In the half-century since Godzilla first marauded his way onto Japanese cinema screens the giant, fire-breathing monster hasn’t changed that much. He might be a bit bigger and look more convincing in Gareth Edwards’ most recent Godzilla (2014) iteration but the myth has remained practically the same ever since Haruo Nakajima first tore up model cities dressed in a plastic and latex lizard costume. After first swimming out of the depths of the Pacific Ocean in 1954 Godzilla has become a pop culture icon, inspiring dozens of sequels as well as children’s TV shows (Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers), numerous video games, books, comics and, of course, mountains of merchandise. But it wasn’t only the kaiju (lit. ‘strange creature,’ or ‘giant monster’) himself that proved attractive to those first audiences; the film’s post-nuclear fear of humanity’s obliteration by atomic weaponry resonated with a nation still reeling from the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1954 the monster movie was well established in Western cinemas. Universal Studios were still going strong after the release of over sixty monster features since The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) but it was RKO’s King Kong (1933) and Warner Bros’ The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), another film in which a giant reptilian beast is disturbed from its slumber by the testing of nuclear bombs, that proved to be the most influential to the creation of Godzilla. Despite the negative reaction that the film received from some Japanese critics, who felt that it exploited the tragedy of the war, the public regarded it more favourably and it was subsequently exported to North America, where it was re-dubbed, re-edited and retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956). The great lizard’s legacy had begun.
The story of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla begins with the destruction of a fishing boat off the coast of the fictional Odo island, a tragedy inspired by the real-life case of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (S.S. Lucky Dragon No.5), which in 1954 was exposed to fallout from nuclear tests carried out by the United States at the nearby Bikini Atoll. The crew were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome and one of them later died in hospital. Honda’s Godzilla is simply a manifestation of this nuclear threat. Paradoxically, the only way in which the monster can be destroyed is through the use of weapons of mass destruction, in this case an invention of weird science called the ‘Oxygen Destroyer,’ a literally-named device that kills everything in its radius when activated in water. It is through this technology that Godzilla’s nuclear warnings are delivered most overtly.
The inventor of the Oxygen Destroyer, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), holds himself fully accountable for the power it could unleash and the danger of its misuse. The film is therefore split between Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo and the turmoil that Serizawa faces in trying to decide whether the Oxygen Destroyer should be used to kill him. He initially comes across as some sort of villainous mad scientist due to the eyepatch he wears and the way his fiancée Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kôchi) recoils in horror when he shows her what he’s been working on (which initially remains hidden from the audience). However, he actually turns out to be an unlikely hero, both in the way he deals with the conflict with Godzilla and his noble reaction to Emiko falling in love with another man, the captain of a salvage ship, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Ishirô Honda and his fellow writers were certainly heavy-handed with the nuclear message; at one point it is delivered pretty directly by Emiko’s father Kyohei (Takashi Shimura), a paleontologist brought in to investigate Godzilla: ‘If we continue conducting nuclear tests it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.’ Despite its lack of subtlety it is a message that has persevered throughout Godzilla’s filmic lifetime, right up to Gareth Edwards’ version, where the destruction of the Janjira nuclear power plant evokes memories of the Fukushima disaster of 2011. The ‘MUTO’ (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that causes the plant’s collapse has been feeding off its energy for decades. Kyohei Yamane’s earlier prediction is fulfilled, and not for the first time.
Godzilla’s sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955) would see the kaiju up against a creature of its own size for the first time, an irradiated ankylosaurus called ‘Anguirus,’ but in his debut it was purely beast versus man. As painfully clear as it is now that it is a man in a lizard costume stomping across Tokyo, Godzilla’s visual effects were suitably convincing at the time of its release, to the point where audiences watching the film at Tokyo’s Toho Theater believed that the city really was being torn to pieces right outside. The composite photography used to make it seem like Godzilla is towering above the city is effective and on first sight it’s difficult to see where the images are stitched together. This sense of the beast’s scale has become one of his most important characteristics and has been used to create attention-grabbing promotional material ever since (as in these posters for the 1998 and 2014 iterations).
Some of its visuals may not have stood the test of time but Godzilla set a template for a whole subgenre, a template to which subsequent films have rigidly stuck. The great lizard Gojira has been seen as both friend and foe at various points during his existence yet whichever side he fights for (or against) destruction on an epic scale is inevitable. He is the perfect box-office agent, enabling filmmakers to gleefully raze the most recognisable monuments of the civilized world to the ground, a premise that entire blockbusters have been based on, most famously in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), a sci-fi monster movie which shares some its own characteristics with the kaiju. But it is the juxtaposition of this grand destructiveness with intimate human stories that prove so memorable, when the fate of the world depends on the love and courage of a small cast of characters. Despite its eagerness to warn of the hazards of atomic weaponry the original Godzilla does this better than many films.