Director Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla reboot has already crossed the $200 million line in worldwide box office and has mostly been considered—my own views notwithstanding—a critical success as well. But whatever one’s take on the latest model, I wanted to call attention to the very earliest, Ishiro’s Honda’s 1954 Gojira.
As a boy, I adored Godzilla movies. This was in the days before ubiquitous VCRs (let alone DVDs, DVRs, streaming video, etc.) and Saturday afternoons that happened to feature a Godzilla flick were like minor holidays. Every now and then, the rest of the gang would show up, too: Rodan, Mothra, Ghidorah, Anguirus—even that shameless rip-off Gamera. Best of all were the rare, eagerly anticipated broadcasts of the kaiju free-for-all Destroy All Monsters.
But though I saw the “original” Godzilla countless times, it was always the 1956 Americanized edit. It was not until the last decade that I saw Honda’s original 1954 cut, and when I did it was a genuine revelation. As I wrote a few years ago:
This is not your parents' Godzilla, the 1956 recut with Raymond Burr inserted as American interlocutor, a paragon of western stoicism with his boxy suit and pipe held aloft like a talisman. The Japanese original is far darker and more seamless, a topical fantasy of uncommon power. It may not be a great film, but it is an important one, a surprisingly sombre meditation on means and ends, on when exactly the price of peace becomes too costly to pay.
It’s common knowledge that the Japanese kaiju movies were intended in part as metaphors for the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The trope of comic-book heroes with radiation-bestowed powers—Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four—served as a more benign, American version of the same.) But in Honda’s Gojira, released less than a decade after the bombs were dropped, this is no buried subtext but rather a theme of visceral immediacy. Yes, Godzilla performs a few patented building-stomps and tail-swipes. But the images that linger are of Tokyo awash in a “sea of flames”; of smoldering, apocalyptic ruins; of stretchers full of bodies—some of them suffering from radiation poisoning—and shelters full of orphans. As director Honda explained: “I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
Indeed, Godzilla’s first few attacks resemble nothing so much as bomb detonations. A freighter at sea notices a glow in the ocean, followed by a blinding flash, and moments later we see its burning hull swallowed up by the waves. The same fate befalls a second ship sent to investigate this “accident,” and then a third. As a survivor explains, “The ocean just blew up!” Notably, these scenes were directly inspired by the real-life fate of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a Japanese fishing boat whose crew was accidentally contaminated by radioactive fallout from a more-powerful-than-planned U.S. nuclear test just months before filming began.
But nowhere are the movie’s atomic resonances keener than in the narrative reversal that makes up the film’s final act. A young scientist—one who, again by no coincidence, was himself literally scarred by World War II—has accidentally discovered a super-weapon that might be used to kill Godzilla, a device that “splits atoms” to release a previously “unknown form of energy.” What follows, unexpectedly, is a long and tortured discussion over whether this weapon, the underwater “oxygen destroyer,” should be deployed in Tokyo Bay to save Japan from the existential threat posed by Godzilla. One character asks the inventor, “What if your discovery is used for some horrible purpose?” To which he replies, “Used as a weapon, this would be as powerful as a nuclear bomb. It could totally destroy humankind.” Later, he adds, “Bombs vs. bombs, missiles vs. missiles, and now a new super-weapon to throw upon us all.”
In the end, of course, the oxygen destroyer is utilized, and Japan is saved. But although a newscaster speaks of “this exhilaration, this jubilation” at the death of Godzilla, little of either sentiment is evident onscreen. The tone instead is ambivalent, even mournful. As I wrote earlier:
When the time comes, Godzilla is strangely sympathetic, a docile creature on the ocean floor who flails helplessly as the life bubbles out of him. The monster, which began the film as an embodiment of the atomic bomb, has come full circle, and ends as an embodiment of Japan, victim (though hardly an innocent one) of a technology so terrible it must never be used again.
Few mass entertainments have dealt so directly with a tragedy so fresh.
Gojira—which lost the Japanese Movie Association award for best picture that year to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai—is an urgent, earnest film, a profoundly unsettling window into national trauma. So by all means go see Gareth Edwards’s updated version if you have a mind to. But give Honda’s original (available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video) a look, too.