Produced less than a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla (Ishirô Honda, 1954) offers a look at the threat of nuclear annihilation through the lens of something that is much more approachable than a direct look at the horrors of nuclear fire. Though the film is not a direct political piece, as it still is fairly concerned with its monster as a character as opposed to just being a stand-in, it still manages to convey its message without diluting much of it in the process. Rather, the film almost becomes overly preachy and blatant in its final act, but none of this takes away from the fact that the film views itself as a horror film. There are not any jump scares or many of the over horror conventions to be found in Godzilla, but the film still is a monster movie, but not in the conventional sense. The monster of the film is not one that can truly be conquered argues the film, and in this sentiment Godzilla finds its dominant theme. Those that argue against violence are cast to the side, as the destruction of the monstrous creature becomes the obsession of the entire nation. And in the end, Godzilla is destroyed, but only by way of a new and possibly more terrible weapon. Godzilla offers a bleak look at a nuclear world as it argues that this new and extraordinary force has been misunderstood and misused to the point that nothing but its destructive power may ever be realized.
Godzilla is not the main character of the film that bears its name. However, this is not a flaw in the film as those that take the most screen time are the ones that must grapple with how to deal with the incomprehensible force that they are facing. These human characters, made up of the scientist Kyohei Yamane-hakase (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), her love interest Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), as well as her scientist fiancé Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) are the ones that must try to understand what they have come face-to-face with. Between each of Godzilla’s appearances the film jumps between characters as they all offer their own views on, and solutions to the monster that is plaguing them. For Kyohei, Godzilla presents a unique opportunity to come to a greater understanding of the world, including the nuclear power that forged it and it is now apparently resistant to. His views fall into the minority camp however; as others, including Hideto, feel that the monster must be unquestionably destroyed before more damage is done. But what the film manages to accomplish is an overall sense from all of its characters that Godzilla, as well as what it represents, is dangerous. Even though he believes, and rightly so the film argues, that Godzilla is a creature of scientific significance that should be studied, Kyohei still understands that the monster is a terrifying and terrible force.
The effects of this force are wide-ranging and terrible as well. Godzilla begins with the burning and sinking of several ships and as the film continues it becomes apparent that all of Japan’s shipping lines are being halted by this catastrophe. In addition to this, all of the fish disappear from the local seas, prompting several villagers to recall the legend of the beast. But even the solution to this crisis offered by the villagers is horrifying, as they mention that they would sacrifice a young girl to bring back the fish. Now this same horror has resurfaced in the modern era, and with the new technology of the times comes a new and equally horrific solution.
The scientist Serizawa brings about this solution. Rarely leaving his lab, Emiko’s fiancé has created a new and terrible weapon, of which he recognizes its full and devastating potential. And though he is determined to not use this weapon, not yet at least, he is ultimately swayed in the end by a revelation that he lives in a new world where one weapon or another will seemingly bring about its end. The film makes a great and successful effort to embody Godzilla as the harbinger of nuclear holocaust. Following its final rampage across Tokyo, the camera pans across the ravaged cityscape and what fills the screen can easily be seen as the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The radiation that the creature leaves behind is lethal enough to kill those that survived the fire that it breathes. But, though this monster is one of great and terrible power, it is one that was created by human actions. Humans have brought about the horror that they are now facing, and they are the ones that must grapple with consequences or face their own destruction. Kyohei would like to study Godzilla and come to understand its power, but there is not any time for this as this power has come in the form of a monster that seems to seek nothing but the destruction of the world around it.
In many ways, Godzilla does not solely embody nuclear holocaust as much as nuclear power in general. But it is the outlook of the film that places the monster as a monster. Godzilla is understood to represent great, but also terrible power. Within it is a power that humanity could use to advance or destroy itself, but as the film continues it becomes apparent that the latter is the only possible option. Even though humanity ultimately conquers Godzilla, they only manage to do so by way of a new weapon that is possibly even more devastating than the one that created the monster. Serizawa has created a weapon that destroys all of the oxygen around it, and it is only by way of this tool, one that is directly counter to the principle of life on Earth, can Godzilla be destroyed. But Serizawa will not allow this weapon to take its place in the world as a new and terrible power, and so he commits suicide by allowing himself to be killed by his weapon. In the end, humans and their new weapon kill Godzilla, and all of the potential that it represents.
In its debut, Godzilla is the representation of the nuclear age and the route that nuclear power has taken. While the film is sure to emphasize that nuclear power may indeed have many potentially positive uses (and history has proven this correct) it bemoans the current state of the world where the most noticeable effect of nuclear energy is in a weaponized sense. Out of this haze comes Godzilla, a monster so terrible that humans cannot fully comprehend it, but also hauntingly familiar in some ways. Humans may want and need to study it to understand what it is and what it can do, but they are not given any time to do so as its power has already been decidedly directed against them. Everything that the monster comes across pales in comparison to its power, whether it is the cityscape of Tokyo or the electrical power lines that are conceived as a deterrent to the new monster. But in the end, nothing can stop Godzilla that is not ultimately as terrible as it is, and herein lays the most condemning feature of the film. Godzilla fears that humans have created an inevitable cycle of violence with their use of the nuclear bomb, and the death of Godzilla at the hands of a new and terrible force epitomizes this.