Godzilla attacked. Trains, building, power lines … gone. Tokyo leveled. While survivors dig through the rubble, a doctor examines a little girl inside a medical unit. She’s bruised. Dirty. Hustle and bustle surrounds them as caregivers move between patients in various states of distress. No time to focus. The doctor holds up a Geiger counter to the girl’s face. The reading is off the charts. He looks at her parents, shakes his head. She’s not going to make it.
Godzilla attacked and his radioactive wake remains.
Gojira (Americanized as Godzilla in its stateside release but referred to as Gojira for the sake of differentiation) was released 65 years ago, but has never lost its dramatic appeal. It bowed the same year as Seven Samurai — in fact, the directors of the two films were lifelong best friends — and is arguably more influential, with a franchise spanning 34 films and countless knockoffs. Godzilla himself has morphed from allegorical monster to anti-hero to protector of children and back again. Every film brings something new to the character, reflecting the era of its production.
My parents’ generation viewed imported versions of his stories on television in the ’70s. I watched VHS tapes in the ’90s. Other audiences discovered him in different ways. Drive-ins, dime theaters, college-campus viewings, repertory theaters and YouTube have all been mentioned by people I know. Numerous international cuts exist from before global distribution, making something of a scavenger hunt for fans of the franchise. I wrote about Cozilla, the surreal Italian edit of the first film, once before. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the American cut of Gojira starring Raymond Burr, was readily available to me growing up, but not the original. It’s notable that the scene described above occurs midway through the Japanese original but is used right away in the less-nuanced American cut. Removing the drama in favor of monster action was common in stateside edits.
Several years ago, my friend Nate gifted me every existing film in the series in their original Japanese cuts. It made me wonder: What do the Godzilla films contain for me now? All I had were half-remembered fragments of old films and bits of memes gathered online over the years. Most of the movies I hadn’t seen since childhood and many not at all. I can remember the monsters, but the movies? Their meaning was lost to me as an adult — Biollante, Destoroyah, Mothra, Rodan, Gigan and, most of all, Godzilla. Who was this character who sat so large in my mind, so ill-defined?
The best way to find those answers was to watch them all back-to-back — and then to take the question to the G-man himself.
Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan.
How did it feel — standing there on the ocean floor while Dr. Serizawa in a diving suit stood before you, tethered to the tiny shadow of a boat on the surface above? That little object in his hands, that tube of chemical death? You probably couldn’t hear it, but Akira Ifukube’s tremendous composition “Godzilla at the Ocean Floor” sells your story and Serizawa’s sorrow as he uses the Oxygen Destroyer, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, to destroy you.
It’s not your fault hydrogen-bomb testing brought you to the surface from your underwater home.
It’s not your fault the testing irradiated you and gave you atomic fire-breath.
It’s not your fault that you became a two-time victim of man’s heedless desire to control nature and deal endless death.
But your attacks: They started with a fishing boat (as you’ll continue to do for the next six decades). Then an island, where the native islanders were putting on a dance to appease you. You took no heed. To no avail, the Japanese government tried to bomb you with depth charges. As you approached Tokyo, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces tried electrocuting you with a large fence. A trifle. After your rampage, they ambushed you on the ocean floor as you slept.
How did it feel, Godzilla … when Dr. Serizawa opened another infernal human machine to rob the surrounding ocean floor of oxygen, disintegrating himself alongside you to keep safe his murderous scientific secrets?
Maybe Dr. Yamane was right: Finding some way to prevent your attacks — and studying your miraculous existence without killing you outright — was the correct way to go. These sympathetic scientists advocating on your behalf will never get what they want. It’s all weaponry. All violence. All the time. Today, people share JPEGs from sites like I Fucking Love Science, but there are no blinders in your sequence of stories. There are always just as many who want to use science for violence and profit. It’s a credit that Serizawa chose to die with you, to keep his weapon out of their hands. Endings for you like this will seldom repeat themselves.
Your grandeur would never again be depicted quite so effectively. A creature larger than any seen before. An amphibious lizard who ate entire schools of fish. A monster whose landfall was accompanied by hurricane-like winds and rain. The camera rarely shot your suit-mation depiction head-on and often only from below. Haruo Nakajima, your hidden actor for the next 18 years, gave you enough anthropomorphic movement to feel sympathetic … but never human.
Think about that girl in the medical unit after your attack on Tokyo. A slow and horrible death. The allegory for the Japanese experience post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn’t subtle; it happened a scant nine years beforehand. The living memory on display in your first story remains deeply felt 65 years later, across the entire viewing public. There’s a reason that scene is shuffled in international cuts, placed at the start with voiceover by an American actor explaining your impact to foreign audiences — conveniently sidestepping what the moment says about American culpability in what happened to you.
Your first story remains a classic because it so deeply mourns broader cycles of death and destruction dealt by mankind’s selfishness and ignorance. Those themes will be the lifeblood of the series going forward, and you’re only going to further them. No matter where you go — whether it be to the moon, New York City or San Francisco — and no matter who you face — whether it be a giant ape, massive moth or three-headed dragon — you are always, in the end, combating those implicitly disastrous human capacities.
How did it feel, Godzilla, losing your life to the only foe who will ever choose to die alongside you — who understood the tragedy of his decision not in his demise but in yours?
New installments of Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan will post regularly leading up to the May 31 release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters.