If social science fiction serves to provide a fanciful vessel for commentary, then the premise of Gojira might be one of the best examples ever of social commentary riding on the back of cinematic science fiction. But like many of the beloved monsters we’re discussing this week, Godzilla himself is a beast as maligned by misconceptions as he is inundated with nuclear radiation. As a child, I certainly didn’t see the original Godzilla film first, and when I did, I probably found it to be considerably more boring than say Godzilla Vs. King Kong or Godzilla Vs. the Cosmic Monster or the mega-monster orgy Destroy All Monsters! The inception then of this devastating dinosaur is not kid-friendly at all, because, it is, not surprisingly, a very serious film.
But unlike some other classic monster movies, Gojira is singular because it truly seems to lack a main character. Even the beast himself doesn’t have enough screen time or enough of an arc to warrant that distinction. But it’s okay, because Gojira isn’t about people, instead it’s a movie that depicts a specific event, and in this way, succeeds in defending its much-deserved title as a classic and relevant film.
(Note: While I am aware that the word “Gojira” has nothing to do with a “God-zilla” and instead is a combination of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and a “whale,” I am still an American, and in my head, the monster’s name is “Godzilla.” Also in the restored and subtitled Japanese film, the subtitles call him that, too. So, in this article when I talk about that monster himself, I’ll call him“Godzilla.” When I reference the film as a film, I’ll call it by its proper name; Gojira.)
Gojira opens with a series of extremely economical, effective, and genuinely frightening scenes of various Japanese ships being destroyed at sea under mysterious circumstances. Fishermen and deck hands shout that the “sea just blew up!” Government speculation as to the cause of this devastation ranges from roving sea mines, to an undersea volcano. Notably absent from these possible non-Godzilla explanations is an attack from a foreign nation. This is fascinating because while Gojira is undeniably a political film, it seems fairly aware that it needs to stand up as a movie first, and political statement second. And so, the narrative is fairly careful to avoid connecting all the relevant the dots for the audience, at least at the beginning. You’re not supposed to feel like Godzilla equals nuclear war, instead, as a metaphor, Godzilla is more representative of fall-out than the bomb itself. But how could fall-out become a specific event, instead of the lingering terrible consequence it is in real life? Gojira postulates that if you had a prehistoric creature living in the depths of the ocean, it might be roused and super-charged by “nuclear testing.” This euphemism is the nice way the filmmakers decided to reference the bombs America dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. You’ve got to hand it everyone involved in this film. For as close as it was made to horrific events that ended WWII, the movie has some class, despite the super-heavy message it carries.
But if Godzilla himself serves as a metaphor for not only the horrors of nuclear war, but also more specifically, an embodiment of nuclear fall-out, then there is something paradoxically hopeful about the premise of Gojira. Because if fall-out is now made into a monster, it becomes a living thing, and a living thing can die, or more importantly be killed. However, Godzilla isn’t just a metaphor, he’s a living thing too, and also a kind of victim. Several discussions in the film revolve around whether or not the monster should even be killed in the first place. Dr. Yamane, the aging and wise paleontologist, is super-bummed out that the consensus among the powers-that-be seems to one with this message: Godzilla must die.
Though it doesn’t follow any of its human characters closely enough to create a realistic story, there is some interesting drama occurring during the impending invasion from Godzilla. After a lot of jostling between government officials, members of the press, victims of various attacks, and fisherman who know the score, the narrative eventually settles around the previously mentioned Dr. Yamane, his daughter Emiko, her fiancé Dr. Serizawa, and her new real lover Ogata, a captain of a salvage ship. Just before Godzilla eventually makes his initial landfall, Emiko goes to see Serizawa with the implicit purposes of letting him know it’s all over and she’s going to start shacking up with Ogata. Complete with an eyepatch, Serizawa exudes a very Dr. Frankenstein madness. References are made to how “the war changed him” (like Godzilla!) and Serizawa’s inventions certainly have a lot in common with the switches and levers of Frankenstein’s lab. Specifically, he’s invented the Oxygen Destroyer, a gizmo he creepily demonstrates to Emiko when she comes to visit. I bet you can figure out what the Oxygen Destroyer does based on its name. (I’ll tell you this much, it DOES NOT make pancakes in nifty shapes.)
Either way, between the reveal of the Oxygen Destroyer and the attack from Godzilla, poor Emiko just can’t seem to find the time to break the bad news. Though she has short coversation with Ogata about this, I sort of wish it had been longer. It can be paraphrased thusly:
“Did you tell him or what?”
“Didn’t have a chance to.”
“Oh come on, Godzilla’s not real. Oh wait! Shit! There’s Godzilla! Yeah, let’s sort this out later.”
Kidding aside, this human conflict does create some great stuff because ultimately it is Ogata who gets pissed off when Serizawa gets cold feet about using the weapon to kill Godzilla. The notion of proliferation of doomsday weapons is pretty clear, and though Godzilla is technically vanquished, the looming “at what cost?” question is asked pretty clearly.
Famously, much of the inspiration for Gojira came from King Kong, even though its visual effects were accomplished completely differently. As a kid I remember thinking stop-motion was good and guys in rubber-suits were bad, in terms of realism. There was a paradox here because while I liked Godzilla a whole lot better than King Kong, it bothered me to know that it was just a guy in a suit. However, upon rewatching the movie, I have to say I was genuinely surprised by how good it looks. When Godzilla first pokes his head up over the mountain, I expected to laugh, instead I caught myself gasping. There’s something about the casual and slow way monsters are introduced in old movies that can’t ever be properly homaged or recreated. The other thing to remember about the FX of Gojira isn’t just the guy in the monster suit, but the miniatures he has to destroy! My favorite example of this comes early in the film, before we’ve even seen Godzilla’s face. The big G has ravaged an island and the most damning evidence that a monster has been stomping around is a smushed helicopter lolling on the beach. The way the camera holds on this image before slowing fading into the next scene represents a pretty ballsy faith in the model-makers and FX folks in general. It’s nice; because in this era of movies, you didn’t need to be convinced any of this stuff was real.
It’s not like Godzilla “looks” real either. If the buildings or helicopters looked more realistic than Godzilla, none of this stuff would work. Fortunately, the characters and their conflicts are similar in texture to everything else, making nearly ever aspect of this film consistent with itself. For all these reasons, and also that fantastically iconic roar, Gojira, will always be the king of monsters.
(For one of the best accounts (albeit a fictional one) of the making of Gojira, I can’t recommend Jim Shepard’s short story “Gojira, King of Monsters” enough. It can be found in his 2011 collection: You Think That’s Bad, which you can read all about here.)
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.