While I love horror of all kinds, one subgenre has held my attention stronger than any other in that great terrifying clade of fiction: kaiju movies, and even more specifically, Godzilla movies. It was the king of the monsters himself who opened the door to the greater horror genre for me as a kid. Godzilla led me to Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. They led me to other monsters, and on and on until I became the weirdo who made this site. Through it all, Godzilla remained my favorite, and the movies starring him and his fellow giants continue to dominate my imagination more than any other horror of page or screen. So it’s only fitting that my horror blog devoted at least one feature solely to this subset of horror. This is There Goes Tokyo, a column on Horror Flora devoted solely to the study of kaiju, kaiju movies, and movies that happen to feature kaiju. We begin, as we should, with the movie that debuted the greatest kaiju of them all: the 1954 classic Godzilla.
For now this column will focus on the Godzilla franchise, though I intend to expand it beyond that eventually. When talking about Godzilla, though, we’ll have two specific areas of focus: 1, the overall themes of Godzilla stories and how each entry in the franchise contributes to and/or changes those themes, and 2: the portrayal and evolution of Godzilla himself. Yes, in some ways this will basically be an extended version of the Godzilla ICHF article – specifically, one that doesn’t mind focusing on elements of the franchise outside of the king of the monsters himself.
Which is why we absolutely have to start with the very first Godzilla movie, and specifically with its Japanese cut (the more well-known American cut, 1956’s Godzilla King of the Monsters, will probably warrant an entry of its own down the line – there are some important changes it makes). A lot of praise has been heaped upon this movie in recent years, both within the kaiju fandom and even in the general world of film criticism. The movie was even given the honor of getting a release from the Criterion Collection, complete with documentaries and other wonderful features to aid any academic in studying the movie.
I’m at the point where the hype this movie gets is a little unbearable to me – especially since so many people singing its praises also feel the need to drag the other movies in the franchise in comparison, which, as this column will show, is rather unfair. Yet I can’t argue the praise isn’t earned. Godzilla (1954) is a movie that had everything against it on paper: rushed into production to replace a different project that had to be cancelled halfway into production, made in imitation of other successful monster films by people who had never worked on a monster movie before, this was a recipe for disaster. Those problems aren’t absent from the final product, either. There are jump cuts resulting from the editors not having enough workable takes of a scene (a common problem for rushed low budget films), shots that aren’t in focus that really should have been, and other minor but noticeable film mistakes. There are contrivances in the story and glaring factual errors in the science. Elements of the plot are clearly derivative of stories that came before. Despite what some may claim, this is not a perfect movie by a long shot.
Yet even with those defects, the end result is a monster film unlike any other that preceded it – a grim apocalyptic spectacle that puts the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein to shame. Its haunting score is as iconic a film theme as any composed by John Williams, despite the fact that Akira Ifukube was so rushed in producing it that he had to start working before he even had scenes to set the score to. There are ingenious shots and sequences all throughout the movie’s runtime that more than make up for the few mistakes sprinkled here and there by desperation. And though up till this point he was famous for water effects rather than monsters, Eiji Tsuburaya would create a monster design so iconic that it has been referenced and parodied as often as any other villain of the horror genre if not more so. Imperfect though it may be, Godzilla is nonetheless a work of art.
Many monster movies of the 1950’s begin with an unnamed narrator giving a bombastic and flowery speech about nature’s cruelty, the danger of the unknown, and how man should not meddle in the affairs of God or something to that effect, often laid over a montage of stock footage terminating with stock footage of an atomic explosion. Godzilla has no such opening monologue. Instead it opens starkly with the credits on a plain black background. Instead of narration, we hear the horrific wails of the titular monster overlaid with its now iconic theme music. This sets the movie apart from its contemporary peers. No human narrator is telling this story – this is not a tale that humans own. Instead, the voice we begin with is that of the monster, a painful wail of agony and fury repeated over and over again. This is the monster’s story.
