Before 1954, filmdoms premier leading man in the giant monster stakes was King Kong. A roaring slice of romanticized Americana and an unabashed helping of rip roaring adventure, Kong was the personification of thrilling fantasy but decades after the giant ape succumbed to his passion for screamy blondes something was stirring in the icy depths of the Pacific.
That something was Gojira (or Godzilla, if you are a hard of hearing Hollywood exec), a multi-storey, reptilian dreadnought that spewed radioactive breath and chomped down on trains like a link of electrified sausages. Moody, dark and, most surprisingly, very political, Godzilla was literally a different kind of beast, light years away from the native swallowing monkey antics of his hairy American forefather.
Directed by Ishiro Honda (friend and collaborator of Akira Kurosawa) Godzilla famously is a massive allegory of the devastation (both long and short term) caused by the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan during the Second World War, that’s common knowledge to everyone, but what’s so surprising is how blatant the comparisons truly are.
Opening with a surprisingly modern choice of having it’s title creature’s booming footsteps and iconic elephantine screech sound over the opening credits, Godzilla lays it’s cards firmly on the table by having a boat and it’s crew flash fried by radioactive fire off the coast of Japan right off the bat. Further investigation eventually reveals the culprit to be a towering perma-pissed off murder-lizard, awoken and super charged by recent hydrogen bomb tests. After an entire fishing village is wiped off the face of the earth, the race is on to solve this massive problem and neutralize it before it starts dragging it’s massive behind through the streets of downtown Tokyo and causing more damage than Russell Crowe at a paparazzi’s housewarming.
As mentioned before, it’s the arrestingly modern approach to Godzilla that makes it the timeless classic it is. Taking it’s subject matter as serious as a heart attack and using politicians and press conferences as an invaluable storytelling tool for frantically hurling amounts of exposition as smoothly as possible, Godzilla makes you feel the loss and devastation as real as it can. The aftermath of an impressive mid-film rampage leaves hospitals crammed full of people dying and horribly burned of radiation poisoning and infants wailing at the loss of their parents. At the time it all must of felt horribly too soon to Japanese cinema audiences. It’s mature and grim stuff, dwelling on pain and misery and light years away from the multi-storey clown shoes the franchise became in the 70’s and is every inch the anti-war film of more celebrated movies like Dr Stangelove and the terrifying Fail Safe.
The effects work is superlative, stylistically stunning and incredibly effective. Yes, it’s a essentially guy in a lizard suit (or even sometimes a hand puppet) kicking over models, but what models! And what a suit! Dated as these things seem now, shots of a silhouetted ‘Zilla opening a gigantic can of whoop-ass while fire rages around him still contains more iconic imagery than a dozen of it’s imitators. Godzilla also is the rare example of it’s human based sub-plot not making you want to hang yourself (an all-too real complaint of the genre that still afflicts similar movies to this day). The love triangle between a young, brooding disabled scientist, an optimistic sailor and the daughter of an esteemed Palaeontologist sounds like the opening of the world’s most boring joke, but is in fact moving and tragic and counter balances the more overt carnage nicely.
The start of a cinematic titan who still continues to rampage to this day and the gold standard of a sub-genre that has rarely been bettered, Godzilla is indeed the king of the monsters but is also the king of monster MOVIES. Long may he reign.