Nearly 30 sequels and countless knock-offs later, it’s easy to forget that Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla was not some kitschy monster movie with zipper-suited beasts, papier-mâché models, and screaming throngs of Japanese civilians. (Not that those aren’t present, mind.) Revisiting the film through the new Criterion edition, properly restored without the distracting English-language overdubs, what’s striking is its raw emotion, the sense of an entire country coming to terms with the wreckage of the A-bomb and its fears of the H-bomb. In Godzilla, its radioactive rampaging creature, the film found a potent metaphor for a psychological trauma that was not easily addressed directly—as J. Hoberman writes in his excellent liner notes, the reptile is “a primordial force of nature as a living mushroom cloud.” Within a simple genre framework, Honda pours a vast inventory of nuclear references and cultural fears, including direct talk of the ethical responsibility of scientists, allusions to Hiroshima and H-bomb testing in the Pacific, and a moving swell of national resilience and pride.
Earlier in the year Godzilla came out, a Japanese fishing boat called Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) drifted into the larger-than-advertised U.S. H-bomb testing area on Bikini Atoll, exposing all of its crewmembers to radiation poisoning. Fittingly, the film opens with a fishing boat going down mysteriously near Odo Island, and then a second ship also sinking when it arrives to investigate. Superstitious islanders posit “Godzilla” as the culprit, recalling a time when sacrifices were made to keep the sea monster from wiping out the fish population. Sure enough, the creature emerges for a rampage that crushes the local village before moving on to Tokyo, where it breaks through an electrical barrier and leaves the city engulfed in flames and reduced to rubble. The last hope for humanity falls to a scientist (Takashi Shimura) who has created a weapon so devastating that he refuses to grant access to it.
There’s a fundamental sandbox appeal to Godzilla that carried over into the sequels and the culture at large: The sight of the beast trampling scale models, raining down fire in screen-filling swaths, has an element of play to it, a little boy’s fantasy of destruction. (The packaging on the new DVD/Blu-ray opens like a pop-up book.) Shots of Godzilla’s head emerging from behind a hillside or the creature fighting through a tangle of electrical wires pack an iconic monster-movie thrill, as do the pounding offscreen sound effects and piercing screams. But watching those moments in context, those screams have a different resonance, and Godzilla ends on a distinctly sober note, leaving the impression of a country wearily grappling with tragedies past and promised.
Key features: The highlight (and lowlight) of the features package is Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, a 1956 American re-edit of Godzilla that hacked away much of the political content and added Raymond Burr as “Steve Martin,” an intrepid reporter who bears hilariously incongruous witness to Tokyo’s destruction. A few of the still-living cast and crew are given brief new interviews, most notably Haruo Nakajima, the man inside the zipper suit. Also included are a feature detailing the film’s composite effects, some helpful context from Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, commentary on both movies by film historian David Kalat, and a brief visual essay about the Daigo Fukuryu Maru tragedy that inspired the film.