When the credits end, our first actual scene likewise throws us into the meat of things rather than having the elaborate introduction of other monster films. We see sailors on a ship going about their usual business. There is no narration telling us who they are, no clear dialogue introducing characters. We are shown instead of told, and what we’re shown escalates quickly and horribly. The serene, normal scene almost immediately descends into horror as the water churns and glows with an eerie light. A horrendous roar like those from the credits is heard as the sailors shriek in terror before their ship erupts into flames and sinks into the sea. There were monster movies before this film that opened with a teasing scare, but the level of destruction on display here, and the speed in which it is presented, still makes it startling compared to what you’d expect from the monster movies that preceded it.
Godzilla does follow the formulas of its peers in some regards, though. Like other 50’s monster movies (and the Gothic Horror films that came before them), Godzilla’s first act is treated as a mystery story. Our heroes are introduced one by one: Ogata, a sailor who is called to investigate the missing ship; Emiko, the woman Ogata loves; Dr. Yamane, a paleontologist and the father of Emiko; and Dr. Serizawa, a mysterious scientist and war veteran who is engaged to Emiko (note that Emiko is something of a lynchpin tying the other three together). The heroes find and interpret various clues with the help of many minor characters, and as they do the movie builds tension. The audience knows a monster is behind the horrors that have unfolded so far, but the characters are still finding that out, and the dramatic irony of this gap in knowledge makes their investigation even more suspenseful.
One particular clue to Godzilla’s identity, and one that is often overlooked or brushed off by reviewers of the movie, is the mythological backstory given to the monster. Many people focus on the science fiction elements of Godzilla’s origin when exploring the monster, viewing him as just an atomic mutant like other 50’s monsters are. Yet the movie gives us a mythic origin before it presents a scientific one, and the mythic origin is arguably just as important for our understanding of the character. An elder resident of Odo Island notes that the mythic Godzilla was a dangerous sea dragon. In times when fish were scarce, the islanders would send Godzilla a sacrifice to keep him from eating them. The Elder believes that the mythical Godzilla has come again, and since no one will appease him, he will destroy humanity: “once he eats all the fish, he’ll come ashore and eat all the people.” One might think it’s simply spooky foreshadowing – King Kong, a movie that Godzilla is at least a little inspired by, used the same sort of backstory for its prehistoric star. Yet the myth here isn’t just set dressing, as it builds to the movie’s overall theme. In the myth, Godzilla had to be appeased – humanity had to share the world with the monster. Humanity is no longer this generous, and so the monster rises to destroy those it once lived alongside.
The first rampage of Godzilla is essentially a tease – we see almost nothing of the monster himself, focusing instead on the human’s point of view as they are assaulted by something so massive that it shakes the foundations of their houses with every footfall. The one time we see Godzilla himself is so subtle that many viewers don’t realize he’s been “revealed” on their first viewing. The bulk of the shot is focused on a house collapsing under Godzilla’s weight – Godzilla is only visible in the top left hand corner of the frame, and even then he is in the shadows, and can easily merge with the gloom of the night sky to those not looking for him. Only the slight movement of his thigh as he continues on his trek draws our attention to his presence, and even then it doesn’t occur until the last few frames of the shot. When you do see it, though, it’s terrifying. This one shot – one of many ingenious ones in the film – sums up the underlying terror of the story’s first act in one keen visual. The idea of something that large lurking in the shadows, unnoticed by our limited perception, is the driving fear of the story so far: a fear of what may lie in the unknown depths of the sea.
It should also be noted that Godzilla shows us in this scene what is usually related to us in its contemporaries, if it even occurs at all. Many 50’s monster movies begin with the heroes discovering that a small town was mysteriously wiped out – Them!, an American film that came out the same year as Godzilla, is a notable example. Yet none until this movie, and few if any after, actually show that destruction happening. We see the aftermath – Godzilla shows us the gruesome event itself, and it is horrifying.
Our movie gets to a scene that other giant monster movies would start with: the intrepid scientist investigates the aftermath of a monster attack. Dr. Yamane doesn’t quite fit either of the heroic scientist archetypes that existed in monster movies by this point though. He isn’t the square jawed young hero, nor the bumbling, manic, Einstein-looking eccentric with a heart of gold. Instead he is a dignified, quiet man (although the movie does introduce him with a slight bit of humor, as he accidentally has his tie hanging outside his suit jacket instead of beneath it). Yamane is thoughtful and contemplative in all his scenes, speaking only when he can clearly articulate his thoughts and feelings. There is a wisdom that attends his intellect that is missing in other science heroes, who are often presented as rash and impulsive if not downright careless. Yamane’s role also transcends the exposition machine that most science heroes are in monster movies; he’s not just here to give us the science, but to also articulate the moral and ethical conscience of the film itself.
Yamane’s investigation begins in an utterly massive footprint – a visual so iconic that it was one of the few things the 1998 American adaptation of Godzilla actually took from this film instead of its many contemporary American giant monster flicks. The scene isn’t frantic or given any air of impending tension – we don’t expect a monster to leap out. Instead the horror is more subtle; we’re looking at the aftermath of a horrific event rather than the event itself, though the aftermath is dreadful in its own right for its implications. The corpse of a trilobite embedded within the footprint shows that our monster is something far too old to have any right to exist in this day and age, while the radioactivity seeping from the track shows that the monster can be deadly even when it isn’t present. We are given a moment to contemplate just how much our heroes are out of their depth.
Then, suddenly and with almost no warning, this somber, contemplative scene shifts into a more active terror as Godzilla is sighted. Our heroes scramble up a hill to safety only to realize Godzilla is on the other side, forcing them to scramble back the way they came. It’s a terrifying surprise that is wonderfully effective. The movie continues to reveal Godzilla piecemeal here – we get more of him than his last appearance, seeing his head looming over the hill, but we still haven’t seen the full monster itself. This is one of several effective if controversial visual story telling devices that would be use by later entries in the franchise – some more effectively than others.
That’s not what interests me the most about this reveal, though. What really gets me is how Godzilla’s menacing of the mob on Odo Island is restrained by his motivation. It’s yet another thing that sets this film apart from other 50’s monster flicks. In an American movie, Godzilla might have attacked the people then and there to establish his threat. We might get a shot of a minor character looking up at the monster and screaming before being eaten or crushed off screen. The monster would do this not for sustenance or any other reason, but because the movie needed to establish he was a threat. Instead, Godzilla notices the humans, roars at them, then goes back to doing what he set out to do in the first place by swimming off into the sea. Even this early in the series, Godzilla’s actions are driven by in character motivations rather than a formula’s need for conflict. It breaks with tradition, and even misses an opportunity to make the scene scarier, but it keeps Godzilla’s character intact.
This scene is followed by an obligatory scene of exposition by our resident scientist, Dr. Yamane. While this scene definitely fits what was by this point the typical atomic age monster movie formula, it notably begins with Yamane wondering both how and why the monster is in Japan’s territory. The movie wants the audience to consider the monster’s motive as much as its origin, again emphasizing the monster as character approach vs. the monster as an unthinking, unfeeling source of conflict that acts according to the script’s demands rather than according to an internal motivation. Yamane’s exposition continues this trend by not just focusing on the prehistoric biology of the monster, but it’s status as an atomic mutant. In other monster films – The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Them!, The Beginning of the End, etc. – the focus would be on the terror of this animal: “Imagine the fury of the ant, now magnified – that horrible beast of nature now big enough to harm us.” While Godzilla indulges in that to an extent, the exposition makes it clear that the radioactive nature of Godzilla – the aspect of his existence that is explicitly humanity’s fault – is far more dangerous than his brute animal nature.
The exposition then breaks from tradition as the audience for Yamane’s speech breaks into a political debate on how to handle the monster. One group argues that they shouldn’t admit or release the monster’s atomic origin (despite that being the most perilous aspect of the monster) to the public for fear of angering Americans who set up the atomic bomb test that made the monster in the first place, while another asserts that the world needs to learn the truth. This argument gets heated, and as a result the audience gets a different message from it than from similar scenes in similar monster movies. The problem the movie is focusing on isn’t the problem of the monster itself – Godzilla is just one of many creatures caught in the true problem’s path. No, the true problem is the actions of mankind and their horrible consequences – specifically, actions that create weapons of war.
