Godzilla (1954) Stomps His Way Onto the Scene and Into Our Hearts

The Toho logo (in Japanese) in white against a black background. The sound of distant stomping coming closer. A terrifying roar as the simple title card appears. I immediately feel like I’m home.

With all due respect to pioneers like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and especially the still-impressive King Kong, this is the one that really changed things. It’s not exaggeration to say that giant monster movies would not have ever been nearly as popular or varried as they became were it not for the way Godzilla stomped his way onto the scene and into our hearts.

Godzilla’s first attack on Tokyo is hardly the most technically accomplished scene of its kind on the series. The compositing is occasionally clumsy, later in the series the miniature work will frequently far exceed its quality here, and Godzilla’s own atomic breath is a bit too misty-looking to look as terrifying as it really ought to. Nevertheless, this remains one of the most breathtaking sequences that has ever been committed to film. It’s a surprisingly quiet scene, with an uncharacteristically understated score until the fighter jets arrive to try to chase the King of the Monsters away, which gives even more space for the fairly conservative but nevertheless effective sound effects of Godzilla smashing his way through central Tokyo and leaving it in flames.

The first time Godzilla appears on film is similarly not the most technically accomplished, nor is it even particularly conceptually bold. Consider later first appearances of his such as rising out of the ground or literally climbing out of a fucking volcano. And the compositing is, again, a little more obvious than you might like it to be. Nevertheless, the image of Godzilla towering over the hillside and making the fleeing journalists and scientists look completely insignificant accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish, and remains a memorable scene.

It’s also not really fair to hold up Godzilla’s effects in comparison to later work on the same series. Instead, when we consider it in comparison to its predecessors and contemporaries it is almost shocking what a leap forward it is. The only two big names that come to mind are, of course, the aforementioned King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Any comparison to King Kong is going to be pretty inherently unfair given the more than 20-year gap between the two films. And, in fact, King Kong maintains a startlingly timeless quality in spite of the limitations on its visual technique. So I’m really not trying to hate on King Kong here, but there’s just no comparison between the two films both in terms of the quality of the effects and the impact that they achieve. No matter what curve I grade on, Godzilla is the better film, and it isn’t close.

But the really striking comparison here is to Godzilla’s closest contemporary, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I remain mystified by Ray Harryhousen’s grudge against the Godzilla series. I’ve previously mentioned that a big problem with the comparison here is that The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a largely subtextless monster movie and Godzilla is just brimming with political and philosophical implications, but really even if we leave that out entirely Godzilla blows its American cousin out of the water and it did it on a fraction of the budget. Just put The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ attack on New York on next to Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo and let me know which you prefer. There really is no context. And unlike King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a contemporary and it was made on a bigger budget with more resources available to it. I actually quite like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, don’t get me wrong. It is just not on Godzilla’s level. There are few that are.

The great equalizer here is co-writer and director Ishirō Honda. With very few exceptions, he was the man behind every single Godzilla film of the Shōwa period worth seeing. While his Godzilla films would eventually become more lighthearted, you never really get the feeling that he stopped taking the concept seriously, and it’s really a damn shame that his work doesn’t often enjoy the kind of acolades many others received during the heyday of auteur theory.

The political attitude of this film is not subtle, nor does it need to be. It is effective and convincing in its bluntness. We go right from parliament’s outrage that Godzilla was loosed upon their nation by H-bomb testing to the conversation on the train where one woman complains that she “barely escaped Nagasaki the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, and now this!” One clearly war-weary man complains, “Evacuate again? I’ve had enough.”

The implications of Dr. Serizawa’s character are quite clear. He is a man who accidentally created a weapon of mass destruction, is reluctant to allow its use even to thwart Godzilla’s attacks on mainland Japan, worries about being tortured into revealing its secrets even if he burns all of his notes. He is eventually willing to die in order to prevent anyone else from using it. The scene where Ogata and Emiko beg him to use his weapon just this once is really a scene where they’re begging him to die, they just don’t realize it. And in the end Serizawa weighs his own life against both the destruction Godzilla is causing and the danger of his research falling into the wrong hands, and finds there’s only one way to balance the equation. Such reluctance on the part of a few might’ve spared Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and indeed an entire world that’s now under the thumb of an empire that was built largely on the back of nuclear supremacy. It’s not difficult to understand why such a fantasy of scientists with greater reluctance and restraint came out of Japan, the only country in the history of the world to have been the victim of direct acts of nuclear warfare.

If I were to approach the question with any semblance of an attempt at objectivity, I would have to admit that this is almost certainly the best Godzilla movie and the best monster movie. I already have no problem calling it one of the best all-around movies of all time. There are quite a few films in the series that I prefer over it for any number of largely personal reasons, but the fact that a movie like Godzilla, which relies so heavily on special effects and action, still holds up as well as it does six decades later, is just a staggering achievement. Long live the King of the Monsters.

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