What makes things happen? Every cause has its own cause, and sometimes events have many sources. So to talk about the origins of anything is arguable a slightly dubious proposition. But for some reason it seems particularly questionable when talking about the original Godzilla (J-title: Gojira), the 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, which unleashed the great beast on an unsuspecting world.
On the face of it, this is a monster movie in the classic style, albeit an unusually bleak and intense one. The story opens with a string of unexplained shipping losses in the Pacific, shortly after some H-bomb tests in the region. Fish stocks in the region also seem to have been devastated, causing some consternation to the villagers of Odo Island: one of the elders suggests that Godzilla, a legendary sea monster, is responsible. Then a powerful storm strikes the island one night, and something comes out of the sea and wreaks terrible havoc in the village, crushing buildings and their inhabitants.
Well, obviously the authorities in Japan can’t let that sort of thing go on, and they despatch top palaeontologist Dr Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who spends most of the movie looking haunted) to investigate – although, to be honest, given that Yamane is under the impression that the Jurassic Era was only two million years ago, his academic credentials seem a bit suspect. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the question of Yamane’s academic standing is soon, er, academic, as there is indeed a huge radioactive dinosaur running amok on Odo Island, although it soon takes to the sea…
Yamane is very depressed by the response of the Japanese government, whose sole aim is to kill Godzilla rather than do research on him, and almost completely ignores what’s going on in his daughter’s personal life: Emiko (Momoko Kochi) has decided to settle down with nice young sea captain Hideto (Akira Takarada), but is fully aware the anguish this will cause her former beau Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant scientist who was maimed in the war and has become a bitter recluse, and whose research has led to the development of a dreadful weapon, particularly effective against marine life…
The plotting of the bits with the human characters is always one of the special pleasures of the Godzilla series, and as you can see that was there right from the start: not only is there a melodramatic, soap operatic quality to all of this, but it’s also the most outrageous coincidence that nearly all the key human characters in the story should have this kind of pre-existing relationship. I suppose the film-makers would try to justify it by saying that a film as dark and fantastical as this one needs some kind of readily-accessible human story for audiences to connect to.
They would have a point, too, for the really memorable bits of Godzilla do not really concern the Yamanes and their friends, but Godzilla himself, particular the sequence in which the monster (initially referred to as ‘the Godzilla’, though this is quickly abandoned – the confusion may be due to the fact that there isn’t a definite article in Japanese) rises from Tokyo Bay and proceeds to lay waste to the city. Again, on paper this sounds like just another genre staple – the JSDF shoot at Godzilla a lot, which has absolutely no effect, and he goes on to tread on various buildings, set fire to others with his nuclear breath, and so on. However, on this occasion the realisation is very different: in subsequent films it’s extremely unusual for anyone to actually be shown dying in the course of a monster rampage, but on this occasion the death toll seems astronomical – Godzilla toasts fleeing civilians in the street, rips down towers and sends the onlookers in them plummeting to their doom, and so on. At one point we see a young woman, in the midst of the destruction, clutching her young children to her and telling them that they will all soon be together in heaven with their father. The aftermath of the main Godzilla attack is depicted like that of a major natural disaster, which is rather in line with how Godzilla is presented – an elemental force of devastation, like a tsunami or a typhoon, only much worse.
And here of course is where we come to the nub of the issue, namely what inspired Godzilla and what the film is really about. The film-makers themselves acknowledged The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as an inspiration, a movie which was itself based on a Ray Bradbury short story, but that film doesn’t have remotely the same sense of utter trauma about it. The truth behind the central metaphor of Godzilla is of course well-known, and it isn’t as if the film itself isn’t dotted with clues: it opens with a terrible disaster befalling a Japanese fishing boat, but (tellingly) this isn’t a Godzilla attack, but being caught on the fringes of an H-bomb test – clearly an allusion to events befalling an actual vessel in 1954, the same year the film was made. Serizawa himself is a tormented, Oppenheimer-like figure, much given to musing on the responsibilities of scientists when it comes to their research being used as the basis of dreadful weapons.
It’s not quite so much that Godzilla himself is a metaphor for the atom bomb, than that his attacks on Japan are in some way representative of what befell the country in the closing stages of the Second World War – Tokyo burned, thousands were displaced or died, and so on. It took the Japanese people a long time to come to terms with how the war ended, and there’s clearly some sort of catharsis going on here, with the fantastical nature of the film making it possible to address these issues in a way that would not be possible in a more naturalistic story. And, once again tellingly, the story of Godzilla is very much in line with the official version of Japanese history, as far as the war is concerned – Godzilla himself is roused not by the Japanese but the Americans (or so it is implied). Japan is an innocent victim of incomprehensible outside aggression.
The original Godzilla is a dark and complex film, and in a way it’s quite surprising that so much of this hefty underpinning was abandoned so quickly in favour of knockabout monster battles. This first one isn’t nearly as much fun as many of the sequels, certainly, and it does have its own issues as a film – primarily, the climax is rather underwhelming and flat given how strong the earlier Godzilla rampage sequences were. But it does have a gravitas and power that the sequels just don’t, and it’s surely this that explains why people are still making films about Godzilla over sixty years later.