Directed by Ishiro Honda
SPOILERS DAMN IT
Growing up, I’d seen several of the titular titan’s films but I’d never happened upon the first one until now (and I did watch the Japanese version). I’d seen him battle King Kong, MechaGodzilla, Mothra, Ghidora, and many other kaiju villains in childhood and had always wondered just where did all of the subtext give way to the shallow fun of watching two costumed men beat each other up and smash small city sets (in comes Hipster Thor to inform me of how this is wrong in 3… 2… 1…).
So watching this was a bit of an eye opener for me because, as I’d always heard it being a representation of “atomophobia”, or the fear of atomic warfare, I had only the subsequent films to forge my expectations of tone and style. While there is some similarity, in that all the films seem to largely focus on a human aspect, this one felt far more focused on depicting it as a national tragedy, rather than the singular protagonist we are used to. In many ways, the first half feels more akin to Soderbergh’s recent Contagion, which depicts a pandemic on a global scale. We rush from scene to scene of ominous sightings, ships being destroyed, media meetings, gossip, and of course, delve into the lives of our protagonists. What we’re left with is the feeling that this creature is impacting far more than our core characters, which is something that feels lost in modern big creature films, from the American remake, to the South Korean film The Host to our Cloverfield, where despite seeing some damage on a large scale, the films seem to be preoccupied with a far more standard dynamic of delivering us the personal reaction to the monster.
This wide viewpoint does make it somewhat difficult to become emotionally engaged with the lives of our protagonists as such little time is spent developing them, though the usage of the great Takashi Shimura does lend some emotional catharsis when its absolutely necessary. I’m reluctant to call this an issue though because I don’t think the filmmakers were concerned with the individual at all, but rather the guilt and fear of an entire nation.
This is a film that thrives due to its themes. It’s effects are dated, even the Criterion blu-ray transfer (which I’m assuming is the best possible viewing of the film currently available to a wide audience) is littered with imperfections and grain that give it an older look than many of its restored contemporaries. The miniatures do not blend in, but rather look, well like miniatures. And the “missiles” those tiny planes fire are hard to not mistake for the fireworks they actually are. But if granted the slightest bit of disbelief, the film can pull you in with it’s original vision and approach to something that I feel goes far deeper in Japanese culture than simple atomophobia.
I’m of the opinion that Godzilla is not simply the embodiment of the A-bomb as I frequently see theorized. While that is there, I believe the beast represents are far deal more than fear, and I’m not simply referring to the firebombings which nearly destroyed Tokyo and killed a million people either (something that’s frequently forgotten by westerners. Guess it’s just not as flashy as the A-bomb. Pun not intended, but accepted). I feel that the creature also represents the guilt felt by the nation. It is important to recognize that Japan places itself both as the antagonist to Godzilla and it’s victim. It is they who stir it with nuclear tests and have it’s wrath befall them. I can’t help but feel that this is analogous for Honda’s feelings of Japan’s part in WWII. They attacked and provoked many nations, set upon China committing such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking as well as the ever popular Pearl Harbor bombing, an act which would lead to them being decimated on a level that the United States has not dealt out sense.
I feel that that ending corroborates my theory in that it places the characters in a situation where they do not want to use a weapon of mass destruction, but feel it is the only way to end this situation. It never feels like consent to such an act, but rather an understanding of why it was done. And in that, Godzilla returns to being a victim. It’s capsizing in the water and slowly drifting to the bottom of the ocean does not feel like a villain vanquished, but rather yet another tragedy in a movie filled with them.
The film ends on a note of warning to all people that actions like these only beget more terror and violence. It’s a simple yet powerful message delivered in a way that is always entertaining and despite the looming darkness and melancholy. It seems strange to me that the character would become a hero not only popular in Japan, but western culture as well and I don’t yet have a theory for how something like that could come to be. Perhaps it is that recognition of him as yet another victim of our hubris that allowed us the forgiveness to make him our savior from the other monsters. Maybe he’s just a cool lizard and it’s fun to watch him smash other monsters.
Final word: I thought it was a great film that has a widespread influence on cinema and perpetuates some truly interesting themes. It’s aged somewhat poorly but it’s still admirable in the ingenuity and attempt to create a 50 meter tall creature.