It’s difficult to remember, but the cuddly Godzilla that emerged in the 70’s as monster kids watched the films repeatedly on TV was anything but when he first emerged from the waves and brought the same destruction to Japan that it had endured just one decade before.
Director Ishirō Honda completely shot Tokyo rampage with the same terror that came from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
It’s also a cultural metaphor for how Godzilla is the victim of the United States — Japan as a whole felt the same way — with the bomb tests that woke him sending the giant dinosaur searching for something and finding only the need to destroy everything. It is filled with bleak and brutal images from a country that was the only one in the world that had to deal with having nuclear hell unleashed upon it.
Unlike every movie that ripped off this film and gave birth to the kaiju film, this is not just men in suits ripping up model buildings. This is a film that uses a gigantic beast as a metaphor for trying to start again, for being bombed into oblivion, for dealing with fear and so much more. It’s an astounding piece of art that couldn’t play that way in our country, leading to Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Director Ishirō Honda — who worked shirtless in blazing heat to make several scenes in this movie come to life, leading to permanent scars on his back from sunburns — felt that no one would respect a science fiction movie, so this needed to be presented as a documentary and the titular creature would only be seen in shadow and never in full frame until late in the film.
Dr. Kyohei Yamane wants to save Godzilla, as he’s waited his entire life to see a real dinosaur or ancient sea creature or whatever this creature, awakened by nuclear bomb testing, really is. Yet all anyone can do is send more bombs, more bullets and more electronic fences after the creature who shrugs it all off. The hospitals are overflowing with the dead and dying, reminding one of the radiation-scarred cities at the end of World War II.
Only Dr. Daisuke Serizawa and his horrifying Oxygen Destroyer — which disintegrates oxygen atoms and causes living things to rot — can really stop Godzilla, but Serizawa realizes that if he uses this weapon, it won’t be the last time that it is unleashed. So he reacts exactly like a man who embraces Japanese honor would, even in the face of death. He burns his notes and commits to dying as he faces the monster one-on-one, knowing that all of his work will never fall into the wrong hands.
Many thought that this film would flop and it opened to mixed reviews. Critics believed that the movie exploited the nuclear terror Japan had survived as well as the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident, in which a Japanese fishing boat had been caught in a U.S. nuclear test. It wasn’t until American reviews pointed the art in using monsters to deal with real-life horror that the film was considered a success.
As for that American movie, Honda wasn’t even aware that it had been re-edited until it played Japan as Monster King Godzilla in 1957. We’ll get to that on our site soon enough, but it’s odd that the kind American reviews that prompted critical reevaluations in Japan were watching a movie that had been sanitized of much of the real-world elements, making it more of a monster movie than a parable.
Godzilla is an important film, not just because thirty films plus and a cultural force emerged from it. It demands to be watched and considered, particularly in a world where it seems like we’ve learned none of its lessons.