It is fascinating to watch the original “Godzilla,” released in Japan 65 years ago this fall, in comparison to modern releases produced by American studios. Where the King of Kaiju was once a walking, roaring warning against nuclear annihilation and military excess, he is now, essentially, a sixth branch of the U.S. military.
The echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unmissable. Here is an irradiated dinosaur straight out of the Jurassic era whose habitat has been obliterated by American testing of the hydrogen bomb, and whose very presence spells radioactive death.
Indeed, the inciting incident of “Godzilla” had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality: A Japanese freighter is destroyed by an unseen force that makes the water glow and the sea boil, costing dozens of lives. The idea for this tragedy was inspired by the fate of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), a Japanese fishing boat that traveled into the waters near Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands during U.S. testing of a hydrogen bomb.
But Godzilla represented more than just radioactive death. His rage is unstoppable, his flaming breath turning Tokyo into a firestorm reminiscent of the fate that city had suffered in the previous decade at the hands of U.S. bombers. As Japanese critic Tadao Sato notes on a documentary attached to the Criterion Collection release of “Godzilla,” the film resonated for an audience that had only begun to learn what had really happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the end of censorship imposed as part of the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan.
“There's no doubt the original 'Godzilla' shocked and frightened its audience. The image of Tokyo being burned to the ground was inconceivable for earlier generations. But now the reality was that that could be done with nuclear weapons,” Sato says in the documentary.
Still, there's almost something elegiac about Godzilla's final moments in the original film. Whereas monster movies these days tend to end in an orgy of violence, “Godzilla” ends much more quietly.
A scientist who has designed an ultimate weapon (the Oxygen Destroyer!) travels to the beast's underwater lair, releasing the poison and sacrificing himself so no one else can use the devastating device he has made.
Sato suggests the choice to bring the beast to life with a man in a costume imbued the kaiju with a measure of humanity, engendering sympathy: Here was a sleeping giant, aroused to anger following an unexpected attack on its home, destroying everything in its path in the hopes of simply being left alone afterward.
The idea that Godzilla would go on to become a hero – a savior of sorts, protecting the masses from other apex monsters such as Rodan and King Ghidorah – has a long history. That Godzilla would, in the new American reboots, effectively be deployed as an arm of the U.S. military is something of a surprise.
In director Gareth Edwards's 2014 film, there's a fantastic shot of the U.S. Navy flanking Godzilla as he goes off to fight the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) that have wreaked havoc around the world. Though relations between the U.S. military and the giant lizard are a bit tetchy – mistakes were made! – by the end of the film, Godzilla is doing his best to defend American lives from his titan foes and is recognized as a putative ally by those in uniform.
This is made even more explicit in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” The MUTO-hunting outfit Monarch and the U.S. military, which provides Monarch its muscle, understands (for the most part) that Godzilla is the best chance humanity has if it wants to survive Ghidorah's assault. After the three-headed monster is freed by radical environmentalists – they really do make the best villains – an American submarine is literally dispatched to feed Godzilla a nuke and one of the characters says of Godzilla's rumble with Ghidorah, “This time, we join the fight.”