Following a nuclear test at sea several vessels sink beneath the waves, consumed in flames. On the nearby Odo island, people begin to talk about a legendary creature, Godzilla, who has been woken by the testing of these weapons and will return to wreak havoc. Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) sets out to investigate the island and they soon come face-to-face with the gargantuan Jurassic-era lizard that they name Godzilla. After its first destructive incursion onto land, the government establish an Anti-Godzilla task force to develop some means of killing the creature. Meanwhile, the fiancé of Yamane’s daughter, the brilliant scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) may have created a weapon capable of bringing down the monster. However, worries about the implications of this devastating device cause him to hesitate.
“Godzilla” is a thrilling action film and political drama, centred on the mysterious titular monster. There is a love triangle subplot involving Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Serizawa, and Ogata (Akira Takarada) whose salvage ships were destroyed in the first contact; but for the most part the film is focussed on the monster and the devastation it causes. The script builds anticipation of Godzilla’s first appearance, showing the panic caused by the sinking of the two ships, and the disbelief of officials when they discover the true cause. After the first sighting of Godzilla the film is a fast-paced action film, with one-sided firefights between the military and Godzilla, people fleeing in terror as the city falls around them, and a growing sense of dread at the realisation that this creature might never be stopped. The film uses miniatures and trick-photography to give a sense of the scale of Godzilla as we see him rampaging through the streets, or peering over the top of mountains. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka put on the monster suit to play Godzilla and do a great job of making the creature into a real character as opposed to simply a foil for the human protagonists. While his motivations are unclear, you get a sense of sentience and purpose to his actions. The film also features a large cast of extras, with the crowds of government officials, and the inhabitants of Odo and Tokyo, emphasising the scale of the monster and the believability of the situation. “Godzilla” draws on earlier monster movie imagery, such as the packed laboratory of Dr. Serizawa where he is busy creating some terrifying new weapon; and also on war films, with the enemy being replaced by a giant monster. The score by Akira Ifukube is similarly infused with elements of horror, with heavy pounding drums, and gung-ho action themes.
Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” is a metaphor for the death and devastation caused by nuclear weapons. At several points throughout the film, the atomic bomb and Nagasaki are mentioned explicitly. The story has a strong anti-war, anti-nuclear message, with the scientists being uncertain about creating an incredibly powerful weapon even in the face of this great peril. We see how people, the government and scientists react when faced with a threat and a difficult choice. One of the most touching scenes is of the high-school students singing for peace, particularly poignant considering this film was released almost a decade following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is also a definite critique of modernisation and the loss of traditional respect for nature. The scene in which Odo island is battered by a fierce storm suggests a reading of Godzilla as the revolt of nature against man’s destructive tendencies. Whether a metaphor for ecological destruction or nuclear terror, Godzilla gives a dire warning to humans that we are far from the most powerful force on earth and might easily trigger an extinction level even. Worth watching for the incredible action and poignant storytelling, “Godzilla” uses the monster movie genre to deliver a powerful message for future generations.