Godzilla (1954)

Directed by Ishirô Honda

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Director Ishirō Honda said, “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

I always knew that Godzilla was born out of the atomic age, just not to what degree.  In Godzilla we learn that this creature was awoken from a deep slumber beneath the ocean by a series of hydrogen bomb tests, and he will eventually be taken out by an “oxygen destroyer,” a bomb that along with Godzilla kills every living creature in a certain radius.  It is thus a device meant to harken back to the atomic bomb, hitting its target but with far reaching devastation.

As a ‘giant creature destroys a metropolis’ story Godzilla covers much of the same plot territory as other later movies, but whereas such a thing would grow to feel tired and lazy, here it is sincere and earned.  We watch Godzilla march his way through various communities, leaving a fiery landscape in his wake, reminiscent of the aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In so many movies we see destruction on this scale but these being movies and the destruction so thorough, in the movie it comes across as inhuman.  From so far back we can watch buildings crumble without really thinking about who’s inside.  In Godzilla, however, the film forces us to look at the face of some of the victims, themselves anticipating their own deaths before they happen.

It is disturbing and effective, showing the devastation on multiple levels.  In one moment a woman cradles her young daughter as Godzilla trudges their way, and she repeats over and over that soon “we will join daddy” in the afterlife.  Soon after a group of reporters up on a  tv tower report live their own deaths.  As Godzilla comes for them, they continue on speaking into the microphones with the same professionalism as they had before.  The end is coming and yet they carry on until they’re gone.

Then after the biggest destructive set piece in the film we are forced to bear witness to the effusive grief of some of the survivors.  We may be desensitized to movie violence, destruction and terraforming, but Godzilla isn’t.  It feels so deeply the weight of this destruction and transfers it to the audience.  It’s so damn sincere and haunting, mostly because it’s impossible to ignore the atomic destruction less than a decade earlier which influenced the film.  You’re basically watching a nation grapple with its collective trauma onscreen.

As a creature Godzilla isn’t only feared but so too admired.  Certain characters resist the idea of killing him, and others, though they fear him, think more of the collateral damage that would go into killing him.  Well I should say this is mostly embodied within one character, Dr. Serizawa.  He’s the one who creates the Oxygen Destroyer but is intent on not releasing his research to the public until he can be sure there’s a way to benefit society.  It’s so destructive, so powerful, and he knows it’ll fall into the hands of politicians and those who wouldn’t think about the fallout from its use.

Eventually he will be called upon to use the bomb, and after much deliberation he gives in.  It will kill Godzilla, but he’ll die in the process too, sacrificing himself in some sense, mostly just to make sure he can never be coerced into reconstructing the device.  When he dies, his research already burned, the plans die with him.

The final moments of the film are understandably heavy-handed, with another character  saying, “I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.”

So Godzilla is not only born of the atomic age, but it’s a symbol of, from what I can tell, an entire nation’s healing process.  Godzilla itself is a victim, a creature respected and feared and reluctantly destroyed.  It’s not just a manifestation of the atomic bomb but a living, respected creature.  I guess it’s right there in the name, but it’s a God-like figure.  Everyone is at Godzilla’s mercy, but because humans awoke the creature, it’s as if we somehow deserve what’s coming.  It’s a monster but something almost as natural as a tsunami or an earthquake.  It is nature reasserting itself.

The fact that Godzilla has been remade and re-contextualized feels a bit murky.  It’s a creature that seems as though it should be off limits to, let’s say, America.  It’s a character born out of the grief caused by America (though I suppose there’s a whole discussion there about the ethics of the bomb), but which has now been remade multiple times over, turned into admittedly entertaining but much more superficial movies.  I will say, however, that the recent 2014 Godzilla and this year’s sequel play up the idea that Godzilla is a protector against other creatures.  Maybe this suggests a respect for the creature and its origins or maybe it’s just a new spin on an old idea to justify a remake.

Up Next: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), The Only Son (1936), Serenity (2019)

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