A great monster movie is about much more than creatures. Monsters are the embodiment of a society's fears, metaphors for the very real but abstract forces threatening humanity; the best monster movies play out political, practical, and moral debates. King Kong was about the domestication of man. Frankenstein, the hubris of science. Among the great monster movies that are metaphors, the original Godzilla, or Gojira, stands tall. It's one of the great nuclear metaphors in Japanese cinema, and, more generally, one of the best films about nuclear war.
Godzilla tackled its subject and themes with artful subtlety. No film since has matched it. Most monster films of some geopolitical relevance live in the massive shadow of the classic original Gojira; it's the granddaddy of monster movie metaphors. While the 2016 series reboot was a strong showing of politics in monster movies, it didn't have the haunting bleakness of the original, which appeared in theaters just nine years after WWII ended, and only two years after the Allied occupation of Japan officially finished. At the time of its release, on November 3, 1954, Gojira was revolutionary, and it continues to have an impact into the 21st century.
If you've only ever seen the American, Raymond Burr cut of the film (Godzilla: King of the Monsters!) in which an American radio announcer played by Raymond Burr was inserted into the action and much of the movie's heavy thematic content cut out, go watch the original Japanese version right now. No offense to Burr, but that version, while enjoyable, completely changes the meaning of the film. The edits made weren't simply done to appeal to American sensibilities, but as a form of censorship. A movie about the horrors of nuclear war wouldn't translate well to 1950s America, which was caught up in post-WWII patriotism and Cold War fervor. What's more, it would be a constant reminder to audiences that America nuked Japan. Twice.
When Godzilla premiered, no films had been made in Japan about nuclear war, in part because movies made during the Occupation were subject to censorship from SCAP (the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers), which banned, among other things, any references to the Occupation, and nearly all period pieces, for the fear they would reinvigorate feelings of extreme patriotism and loyalty to the emperor. Even since, no Japanese film has addressed the feelings and carnage caused by the atomic bombs quite like Godzilla. Its scenes of destruction and death weren't just reflections of what would happen in the case of a giant mutant dinosaur attack. They were reflections of a grim reality all too familiar to the Japanese at the time.
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In the postwar period of the late '40s and early '50s, Japan was caught between two powerful forces: modernization and recovery from the devastation of war. Nowhere was this battle clearer than nuclear technology. In nuclear technology, humanity found both the means to power a city and completely destroy it. This is the razor's edge Godzilla walked with a brilliant subtlety that was unfortunately lost on most Western audiences for years.
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, strict and sometimes arbitrary censorship was enforced by Allied personnel. Anything deemed dangerous to peace was banned, as were references to the Occupation, such as English-language signs or American troops (for a fascinating look at how filmmakers subverted censorship, check out Kurosawa and the Censors on the Criterion Collection release of Kurosawa's Drunken Angel). Suffice to say, a cinematic exploration of nuclear destruction was out of the question in the immediate aftermath of the war. By 1954, when the film premiered, the American film censors had left Japan, but a film directly referencing the atomic bombs and commenting on the ongoing nuclear arms race was still extremely provocative.
Japan's relationship with the United States was complicated in the '50s. By 1954, the Japanese economy was well on the road recovery, due to a number of factors, such as the Korean War, the country's postwar socialist fervor, the rise of keiretsu (a unique Japanese corporate structure), and the collusion of organized crime, government, and business. During that time, Japan acted as a major arms supplier and military hub for the US. With no small bit of irony, Japan's rapid recovery from the devastation of war came, in part, from capitalizing on another war. To further complicate matters, the country wasn't really in any position to say no, given its relationship with the US.
While even Westerners can see obvious references to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Godzilla, Japanese audiences immediately recognized the first scene of the film as a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident. Just eight months prior to the premier of the film, a Japanese fishing boat called Lucky Dragon 5 ventured too close to a US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll (though it was well outside the naval exclusion area) and received a heavy dose of radiation.
