Widely seen as just another monster movie and (in my humble opinion) one of the most criminally underrated Japanese movies ever made, Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla is a movie that transcends the classic and campy horrors made famous by the likes of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi, whilst having both the action and sentimentality of King Kong. But what makes Godzilla stand head and shoulders above its creepy counterparts, is that it is not only loaded with subtext, but dripping with a message that was (and still is) clear for the audience to see.
Released in 1954 to coincide with the Allied occupation of Japan officially coming to an end, the film was an embodiment of freedom of speech, the lumbering monster being just a mere distraction to the foundations of the narrative. Just months before the film was brought to the big screen, American forces had undertaken the testing of their biggest nuclear bomb to date, a 15 megaton bomb (around 1000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), which was detonated over a small island called Bikini Atoll. The fall-out from the bomb infected fish and crops in the surrounding area and even killed several fisherman who were caught near the blast, fishing on the “Lucky Dragon” boat.
Honda’s movie opens with a small fishing boat, that is mysteriously dragged under the waves, destroyed by a creature woken from its long slumber by the testing of nuclear weaponry, an allegory of real life that may be lost on modern audiences, but must have struck deep with the domestic viewers of the time.
Although the Godzilla we know and love today is everything from a mindless beast to a guardian of Japan, the monster was originally a personification (or monsterfication) of two sides of the same coin; on one hand the creature is a victim, unwittingly blasted with a nuclear bomb, covered in pocked skin and literately spewing radiation. On the other, it is a walking weapon, which emits radiation and rains down fire like the firebombing that flattened Tokyo during WWII. As if these messages weren’t clear enough, passersby casually talk about how they escaped the bombing of Nagasaki, only to run into the chaos being spread by the mysterious beast.
But it is not only the monster that is conflicted, as the people hoping to deal with it are equally complex. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is one of the very few characters who isn’t determined to destroy Godzilla, but wishes to study it, to work out how it could survive a nuclear blast, with the hope of saving human lives in the future. Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), the third point in a love triangle and the perfect candidate for an evil henchman in any Hollywood film (with his eye-patch, eccentricities and genius brain turned to the development weaponry), is an awesomely complex character, who has invented a deadly weapon with the potential to both kill Godzilla and save Japan, but also to be used for less scrupulous purposes, such as warfare or at the very least, a terrifying deterrent of Cold War proportions.
Although many may brush of the film as hollow entertainment, and there is no denying the franchise has sullied those waters in the past, the original Godzilla is a film one not to be missed or misunderstood.