It was easily one of the more peculiar cinematic experiences of my life. Perhaps it was because I didn’t start the film until midnight or maybe it had to do with some serious daddy issues and my father’s life-long obsession with the franchise, but as I became immersed in the new Criterion Collection release of Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla this past weekend, I found myself moved to tears — mourning for a doomed dino.
For decades now, my exposure to Godzilla has led me to believe that the series is all about obliterated skyscrapers, fire-breathing behemoths and absurd monster duels (Mothra, anyone?). My dad has always loved the monster movie aspect of the Godzilla universe, and I can still recall his excitement when Godzilla 2000 – that’s the Japanese release, not the appalling Roland Emmerich adaptation – finally arrived in Wisconsin theaters. My brother and I patiently sat through the stomping, the roaring and the clashes with the military. But we couldn’t hold back the guffaws during the climactic sequence, when a reporter looks out at a rampaging Godzilla and asks “Why does Godzilla always protect us?” only to have the hero pause, consider and reply: “Maybe there’s a little Godzilla… in all of us.” Right. This is the Godzilla I have grown up with: Predictable and plodding, filled with incredulous (and hilariously inept) subtext.
But this past weekend, I was reminded that the series wasn’t always this way. To the contrary, the first film had serious intellectual heft behind all that monster stomping, and some searing things to say about human nature. In a sparkling restoration, Criterion has revived the 1954 Godzilla as the daring and enduring work it always was, one that evokes not only the moral anxiety of the nuclear age but also the gloom that hovered over Japan in the years following World War II. And beyond these social themes, Godzilla also stands as an unlikely touchstone in the careers of some of Japan’s top film talents — from director Honda to composer Akira Ifukube (who considered this his finest creation) and actor Takashi Shimura, the familiar face of so many Kurosawa films. For any serious film lover or historian, this is a collaboration that demands notice.
While Shimura’s sober scientist is one of the two major characters in Godzilla, it’s startling how minor his role is, and how uninterested the film is in providing the viewer with a circle of protagonists. If most monster epics are about a set of daring, decisive humans confronting a super-normal adversary, Godzilla is focused instead on setting a mood, conjuring an atmosphere and perhaps sparking a debate.
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From the outset, Godzilla is a sparse, slow-paced, affair. The opening credits scroll to little fanfare, underscored by a rhythmic thudding (Godzilla’s march?) and accented by the occasional roar. The action begins during a lazy day at sea, as a fishing boat crew witnesses a distant explosion followed by a blinding, underwater eruption that leads the boat to catch fire. The first time we clearly see Godzilla, through the awestruck eyes of researchers who have traveled out to investigate the boat’s destruction, the dinosaur doesn’t attack the humans so much as give them a quick staring down before prancing back into the ocean.
Slight in characters, this pitch-black fantasy is far more compelling as a societal portrait; a look at how World War II reshaped the Japanese worldview. The film’s opening sequence, for example, is a depiction of a real-life incident that occurred earlier in 1954, when the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru was contaminated by nuclear fallout from a United States H-bomb test in the Marshall Islands. The ship’s radio operator died in Japan several months later, and was dubbed the world’s first victim of the hydrogen bomb. These concepts of nuclear fallout and long-term radiation poisoning were still somewhat new to the public conversation; in the past, the focus had been on things like tonnage and blast radius. So it’s little surprise that Godzilla was freed from his underground lair thanks to off-shore H-bomb testing — the consequences rippling across the ocean to Japanese shores.
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While Godzilla’s first appearances are nonviolent — the dinosaur only turns vicious once attacked by the Japanese military — once he reaches Tokyo, he unleashes hell. Yet here again, as the city burns, Honda positions the destruction as less shocking than sullen, a spectacle that leads several characters to remember the darkest days of the war. Long camera takes chronicle Godzilla’s unstoppable and inevitable march, as crying mothers tell their kids that they will soon be joining their fathers in heaven (who presumably died during the war). As Tokyo newspapers warn citizens of an impending attack, a woman on the subway bemoans Godzilla’s appearance: “I barely escaped the atomic bomb at Nagasaki – and now this.” Even the police give up. Long before Godzilla has finished the onslaught, top government officials order patrol cars to shift their efforts from defense to rescue and firefighting. There’s an aura of hopelessness here, as this centerpiece sequence ditches the titillation and terror of so many monster movies to focus on something closer to despair. Death has arrived, and all one can do is bear it.
It’s during a climactic underwater sequence that the film weaves together these themes of militarism, desolation and nuclear dread. A young scientist (Akihiko Hirata) has created an “oxygen destroyer” that can kill Godzilla, but as he realizes the full scope and potential of his creation (which could destroy the oceans and spark a new global arms race) he does his best to hide the invention. Compelled into service, he insists on diving with the device and detonating it himself. But after watching Godzilla writhe in pain and all too aware that there are no other Oxygen Destroyers in existence, the scientist pulls a knife and committs suicide in the depths. It is a startling finale, stoking sympathy for the “enemy” and killing off the “hero,” designed to make audiences question the value of such destructive weapons. Honda seems to be asking: If the Japanese had access to a nuclear weapon, would they have also used it?
Heavily re-edited and repackaged in the United States years later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, with a significant portion of the Japanese footage swapped out with new scenes starring Raymond Burr and an American cast, few western audiences ever got the chance to appreciate Honda’s provocative spin on the monster film. The new Criterion Collection release includes restored versions of both films, a poignant printed essay by the great J. Hoberman and, most importantly, an astonishing audio commentary provided by film historian David Kalat. Expansive in his discussion not only of the Japanese film industry and the cultural issues of the day, he also goes into great detail about America’s Manhattan Project, and draws a parallel between the ashamed hero of Godzilla and no less than J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, when forced to continue developing bombs after the end of World War II, realized that it is the weapons that necessitate our wars, and not the other way around.