"Godzilla was baptized in the fires of the H-bomb. What could kill it now..?"
With the with newest Godzilla film out of the way this summer, it seems like a good time to expose my love for Toho monster movies and Tokusatsu in general (Japanese shows or movies featuring special effects, if you want a literal translation). It is a genre that started with a bang back in 1954 with the very first Godzilla movie, also called Gojira.
The history of Godzilla is extremely fascinating, but it's also extremely long, so here's what you need to know: the film was born out of two things; one was the desire for the Toho film studio to create their own monster in response to King Kong's immense popularity in Japan, and the other being the desire to create an allegory for Japanese life after the American nuclear bombs decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Combining horror, disaster, sci-fi, and silliness, director Ishiro Honda and special effects man Eliji Tsuburaya didn't just create the first movie in the longest-running film series in history, they created an icon.
The plot revolves around mysterious disasters taking place in Japan near the ocean and on small islands. Ships are being attacked and villages are destroyed; no one can explain the phenomenon, but there are rumors that it is a giant sea creature of ancient folklore. The creature is revealed to be Godzilla, a gigantic dinosaur awoken by nuclear testing. Apparently Godzilla has been affected by the tests, causing him to emanate his own radiation and even breathe fire (or atomic breath, as it would later be called).
A scientist named Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) may be the only person who can kill the creature. He has created a device that can cause a chemical reaction in water that disintegrates oxygen atoms, thus causing any organisms in that water to die of asphyxiation. Serizawa doesn't want his secret device to be exposed to the world for all the harm it could cause; it could become the next big weapon used by the government to incite a holocaust, and Serizawa couldn't live with himself if it ever did.
While there are other characters in the film, portrayed by Akira Takarado, Momoko Kochi, Takashi Shimura, and Haruo Nakajima, the only character with much motivation or story is Serizawa. The majority of the destruction scenes are spent with characters we barely know or don't know at all, and it becomes clear that the film is not a character study, it's a study of destruction and its affect on a society. Japan underwent incredible trauma from the atomic bomb drops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if you'd like a more direct depiction of that horror, I'd suggest checking out Barefoot Gen (1983). But as far as parables go, Godzilla excellently portrays the horrors of nuclear devastation using dark imagery and great model work.
The film really shines in its famous destruction scenes, with Godzilla smashing through buildings, melting telephone poles, and crushing little model cars. We all know that Toho's monster movies never have realistic-looking sets; it's so obviously a man in a lizard suit smashing toys apart that it can be unintentionally funny. But the work that went into the detailed model sets is really quite impressive, allowing the filmmakers of 60 years ago to accomplish shots that would have been impossible to achieve any other way (other than the too-time-intensive stop-motion techniques that brought the original King Kong to life). There's also a charm to model sets that is completely missing from modern monster movies, all too concerned with making everything look "real" with glossy CGI and over-the-top action. Not saying I hated Pacific Rim, but a charming film it ain't.
The destruction scenes may be fun and all, but I doubt the message about the horrors of atomic warfare would have resonated to strongly if it weren't for the sobering scenes of the aftermath. Overcrowded hospitals, people suffering from radiation sickness, and lingering shots of buildings reduced to rubble really help hammer in the theme, and add a bit of adult seriousness that is lacking in all of its future sequels.
Godzilla has just the right blend of sci-fi silliness and serious post World War II subtext to make it memorable, and its easy to see why it spawned such a legacy. While many people have never seen the original Japanese version of the film, I'd highly recommend it over the American recut starring Raymond Burr that was released with new scenes for the English-speaking public. That version undercuts the nuclear holocaust theme a bit too much for my taste, though it isn't absent entirely. A dark film that doesn't shy away from approaching genuine horror, and takes itself much more seriously than you'd expect, Godzilla himself may be a staple of pop culture, but it's nice to know that his first movie can be considered a genuine classic.