This important scene is followed by three wonderful short vignettes. The first shows a couple on a train talking about Godzilla rather casually and carelessly, each clearly not taking the monster as seriously as they should be. This is followed by an ominous shot of Dr. Yamane brooding in his study, surrounded by models of dinosaurs and clearly deep in thought (which is important for a scene coming up shortly). The third scene in this triad is of that couple from the first, now enjoying themselves on a boat. Slowly Godzilla’s head rises out of the water, and this pair of minor characters realize the creature they talked so flippantly about before is a much more pressing issue than they thought.
Godzilla’s appearance in Japanese waters (not an attack, mind you – the party ship is unscathed) panics the people of Japan, and officials go to Dr. Yamane in hopes of finding a way to kill the monster. It’s not a purely altruistic plea, either, as one of the first reasons they give for destroying Godzilla has nothing to do with human lives, but rather with how his appearance will stifle foreign trade at great cost to the economy. At this point the desire to kill Godzilla is at least partly out of convenience. Yamane’s response expands upon his brooding in the earlier scene in his study: “Godzilla was baptized in the fires of the Hydrogen Bomb – what could kill it? What we should study now is how it survived.” Like the Odo Islanders of myth, destroying Godzilla isn’t a possibility Yamane even remotely considers. Coexisting with the creature, however, is one that he thinks could not only be possible, but far more rewarding. While that sounds like a tall order, Yamane has a point. Godzilla’s ability to survive the atomic bomb implies healing powers that humans could scarcely conceive of. Replicating them could advance human medicine by leaps and bounds. While his destruction of the ships and Odo Island were terrible, Godzilla has not been actively malicious in the film so far – everything he’s done is within the scope of animal behavior, and so coexistence is theoretically possible. Now, as the movie transitions into the second act – where, according to formula, finding a way to destroy the monster is the new driving conflict of the story – our movie has its science hero emphasize his staunch refusal to even consider destruction. This is particularly amazing when you consider that this movie’s portrayal of Godzilla is easily his third most villainous appearance in film, and for decades was THE most villainous take on this character. Even here, in what for decades or so was the movie that showed Godzilla at his most terrifying, the story emphasizes what we can learn from a dangerous “Other” like Godzilla is far greater than the debatable victory presented by destroying it.
We follows this with the proper introduction of Dr.Serizawa (he was technically introduced a scene earlier in the movie, but the information presented there basically boiled down to “has an eyepatch, knows Emiko”). Serizawa, like Yamane, is haunted by his knowledge and position as a scientist, but for different reasons. While Yamane is haunted by his inability to convince people not to destroy the monster in the first place, Serizawa is instead haunted by the power he does wield – the discovery of the Oxygen Destroyer, which the movie shows us in a scene that is almost as dreadful as the Godzilla teases earlier. Like Godzilla, the full terror of this weapon is hinted at in its introduction but not shown in full. Instead we see the horrified reaction of Emiko as it is displayed, and Serizawa’s shame as he watches his invention in action. This scene is shown in tight shots of his lab that are so moody and stylistic that they would feel at home in a James Whale Frankenstein movie. The parallels are made clear by the cinematography before the audience has the knowledge to find them on their own: Serizawa has made a horror on par with monsters like Godzilla himself.
This scene is directly followed by another beautifully shot vignette. Emiko returns home from Serizawa’s late at night. The scene is dark, with most of the faint light seeping from a barred window above the front door. The visual we’re left with is one of Emiko standing in the dark next to a barred exit – if you will allow me to get more pretentious than I’ve already been, this shot is a visual metaphor for her internal struggle. She is trapped with a dark secret – caged by her inability to let anyone else discover the horror she’s seen. Suddenly the lights come on, and Emiko looks up to see Ogata, her true love, and Shinkichi Yamada, a young survivor from Odo Island that Dr. Yamane took in. Emiko will later reveal Serizawa’s secret to Ogata after she sees more survivors of Godzilla’s wrath like Yamada – the guilt and horror of the situation will free her of her promise and force her to bring the truth to light. Yeah, it’s pretentious to think about – but at the same time, fucking duuuuuude, that is such a genius little shot.
