It's 1954. Off the coast of Japan, freighters and fishing boats are going missing, as are the Coast Guard ships sent to locate them. A small fishing village in a remote island is ravaged by what scientists conclude was no ordinary storm, but rather, a prehistoric sea monster awakened by nuclear testing in the Pacific. Local legend refers to a monster called "Godzilla", and soon enough, that's what everyone in Japan is calling it. Defensive measures are raised, but they are not enough as this enormous, 150-foot-tall beast enters Tokyo Bay and sets its sights on the nearest city.
If you think Godzilla is kitschy, watch this film -- the original Japanese version, not the American edit with Raymond Burr, and certainly not the sequels made in the '60s and '70s (which really are kitschy) -- and get back to me. Even with its crude, low-budget special effects, Godzilla is a reminder that not all '50s B-movies are created equal. It starts off surprisingly slowly, showing only brief glimpses of the monster until halfway in, and when it does bring out the destruction, it does so not to thrill, like so many later films would, but to horrify. Godzilla is very much a horror film, a very effective one at that, and one that is inseparable from the time and place in which it was made.
It is something that everyone who writes anything about this film always says, but it bears repeating: the giant monster at the center of this film is a very blunt metaphor for nuclear weapons. It was awakened by nuclear testing, the victims of its radioactive breath see little more than a blinding flash before being incinerated, and it single-handedly destroys Tokyo in a hellish inferno. The creator of the superweapon that ultimately defeats Godzilla takes his own life to guarantee that he'd never be able to replicate it and allow it to be used as a weapon of war, and the film closes with another scientist saying that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, there will be more Godzillas (and oh, were there many sequels). This film tackles nuclear weapons the same way that The Day After Tomorrow handled climate change: with all the subtlety of a 150-foot-tall dinosaur stomping through a nation that, just nine years prior, had become the first and only one on Earth to get nuked as an act of war. For many Japanese, the horror of this film was immediately recognizable, as it went out of its way to evoke the imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the point where some Japanese critics at the time found it to be tasteless exploitation of a tragedy.
And you know what? It worked. It's a very... unique representation of nuclear weapons, but it absolutely worked. Once you get past the obvious miniatures and "suitmation" effects, Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo was downright horrifying in a way that most modern movies with a hundred times the budget and decades of modern technology fail to match. (Hint, hint.) The sight of the monster standing in the middle of the burning city, a massive wall of fire illuminating its silhouette... the kicker was the scene of the mother cowering helplessly in the street with her children, telling them that they'll be with Daddy soon. To say nothing of the real horror, the countless people who had died, been crippled, or had lost loved ones, which this film shows unflinchingly as doctors at an overcrowded hospital struggle to handle the situation. The only disaster films that had quite that impact on me were Cloverfield, The Impossible, and the '80s World War III film The Day After, the latter of the three having, not coincidentally, much the same message as this. It was not the bloodless violence of something like, say, Man of Steel, where skyscrapers are shattered yet we never see anyone die. No, the violence in this is shown from on the ground, and it's as scary as you'd imagine a visit from the King of the Monsters to be.
Even the human drama, something that the sequels often lacked, worked here. It started slow, but eventually, it got to be gripping enough that it more than compensated for the lack of Godzilla in such scenes. The argument between Ogata, Emiko, and Dr. Serizawa over using his superweapon to defeat Godzilla arguably did more to drive home this film's message than the monster itself. I had trouble getting myself to care about the human characters at the beginning, but by the end, it had built up around the monster mayhem a genuinely moving story about weapons of mass destruction and the responsibility that comes with them.
Score: 5 out of 5
A damn fine classic of a horror movie that still works on nearly all levels today, as well as serving as an excellent time capsule of '50s Japan whose message still resonates.