Between 1945 and 1954, massive change was a thing to be expected. This was no more evident than in Japan, a nation that changed almost overnight from a warlike island intent on conquering the world to a country with no military to speak of, heavy ties to the United States, and a presence outspoken against the most powerful weapon in the world. Also, Astro Boy. Japan would never be the same.
Japan wasn’t alone in its concern over the atomic bomb – Britain’s longest-running Science Fiction tradition largely owes its continued existence to a race that thrives on nuclear fall-out and whose primary weapon in its first appearance was a neutron comb – but prior to the Arms Race putting nations in danger that weren’t militarily opposed to the wielders of the bomb few, if any, were as opposed to nuclear experiments as the only nation to date to have been on the receiving end of a military attack by them. This opposition was only furthered by the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb tests and the infamous Daigo Fukuryū Maru (or “Lucky Dragon #5”) accident, which introduced further tortures on the crew of the fishing boat from such causes as nuclear ash, and the continued toll in lives by the fallout of the nuclear attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following several nuclear accidents and the terrible effects of fallout in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War Two veteran Honda Ishirō created several films depicting the dangers of such continued experiments. One of these was 1956’s Rodan. Another, better known film on this topic was Gojira.
Let’s not mince words: Gojira is one of my favorite films of all time. I’d be hard-pressed not to simply say one of the greatest films of all time, regardless of personal opinion. Certainly in the world of Science Fiction Drama Horror, it has little competition. The film tackles the issue from three different angles and still manages to maintain a compelling and coherent story.
First off is Doctor Serizawa. To me he will always be the star of the film, and while his screentime isn’t as such, he is by far the most memorable character, both dramatically and visually. In a story that parallels and diverges from the historic of the atomic bomb during World War Two, his experiments in oxygen turn out the potential for a devastating weapon: the Oxygen Destroyer. I’m not entirely certain as to how this would be accomplished (certainly Sci-Fi films of the 1950s weren’t), but this device strips the oxygen atoms from the water and everything in it. Serizawa’s fear is that his accidental creation will be weaponized, and ultimately he is forced to give in to his greatest fear by weaponizing it himself to save Japan from Godzilla.
Then you have the damage wrought by Godzilla. The film delivers this perfectly; in fact, all of his attacks in the first half hour are treated as natural disasters. If you take away the drama aspect, this becomes almost more of a natural disaster film than a daikaiju film. Godzilla’s appearance is played up through shipwrecks and myths. By the time he finally appears onscreen, it’s almost a relief – nothing can be as bad as what’s come so far, right? Until he attacks Tokyo. In one of the most devastating sequences I have ever seen. An attack by Godzilla is comparable only to a full-scale bombing of a city…or a single atomic bomb. Which might be why he came back a second time, revealing himself to be a living nuclear weapon once he faces Tokyo’s greatest defenses. Like a weapon, he destroys without regard, refusing to hunt as many monsters would in his situation. Actually, I take that back; he does have some regard for what he’s destroying. When you see him pause before knocking over a bridge, it’s clear that he is out to do as much damage to Tokyo as possible.
Finally, you get Godzilla himself. Godzilla is the spawn of nuclear tests performed in the Pacific. Unlike the previous year’s American picture The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It’s uncertain as to what exactly Godzilla’s relationship with the atomic bomb is – whether he was completely transformed by them or merely had his habitat ruined – but what is certain is that he’s absorbed enough radiation to kill everyone in Tokyo and had his life ruined by atomic weapons. If the mutations caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were too subtle, here we have a sixteen story mutation that simply can’t be missed. The creature’s nuclear breath, revealed late in the film, becomes a lasting reminder of the way Godzilla’s life has been inexorably changed.
This will be taken further by some of what will come later, but that’s a bit outside of the range of today’s discussion. Gojira would set off a bit of a trend, with Rodan, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra, Mothra vs Godzilla, and more films examining different aspects of nuclear weaponry and society in general. As far as trendsetters go, you can go much worse than Gojira.