Godzilla ★★★★

Of all the metaphors for nuclear holocaust, Godzilla was perhaps the most unlikely and indeed one of the more memorable in cinematic history. Developed by the now iconic Toho Studios in Japan, Ishiro Honda's legendary introduction to the titular 'monster' spawned an enormous franchise of creature features that have since spanned decades, and look in no danger of abating in their various forms. Honda's film may of course be dated sixty years on when it comes to effects but it remains a striking and effective piece of work in many places, a towering B-movie shot like a black & white film noir and touching on several universal themes that give the piece a level of depth missing from many other movies of its ilk. Godzilla manages to be a mythic and dangerous warning of the proliferation of nuclear weapons right in the middle of the atomic age, tapping into the primal fears of a world only a few years beyond the horrors of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, the pallor of which cast large over the entire film.

From the very beginning, as we hear the bombastic theme score from Akira Ifukube, Godzilla bears an ominous tone as ships begin to disappear from the ocean, survivors suffer severe radiation burns, and the threat is soon ascribed to the legend of a great historic creature, disturbed from its place of rest by H-bomb tests. The great irony of the disaster theatrics in Honda's movie is how Godzilla is really the true victim - simply an allegory for nature fighting back against human folly in creating these devastating super weapons and hurting their own planet. The creature may roar, breathe fire & stomp around on a rage of destruction, but his motives are in many ways self-preservation - we drew first blood, and he's simply an animal seeking his own survival. Honda nonetheless communicates well the primal terror of such an ancient beast - the sight of Godzilla as a bespoke nuclear weapon, tearing apart Tokyo in a blaze of fire, is really quite terrifying & while Honda isn't averse to moments of levity, he treats this with the grand seriousness & spectacle such a situation deserves. He gets into the minutiae of the response to Godzilla and meets it head on.

Said response is divided and that allows Honda, largely before the climactic charge of Godzilla which consumes the second half of the picture, to really explore thematically the concepts & ideas behind the creature - the responses of the Japanese government, as they figure out the nuclear & radioactive cause of Godzilla's emergence, is suitably a blend of contained & hysteric, the humans never quite learning from their mistakes of war begetting war. Yet Honda manages to communicate a human component in his central characters who nonetheless provide a relatable set of faces amongst the disaster movie theatrics. Beyond the quiet 'love triangle' between Akira Takarada's Ogata, Momoko Kochi's Emiko and Akihiko Hirata's Dr. Serizawa, a relationship that bubbles under without ever needing to become an issue, Serizawa becomes the chief moral question mark of the picture - he's the Dr. Oppenheimer here, the creator of a deadly weapon that may hold the key to Godzilla's destruction but also blows open a huge Pandora's Box of ethics; this is Honda allowing in some anti-nuclear polemic in a film with a clear anti-message in that regard. As a result, while the second half of the picture certainly amps up the destruction quotient, it equally gets into a strong ethical & moral dilemma which steers the narrative and, again, adds more depth & substance than might be imagined.

Once we reach a somewhat definitive conclusion, Godzilla has made its mark. The humane Dr. Yamane, all the way through espousing how the creature should be unharmed and preserved, gives a final warning that might as well come directly from Ishiro Honda's own mouth & serves to highlight how on the face of it this may be a monster movie by definition, yet in truth it's anti-nuclear propaganda fuelled by a nation deeply wounded by their own nuclear holocausts of recent years. That doesn't make it trite, or agenda-beating, it only serves to give this Toho original an ominous, prefiguring pallor that casts a long shadow even into the modern day. Godzilla, as a force of nature rising up to combat the hubris of humanity, remains as potent sixty years on as it did in this seminal, iconic and still often terrifying piece of work.

A. J. liked these reviews