The Eiko-maru was sailing around Odo Island only for it to mysteriously sink. Another ship, the Bingo-maru, was sent to investigate but it too met the same fate with only a scant few survivors. A fishing boat is also destroyed shortly thereafter with only a single person surviving. Compounding matters is when the locals fail to catch any fish during their latest expeditions. An elder residing on Odo Island blames a sea creature that had supposedly terrorized the oceans for generations. That creature is known only as Godzilla.
The film wastes not a single minute of screentime getting exciting. Only seconds after the opening credits crawl does this mysterious force capsize the Eiko-maru. It is clear the people of Japan are dealing with something humankind has never seen before. The island is soon hit with a particularly violent storm that destroys seventeen buildings, kills nine people, and slaughters twenty of the villagers’ livestock. The government of Tokyo is then shocked with what the people of Odo have concluded. The damage they describe is not the result of a maelstrom, but rather something giant malevolently crushing the village underneath its heel.
In response, the government sends a research team led by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane to investigate the incident. The giant footprints left by whatever crushed the village are teeming with radioactivity. Within one of the footprints is a trilobite. Just as Yamane is describing his discovery, the alarm bell is rung, and it is there they discover what has been terrorizing Odo: a giant dinosaur-like creature. Returning to Tokyo, Yamane estimates Godzilla stands at fifty meters and has evolved from ancient marine life, allowing it to walk on land. What prompted its attacks on humankind? It was a series of underwater hydrogen bomb tests. Establishing that the most powerful weapon humankind had invented would have no effect on this monster, they are in a completely hopeless situation.
A significant portion of the film is dedicated to determining what should be done about the giant beast running amok. Being a paleontologist, Yamane wants to study the creature. He sees Godzilla’s potential, realizing that if it can survive hydrogen bomb testing, learning of the source of its immunity would be of a great help to humankind. Understandably, most of the citizens do not agree with this plan, seeing Godzilla as a threat that must be eliminated. This culminates in a battle between the towering giant and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The army constructs an electrified fence along the southern coast of Japan and deploys their strongest forces in an effort to stop Godzilla. However, the monster breaks through the fence with its atomic breath and utterly ravages Tokyo. Within a matter of minutes, the city is set ablaze, and countless people perish.
Owing to its radioactive nature and the sheer amount of destruction left in its wake, Godzilla is an overt metaphor for the nuclear holocaust the citizens of Japan suffered at the end of the Second World War. The large fire engulfing Tokyo followed up by scenes of little children dying from radiation poisoning affords the audience but a small taste of the horrific experience of having lived through such an ordeal. Director Ishirō Honda stated in an interview that if Godzilla was merely a giant dinosaur, it would only take a well-aimed cannonball to take him out. By making him a sentient atomic bomb, Mr. Honda gave his characters a problem with no solution.
Fortunately for the protagonists, a ray of hope does exist, for a colleague of Yamane’s, Daisuke Serizawa, has made a breakthrough discovery. He showed it to his former fiancé, Emiko. He had invented an agent that disintegrates oxygen atoms. For his demonstration, he used it in a tank containing several fish. Upon activating it, the fish asphyxiated and their bodies rotted away in a matter of seconds. Once Hideo Ogata, one of sailors called in to investigate the sinking of the Eiko-maru, hears of this invention, the two immediately seek out Serizawa.
What I particularly enjoy about how these final sequences of events play out is the sheer amount of thought screenwriters Takeo Murata and Ishirō Honda put into them. In a typical film of its genre, you would expect the plucky scientist to invent the one weapon capable of killing off whatever is terrorizing the world. There would then be a moment in which the weapon appeared not to work before it’s revealed to be a fake-out. The people would then rejoice, appreciating the true value of peace in a world in which it was nearly permanently lost.
None of this happens in Godzilla. The only reason Ogata and Emiko are able to convince Serizawa to deploy the Oxygen Destroyer in the first place is because they make it clear there is no other option. They have reached the point where ethics are off the table and there are no invalid solutions. For his part, Serizawa correctly assesses the political ramifications from using this biological weapon. All it would take is sufficient news coverage for the weapon’s existence to make itself known. Given the sheer amount of tension brought on by the Cold War in the 1950s, agents from any of the world’s superpowers could easily abduct Serizawa, demanding him to divulge how he invented the Oxygen Destroyer. Having served in the Second World War and bearing many scars from the conflict, he knows the length the powers that be will go in order to achieve dominance. Fittingly, after he agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer, he burns all of his notes. With Ogata’s assistance, Serizawa is able to use his weapon to kill Godzilla. To protect the rest of the world from his creation, he then severs the link in his diver’s suit, ensuring the secret dies with him.
What makes this scene especially moving is the complete lack of catharsis to be found. The monster that destroyed Tokyo has been killed, yet in the end, it was as much a victim of the terrifying weapons developed during the Second World War as the millions of people who perished in it. It was a simple creature living in an underground cavern until the hydrogen bombs were set off. Bearing scars that resemble radiation burns, it only had one thing on its mind: destruction. When the creature is killed, there is no fanfare or cheering. In fact, Yamane reasonably concludes that if nuclear testing continues, it’s only a matter of time before the next Godzilla appears. With the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer well and truly gone, how could humankind possibly survive such a scenario?
Given the legacy of this film, it’s difficult to believe that Godzilla fared very poorly with critics upon its initial release in 1954. One could hardly blame them for rejecting this film. Having been released nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was subject to a lot of controversy. The people were still recovering from a devastation the scale of which was, and still is, incalculable. The last thing they wanted was for a film to reopen such a deep wound. Luckily for everyone involved with this film’s production, this story does have a happy ending. The film was recut and screened in the United States under the name Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This included extra footage that famously starred Canadian actor Raymond Burr, who played a reporter by the name of Steve Martin. After its overseas success, it was released domestically whereupon it proceeded to fare better in the box office. The primary driving force behind the recut’s success was that it downplayed the nuclear weapon allegory, allowing it to exist as a typical monster film.
Anyone going into Godzilla expecting it to be the end-all monster film is going to be in for a rude awakening actually watching it. This is an unapologetically somber film that takes a good, long look at one of the biggest tragedies in the history of warfare. Although the idea sounds ridiculous and the special effects definitely show their age, the execution is undeniably laudable. Mr. Honda and Mr. Murata demonstrated their ability to tactfully abandon subtlety for the sake of getting their message across – a skill that is exceptionally rare in the creative world. As both a period piece that could only have been made when the scars of the Second World War were still fresh and the birth of a franchise, Godzilla is absolutely worth looking into.
Final Score: 7/10