Premise: American nuclear weapons testing results in the creation of a seemingly unstoppable, dinosaur-like beast.
1954’s Godzilla is the beginning of film’s most massively iconic movie monster. It’s an introduction like no other as it focuses on the human reaction to Godzilla’s presence and destruction. With a slow build toward the rampage, the film explores real pathos in its characters. Godzilla creates the monster as an antagonist in a way that brings the fear of nuclear arms, humanity’s race toward self-destruction, and the horror of creating that which you can’t control to the forefront of its story.
The film was made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushering the end of World War II. This makes the sense of fear and despair throughout the film drip with subtext and authentic tragedy. Characters relate having to evacuate their homes because of Godzilla to the horror of nearly perishing in Hiroshima. Children are seen being tested for radiation in the aftermath of a devastating attack with Geiger counters going off at alarming rates. And the effects of Godzilla on shipping lanes and the fishing industry present the very clear horror of famine and despair for the people of Japan.
With the stakes heartbreakingly high, Dr. Yamane’s (Takashi Shimura) position against the destruction of Godzilla gives the film a pathos that you may not expect. This is especially true if your idea of Godzilla as a concept is simply “fire-breathing kaiju monster movie.” Yamane’s sense of despair over the efforts to kill Godzilla come from a scientific desire to study the monster. In particular, Yamane is attracted to Godzilla’s resistance to radiation. There’s such a fine tinge of sadness to the film when taking Hiroshima and Nagasaki into consideration. It’s not a stretch to presume that Yamane may have seen the horrors of radiation sickness and death in the aftermath of the bombings and that could presumably be what drives him in the film.
Yamane’s stance on Godzilla makes the rest of the world’s reaction to the monster even more tragic. Godzilla is undeniably a threat to civilization. Yet, the knee-jerk desire to destroy him, despite the possibility that he may hold a key to surviving nuclear war, lends a sobering social commentary to the film. If the human race wants to simply destroy that which it doesn’t understand, how can it grow and adapt to a changing world?
Consider also the character of Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Although his love triangle subplot with Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and Ogata (Akira Takarada) is by far the least compelling part of the film, it’s Serizawa’s inner conflict that provides a needed balance to Yamane’s arc. In creating the ultimate tool to destroy Godzilla, Serizawa has the power to save lives, yet he fears what will come of his creation once it’s unveiled to the world. It’s a conflict that is rife with character and dramatic weight.
The film only reveals Serizawa’s fear that mankind will weaponize his creation after Godzilla has attacked Tokyo in a devastating (and visually impressive) sequence. Giving us such a dramatic arc so late in the film could be seen as a fault in the film’s screenwriting. However, it gives the emotional turmoil of Serizawa’s decision to use his creation as a weapon even more strength. The death toll, destruction, and seeming invincibility of Godzilla is still not enough to sway Serizawa because he believes weaponizing his creation could bring about the end of humanity itself. This conflict leads to a very satisfying conclusion to the character and the film.
The sound design of Godzilla’s roars is simply immaculate. The way the flashes of weapons light Godzilla as he wreaks havoc on Tokyo is stunning. And the theme music composed by Akira Ifukube gives the film and its titular character the melodic urgency it demands. The scale of the action sequences showing the sheer destruction Godzilla is capable of is impressive as well.
However, it’s that human element to Godzilla that makes this such a memorable viewing experience. The characterization and commentary is what sets Godzilla apart from what pop culture would have the layperson think is indicative of a classic kaiju monster movie. Maybe that’s what the rest of the series holds, but for now, 1954’s Godzilla is a special beast of its own.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.