‘Godzilla’ Review: Living Underneath the Trauma of Post-WWII Japan

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Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla is the start of what would become a huge cinematic phenomenon, going far beyond the realms of Japanese cinema but remaining so hugely influential on monster films from its own time and far beyond. But even with the many films inside its huge franchise that have come forth and even the numerous imitators that have followed (including Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster), Honda’s film still reigns supreme atop all the rest. But Honda’s film doesn’t ever feel bogged down by the campiness of other monster films of the era for it can only ever get so far away from that and still remains every bit as terrifying as it is melancholic. Godzilla is not any other monster movie like you’ll ever see them, it’s one that still stands the test of time for remaining every bit as wonderful a cautionary tale as they get, but one whose warnings one would only wonder if they have gotten through to generations of viewers. For every bit as iconic as the series has grown to become, there’s something so beautifully resonant in the lurking terror of Godzilla’s presence and far beyond too – something that only Ishirô Honda had ever managed to capture so gracefully. It’s easy to see why the character has left such a huge impact on popular culture, but it never feels without good reason at that.

Godzilla in a scene from the film.

Everyone already knows the story of how Godzilla had come to be, and how he went off on a rampage that endangered the lives of those living in Tokyo and potentially the whole world. But fighting off a monster that stands 164 feet tall can only bring the people of Japan somewhere, for the reign of terror that came along his path brings us together to fight for a better future. But that’s only the basic layout for a perfect monster movie that Honda sets up, for he also created a cautionary tale unlike any other. As the future Godzilla films featured so much more joy to come along the way in seeing the monster take on so many more new creatures, Honda still saw something more out of the original Godzilla film and long after it finishes, you still feel on the inside that none of this ever really feels as if it’s over. It’s a film that still feels like it could be huge today, but one that also leaves you wondering if within the many years that have followed as Godzilla himself became a huge cultural phenomenon, if we had also gone on to heed the warning. In that lurking terror of Godzilla’s presence, no matter how much time we actually see him in his full glory on the screen, Honda hasn’t created any other monster movie of the time period but one of the most terrifying films ever to have been made about the repercussions of humanity’s biggest mistakes – and perhaps how much of a future we’ll have if they continually repeat over the years.

It only feels fitting to address this knowing what Godzilla had represented to the Japanese viewers who have witnessed his reign of terror and destruction on the screen for their first time. It was so soon after the bombing of Hiroshima, and thus the destruction that had taken place only struck a cord for many of those who recognize the most familiar of places that fell victim to the destruction along Godzilla’s path. In the midst of the destruction that befell Japan upon Godzilla’s arrival to the shore, there’s a resounding trauma that comes back to the viewers and watching the film in the context of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, it only ever feels like a reflection of the experience coming back to them. For even in the briefest moments where you see Godzilla making his way onto the land, let alone even the images of what’s set to come, Honda never holds back on the terrors of what’s to come, or what has already happened. It’s an impression of this sort that only has you feeling how big Godzilla is, and Honda makes every last one of these moments feel so grand in spectacle. This isn’t so much a film about Godzilla himself but rather how the people of Tokyo have already suffered at the hands of an attack that can only ever be described as one that was caused by humanity, and amidst the trauma that they had suffered since Hiroshima, it also makes watching the destruction feel so much more distressing.

As we solely focus on the human characters as they try to find a means of survival or even trying to stop Godzilla in his path, Honda’s film still remains rich – for every performance still evokes that feeling of being at the height of the terror of Godzilla’s reign. The panic feels real from every corner, from the rational to the irrational, but in trying to find a means to an end to this never-ending terror, you still find yourself amidst a cycle that only causes the damage to repeat endlessly. From here the political commentary of Honda’s vision is already made clear, for even as the film ends there’s a melancholy effect that comes by in the notion that one rampage of terror would have come to an end, but we continually destroy nature day by day – thus causing the awakening of Godzilla. From observing the mannerisms in which humans interact with one another amidst the terror, Honda makes the film a great tale of cause and effect, especially from the repeated partaking of nuclear testing especially without any sort of idea as to what could happen afterwards. But watching as Godzilla has struck Tokyo, you recognize that this could easily have been any city, especially after having suffered the traumas of enduring WWII, and it’s only bound to happen again if we never heed the warnings given to us.

While the look of Godzilla himself may have aged, what still makes his presence terrifying is just the fact you still feel that he is indestructible from first moment to last. But looking at how Ishirô Honda makes his first appearance onscreen still feel huge, no matter how much time he spends onscreen is one among many things that solidifies the impact that he has left behind. Honda builds up his presence to be something you won’t forget, from the moment when you hear hid thuds to his roars before the destruction comes by, but these sequences still hold up magnificently over the years. It’s these moments that still give the look of Japan having lived under a mushroom cloud for so long following the atrocities that they have endured since the Hiroshima bombing. But these moments are designed so eloquently, and still look every bit as terrifying as they did from the first day the film was released – from the sightings of entire buildings falling down or burning up in flames, it soon becomes less a film about the terror caused by Godzilla himself and more about the repercussions that follow suit, for they are likely not to be the only time the world will see such a massacre claiming more than just civilians, but possibly even entire populations.

This film isn’t any other monster movie, but it’s a warning for what’s to come if the worst of humanity’s mistakes only continue repeating themselves over the years. With Japan having already suffered as a result of the Hiroshima bombing, the destruction one witnesses in Godzilla won’t seem unfamiliar to the viewers. But even after Godzilla’s reign of terror may come to an end, Honda does not see this as a cause for celebration – rather it is a moment in which we must start to learn about what happens if our obsessions with nuclear testing continue rapidly. Soon enough, they won’t only come back to hit at our targets but they’ll even strike back in all the worst ways possible – and if there’s anything else that allows Godzilla to resonate so deeply within our minds, it’s the fact that we can still recognize what it will take to try and end one reign of terror. It won’t be as easy as defeating a giant monster that’s already known for being indestructible but even many of our loved ones will have gone away too because they know what happens if our methods go in the wrong hands. For reasons like these, Godzilla cannot simply be seen as any ordinary monster film, let alone one of the best to grace the screen, but a timely reverberation of traumas following our worst acts of violence and how those higher up can choose to let it run its course.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Toho.


Directed by Ishirô Honda
Screenplay by Takeo Murata, Ishirô Honda
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
Release Date: November 3, 1954
Running Time: 96 minutes

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