Magnificent and absurd, the gigantic radioactive reptile known as Godzilla is the great movie monster of the post-World War II era—in part because his Japanese creator, Ishiro Honda, seems to have conceived of this primordial force of nature as a living mushroom cloud.
Godzilla, released by Toho 50 years ago, was the first Japanese foray into big-budget sci-fi. Although rooted in Japanese folklore, the movie also imitated Hollywood creature features like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or the venerable King Kong, which had been re-released with tremendous worldwide success in 1952. Godzilla cost 10 times the amount of the average Japanese feature and, although shot in sober black-and-white, proved a huge domestic hit—eventually inspiring 22 sequels. The American rights were acquired in 1956 by Joseph E. Levine, who released a recut, dubbed version that, through the miracle of editing, co-starred Raymond Burr, and became a worldwide success.
Amazingly, the Film Forum run beginning Friday marks the first time that the original Godzilla has been shown theatrically in the U.S. since it appeared, a half-century ago, in a Los Angeles Japanese-language theater. Even more remarkably, the film turns out to be its own sort of mutant—at once audaciously lurid and fearsomely grim. Honda produced the movie in the light of the newly developed hydrogen bomb. The U.S. successfully exploded an H-bomb in late 1952; the Soviets followed a few months later. By 1954, the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR were all testing weapons in the Pacific. After a 15-megaton American H-bomb test on Bikini atoll irradiated 7,000 square miles of ocean, the entire crew of the Japanese tuna boat Lucky Dragon developed radiation sickness. It’s that moment, more or less, at which Godzilla opens, with three Japanese freighters successively vanishing in a sea of flames.
From the scary thuds and depth charges that accompany the no-frills titles to the bizarrely poignant final image of Godzilla standing alone at the bottom of the ocean, the movie is all business and pure dream. The giant lizard rises from Tokyo Bay to destroy the city amid a flurry of references to nuclear contamination, black rain, bomb shelters, and the incineration of Nagasaki. Godzilla‘s effects may be laughably transparent but the movie is hardly camp. Its wire-service urgency and newsreel backdrop only make its outlandish monster all the more brutally irrational. (As in the “defiguration” paintings made by situationalist Asger Jorn, two wildly clashing representational codes are present on-screen.)
This spectacle of Kabuki destruction could be taking place inside the fevered brain of the atomophobe protagonist of Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 I Live in Fear. (Kurosawa’s more prosaic treatment of nuclear anxiety was also made at Toho and even featured Godzilla‘s resident paleontologist, Takashi Shimura, in a similarly stricken role, his face a mask of concern and anxiety.) Repeated nightly, in the tradition of aerial bombing raids, Godzilla’s attacks on Tokyo are as somber as they are spectacular. There is an emphasis on civil defense and, even more, on collective solidarity in the face of purposeless, reptile-brain mass destruction. The movie is filled with images of panic: Children are evacuated, tanks patrol the streets. The monster not only sets the city on fire but leaves mass casualties, including orphans and crying babies, in its wake.
Godzilla is all about visualizing destruction and living with trauma. The radiation-burned Dr. Serizawa equates his secret “oxygen destroyer” with the H-bomb and is only persuaded to use it against Godzilla by the televised spectacle of schoolchildren singing the Hiroshima peace hymn. Jacques Derrida characterized nuclear war as a hypothetical event, “not something one can talk about.” But this was not true for Japan. As crass as it is visionary, Godzilla belongs with—and might well trump—the art films Hiroshima Mon Amour and Dr. Strangelove as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.