As a kid I watched a few of the later Godzilla movies. They were cheesy, entertaining monster bash movies with rubber suits and weird sounds. The original movie is something very different indeed.
Yes, the monster effects are cheesy, and the model ships Godzilla destroys are a demonstration of the fact that water does not scale well in SFX, but there is a pathos in this movie that is hard to shake off. The fact this movie came out only nine-years after the end of World War II and features a huge, radioactive monster that destroys Japanese fishing villages, burns Tokyo to the ground and which the Japanese military are helpless to prevent is a pretty clear metaphor for how the Japanese lived that war.
In fact the film refers directly to the war and explicitly states the comparison: after the authorities announce that civilians must evacuate Tokyo because of Gojira’s imminent attack, one woman declares “I can’t face this again after what happened to me in Nagasaki.” A man hearing the same announcement declares, “I’m not evacuating again”. The mysterious scientist, Daisuke Serizawa, lost his eye in the war and Godzilla himself was awoken by the H-bomb tests in the Pacific.
It’s amazing to think that a large apart of the original audience would have witnessed carnage similar to that shown in the movie, not wreaked by a giant Jurassic beast of course, but by the Big Green Machine of the American military. Several scenes are far more harrowing than anything shown in contemporary American B-movies – for example the mother who tells her children, “You’ll join your father in heaven soon” and the children in post-Gojira Tokyo who the scientist examines with a geiger counter before sadly shaking his head to his companion. Even the dynamic between the heroes is very different – the good-looking Navy-frogman, Hideto Ogata, is heroic, but the true hero turns out to be Serizawa – who is first presented almost as the classic mad-scientist.
Serzawa is terrified of his own discovery – a weapon more terrible than the H-bomb, and even knowing that he holds the only weapon that can stop the otherwise invincible Gojira, he balks, lest politicians should use later unleash his creation upon the world. Serizawa’s dilemma is the crux of the movie. The human stories: Emiko, betrothed to Serizawa, but Hideto’s lover; the scientist Kyohei Yemani, who believes Gojira to be a repository of scientific marvels too precious to be killed; the people of Japan; and of course, Serizawa, are far more important than the monster (which has surprisingly little screen time).
Filmed in moody, grainy, black and white this film is a welcome counterpoint to the classic b-movie monster movie (which is what the Godzilla sequels basically became). In fact the movie is more of a drama played out against the backdrop of a national tragedy and a warning, by the only nation ever attacked by nuclear weapons, against further meddling with such monstrosities. In fact if you cut out the monster you could probably edit the piece as a movie about World War II – it’s the war retold, but with Japan winning at great cost. Yet it’s not a military victory, it is the civilians who defeat Gojira so that the nation might live in peace.
If an an attack by a giant. prehistoric monster is unbelievable, so most likely, was defeat and the atomic bomb for those who experienced it. Strangely, after 9/11, the film might speak more to American audiences than it ever could have before.