The philosopher Noel Carroll believes that most monster movies begin with two movements. The first is called the “Onset,” in which it becomes apparent that the world of the movie is under attack from some force. This is followed by the “Discovery,” in which the characters figure out what this force is, and have to try to fight it. Godzilla, first released in Japanese theaters on Nov. 3, 1954, uses these two movements to open up a profound meditation on the nature of monsters, the atomic age and Japanese history.
The film opens with ships mysteriously disappearing off Odo Island in the south of Japan. First freighters and then the rescue ships sent to the area vanish without a trace. At the same time, the fish on which the villagers on Odo Island depend also begin to disappear. Only one old man has any idea what might be happening, and he blames it on an ancient myth of a sea monster named Godzilla that could only be pacified by the sacrifice of a young girl.
When a terrible storm arises, the village on Odo Island is destroyed and the only clue to what might have happened is a fantastically large radioactive footprint. While the scientists who’ve flown in to investigate this are debating what this footprint might mean, a panicked local arrives, announcing that he’s seen something. The scientists and villagers run to a nearby ridge and discover a 165-foot tall monstrosity that has crawled out of the ocean to terrorize them.
When Godzilla stomps back into the ocean and disappears, Japan is left wondering not only what he is and where he came from, but what to do about him. The Onset is over, and the Discovery begins.
The first clue comes when a scientist named Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) realizes that Godzilla is a dinosaur, roused from hiding by a series of hydrogen bomb tests that have been conducted off the coast. Unfortunately, he believes that Godzilla is invincible. “Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-Bomb and survived,” he declares. “What could kill it now? Right now our priority should be to study its incredible powers of survival.”
But when Godzilla returns and stomps through a Tokyo neighborhood, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces rush into action. They build a 100-foot tall electrified fence and prepare their fighter planes and artillery. These measures don’t work at all. Godzilla smashes through the fence without so much as noticing it and responds to the military weapons by unleashing bursts of atomic breath, which burns everything it comes in contact with.
There’s another possibility, however. A second scientist, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who is the erstwhile fiancé of Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi), has invented a terrible weapon. Called the “Oxygen Destroyer,” it disintegrates oxygen molecules, killing all living things in the vicinity. But Serizawa is terribly conflicted: he has created a weapon of mass destruction that might be able to kill Godzilla, but as soon as it is used, he knows that governments all over the Earth will want the technology so they can conquer one another.
The terms are clear. The Onset has revealed a force that is equal to nuclear power assaulting Japan. The Discovery reveals that the only way to deal with this force is by creating something even worse. In the end, as Japan grows increasingly desperate, Serizawa makes a fateful choice. He uses the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla, but also kills himself in the process, ensuring that his terrible technology will never be recreated.
If you’re thinking that this all sounds pretty amazing, you’re right. Remember though, that the one issue for the modern viewer is that the special effects look terribly dated. The attempt to make the model trains, airplanes, fire storms and tidal waves look realistic is handled heroically, but to our modern eyes fails. The stegosaurus-like plates on Godzilla’s back occasionally flop and bend, and the rear-screen projection and composite images that create many of the action scenes have lost their ability to convince in this era of CGI.
But if you can look past this, you’ll find that director Ishiro Honda has created an extraordinary story. The monster that emerges from Tokyo Bay is the embodied nightmare of Japan’s nuclear anxiety. It represents the lasting trauma of a nation that had two nuclear bombs dropped on it less than a decade before the release of the film. At the same time, Godzilla exemplifies Japan’s collective struggle to find wisdom in the face of that attack, which involved not only an appalling loss of life but also a world-historic military defeat.
Despite the monumental destruction he wreaks, Godzilla is also somehow Japan itself, the only nation to survive a nuclear assault, to be respected, as Dr. Yamane notes for its “incredible powers or survival.” Throughout, the film manages to remind Japanese citizens of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with shots of displaced and dying women and children in hospital wards after Godzilla’s rampages, and also so summon Japanese pride, through patriotic shots of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces doing battle with the monster.
And in the end it does find a measure of wisdom. When Serizawa – a one-eyed veteran of World War Two – symbolically declares that his own life is less important than taking the chance that mankind will again fall into annihilating madness, he is also symbolically staking the claim that Japan, because of its history, has potential to lead the rest of the world away from nuclear folly.
In this way the original Godzilla is far superior to all the other films in the massive franchise it spawned, which includes at least 32 Japanese sequels and 3 American ones. It manages to be fun and dramatic but at the same time deadly serious in its view of humanity and its potentialities. The origin of the story is worth remembering every time you see Godzilla battling a giant moth in one of the old Japanese sequels, or pillaging in beautiful CGI in one of the new American ones. The creature that originally climbed out of Tokyo Bay was more than a monster. He was also a complicated vision of our destructiveness, perseverance and potential.