With the snore-fest reboot coming out on Blu-Ray in a few days (the review for which you can read here), I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look back at the film that started it all: 1954’s Gojira. I’d never seen it before, and what I was expecting to find was the film that spawned the kaiju formula, where an unknown force emerges, it turns out to be a giant monster, a second act scene of city destruction occurs, and a final resolving climax of massive destructive power removes the monster threat. While that statement can describe the broad strokes of Gojira, it doesn’t really do the film justice for how it stands alone as not just a great Godzilla movie, not just a great monster or horror movie, but as one of the definitive classics of Japanese cinema.
See, what Gojira’s greatness comes down to is how it not only functions as a story of human struggle against a destructive force of nature, but it is also a powerful allegory for the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the pain and loss that was felt by the Japanese people at the hands of the nuclear holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When destructive forces first start hitting coastal Japanese villages, nobody knows what’s happening, and the cause of the destruction is never shown on-screen. Then, when the force is discovered to be a giant radiation-absorbing reptile, it quickly becomes apparent that the Japanese military is nowhere near equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude. The first half of the film mostly consists of the human characters trying their damnedest to figure out just how to counteract this threat, and it’s hard not to feel their urgency, especially as we watch their country get torn apart by an unstoppable force.
The allegory is further nailed home by the climactic subplot involving the use of a new superweapon and a scientist’s internal struggle over whether unleashing his doomsday device upon the world would create a greater evil than the one they’re seeking to eliminate. It’s a surprisingly powerful message for a film about a giant lizard, but the film pulls it off with grace. The final scenes are actually quite emotionally charged, staying away from the action-packed climax one might expect from a monster flick and instead choosing to meditate on the gravity of the events taking place and the ramifications they have on the greater world.
Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the key destructive scene of the film where Godzilla destroys Tokyo. Say what you will about the limitations of the special effects of the 1950s, this film pushes the edges of those limitations. The miniature city that was built for Godzilla to stomp around it looks damn near perfect, and Godzilla feels just as enormous as his imposing presence is supposed to imply. Sure, if you’re looking closely, you can see that the rubber Godzilla costume doesn’t actually provide for all that much mobility, but the film’s clever editing disguises that fairly well, and the look of the monster is the classic design that would spawn so many sequels in the coming decades.
Now, I won’t say that Gojira is a flawless film. A couple of its human-centric subplots never really go anywhere, such as the story of a scientist who doesn’t want to kill Godzilla out of humanitarian concerns, or a romantic subplot that is dropped almost as soon as it’s brought up. That minor complaint aside, though, Gojira isn’t really a film about any particular character’s story arc. This is a film about the role of humanity in a post-nuclear age and a metaphorical demonstration of the consequences our irresponsibility in that age can cause. This message may have been overshadowed by the pure spectacle that would come to dominate the kaiju genre in the coming decades, but it’s just as powerful today as it was fifty years ago. If you’re looking for a treat from another era, get a copy of the original Gojira.
What do you prefer: the intellectualism of the original, or the full-blown fantasy of the action-packed Showa and Heisei eras? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.