The crew saw the fireball of the bomb, but was unaware of the peril until a thick layer of radioactive fallout clouded on the ship. The crew reeled in nets and headed for port, and showed signs of radiation poisoning almost immediately. While Japanese doctors recognized the symptoms from their experience with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US denied the diagnosis. The ship's radio operator, directly referenced in Godzilla, died six months later. The event caused a significant tuna scare in Japan, with concerns about radioactivity in fish.
This set the stage for Godzilla, which, perhaps not coincidentally, appeared in theaters the same year Japan started its nuclear program. The film's monster represents the destructive force of nuclear weapons. Japan was a tiny, defeated, disarmed nation sitting between the Soviet Union and the US, both of which actively tested hydrogen bombs so powerful they made the atomic bombs dropped on Japan look like cherry bombs. An atmosphere of impending doom hung over the country, epitomized by the idiom shikata ga nai ("nothing can be done"). Despite this deep, almost resigned pessimism, Godzilla director Ishiro Honda attempted to show a way forward in his masterpiece of cinema.
Godzilla director Ishiro Honda served in the Imperial Army during WWII. He enlisted in an army infantry regiment in 1935 and spent years in China and Manchuria. Honda ended up as a POW in '45 and heard about the atomic bombs during his six months in prison. Upon his return to Japan, he, like many returning soldiers, repatriated through the port of Hiroshima. The devastation had a deep impact on him, and from that moment he sought to make a film about nuclear war.
Honda was a lifelong friend of Akira Kurosawa, who gave the eulogy at Honda's funeral in 1993. The two collaborated on several of films, including Kurosawa's Stray Dog, Kagemusha, and Dreams (a segment in Dreams about a soldier returning from war is theorized to be taken from Honda's personal experience). In 1955, just a year after the release of Godzilla, Kurosawa premiered I Live in Fear (AKA Record of a Living Being), a film about a Japanese man driven insane by his fear of nuclear war, which examines the violent past living in the shadows of postwar boomtown Tokyo.
After graduating from Nippon University in 1933, Honda went to work at a movie studio later subsumed by Toho Studios. His career was interrupted by military service, but Honda got a position as an assistant director at Toho after the war, where he befriended fellow assistant director Kurosawa. During his early years, Honda also worked on some war films, but it wasn't until Godzilla he fully realized his personal vision.
Toho clearly believed in Godzilla, giving Honda three times the normal budget for a film at that time in Japan. Honda co-wrote the screenplay, intent on making an impactful film about the dangers of nuclear weapons. He succeeded, drawing on what he saw in Hiroshima to portray the complete devastation wrought by a nuclear bomb through its proxy, the monster Gojira. By focusing on the human toll of disaster, and keeping politics between the lines, Honda was able to create a uniquely impactful film that appeals to audiences long after the context of postwar Japan has faded from the minds of most audiences.
After Godzilla's success—it was produced for ¥62 million and grossed ¥152 million—Honda went on to direct a number of monster films, including Rodan, Mothra, and several other Godzilla sequels. He became known as the master of Kaiju (giant monster) films. None of his subsequent films had the serious, dark atmosphere of the original Godzilla, which Honda described as uniquely his vision. However, these films weren't completely bereft of meaning. Mothra is about an isolated island civilization violently modernized when bomb testing irradiates it and capitalists arrive intent on exploiting the residents and terrain.
Throughout his work, Ishiro Honda helped define what it meant to be a monster, saying, "Monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy; that is their tragedy."
Unlike many of its sequels, Godzilla is not an action film. The heroes don't rush to fight a monster, guns blazing. Instead, they make difficult moral choices. While the initial idea for the film, thought up by Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, was inspired by 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (which touches upon the potential dangers of nuclear power, but is mostly a classic corny monster movie), Godzilla is not a typical monster film. Rather, it's a drama that uses the language of science fiction to convey its message, with the titular monster representing the destructive force of a nuclear weapon.
The life preserver on the boat in the opening sequence of Godzilla is inscribed with the number 5, a subtle but overt reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident. One man survives the incident only to be killed by Godzilla later on, at Odo Island. This parallels the experience of the radio operator on Lucky Dragon, Aikichi Kuboyama, who died of radiation poisoning six months after the event.
