Before watching Godzilla for the first time, in the spring of 2021, I had expected a hokey, formulaic monster movie, the kind of breezy entertainment typical of the genre, with its cartoonish plots, B-movie acting, and schlocky special effects. But Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954 and the first of what would become a franchise of 36 films, strikes a markedly different tone. It is a somber and mournful movie, I quickly realized, and distinctly unschlocky.
It opens with a close-up on the wake of a boat followed by brief scenes of the sailors onboard, young Japanese men who are about to fall victim to what we later realize is a nuclear blast—a blinding light, a fire. Other Japanese ships at sea begin to disappear. At first, these disappearances are a mystery. But soon the source of their destruction becomes known, as an enormous prehistoric lizard emerges from the depths. Gojira, as the creature is called in Japanese, has been living in a hidden sea cave, but repeated underwater hydrogen-bomb tests have driven him to the surface, not only angering him but also making him highly radioactive and giving him his characteristic atomic breath. Over the course of the film, Godzilla rampages across a rural island and then, more menacingly, across densely packed Tokyo. He crushes buildings underfoot; he lifts train cars full of terrified passengers and smashes them between his reptilian hands. The city he leaves behind—structures leveled, detritus charred black, the air full of smoke, with small pockets of fire burning everywhere—looks like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the detonation of the atomic bombs.
This striking resemblance aside, Godzilla only obliquely references World War II and the two atomic bombs. And yet, those twin traumas underlie every frame. At one point, a woman fleeing the monster says, in what seems like a perverse understatement, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki—and now this.” As Godzilla rampages, another woman clutches her child, cowering against a building and sobbing. “We’re going to join Daddy,” she tells the child. “We’ll be where Daddy is soon.” We learn nothing else of this woman, but the inference is clear: the father died in the war.
Many critics interpret Godzilla as a villainous stand-in for the United States and the violence wrought by the atomic bomb. I, too, had assumed all this time that Godzilla was the villain. But the movie’s atomic allegory is much more complex. Despite the mass destruction and death that he causes, Godzilla is not a stand-in for the United States but rather a victim himself of the bomb. He has been torn from his prehistoric state and thrust into the science-fiction future, his body mutated by weapons beyond his understanding. He is a symbol not only of destruction but also of survival: machine guns don’t harm him, nor do cannons, missiles, or fighter planes.
“Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived,” says one of the characters, paleontologist Kyohei Yamane. “What could kill it now?”
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