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.”