Radioactive energy, thunderous footfalls, terror in the streets? These ominous signs can only mean one thing: the thrilla named Godzilla is back! Everyone's favorite 200-foot apocalyptic prehistoric reptile isn't rampaging through another of his twenty-plus sequels, but returns in his original form, as the star of the 1954 Japanese B+ movie Gojira. Americans know Gojira as Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, a 1956 edited version which gawkily inserted Raymond Burr as American journalist Steve Martin. That version included a mere hour of director Ishirô Honda's version, shearing roughly 38 minutes and adding 20 minutes of new footage with Burr.
While Godzilla: King of the Monsters! has its own makeshift charm (enough to draw in plenty of American fans over the years), Gojira—uncut, graced with new subtitles, and under the familiar nickname Godzilla—proves a revelation, with surprising subtleties and eccentricities of style. With the hugely popular Gojira, Honda ushered in an era of hugely successful kaiju eiga pictures (monster movies) for Toho Studios: Gojira topped his friend Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, released only months earlier by Toho, in budget and box-office grosses.
Godzilla stars Takashi Shimura (fresh from leading The Seven Samurai) as Dr. Yamane, a paleontologist called up to investigate explosive sea disasters rumored to be the wrathful work of an a horrifying creature from the deep. Yamane represents rational, compassionate science, and wishes to study the creature, but Honda lays out the folly of the military-industrial complex. The Diet (Japanese parliament) demands that the threat be eliminated; the navy's depth charges quickly drive Godzilla from sea to land. There, on the streets of Tokyo, the slow, lumbering, fire-breathing lizard enacts a demolition derby.
In its original form, Godzilla has humor (in the varying reactions to the creature), romance (between Yamane's daughter Emiko and Ogata, a lusty young salvage expert), stark drama (a mother, huddling with her children, comforts them with the words "We'll be with daddy soon"), and the semi-mad scientist melodrama of the haunted, eyepatched Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who is technically bethrothed to Emiko but more concerned with his dangerous innovation: the ominous Oxygen Destroyer.
"Godzilla has turned Tokyo into a sea of flames," notes one observer. Godzilla may be a bit cheesy with its comically overwrought melodramtic flourishes and "Suitmation" beast, but it has, in its way, as much enduring resonance as its primary inspiration, King Kong. King Kong explored the "don't mess with nature" paradigm, layered with a beauty-and-the-beast romanticism. Godzilla is all found poetry, in dialogue and visual image.
The monster, in particular, is a nightmare projection of the atomic bomb's destructive power, less than a decade after the unfathomable devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science, like anything else prone to man's whim, has great power for good and evil in Godzilla and, in the end, sets the stage for a mournful expression of heroic sacrifice and ideological compromise. The cry of "Tremendous jubilation!" rings hollow when nature's ominous emissary is vanquished by another unholy creation of science, promising that, though one creature is gone, others will surely follow.