This short but incredibly important moment of foreshadowing is followed by Godzilla’s first true rampage on Tokyo. Soldiers shoot the monster as he emerges from the sea to no effect. We see civilians panicking as they evacuate the area, mixing with the gunshots and the dour, ominous theme music by Ifukube to set the tone. Then Godzilla is finally revealed in full, emerging from the bay slick with water and darker than the night sky behind him. While I call this Godzilla’s first true rampage, the monster isn’t particularly aggressive at the start of it. He doesn’t chase fleeing civilians, nor does he even go after the soldiers shooting him. Instead he walks on the ground slowly and curiously, occasionally brushing aside obstacles like any animal might. Of course, the obstacles in his path aren’t bushes or pebbles, but rather buildings, and the result is a great deal more destructive than Godzilla seems to intend. The monster only commits an inherently violent act after a train crashes into his foot. The monster screams and bites the train, pulling off a segment that he promptly spits out. This makes sense from an animalistic standpoint: from Godzilla’s perspective, the train attacked him first. He killed it, tried to eat it, found it tasted bad, and spit it out. Nothing he does in this scene lacks a motivation – all the havoc makes sense for a living creature to perform. It is only the scale of Godzilla that makes his animal response to human civilization into something monstrous – he was simply made too tall.
This rampage is also fairly brief – it’s not all that much longer than the Odo Island scenes, in fact. Each appearance of the monster has been a bit of a tease so far in the film – we get important new bits of information with each one, of course, and the scenes in between these brief flashes have the human characters build up the monster’s reputation with their reactions to its existence, but it still ultimately takes us a long while to get to the final thrilling climax of the story. This, again, is a story telling device other Godzilla movies would follow to varying effectiveness.
The first rampage is followed by a scene of the military mobilizing to attack Godzilla, using music that later movies would repurpose as Godzilla’s own battle theme. We’ll talk more about that when we get to the movies in question, but for now let’s note that this music is used for a scene where characters are setting out to defend humanity from a great threat.
We’re getting towards the end of the second act now, and so the movie articulates its central problem with an argument between Ogata and Dr. Yamane. Yamane remains resolute in his belief that destroying Godzilla is not only impossible but counterproductive, and that the benefits of coexisting with the animal outweigh those of killing it. Ogata passionately disagrees, claiming that Godzilla must be destroyed after the destruction he caused, and to save mankind. Yamane’s response is furious and disgusted: “You want [Godzilla] to die too? Get out of my house!” Even now, after the mayhem Godzilla wrought (albeit unintentionally), Yamane stands by his sympathy for the creature, which means we as the audience have to keep considering it. While we as humans are inclined to share Ogata’s view, the movie doesn’t allow us to do so without a fight. Even Ogata himself admits that he wasn’t very tactful in arguing for the destruction he so desires. His desire to kill the monster, while sympathetic, is depicted as impulsive and reactionary. Revenge is driven by passion rather than thought – logic favors sympathy.
The movie picks up the pace and shifts, finally, to the third act with Godzilla’s second and most extensive rampage. He is met with a much more aggressive assault by the military this time around – shelled by tanks while electrified wires keep him at bay. This proves unfortunate, as while neither the tanks nor the electric wires kill Godzilla, they do teach him an awful lesson: those big towers – the ones that, in this case, hold up the electric wires – can hurt him. They’re no longer obstacles for him to sidestep or, at worst, push through, but rather enemies that will try to kill him. Godzilla tries to smash them with his hands only to get electrocuted, so he steps up his game and, for the first time on screen, breathes out a ray of nuclear fire. Godzilla’s thermonuclear breath melts the towers, and with his enemy destroyed he turns to the city.
A city filled with towers and buildings similar in shape the ones that just trapped and hurt him.
From this point on Godzilla is on a mission to destroy all buildings – and this is something he was taught to do by humanity’s desire to kill him. Buildings not only impede his movement, but sometimes attack him – and protect the little creatures shooting at him. A viewer watching this movie with the intent of figuring out why Godzilla is attacking (a question Yamane asked early on in the movie) is given ample moments to figure it out: humanity teaches him to. The escalation of Godzilla’s violence is a direct reaction to humanity’s escalating attempts to kill him. It’s particularly interesting that this is shown after Ogata’s outburst – Godzilla’s desire to destroy is incited just as Ogata’s was. Violence is a cycle without end, and while wise men like Yamane may try to make us break the cycle, we never end up listening till it is too late.