Though Godzilla never explicitly mentions the US as to blame for the atomic testing that awoke and mutated the titular monster (if you're unfamiliar, he's an ancient sea creature), the underlying implication reflects the tense political relationship between the countries. The Diet scene (the National Diet is the legislative branch of the Japanese government, or its Congress) underscores this tension; an argument breaks out on whether to keep the information on the monster secret or to release it to the public. This debate references a very real issue in Japan at the time, that of anti-nuclear sentiment pitted against a desire to maintain good relations with the US (Japan's early nuclear power plants were built in cooperation with UK and US-based companies).
Nothing of consequence is accomplished in the Diet scene in Godzilla, as the meeting breaks down into petty infighting. Ultimately, the film shows both the government and military to be impotent, while the hope of humanity rests in the hands of the scientific community and ordinary individuals.
Takashi Shimura, fresh from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and called one of the best actors in the world by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times for his work in 1952's Ikiru ("[he] measures up through his performance in this picture with the top film actors anywhere"), gave Godzilla gravitas with his portrayal of Dr. Yamane. Star power like his was a dead giveaway Godzilla wasn't just a B-monster movie.
Dr. Yamane's role in the film is particularly interesting in that he seems to be the only character who doesn't want to destroy Godzilla. Rather, Yamane wants to study the monster, to discover how it survived massive doses of radiation, a practical reason driving his scientific inquiry. This desire comes into direct conflict with his duty to obey the government, which decides to destroy Godzilla, and his duty to prevent the loss of life. Shimura's understated acting belies the understated nature of the film's message, suggesting there really isn't an easy answer to the character's dilemma. His sorrow upon witnessing the destruction of Godzilla provides a sharp contrast to the jubilance seen in typical creature films upon the monster's defeat.
Running parallel to Yamane's story is that of fellow scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Serizawa has made a massive scientific breakthrough (the Oxygen Destroyer), but keeps his discovery secret for fear it will be used as a weapon. While Yamane wants to increase scientific knowledge at the possible expense of life, Serizawa wants the reverse. In the context of the nuclear arms race, the symbolism of the Oxygen Destroyer is obvious. The device is the only thing more powerful than Godzilla. Serizawa's insistence that the Oxygen Destroyer dies with him is a veiled appeal to the scientific community.
What's more, Serizawa is disfigured by war; he's blind in one eye, an obvious comment on the scientific community of the time. The film suggests the scientific community has a moral duty to keep destructive breakthroughs in military technology secret, even if the use of such technology will save lives in the short term. When Serizawa finally agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer, he burns his notes and commits suicide in the process, so the secrets of the weapon die with him.
The scenes of Tokyo on fire during Godzilla's attack are a direct reminder of Allied firebombings at the end of WWII, while scenes of the destroyed city are reminiscent of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla destroys many prominent buildings during his rampage, such as the National Diet Building, the Hattori Clock Tower, and the Nichigeki Theater, at which the film showed during its first run. Throughout the destruction, the human toll is hammered home. Like the atomic bomb, Godzilla destroys indiscriminately, killing women and children.
Images of suffering children are used repeatedly to move heroes to action (children being a metaphor for the future), such as when Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi), Dr. Yamane's daughter, decides to give away the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer after seeing a young girl watch her mother die. The film doesn't pull any punches; you see people dying not only during Godzilla's rampage, but in the halls of overcrowded hospitals in the aftermath of the attack. At one point, a doctor examines a child with a Geiger counter, then turns to Yamane shaking his head. As horrible as the initial attack is, death won't end there.
As for the Geiger counter, Godzilla has atomic breath. In perhaps the most obvious reference to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he douses Tokyo with radiation. For as much damage as the monster causes in his initial rampage, the toll taken upon those who survived but were heavily radiated remains unknown and incalculable.
