I recently attended a conference in Lincoln, UK, where a fellow researcher presented a paper on the transnational influence of Japan’s most iconic monster. This began with the English dubbing and insertion of new footage shot by Terry O. Morse for the 1956 American edit of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, which was released under the title of Godzilla: King of The Monsters!, and is further illustrated by Godzilla 1985 (1985), which applied a similar treatment to the 1984 franchise reboot. The nuclear monster’s impact is still felt today, as the worldwide success of Gareth Edwards’ blockbuster 2014 Hollywood adaptation has inspired Toho to initiate its own new franchise. Whether or not this will be a fitting return to the monster’s roots remains to be seen. What is certain is that despite the long and varied history of the franchise, the original remains startling because it is inextricably bound to Japan’s past. As easy as it can be to see it this way, Godzilla is not about a giant lizard.
The film opens with the destruction of boats that venture out from a Japanese fishing village. After one is destroyed, another is sent out, and very few survivors return. The village is then destroyed that night by an unknown force. The next day, a giant footprint is found, and Godzilla is spotted soon afterwards (and is named by those who have already survived its attacks). An archaeologist, Yamane (Takashi Shimura) theorizes that the monster is a prehistoric creature that was awakened by nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese government decides to send out ships with depth charges to try and kill the monster, but this only focuses Godzilla’s fury on Tokyo. After several devastating attacks, the archaeologist’s daughter Emiko (Momoki Kochi) pleads with her former fiancé, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), to use his latest scientific creation to destroy Godzilla. He is reluctant, though, as the experimental Oxygen Destroyer is a devastating weapon.
Special effects may have improved vastly after sixty years, but the destruction of Tokyo in the original film is virtually unmatched in the later sequels and remakes. Buildings are crumbled and burnt by Godzilla’s stampeding strength, and railways are brutally swept away before any passengers have a chance to escape. The monster’s feet and tail flatten everything in their path. This is made all the more chilling by Godzilla’s entrance. He emerges silently and slowly from Tokyo Bay. Though he is spotted, Godzilla’s slow approach upon the city is in complete contrast to the devastation he brings with him – either through his limbs or his flaming breath.
It is this devastation that has the most impact within the film, seeing as it was released only nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla’s theorized origins, and his destruction, are clear allegories for the nuclear bomb. Yamane’s fears that more nuclear tests could lead to another Godzilla awakening are a warning to the world, and not just Japan (which now has one of the highest numbers of nuclear power stations in the world). And yet the destruction and chaos are not the darkest parts of the film.
Godzilla simply has to be seen to be believed – especially if you are skeptical of a movie where the central spectacle is a man in a rubber suit. Though the monster later became a favorite with Japanese children, and those in other countries, here he instils nothing but terror. Furthermore, the fate of Serizawa and his Oxygen Destroyer in the final scenes is an even starker warning against weapons of mass destruction than a fire-breathing monster. The scientist’s invention is depicted as capable of neutralizing all oxygen in a body of water, and killing all life within it. Film history and the conceits of science fiction now make us very much aware that Godzilla’s death was only temporary, but Serizawa’s actions are not. The character’s final act suggests that those who develop terrible inventions have them weigh heavily on their conscience, especially when they are forced to use them. This brings the film full circle. It makes it equally chilling when viewed again, because Godzilla is a representation of the most feared discovery of twentieth century science.