There is no monster movie before Godzilla that matches the rampage that ensues in terms of sheer destruction on display. We have wonderful shots of chaotically fleeing in every direction (something Ishiro Honda learned from Kurosawa – many movies show crowds fleeing in one unified direction because that’s easier to shoot), and truly nightmarish scenes of Godzilla looming above them and raining fiery death on the streets and building below him. Godzilla’s body language in this scene is different than those that precede it – while in earlier scenes he simply walked, in these he is clearly on a warpath to destroy everything he can find. Especially those damn buildings.
The most horrifying scene, however, does not involve crowds or burning buildings. Instead it focuses on a mother trapped in an alley with her children, huddled in the corner while the roars and shadow of Godzilla come closer and closer. The mother holds her children close and says, “We’ll be where daddy is soon,” and in that one brief exchange the tragedy of this apocalyptic scene is as personal and heart rending as it is massive in scope.
While it would be easy to reduce Godzilla to a mindless force at this point, or even just a single minded one, the rampage gives him a few moments to show further complexity. We see Godzilla sparing a cage of birds from his assault – they’re not the tiny animals he’s after. His animosity against the city is reinforced as one of animalistic fury when a clock tower rings and draws his attention. Godzilla snaps his jaws at the tower a few times before finally smashing it, much like a snake would give a few false strikes as a warning to perceived threat before finally biting it as a last resort to ward it off. These aren’t the actions of an evil creature, but rather an animal that feels immensely threatened and trapped.
One of the last monuments Godzilla destroys is a radio tower filled with reporters who, knowing there’s no escape, use their last moments to tell the world how utterly fucked it is. I don’t have a lot to say about this moment other than pointing out that it’s such a dread-inspiring moment, and one so horrifying that it lingers with you long after it’s over. It’s telling that this is basically where Godzilla decides his rampage against the city can stop.
Finally, with all in flames and the last tower mauled to death, Godzilla leaves. Squadrons of jets attack him on his way out. The humans cheer that Godzilla is “running away” from them, but the audience has seen that he was already on his way out to see when they arrived. Likewise, from his body language – swatting at the missiles like they’re mosquitos, but otherwise paying little attention to them – it’s clear they aren’t harming him so much as being very annoying. The civilians realize this as he dives below the waves, with one even asking how they’re going to survive when he comes again tomorrow.
Godzilla’s “retreat” is followed by a daylight image of the burnt out ruin of Tokyo in a profoundly haunting shot. The shot of the great ruin transitions to a scene of the recovery effort, with Emiko and others caring for the many victims of the rampage. As with the rampage scene before it, the recovery is show in its full scope before narrowing into a personal story to make it hit home. We see hundreds of injured people before settling on a little girl screaming for her injured (and most likely dying) mother. Emiko watches as the mother is carried off and tries to reassure the screaming little girl with no success. The tragedy of this exchange leads Emiko to break her promise to Serizawa, and so she tells Ogata of the Oxygen Destroyer.
Ogata and Emiko confront Serizawa, and the audience is given a full reveal of what exactly the Oxygen Destroyer is. We learn Serizawa wasn’t trying to create a weapon, but rather oxygen itself, stumbling upon his horrible weapon by accident. Serizawa himself was and is horrified at his discovery, having no desire to make a weapon that “could be used to cause the extinction of mankind.” He refuses to reveal its existence until he finds a beneficial way to use the science behind the weapon. This is notable because Serizawa’s viewpoint echoes Dr. Yamane’s. Both Serizawa and Yamane, men of science and thought, want to find a way to take things that seem purely destructive – the Oxygen Destroyer and Godzilla, respectively – and use them to help humanity instead.
Nonetheless, Ogata presses the issue, but as soon as he mentions destruction as a positive – “You would use it even to destroy Godzilla?” – Serizawa quits the conversation, locking himself in his lab. Ogata demands Serizawa opens the door before forcing his way in and scuffling with the scientist, who is in the process of destroying his work. When asked why, Serizawa restates his position: “If it could be put to good use, I’d be the first to reveal it to the world. But as it is now, it can only be used for destruction… The politicians of the world would not stand by – they would inevitably turn it into a weapon. A Bombs against A bombs, H bombs against H bombs, Oxygen Destroyer against Oxygen Destroyer.” Serizawa sees what Ogata’s passion is blind to: destruction is a cycle. The scientist knows that Godzilla is not the only threat his weapon would be used to destroy. Destroying Godzilla would not solve the problem that made Godzilla in the first place, but instead would make that problem even worse.