The downbeat ending (which involves Serizawa's suicide and Yamane's lamentation), coupled with the destructive imagery throughout the film, shows deep pessimism reflective of the overall mood of Japan, at a time during which postwar optimism was clearly wearing thin (at least for artists). This grim feeling differentiates Godzilla from other monster films. The focus is less on the monster (who receives relatively little screen time) than the impact of destruction on the ordinary people. Godzilla reflects the helplessness and fear felt by Japanese people caught up in forces far beyond their control and demonstrates the complex moral choices that come with nuclear weaponry.
The original Godzilla spawned 29 Toho sequels and counting, as well as two American remakes. Almost immediately, these sequels morphed into campy, juvenile monster flicks (with a handful of exceptions). A big reason for this change from serious to campy was the impact of the 1956 American cut of the film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which removed most references to radioactivity, destruction, and the bomb, turning Godzilla into a more traditional monster film. The overwhelming popularity of that version (including in Japan) inspired Toho to give fans more of the same. By the time the first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, was released, the grim tone was already lost.
While this simplified vision of Godzilla as a force of nature repaying mankind for its hubris had staying power, many of the deeper implications of the original were lost and forgotten. Fans of later Kaiju films saw Godzilla as a sometimes comedic defender of Japan fighting other, more sinister monsters. While these films are good in their own way, and often dealt with somewhat serious themes, they never managed to capture the gravity of the original. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), for instance, is a bit on the nose. One thing that remains throughout, though, is the idea that Godzilla and the problems surrounding him are unintentional and man-made. This is a bed humans made and now have to sleep in.
In 2004, many Americans got their first view of the uncut, subtitled, original Japanese Gojira when it was released in theaters to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its release. It (finally) received critical acclaim from American critics, who had never seen it in its true form. In 2006, the original was released on DVD in the US alongside King of the Monsters!. Audiences were surprised to find such a serious and sobering film about the monster they had come to know as a campy, B-movie icon, an image that probably wasn't helped by Nike's whole Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley thing or some seriously bizarre Dr. Pepper commercials.
It wasn't until 2014 a real attempt at a serious Godzilla movie was made (perhaps with the exception of a 1985 reboot that flopped with critics but, with the distance of history, is pretty good). In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the timing was right for Godzilla to return to his allegorical roots, this time in an American film. Gareth Edwards's Godzilla (2014) directly references Fukushima, then takes a dive into the powerlessness of humans in the face of nature. It received mixed reviews and isn't perfect, but the reception was largely positive, especially compared to the 1998 version (an installment even the most ardent Godzilla fans would like to forget).
The 2016 reboot Shin Godzilla (AKA Godzilla: Resurgence), from Toho, is the first official reboot of the series and succeeded in being more than just another entry in a long line of campy monster films. It's a throwback to the original - a serious, sometimes very funny political commentary told in a distinctly Japanese way. Shin Godzilla tackles issues such as the bureaucratic nature of Japanese society, the Japanese self-defense force, and changing the post-WWII pacifist constitution, which has been a hot-button issue in the 2010s. When the main character in the film is reprimanded for losing his temper, you can't help but laugh. Shin Godzilla (which means "new Godzilla") was critically acclaimed in Japan, where it received several awards, and the limited American release was a huge success.
On top of all this, Godzilla is a landmark film in a genre Guillermo del Toro has helped restore to prominence through films like Pan's Labyrinth. While del Toro frequently cites Frankenstein and H.P. Lovecraft as major inspirations, it's hard not to see the ghost of Godzilla's epic wartime tragedy in the filmmaker's Spanish Civil War work.
While no film will match the quality of the 1954 Godzilla, Shin Godzilla at least does it justice. It is with this renewed hope fans of Godzilla everywhere anticipate Godzilla: King of the Monsters! and Godzilla vs. Kong, set for released by Legendary Pictures in 2019 and 2020, respectively. As Godzilla continues to make an impact (and money), new films will be made. There's a reason Shinjuku (a ward in Tokyo) named Godzilla its official cultural ambassador in 2015. No other giant, radioactive, allegory for nuclear war has touched the lives of so many people around the world.