ANALYSIS: The Monster Is The Message – The Foundations of GODZILLA (1954)

This month on the Pod we’re celebrating all things Gojira, so Johnny Restall wades into the waters of Tokyo Bay and take a closer look at the radioactive backdrop of the world’s most famous monster…

The Godzilla (ゴジラ) films of Toho Studios are an established international franchise. Appearing in more than 30 films (as well as comic books, cartoon series, and four Hollywood reworkings to date), the giant radioactive reptile is a pop-culture icon and one of Japan’s best-loved cinematic exports. However, success has frequently softened the character’s sharper edges, with Godzilla’s 1954 origins as a powerful political metaphor often overlooked, particularly in the ‘Westernised’ versions of the films.  

Following its surrender at the end of World War II, Japan was occupied by American forces. The country’s defeat had primarily been bought about by the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and although these events were obviously public knowledge US authorities unofficially sought to restrain any serious national discussion regarding the devastating long-term effects of the attacks during the years of their occupation. It was only after the American troops left in 1952 that the topic began to be broached openly in Japanese society and cinema, with the release of Kaneto Shindō’s Children of Hiroshima later the same year and Hideo Sekigawa’s docudrama Hiroshima in 1953. 

At first glance, director Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954) might appear unrelated to such traumatic real events, telling the fictional tale of a Jurassic beast awakening to wreak havoc on Tokyo. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s initial inspiration for the project was the recent international re-release of the 1933 Hollywood monster classic King Kong. He was also influenced by the overseas success of the 1953 American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (although it is worth noting that despite passing plot similarities, it was not actually released in Japan until December 1954, one month after Godzilla’s premiere).

However, Tanaka also took inspiration from a terrible recent event that had very publicly stirred the ghosts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In March 1954, the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon No. 5 was accidentally exposed to radioactive fallout from the US thermonuclear bomb test Castle Bravo at Bikini Atoll. As radiation sickness claimed the returning sailors, public panic and fury grew, straining relations with America and strengthening anti-nuclear feeling in Japan. Working from an original story by Shigeru Kayama, with a screenplay co-written by Takeo Murata and director Honda, Tanaka fashioned a film that combined monster-movie spectacle with potent contemporary political comment. 

The opening scene of Godzilla, in which a salvage ship is destroyed by an unseen force, is an unmistakable reference to the fate of the Lucky Dragon No. 5. The script explicitly links Godzilla’s awakening and irradiated state to H-bomb tests, and his apocalyptic levelling of Tokyo intentionally evokes the abrupt annihilation of entire cities caused by the atomic blasts of WWII. The anguished Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), creator of the oxygen destroyer that could halt the monster’s deadly rampage, openly debates the ethics of unleashing such terrible power. He even declares that, if used as a weapon, his invention “could lead humanity to destruction just like the H-bomb.” When Serizawa chooses to die at the climax, taking both Godzilla and the secrets of his oxygen destroyer to the grave with him, the film’s anti-war and anti-nuclear position could scarcely be clearer.

While the later films are renowned for colourful fantasy, Honda’s original is deeply serious and sinister. The pace is steady and sober, quietly building to intense scenes of devastation and always emphasising their cost in terms of human lives and misery. Masao Tamai’s gorgeously stark black and white cinematography lends the film a dark, noirish quality that meshes perfectly with the story’s bleak moral quandaries. The cast, led by Takashi Shimura as the conflicted paleontologist Professor Yamane, play their roles straight, and the brilliant music of series regular Akira Ifukube moves memorably between thrilling fury and despairing lament. 

The success of Honda’s film in Japan eventually caught the attention of US producers, with Joseph E. Levine securing the rights and releasing a significantly restructured, shortened, and dubbed version of the original in 1956 under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Levine’s cut features extensive additional scenes directed by Terry O. Morse inserting American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) into the thick of the action, adding swathes of narration from Martin’s point of view. It also fillets the original’s message down to a few vague references to H-bombs. Serizawa’s final sacrifice is presented more as a solution to the love-triangle sub-plot than as a moral act for peace, and the thoughtful Professor Yamane is largely sidelined, with his solemn final warning regarding Godzilla’s probable return replaced by glib platitudes from Martin about being able to “wake up and live again” now that the monster is gone.

