Editor's Note: Guest writer, Shawn Moore offers a clinical analysis of the Gojira (aka Godzilla) movie originally released in 1954. Although fun to watch as a youth, he did not then have the perspective necessary to understand the film at its deepest level.
Since I started watching movies from my crib, I can only assume I first saw the monster Godzilla on television, likely in the US re-edited version of the Japanese original, released in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. While this, and the multitude of dubbed sequels were highly entertaining to me as a youth (as they continue to be), I did not have the advantage of maturity or experience to understand such things as subtext and metaphor.
As with many fans outside of Japan, I never had the opportunity to see the original Japanese version, Gojira (1954), until its DVD release in 2006, and on the big screen at the 2014 TCMFF. Prior to this though, as I became more scholastic about classic film, I was exposed to the notion of Godzilla as representation of the atomic bomb. I also learned of how Japan was prohibited from direct reference to the atomic bomb in their media, including art and film, during the post-war US occupation into the early 1950s. Similar to US filmmakers working around the production code to indirectly infer taboo subjects, Japanese filmmakers represented the horror of nuclear weaponry with creative use of metaphor to avoid censorship. Despite this knowledge, my initial viewing of the original version was purely on an entertainment basis, with little analysis of alternate meaning. And entertaining it is, both as an adult viewer as well as the nostalgic reliving of a childhood experience of Godzilla.
Subsequent viewings of Gojira though have allowed a deeper sifting, to find additional layers of meaning, whether intended by director Ishiro Honda, or generated from a melding of the film with my personal experience (a moving target for each individual). And what I have discovered, while likely not original, has made me appreciate the film even more.
One does not have to dig too deep to apply the simplistic notion that the monster itself is a representation of the A-bomb, considering the enormity of destruction the monster incurs on the physical structures of urban Japan, and the immense toll on human lives, directly and from the radioactivity Godzilla leaves in its wake. Godzilla came from the ocean, as did the US bombing raids which dropped the two atomic bombs. Prior air raids of conventional explosives generated firestorms akin to the monster's fiery breath. But this metaphor loses some validity with the film's conclusion with Godzilla's destruction (sequels notwithstanding), whereas in our reality, the specter of nuclear weaponry is perennial - that genie will never be sealed back in the bottle, and its threat will be present forever.
To conceive a deeper and more applicable metaphor, one needs to draw from the conflicts of the plot. The primary issue is Godzilla's destruction of life and property, which throws the social order into chaos and uncertainty, similar to the conditions of war. The character Dr. Serizawa has developed the 'Oxygen Destroyer' which can kill Godzilla, but it presents its own consequences. In the wrong hands, this technology could become a greater threat to humanity than the monster itself. Thus the main dilemma is whether to use the device to eliminate the immediate danger of Godzilla, and risk its revelation as a potential tool for future aggression and conquest, or allow the casualties to escalate from Godzilla's reign of terror while seeking an alternate solution.
SPOLER! In Gojira, the resolution comes when Dr. Serizawa commits suicide after the device is used to kill the monster, thus eliminating the sole source of information of his weapon (a difficult self-sacrifice to restore order repeated in later films such as Fail Safe in 1964 and The Night of Truth in 2004). Serizawa, at least temporarily, prevents his invention from becoming a step in escalating weapon technology, but also deprives humanity of a defense against a similar threat in the future.
Analysis of these conflicts and how they relate to each other draws parallels to World War II and the post-war consequences. The attacks of Godzilla being analogous to the horrors of the war itself, destruction for self-preservation, requiring equal or stronger force to overcome. The 'Oxygen Destroyer' parallels the atomic bomb; the 'necessary evil' justified to minimize losses in the near term. But its use unveils its existence, escalating the stakes as the latest ultimate weapon; the latest trump card to determine the bearer of power. This consequence is avoided in the film by destroying the future threat of the weapon by erasing its source; Dr. Serizawa's knowledge of the device. Historically though, the decision to use the atomic bomb served the need of the near term, to thwart the destructive threat, but became the latest Sword of Damocles; the bargain with the devil.
While I draw these allegories with confidence from my own viewings, there is a certain paradox from these conclusions, which come to the ironic evaluation that America's dilemma of using the bomb to end the war is metaphorically represented as a sympathetic quandary in this Japanese film, which also, perhaps reluctantly, is accepting of the weapon's use as an immediate resolution. This was likely not intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but thought provoking nonetheless.