Made and released almost ten years after the end of World War II, with nuclear destruction still relatively fresh in the mindset of Japanese culture, Gojira gave birth to one of the most famous movie monsters of all time, and used its title character as a symbol for nuclear destruction; with the resulting film being a pointed and powerful condemnation of nuclear weapons and the use thereof. In the decades following this film’s release, nearly thirty(!) sequels were made in Japan, as well as two American remakes, making this franchise among the most enduring and successful in film history. While many of the films that followed it aren’t nearly as serious in tone, there’s still no denying the impact this original film has had on the industry. It’s a dramatic and highly entertaining piece of work whose anti-nuclear message haunted millions of people the world over, while also managing to make Godzilla one of the most beloved monsters in all of cinema.
The story is set in Japan in 1954, less than a decade after the end of World War II, and focuses on Godzilla, a prehistoric monster resurrected by repeated nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean, who then awakens and completely ravages the city of Japan, reigniting the horrors of nuclear devastation upon a nation who already experienced it first-hand. Gojira was directed by Ishiro Honda – a former prisoner of war himself and therefore quite familiar with the haunting effects of WW2 – and was the first of many Japanese “Kaiju” films produced by Toho Company Ltd. (with the word “Kaiju” simply referring to a giant monster movie), and would go on to singlehandedly create an entire sub-genre. The human casts consist of Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Harata, and Takashi Shimura, a frequent collaborator of arguably the most well known Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa.
In an age where the nuclear sub-genre was very prominent among the sci-fi genre in the United States, who was constantly releasing some very campy, albeit mostly enjoyable efforts like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Japan wasn’t so cheesy or lighthearted regarding their approach to the subject, and the tone of Gojira compared to some of the aforementioned US made films reflects that. Among the biggest strengths of this film, aside from containing some of the most impressive practical effects used in the 1950’s, is the weighty feelings of dread and sorrow it instills within the viewer. Just hearing the name “Godzilla” might instill some preconceived notions in a person regarding what kind of film they might be watching, but this film above any of the other franchise entries lingers on the devastating personal effects of a giant force of nature tearing through the city in a way very few (if any) of the dozens of follow-ups did. It’s essentially the effect that the climax of Man of Steel might’ve been going for, but done absolutely right, and not completely botched by excessive amounts of bombast and stupidity.
Also worth bringing up is the recut version made exclusively for the US. Two years after Gojira saw its premiere in Japan, an American producer named Edmund Goldman bought the rights, and then decided to recut the entire film, as well as reshoot certain sections with American actors, either dubbing over or completely omitting the rest of the original footage. This version got released in 1956 and was calledGodzilla: King of the Monsters. Despite originating from the Japanese Gojira, this version bore a greater resemblance to the schlocky atomic b-films regularly produced in America at the time and removed almost any sense of tragedy or ambiguity that the original film contained. Therefore, it made for a far inferior viewing experience and ultimately pales in comparison to the uncut 1954 version, which is now seen as the definitive edition of the film.
Over sixty years after its premiere in Japan, the original Gojira still holds up as a masterful classic era sci-fi blockbuster, that works equally well as the beginning of one of the world’s most beloved franchises, as well as a standalone piece of filmmaking. An essential staple in Japanese cinema, a cultural landmark, and the starting point of the longest running film franchise in history all in one, this still holds up as a great standalone feature on its own merits. Give it a look and see where all the monster madness started.