Sadly, Levine’s reworking was far more widely distributed than Honda’s original, setting an unfortunate template for the fate of many Japanese entries to follow: edited, dubbed, and re-packaged for the West as a cheap B-movie. A severely altered version of Toho’s swiftly-made sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955) was released in America in 1959 under the inexplicable title Gigantis The Fire Monster, while the international cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) serves only to further undermine the slightly threadbare menace of the original.

By the early 1960s, Toho had originated several other sci-fi monster movies. Perhaps most notable was Honda’s Mothra (1961), which introduced the titular benevolent arthropod. Colourful, eccentric, and imaginative, it set a stylistic tone followed by the subsequent Godzilla films of the decade, cemented by the collision of the two creatures in Honda’s sublime Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). 

Despite its deceptively bright visuals, Mothra vs. Godzilla retains serious messages at heart (an aspect somewhat lost in the two preceding sequels). As established in her debut, Mothra’s ‘uninhabited’ home on Infant Island has been ravaged by nuclear tests, with its human natives overlooked and abandoned – arguably a reflection of the treatment of Bikini Atoll and its residents by the American government. To defeat Godzilla, the Japanese protagonists have to beg the understandably aggrieved islanders for Mothra’s help, stressing the politically-charged values of co-operation and forgiveness in eventually achieving peace. 

A budding ecological awareness also bubbles beneath the film’s surface. The opening sequence shows an expensive man-made coastal development being battered to the ground by a rampaging storm, suggesting that nature has little regard for the vanity of such projects. Mothra’s egg, claimed by the film’s duplicitous businessmen, is also marked with spirals of sea blue and land-like yellow-green, resembling a spinning globe whose theft symbolises the selfish exploitation of natural resources. The film’s dim view of such short-sighted greed is confirmed by the violent fate of its corrupt entrepreneurs, fighting amongst themselves before being crushed by Godzilla (who shows a newly-discerning taste in appropriate victims). 

As the series progresses, Godzilla moves from threat to grudging saviour and his foes become increasingly fantastical, with numerous extra-terrestrial enemies. However, even the more outlandish adventures sometimes touch on serious themes. While Jun Fukuda’s deliriously entertaining Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) is largely concerned with mashing up spy capers and monster mayhem, its titular crustacean is a product of the radioactive waste carelessly discarded by the film’s paramilitary villains. By the time of Honda’s Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla is living in relative peace with former adversaries including Mothra on Monsterland, a kind of sanctuary/prison established to protect and study the creatures by the UNSC. An implicit message can easily be read into their domestic co-existence, and their co-operation when faced with the unrepentantly hostile King Ghidorah and his alien masters: if the monsters can work together for global harmony, why can’t we?

Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) represents perhaps the most divisive attempt to bring the series back to its socially-aware roots. The threat now comes from human pollution, with the shape-shifting Hedorah feeding on the belching smoke and toxic waste of industrialised Japan. Banno captures many genuinely pungent images: a dismembered dummy floating in a filthy bay; a sinking clock sounding ominously from its watery grave; corpses rotting from noxious gases. The film draws heavily on contemporary psychedelia (leading to much of its subsequent ridicule), taking in childlike animation, surprisingly horrific surrealism, acid rock, and sincere ecological protest. Despite a low budget and some undeniably silly moments, Banno’s wildly inventive approach frequently achieves uniquely striking results. The pollution-spewing Hedorah makes a vicious and symbolically effective villain – “a monster of our own making,” as one character aptly puts it – even if he looks less than convincing in flight.

In the many entries since, Godzilla’s depth has waxed and waned between metaphor and mere monster. While the recent Hollywood versions have largely avoided the character’s symbolic side, Toho’s latest live action effort, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla (2016), updates the creature to reflect the terrible costs of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Regardless, the power of Honda’s original version has not diminished, and Godzilla’s serious side remains fascinating for any viewer willing to look beyond the stereotype of simplistic man-in-a-monster-suit mayhem. 

© Johnny Restall

Enjoyed this article? Check out our recent podcast episode where we sit down with Graham Skipper, author of Godzilla: The Official Guide to the King of the Monsters.

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