Fresh Eyes: Godzilla (1954)
As a pop culture icon, Godzilla looms high above most of the competition, and casts a shadow over many aspects of film and animation. As a child, I was aware of the concept of Godzilla and kaiju as a whole, despite not having any experience with the genre. Godzilla was just something I always remember knowing, but never learning about. So, for this installment of Fresh Eyes, I decided to go back to where it all began, and take a look at the one, the only, the original Godzilla. I was not disappointed, not in the least.
The plot of the film is very simple and, for someone familiar with any modern creature feature, expected. Godzilla attacks a few ships, humans try to figure out what happens, Godzilla makes himself known and wreaks havoc, humans develop method to defeat Godzilla, day is saved, yay! However, the thing setting Godzilla apart from and what elevates it above most modern blockbusters is the metaphor and tone. Godzilla is a walking metaphor for the atom bomb and the destruction it brings. In the years following the end of World War II, it is unsurprising the Japanese would be preoccupied with exploring this idea and attempting to come to grips with what that means. As a result, Godzilla is a harrowing and dower film, which makes for a distinctly un-fun viewing experience, which is not something I was expecting.
Everything about the production design of Godzilla contributes to a permeating sense of worry and fear, of insignificance in the eyes of destruction. Most wide shots in the film serve to frame the humans and human creations as tiny and insignificant. Long lines of communications wires and towers, which would look tall and impressive in any other film, feel dwarfed by the very way the camera looks at them. People often look like insects, scurrying away from the giant monster, caring little for their lives or struggles. The model work does show its age, mostly due to the fact water and fire do not scale, but I think the way they are clearly so fragile and tiny works into this fear and worry. Godzilla destroys everything in its path with ease, as if they were actually toys. Seeing the miniatures as they are is almost like seeing them from Godzilla's perspective, and further drove home the feeling of insignificance and terror for their lives that the victims are clearly feeling during each attack.
I use the term "victims" intentionally there. The film clearly portrays the Japanese people as victims of a disaster, and the film dwells on the aftermath of the rampage, rather than reveling in the rampage itself. The scene in the hospital, post-rampage, forces the audience to acknowledge the wounded, the orphaned, and the widowed survivors of the attack. It carries more emotional resonance than anything in any of Michael Bay's Transformers films, or the majority of recent summer blockbusters, for that matter. The human cost of destruction is what matters here, not the amount of explosions and broken steel girders on display; and it is an absolute breath of fresh air to a modern viewer.
The entire ensemble cast does an excellent job at selling just how terrifying and horrendous the human cost of Godzilla is. What impressed me the most, however, is how the type of fear varied based on social class. The more common people are all afraid for their lives and the lives of those they love, but don't really consider the larger implications and geopolitics at play. The government officials, military commanders, and scientists, on the other hand, fully understand the larger elements involved in Godzilla's existence. There are references to the diplomatic ramifications of Godzilla's attacks, and what will happen should he not be stopped. The scientists continually stress researching survival over military force, because what hope is there of defeating something capable of shrugging off a nuclear blast.
But that's how the film ends, as I mentioned before. The humans defeat Godzilla, and the day is saved. This is cause for celebration, right?
No, it's not. The final confrontation, if one can call it that, feels hollow, joyless. Godzilla may be gone, but a superweapon now exists strong enough to defeat something that an atom bomb only pissed off. And the death of that weapon's inventor feels hollow as well, as humans will inevitably recreate the weapon. It's our nature. We will always create another weapon. We will always build something stronger, more deadly, until we wipe ourselves off the face of the earth. Always.
Godzilla is a movie that focuses on the death and destruction humans inflict on each other, through the lens of the extraordinary. It is a harrowing film, and tapped into a part of my anxiety I was not expecting. Having watched this, I'm almost irritated that Godzilla has become an icon of fun and campy blockbuster cinema. But the same is true of nuclear weapons, isn't it? Humans always trivialize and normalize traumatic aspects of our existence, it is the only way we can survive. Godzilla warns against this complacency, but even acknowledges humans will keep marching towards our own doom. The final line of the films is "As long as nuclear testing continues, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again." I wouldn't say it's possible, it's guaranteed.