A major city is threatened by a giant creature from the depths of the sea. It can’t be stopped, no matter what the military throws at it. Its body sports little parasitic critters. The movie introducing this monster was criticized for exploiting recent real-life destruction. Initially, it was a hit, but not a huge hit, suggesting that a considerable part of the moviegoing public just wasn’t ready to see its still-fresh nightmare of urban devastation played out as a monster flick. Cloverfield? No, Gojira.
I must have seen the Americanized version — Godzilla, King of the Monsters, with Raymond Burr edited into the movie as a reporter covering Godzilla’s assault on Tokyo — as a little kid on Creature Double Feature. I don’t remember much about it, though, and when I was programming the local library’s Movie Night with a sci-fi theme, I decided to show Gojira, the original, unedited Ishiro Honda film, and that’s the version we’ll discuss here. However goofball the later sequels were, and however full of giant-monster fun they were, this first film is surprisingly solemn and bitter. It is explicitly a post-Hiroshima nightmare writ large, with a side order of fear and loathing about the fate of Daigo Fukuryu Maru, the tuna fishing boat contaminated by an American thermonuclear test nine months before Gojira came out.
If you’re showing the movie to Godzilla-obsessed little boys, you’ll have to prepare them for half an hour or so of no Gojira, merely omens of future catastrophe. Takashi Shimura spends many scenes looking troubled as a paleontologist who recognizes what Gojira really is: not a sea-god, as the locals on Odo Island believe, but a gargantuan metaphor for techno-military aggression. Shimura insists that Gojira should be studied, not killed, but he’s not just a clueless egghead like, say, Robert Cornthwaite in The Thing from Another World. No, Shimura sees Gojira as Japan itself, surviving despite being bombarded by radiation.
There’s a rather threadbare romantic distraction between Shimura’s daughter (Momoko Kouchi) and Coast Guard beefslab Akira Takarada, even though she’s engaged to Shimura’s scientific associate Akihiko Hirata. Ooh, scandalous! Hirata has developed an “oxygen destroyer” that turns aquatic life into aquatic lifeless, and there’s a good bit of debate between Hirata and Takarata (“You must use the oxygen destroyer to kill Gojira!” “No, I refuse to let the oxygen destroyer be used for any reason,” and I’m sitting there thinking that Oxygen Destroyer would be an awesome name for a heavy-metal band).
But Gojira had to be padded out, just as Cloverfield had to be padded out, otherwise they’d both be just 90 minutes of destruction with no characters at all. (Someday, someone will make just such a movie.) The Gojira scenes themselves are terrific fun, enhanced if you know things like how the effect of Gojira’s breath melting the electricity towers was achieved (the towers were made out of wax). But a lot of the movie is no laughing matter. Honda doesn’t shy away from the results of Gojira’s rampages — the city in flames, the smashed and tattered buildings, the packed hospitals.
Honda went to Hiroshima in 1946 to view the ruins, so he knew what a real Ground Zero looked like. What he saw worked its way into the movie. Ah, Japan, my mother country, what defense does our mighty military have against the nuclear behemoth? Honda passionately argues for an end to nuclear testing, nuclear anything, putting words in Shimura’s mouth to the effect that there will be more Gojiras — more Hiroshimas — if the world’s leaders don’t stop their sadomasochistic, apocalyptic chess game. Hundreds of Japanese schoolchildren gather together to sing of peace and hope when things seem bleakest and nobody is sure how to “get rid of Gojira.”
How this fairly dour and radical film somehow spawned a major, decades-spanning franchise — which reached its height of silliness either with Godzilla’s smoke-ring-blowing son or with Roland Emmerich’s oafish 1998 reboot, depending on your view — is one of the abiding mysteries of global pop culture. Godzilla morphed from the terrible apotheosis of the nightside of the Japanese consciousness to a fondly regarded big guy fighting smog monsters alongside the Japanese military. But in this first one, the big guy plays for keeps, and stands as a troubling reminder of dark things outside the screen, using horror to tackle a subject that to this day often paralyzes Japanese filmmakers who try to take it on directly. Hiroshima, mon amour? More like Hiroshima, mon kaiju.