stumbling through a set become more immersive, more fantastic, more surreally transfixing. The pristine kaiju-mecha fights in Pacific Rim (2013) are technological marvels and nothing else; they lack the humanism and haunting repercussions that make such devastation powerful in the first place. The special effects in the newest Godzilla reboot (opening May 16) will undoubtedly be immaculate; here’s hoping they’re accompanied by an emotional investment that makes us give a damn about such CGI wizardry.
None of the human characters in Godzilla are villains: not the insular Serizawa, who refuses to reveal the weapon that might ultimately destroy Godzilla; nor Dr. Yamane, who tries futilely to convince his countrymen not to kill the creature. Astoundingly, though, the monster itself is not a “villain” either, as suggested by its countless appearances in later sequels and offshoots. It is 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 we witness 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 preposterous than our own?