Still the King

godzilla-1954

The original Godzilla is as much an elegy to classical Japan as it is allegory for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fishing boats are going down in flames on the high seas and villages are trampled during storms. The source is revealed to be a fire-breathing dinosaur awoken by nuclear testing. Godzilla is worshiped by locals as some ancient spirit. He is angry, though, and the people of Japan are the ones he takes it out on.

Ishiro Honda frames scenes with the urgency of raw newsreel footage, fixated on actors shrieking and panicking rather than the theatrical projection expected of good acting–counter-intuitively, this makes the drama less histrionic. Recurring elements are borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s film noir Stray Dog (which Honda worked on as second unit): one-off vignettes showcase life in post-war Japan, where commuters on a train grumble about needing to build fallout shelters, and politicians in the Diet building nearly riot over whether or not to release vital information to the public. Summer heat is also stressed, with sweaty men frequently shown cleaning themselves up. The docudrama style reenforces Japan’s devastation as one which isn’t remote, chilling spectacle, but an all-too-real horror.

Thundering on, the film shreds the exploitation movie standard to become something poetic. During the climactic destruction of Tokyo, scenes alternate between composer Akira Ifukube’s orchestral music, punctuated with drumbeats as relentless as Godzilla himself, and horrific ambiance. A mother cradles her children, whispering “We’ll be with your Daddy,” accompanied solely by the beast’s approaching footsteps. Such tiny reminders of World War II and ancient customs suggest Godzilla is Japanese imperialism, made flesh by Fatman and Little Boy, and a reminder of the suffering it wrought. A living ghost haunting the survivors and threatening the peace of future generations, a thematic strain picked up decades later in Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Godzilla’s death–reluctantly brought on by scientist Dr. Serizawa’s super-weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer–is not treated as a triumphalist narrative, but funereal. Ships full of onlookers circle Tokyo Bay, Ifukube conducting the horns with long, mournful notes. Even in anger and fear, there’s no denial of the country’s heritage. Instead, the film buries tradition at sea, hoping for a future where the old ways can do no harm–if the bomb doesn’t get us all first.

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