There’s a new streaming service from HBO that’s mostly made news for taking away Elmer Fudd’s gun. Since we’re still mostly confined at home, and I had some time over the weekend, I managed to watch two films this weekend. One of them was the original Godzilla — the 1954 Japanese movie.
I grew up knowing that Godzilla was schlock. And probably my first exposure to the famous monster was on the laugh-along commentary when Mystery Science Theater 3000 took on Godzilla vs The Sea Monster. The scene opens on a pagoda and one of the robots puts on David Byrne’s voice, “You may find yourself, living in a Shogun shack.” Godzilla was synonymous with late-night monster movies, and the TV trash that seemed to be inspired by it, like Power Rangers or, later, Pokémon.
It didn’t help that Americans were introduced to a bastardized version of the original in 1956 with Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which had an American reporter character played by Raymond Burr cut in to provide English-language narration. The American version was drained of any references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And really, those references are what the film is really about. Godzilla is a film about the nuclear age, the horror of firebombing, and Japan’s own post-war trauma. If you have patience for the 1950s pacing, and the (by today’s standards) ludicrously bad special effects, what you find is a film that is struggling with the destructive power of technology and how it brings something horrible out of humanity’s own noble scientific search for truths about the universe. The fantastical creature is partly what allowed the Japanese to discuss war trauma and loss so openly.
In his famous fiery rampage, Godzilla destroys landmarks of Tokyo, such as the famous Wako department store. And in the midst of this destruction, there is an unforgettable scene in which a woman gathers three children to her and says: “Don’t cry, we’ll be with daddy soon, just a few more minutes and we’ll be with daddy again.” There is no explanation of how daddy died. None is needed.