“History shows again and again,” writes that unsung modern philosopher Buck Dharma, “how nature points up the folly of men.” Meaning, for those unfamiliar with Blue Öyster Cult’s 1979 monster hit, one Godzilla, 20-story-tall king of the monsters, and the most fearsome city-stomper in the history of cinema. Fifty years of sequels, tag-team monster mash-ups, and shitty Hollywood remakes have not blunted the sheer cinematographic force, let alone metaphorical heft, of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla. Rarely has the open wound of widespread devastation been transposed to celluloid with greater visceral impact. Put another way, Godzilla is the Germany Year Zero of monster movies.
The impetus for Godzilla was a series of undeclared H-bomb tests conducted by the U.S. military at Bikini Atoll in March of 1954, into which maelstrom a lone Japanese fishing boat, christened with terrible irony Lucky Dragon 5, sailed unawares. Exposure to clouds of irradiated fallout, dubbed “death ash” by the sailors, led to the swift demise of at least one crewmember. The still-fresh notoriety of that incident, restaged as the opening sequence of Godzilla, would have alerted Japanese audiences from the get-go that they were in for more than just another creature feature. Add to that frequent mention of matters of wartime survival, whether the firebombing of Tokyo, or the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it becomes something of an open secret that Godzilla represents American military might in all its blind destructiveness.
Stylistically, Godzilla fluctuates between noir-refracted stylization (early scenes, for instance, are heavy on window blind-filtered lighting) and documentary verisimilitude (radio and television broadcasts abound). Honda bides his time, building up a free-floating atmosphere of atomic age anxiety by withholding any glimpse of the Big Bad until 20 minutes in, emphasizing instead the aftermath of Godzilla’s destructive path from maritime menace to the scourge of Odo Island, where it promptly takes out the sole survivor of its second ship-sinking, before wading its way into Tokyo Bay. The other narrative strand concerns an eminently conventional love triangle centered on Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the daughter of renowned archeologist Dr. Yamane (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). In the interests of narrative expediency, Emiko’s torn between her newfound crush on Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain, and an arranged marriage with ugly duckling Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who just happens to have invented the doomsday weapon that can put an end to Godzilla’s reign of terror.
It would be wrong to conclude that Godzilla heaps all of its eggs in one effects-driven basket, caring little for its human-sized drama: Honda infuses Serizawa’s conscientious desire not to unveil his prototype weapon, knowing full well doing so will inevitably lead to an escalating Oxygen Destroyer race, with sufficient emotional charge. In fact, considering how the nominal lead, Ogata, is presented as a sidelined and acutely feckless observer, Serizawa ought to be seen as the film’s secret hero, especially given his film-concluding act of self-sacrifice. Interestingly, this ultimate state of affairs flies smack in the face of the character’s initial presentation: His dark glasses, eye-patch, and facial scars (owing to injuries, we’re matter-of-factly told, suffered during the war) might lead viewers to put him down as a sort of Japanese Dr. Strangelove, which his mad scientist laboratory and unexplained-until-the-11th-hour death-dealing device seem to confirm. It’s a nifty little subversion of expectations, then, that Serizawa ends up the locus of viewer identification.
Furthermore, the artistry of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special-effects work encompasses far more than the sheer spectacle of a man in a rubber suit laying waste to those scale-model cityscapes. Tsuburaya and his team seamlessly integrate composites and matte paintings into the mise-en-scène; for every obvious—and potentially risible—miniature, there are a handful of effects-laden shots that still pack an affective wallop. In particular, Godzilla’s nighttime incursion into Tokyo proper, and the resultant swath of destruction, possesses a psychotronic potency, an air of abreacted absurdity, reminiscent of the Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now. As though implacable death from above were somehow intrinsic to the human condition. Then again, taking the long view of 20th-century history, perhaps it is.
This review originally appeared in Slant Magazine.