Criterion Project #25: GODZILLA (1954)


Spine #594

Year: 1954

Director: Ishiro Honda

A revelatory moment occurred this week when I dove into the Godzilla box-set – this is my first time watching the original Japanese film. Blasphemous, right? I can remember seeing the movie as a kid and loving the monster mayhem, but apparently I had only seen the 1956 re-edited US version, under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, with Raymond Burr shoehorned into the narrative to make the film more easily digestible for American audiences. Which, in hindsight, is ridiculous. I have no doubt it helped usher US viewers into the kaiju craze, yet I can’t help but shake my head at how dumb film studios were in affairs like this.

That being said, a 10-year-old might not have had the patience for a completely subtitled movie and perhaps I would have turned it off. Then again, the promise of a giant lizard laying waste to entire cities should have been plenty to keep my pre-teen interest. Who’s to say? All I know is I found this original version to be a more focused film, and one filled with a surprising amount of dread.

The plot is quite simple: a prehistoric monster is awakened from its nest deep in the Pacific Ocean due to underwater H-bomb testing in the wake of WWII and proceeds to wreak havoc on the island of Japan.

The film opens with the mysterious wreckage and disappearance of multiple Japanese shipping vessels off the coast. Desperate to keep trade routes from closing, the Coast Guard is deployed to investigate the circumstances of the disappearance only to have these ships besieged by something beneath the surface. The few survivors float ashore and describe the mysterious incident as an attack from something in the ocean, which stirs up the elders to speak the name of the mythical monster – Gojira, aka Godzilla.

Laying the template for pretty much every monster movie to follow, we are introduced to a cast of characters that will wrestle with how to deal with the monster – sympathetic scientists, militaristic politicians, panicked civilians, and menial public servants tasked with carrying out orders from their superiors, who are essentially throwing ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks. Of course there’s a love triangle tossed in for good measure, which I feel is the most under-baked element but it doesn’t slow the story too much.

My only real complaint would be a few elements of the script. When you boil it down to the basic parts, there really isn’t much meat on its bones (pun intended). Though the film does move along at a decent pace, sprinkling in tidbits of the monster until the major destruction occurs later in the film. Again, the romance portion of the film falls flat and never sticks the landing it wants to. But the question is, would you expect a film with a man in a rubber suit stomping through a miniature city and chewing on toy trains to re-invent storytelling?

Probably not, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t commend it for taking an anti-war stance and doing so with grace and intelligence. It’s essentially 50% monster spectacle and 50% cautionary tale of the ramifications of nuclear war. Which, for me, is the great and enduring strength of the film. Genre filmmaking at its best mixes important themes with the visual extravaganza people fork over money to see. Come for the monster carnage, stay for the salient message. The old saying goes that the concepts of tumultuous periods in history often bleed into the art of the time. Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one such example, as it deftly blends alien sci-fi concepts with real-world politics to produce a perfectly emblematic picture of McCarthyism paranoia and the “Red Scare” within a genre film.

The same holds true for Godzilla, taking place in the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US in WWII. Nations become enamored with the possibilities of the power science can yield without considering the consequences and fallout of such an enormously catastrophic event. The bombings are referenced multiple times throughout the film as the horrifying outcome of tampering with forces you can’t control.

This aspect is probed in the latter portion of the film in the form of a scientist, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has unknowingly tapped into a cataclysmic force he dubs the “Oxygen Destroyer”. He keeps his discovery a secret, being fully aware of the malevolent fallout it could produce should it fall into the wrong hands. Even knowing it could be the only way to stop Godzilla doesn’t sway his opinion at first. In case you need a reminder, just look at how the invention of the atomic bomb worked out.

This later section of the film, for me, would have been better suited as a full length film. The country grappling with the destruction of nuclear war while simultaneously discovering a new weapon of untold power is an incredible discussion to have. And the film does have that conversation, it just saves the majority of it for the back-end of the film. By that time Godzilla has laid waste to large portions of the coast and the Oxygen Destroyer becomes the only logical solution for dealing with a force of this magnitude.

These new weapons of mass destruction are contrasted against the history of the nation, which speaks of Godzilla as a beast of myth. The elders recount a legend that tells of a monster in the sea that, when it had eaten all the fish in its domain, would turn to the land for food. The people would then offer a sacrifice of a young girl to the creature to ward off an attack. In the film we witness several ships encroaching on Godzilla’s hunting ground only to be swallowed up by the beast, and yet it still ferociously attacks the island. As if to say, the old world is gone and the legends passed through the generations died when the bombs were dropped. For a nation steeped in centuries of tradition, this is a harrowing outcome of the introduction of modern warfare – and there is no turning back.

This bleakness is mirrored in the look of the film, which is a stark contrast compared to the numerous films that would follow. Every nook and cranny is cast in noir-ish darkness and shadow, and even the monster is mostly glimpsed at night, giving a much darker tone to the proceedings than the colorful sequels. It’s difficult to imagine how we got to the flashy spectacle of the updated Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) from this somber tale about a nation besieged by a monster created in the devastation of the atomic bomb.

The message, alone, seats this film comfortably atop most of its contemporaries. It jumpstarted an entire sub-genre that would go on to feature monsters of every shape and size, many of whom had franchises of their own and also appeared within the Godzilla universe. And it can’t be discounted how much the title alone added to the vernacular. If you tack on the suffix “-zilla” to most any word, it’s universally known as a force not to be reckoned with. I have a long journey through the big guy’s box-set ahead of me and I’m not as familiar with some of the sequels, but I don’t believe they retain the important message this monumental film presented us with. And that’s a shame, but I’ll still be happy to witness the kaiju fun the series has to offer. King of the Monsters, indeed.

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