Director: Ishirō Honda
Writers: Ishirō Honda and Takeo Murata
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
The original 1954 Godzilla is an almost perfect film. From the first frame to the last it’s completely captivating and engrossing. Directed by Ishirō Honda, who also co-wrote the script with Takeo Murata, the film plays on the fears of nuclear weapons, less than a decade after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a film of man vs nature, as the weapons that science have allowed to create, bring forward a creature that could potentially destroy all human life.
While the franchise would go onto to show silly and fun fights between monsters, that are essentially just men in rubber suits, with the first film everything is taken completely seriously. Some of the effects may be dated and come across a little goofy now, especially Godzilla’s first appearance, but it’s presented completely earnestly. It’s not an over-the-top action blockbuster like so many of the films that would come later. It’s a slow-burn story that’s filled with drama and a growing overwhelming sense of dread that Godzilla cannot be stopped. For every scene showing Godzilla causing destruction, there’s other scenes showing the fallout from the destruction. A mother holding her children, saying they shouldn’t be scared as they will be with their father soon, houses and buildings laid to waste, and people dying as Godzilla continues its rampage.
At the same time there’s not a single moment where Godzilla is shown to be the enemy or a true monster. It’s brought out of its natural habitat by the atomic bomb tests, and once it’s on land it causes destruction by its size more than its intent. It’s only when the humans start to attack that it retaliates and causes more destruction. There’s a lot of focus on the morality of using a weapon that could kill Godzilla, and what the implications of showing the world that something with that power could exist. That weapon is the Oxygen Destroyer, which was created by Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) as he was studying oxygen from every angle. Even with the destruction that Godzilla has caused Tokyo, Serizawa doesn’t want to use his creation, out of fear that it would be used again in the future against humans.
Godzilla is a symbol of the destruction from nuclear weapons. The film was released only nine years after nuclear weapons were first used in World War Two. The film was made shortly after the censorship imposed by the American occupation had been lifted in 1952. The film is also inspired by what happened to the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, a tuna fishing boat that was contaminated by nuclear fallout during an American weapons test at Bikini Atoll. The opening scenes mirror the real-life events.
The now iconic score from Akira Ifukube is what introduces you to the film. It’s brilliantly menacing, foreboding, and captivating. The effects, while definitely dated now, are impressive for the time. There’s a real sense of the scale of Godzilla, as it towers above the city it’s destroying. There’s lots of camera tricks and brilliant miniatures used, and it really set the standard for the genre.
The build up to Godzilla’s eventual attack is filled with dread and the sense that humanity is fragile and easily destroyed. We’re playing God by creating weapons that will eventually lead to our own destruction. There’s a scene where a group of reporters are watching Godzilla get closer and closer, and they just continue reporting, knowing there’s nothing they can do to survive. Likewise at the end of the film when the Oxygen Destroyer is inevitably used, there’s dread that this isn’t the end, that weapons testing will lead to other creatures like Godzilla to come to the surface and cause more destruction. The celebrations are short-lived and the film ends with a reflection on everything that has happened (both inside the story of the film and the recent events in history), and meditating on what could be coming. It’s a film that leaves you feeling horrified by what you’ve watched, where there isn’t a clear-cut hero or villain, and instead there’s just existential dread at the destruction that man is capable of. The nuclear bombings were still fresh memories when the film was made, and that memory echoes through the film, even watching it this many years later. The images of Tokyo burning to the ground is still harrowing to watch.
For fifty years after the initial release, Godzilla was not officially released outside of Japan. Instead, a highly altered American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters! Was released in 1956. The American version features Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin, who was in Tokyo by chance when Godzilla attacks. It uses footage from the original film narrated by Burr, as well as some additional scenes to give everything context. It’s a really cool idea and for the most part works surprisingly well, but it also notably cuts out a lot of the references to nuclear weapons testing, which means one of the main themes of the original is almost completely missing.
Godzilla is an all-out classic monster film. It started the beloved franchise, that is still going strong almost seventy years later, and truly deserves the title King of the Monsters. It’s one of those rare films that the second it’s over you want to go back to the beginning and watch it again to pick up new details.
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What an awesome review! That was interesting, informative, and a lot of fun to read. I can’t thank you enough for reviewing this one, it made my day.