Godzilla was inspired by a 1954 incident in which a US nuclear test in the Pacific exposed a Japanese fishing crew to nuclear fallout. This was followed by the discovery that irradiated tuna had been introduced into Japan's food supply. Japan was the only nation to have experienced nuclear destruction, and this occurred less than ten years prior to the film's release. Director Ishiro Honda had personally witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima, and he specifically intended Godzilla to represent the atomic bomb. The film questions what the long-term results of the nuclear arms race will be.
"Giant monster" films came back into vogue after the success of a 1952 re-release of King Kong. These movies typically featured monsters created or released through nuclear testing, and they capitalized on the fears of a society already paranoid over nuclear fallout and the Red menace. Godzilla was originally conceived as a derivative remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that would exploit the popularity of these others. This changed with the addition of Honda as director. Honda's script rewrite turned Godzilla into the personification of the atomic bomb: an indestructible being who breathed fire, destroyed buildings, was invulnerable to conventional weapons, and poisoned the city with radiation. The name "Godzilla" was derived from "gorilla" and "kujira," Japanese for "whale," and was the nickname of a Toho Studios employee. The actor who wore the monster suit, Harou Nakajima, based his movements on those of elephants and bears.
The version of the film that most of us are familiar with is vastly different, as forty minutes of its footage were cut and Raymond Burr's scenes were added. Many of Honda's political references were cut from the US version of the film. It is likely that this was not done for political reasons, but because the distributors wanted a faster-paced, action-oriented monster movie. The filmmakers had hoped that the movie would generate outcry over nuclear testing, but their film was never seen in its intended form outside of their native Japan until the DVD release of the uncut version some fifty years later. That is the version reviewed here.
The film begins with an explosion that sinks a freighter. A second ship sent to investigate also sinks, and one of the search vessels does as well. A survivor speaks of a monster, and an old man from his village says that it is Godzilla, a fearsome sea creature to whom they used to sacrifice virgins. Devastation comes to the village that night, and investigating scientists find a trilobite, thought long extinct, in a footprint-shaped depression. The creature is soon sighted, and measurements of radioactivity left in his wake lead the paleontologist, Professor Yamane, to conclude that the creature has been disturbed by hydrogen bomb testing.
Politicians insist that if the creature is the result of atomic testing, than the news should be suppressed, a reference to US censorship that prohibited the Japanese press from covering news of radiation sickness in survivors of the atomic blasts. The public is meanwhile unenthused about the prospect of returning to radiation shelters. Ships continue to disappear, and the government launches a naval attack for fear of public safety.
Serizawa, a scientist associate of Yamane's, has meanwhile created an "oxygen destroyer," a device that harnesses a frightening, unknown source of energy. He demonstrates the device to Yamane's daughter, Emiko, and its effects are disturbing enough to make her scream. She is sworn to secrecy, as Serizawa wants to prevent the device from being weaponized and will not make its existence public until he can find a beneficial use for it. Serizawa is left with no choice in the face of the suffering caused by Godzilla's destruction of Tokyo.
Godzilla is much more serious in tone than later entries in the series. It has a heavy mood with no camp element. Later films are about the fun of seeing buildings get smashed and tanks stomped on, but the devastation here reaches down to the personal level. We see the faces of frightened victims and of those suffering in the aftermath. The sequels never show Godzilla incinerating a group of civilians with his flame breath, but that happens here. Later films depict the military as heroes, but here they ignore the scientists' advice and make matters worse. The special effects are weaker than in the sequels, which themselves mostly are not technical masterpieces, but the creature at times has a fierce appearance not seen in later iterations.
The film comes just short of saying it in these words, but makes its metaphor clear: science has released a force of nature that exists only to destroy. There is no sense of victory in the ending, as Godzilla is destroyed only at great cost, and there is no guarantee that it won't happen again.
Connections: Cloverfield transposed the concept from postwar Japan to post-9/11 New York. Jurassic Park borrowed Godzilla's "Footsteps of Doom." References otherwise are too numerous to count, as Godzilla is a household name and one of Japan's most recognizable celebrities.