A Brief History of Godzilla, Our Never-Ending Nuclear Nightmare
Here's the thing about the original Godzilla movie: It's arguably the best window into post-war attitudes towards nuclear power we've got—as seen from the perspective of its greatest victims. It's an unflinchingly bleak, deceptively powerful film.
Here's the thing about the original Godzilla movie: It's an unflinchingly bleak, deceptively powerful film about coping with and taking responsibility for incomprehensible, manmade tragedy. Specifically, nuclear tragedies. As such, Godzilla isn't just the best monster flick I've ever seen. It's arguably the best window into post-war attitudes towards nuclear power we've got—as seen from the perspective of its greatest victims.
And it still rings brutally true today. There's a reason that, after the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daishi reactor, Google searches for 'godzilla' spiked in Asia. The world's most famous kaiju—Japanese for 'strange creature'—remains for many the cultural embodiment of nuclear hubris, and they returned to him perhaps to be reminded of what seemed at the time an unheeded warning. Because that's clearly what Godzilla was: A somber, cautionary tale about nukes.
Let's clarify. I'm talking about Gojira, Ishiro Honda's original 1954 Japanese cut. It screened at the Film Forum this week, where I watched it for the first time. I was expecting a Mystery Science Theater 3000-type setting, with a giddy crowded theater making wise-cracks at the shoddy special effects and bad acting.
Maybe that's because I was only familiar with the version popular here in the states, Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956). That film features some of the same footage as the original, but Hollywood studios cut large chunks out to make room for a new plot following an American reporter in Tokyo. The result is a goofy, disjointed film that was nonetheless extremely popular—it was Godzilla, after all.
But the original is different. While there were definitely moments where the crowd chuckled at hammy lines and some particularly model-rific special effects, for the most part, the theater was silent. That's because Godzilla is not just groundbreaking as the genre-defining 'giant beast terrorizes city' film; it contains the most successful—and most severe—monster-as-metaphor in cinema history. Everyone already knows that Godzilla was a stand-in for atomic power gone awry, but I had no idea how bluntly or brutally the film hammered the point home.
First, some background. Godzilla was made in the early-to-mid-1950s. The nuclear bombs the American armed forces dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki left an open, festering wound in the fabric of Japanese society. But it was an incident that occurred six years later, in 1954, when Americans accidentally tested an hydrogen bomb too close to a Japanese fishing vessel, that inspired Godzilla.
The bomb drenched 23 men in fallout, making them the first civillians to be subjected to weapons-grade radiation in peacetime. It was also a reminder to occupied Japan that the bomb was still very much alive. The atomic nightmare wasn't relegated to World Wars; it was an omnipresent threat.
So it makes sense that Gojira begins with a fishing vessel appearing to spontaneously combust. The explosion, the flames, seem to come from the sea itself. Before the sailors know what's hit them, they're gone. Also striking is how the film opens to an almost casual quietude; not a premeditated lull so common in the thrillers of today with their desperately premeditated calm, but quick, disjointed shots of the daily routine on board, paired with a seaman's plaintive guitar pluckings. Then the nuclear burden explodes.
Right from the beginning, we're treated to not-so-subtle metaphors about Godzilla. We're told almost immediately that the beast, which resembles a cross between an ape and a T-rex, and whose Japanese etymology actually suggests as much, has been awakened by H-bomb tests. Then, Godzilla's footprint is monitored for radiation, and it's off the charts. Lodged within it is an ancient trilobyte, long thought extinct—nuclear power has unleashed somthing terrible and primal. Something that should not be.