Sixty years. That’s how long the big guy has been stomping around. There was a new American version released this year which seems to have done reasonably well, but it all began back in 1954, with a film made in Japan (as with nearly all of the franchise). Originally titled Gojira, and still often referred to as such even by American fans, the first film was released in altered form in the United States, with additional footage spliced in to make it more “relatable” for American audiences and voices dubbed over.
Having had a fairly limited Godzilla experience — I had only previously seen the Matthew Broderick film, bits of Godzilla 1985, and of course the all-time classic Bambi Meets Godzilla — I decided that this was the year to correct this by watching the original. The original original, the 1954 Japanese version, with the only alteration being English subtitles. It was definitely worth it.
One nice thing about the movie is that it doesn’t try to be coy about the nature of the threat. It opens with the destruction of a ship, and of the scouting boat that is sent out to investigate. There’s an initial bit of mystery, especially once the third boat is destroyed, but it doesn’t attempt to keep things under wraps for very long. Soon enough Godzilla is stomping around the nearby islands, and is properly identified by scientists. The question then becomes what to do about Godzilla. Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) wants to study Godzilla, feeling that attacking him is an act of futility, and that mankind might benefit from understanding how Godzilla has apparently survived not just the centuries that have passed since the Jurassic, but also the radiation of the atomic bomb. The military, of course, wants to destroy Godzilla, because having a 50-foot lizard tearing up the country is considered bad for business. Of course, the problem is that if a creature views an atomic bomb as an alarm clock, one’s other options for dealing with it are fairly limited.
The “human element” of the story is largely told through a young couple, the daughter of the professor and her fiance who is in charge of the initial missing ship investigations (Momoko Kôchi and Akira Takarada). It does a reasonable job of driving home the urgency of the situation, providing a balance with the more overt moments of destruction. There’s a token love triangle attached with Emiko’s former fiance Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), but this is fortunately only a minor element. It mostly serves to introduce Serizawa, who is perhaps the most important figure in terms of making this more than just a romp and stomp. The film is often referred to as an allegory for the atomic bomb, and it’s Serizawa’s role to drive this home. As a scientist, Serizawa is faced with the task of finding a way to stop Godzilla once and for all, but struggles with the moral quandary that any weapon powerful enough to destroy Godzilla is powerful enough to be used against nations as well.
The film is just a bit of a slow starter. Both the destruction and the human element are fairly quiet and simple at first. But it gradually builds up, and by the end of the film, it is easy to be excited over what’s about to happen. The original Godzilla is a film that is both fun to watch, and has a bit of thoughtfulness to at its center.