Godzilla is something of a pop culture punchline, a quick reference to make in reference to Japan, kaiju, or mass destruction. The King of Monsters has battled other monsters, aliens, and various human armies in nearly 30 films over the course of 60 years. The fact that these films have continued to use actors in suits in lieu of more advanced special effect techniques even deep into the 21st century has made the franchise an easy target for jest. And the horrific American version of 1998 didn’t help matters much. The upcoming reboot/remake/reimagining/whatever we’re calling it of Godzilla is promising to take the idea to a much more serious place. What many viewers may not realize is that doing so is not a new direction for the character at all, but rather a return to what it originally was. With the original 1954 Godzilla hitting theaters again, it’s an excellent chance for audiences to become acquainted with that vision.
Modern cinemagoers take it for granted that today’s best blockbusters will strive to be more than just mindless entertainment, that they will in some way, shape, or form attempt to tackle the issues that concern our society. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films saw a lot of praise for doing such, for instance. More recently, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been lauded for creating parallels to our surveillance state and drone warfare in its story. Sometimes paired with this appreciation for “smart” fantasy is the assumption that its a new trend, when that is not the case at all. The original Godzilla was a special effects-laden movie with a lot on its mind, and it conveyed its themes with much greater power than most contemporary blockbusters.
The nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the firebombing of numerous other cities, was only nine years old and fresh in the minds of the Japanese populace at the time of Godzilla‘s release. Director/writer Ishirō Honda and his co-writers conceived of a Godzilla as a parable for nuclear warfare. Something I learned for the first time watching this original cut is that Godzilla’s head and neck, sometimes mocked as goofy-looking, is shaped like a mushroom cloud. It’s most evident in the beast’s iconic first appearance on screen, as it rises over a hill to gaze down imperiously upon helpless island peasants.
Speaking of appearances, Godzilla itself is not as present in the film as you might think. If the new Godzilla features the character in a comparable amount of screentime, more than a few critics and viewers will likely call foul over feeling gypped. It does not show up until roughly a third of the way into the story, and even then is not fully active until the last third. The point is not Godzilla itself but how the human characters grapple with its presence. There are parliamentary debates, hushed conversations in the streets (one bit of jaw-dropping black comedy sees civilians groaning over the idea of dealing with evacuations and shelters “again”), scientific expeditions, military maneuvers, etc. Through it all, the recurring idea is that no one fully understands what they’re grappling with. Some of the politicians honestly believe that Godzilla can be kept secret from the public. Few acknowledge that they are living in a fundamentally changed world, a world where a city can be there one day and gone the next. That’s still the world we live in, even if we like to think otherwise. The ultimate “solution” to the problem is to use an even worse weapon, which means that even the final victory is far from a comfort.
That point is driven home with devastating force when Godzilla comes to the fore. There was a lot of back-and-forth last year about how big-budget movies these days seem to delight in wrecking cities, how the deaths of thousands or even millions are treated as the “cool” backdrop for action scenes. There is none of that here. From the very beginning, in which a cargo ship is fried by Godzilla’s presence (a reference to a real-life incident involving a Japanese ship caught in the fallout of American nuclear testing), the monster is a source of raw terror. For every wide shot of a giant foot or tail crushing a building, there is a reaction shot of the ground level, showing innocent people running for their lives, or dying. It culminates in the climactic destruction of Tokyo, a ten-minute cavalcade of horror compounding upon itself. Scenes of the aftermath, with images like that of a child wailing over her dead mother in a hospital, make the violence felt even more acutely. Imagine if a current superhero movie did something like this. It’s a far cry from the cheesiness of later Godzilla films, the tone that most people associate with the beast.
You can’t really blame the average person for their ignorance. For Godzilla’s American release in 1956, the distributor saw fit to mangle the film, cutting the grimmer footage and editing Raymond Burr into the proceedings. The story was twisted to make this American outsider the main character, even though he does little but bear witness to the events. The anti-nuclear message was excised. Retitled Godzilla: King of Monsters, it was rife with unintentional humor and toothless where the original went for the throat. The worst part is that this is the version of the film that toured the international theater circuit. It wasn’t until Rialto Pictures restored the movie’s original cut in honor of its 50th anniversary that the regular non-Japanese moviegoer was able to see it. And now, for the 60th anniversary, Rialto has again cleaned up the original print, and is giving it this new theatrical run.
This version is an exemplary work of restoration. There’s nary a pop or a scratch in sight, the imagery dazzlingly clean. The nighttime scenes in particular stand out for their clarity, as the various elements remain distinct from one another. The sound, too, is a marvel, with Godzilla’s roars and footsteps making your bones tremble. This is the kind of experience that should be mandatory theater viewing. Godzilla is one of the greatest films ever made about nuclear weapons, possibly the single greatest disaster film, and unquestionably the king of monster movies. It deserves to be seen as it was first meant to be, and there’s no better opportunity than now.