On cue – and in what is admittedly one of the more egregious contrivances of the movie’s plot – Serizawa’s passionate refusal is answered by a television segment showing a choir of girls singing a prayer for peace over footage of the ruin of Tokyo. It’s a moment that would be shamelessly manipulative if it weren’t so stark and poignant, and it is this message that finally convinces Serizawa to reconsider. Sympathy drives him more than passionate anger, and it is Serizawa’s desire to protect humanity and love of peace that gives our movie a resolution instead of a thirst for revenge.
Serizawa’s aid is not without caveats, though. He promptly destroys his notes to prevent others from making his weapon, which in turn makes Emiko break down (I’ve always wondered if this was the moment she realized Serizawa was going to commit suicide). When the mission is mounted to bring the weapon to Godzilla’s lair, Serizawa demands to be the diver that releases the bomb despite having no diving experience.. Ogata goes with him despite Serizawa’s protests, showing that for all his rashness Ogata still has a desire to protect that is just as strong and passionate as his desire to destroy his enemy.
The two men dive down and find the monster in one of the few calm, serene scenes of the movie. Rather than begin ominously, we see a peaceful image of Godzilla sleeping, fish swimming around him, vaguely aware of the approaching humans (turning his head towards the camera), but serene in his habitat. He’s not a marauding monster in this moment, but an animal, and in that brief shot we are finally shown what the movie has hinted at all along. Godzilla isn’t the villain of the story, but a victim. He desires peace as much as the humans do, but human actions have drawn him into conflict with humanity, and as a result no one gets the peace they want.
The monster spots the two divers and moves to investigate them (notably without the ominous and iconic theme music that played during his earlier rampages), at which point Serizawa signals for them to be brought up before setting off the weapon, staying beneath as Ogata is drawn up. The Oxygen Destroyer is unleashed, and soon the serene scene turns to chaos and violence. Godzilla flails in agony beneath the waves as Serizawa tells Ogata to take care of Emiko, a statement that all but directly says “I am committed to dying here.” Our heroes mourn the death of their friend even as the monster emerges from the sea. There is no terror in Godzilla’s last moment, though. He doesn’t lash out at the ship in a final act of vengeance like other monsters might (though he is close enough to do it). Instead he screams one final time, parting with the most pitiful and despairing wail of the entire movie. The great beast sinks back to his earlier resting place, twitching one last time in agony before being disintegrated. Though this moment follows the formula of a monster movie – the monster dies thanks to an creative solution concocted by human brilliance – it is not presented as a triumph like it would be in its contemporaries. There is no triumphant music swelling with joy, but rather a tragic and lonesome dirge as people watch the creature die with sorrow and pity. Even Ogata ends the scene in tears.
Dr. Yamane gives us our last lines, saying that Godzilla cannot be the last of his species – “If nuclear testing continues… another Godzilla may appear.” That was already a stock ending for monster movies at this point – “The End” with a question mark – but one that feels much more than the typical final scare of its contemporaries, as it’s the theme the movie has come back to again and again. Violence is a cycle – death and destruction is a cycle, one that escalates with every new death. Only wisdom, as represented by Yamane, can break the cycle – and we did not listen to wisdom here, so the cycle remains. Another Godzilla will rise. The question mark isn’t just a plea for box office success and a slew of sequels, but an integral part of the movie’s them that violence cannot be resolved with violence. The movie ends with the problem unsolved.
Looking back at this movie, one cannot help but be amazed at how much more profound and thoughtful it is than most of its fellow monster movies (which, as this column will later show, weren’t exactly slouches in that department either). It’s also amazing to see how much of the weird and unique aspects of the Godzilla franchise had their roots here, particularly when it comes to the unusually high amount of complex and consistent characterization was given to the titular monster. It’s a flawed film, but it’s rightfully a classic – and a wonderful debut for the one true King of the Monsters.