Godzilla is on my TV as I type this: He is played by a man in a bulbous green rubber suit with Christmas trees affixed to his back and appears to be having a pro wrestling match with a three-headed turtle-shelled squid in a jet-pack amid four-foot-high skyscrapers. It looks as if he's fighting to save Japan. At least there's a cute little kid urging him on from a nearby mountaintop, and aliens with white skullcaps who control the turtle-squid are watching from Planet X on a vintage '60s TV monitor. It has been a curious journey over the last 50 years for Godzilla—the national pride who was the once the embodiment of a national nightmare, an explicit metaphor for the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's as if the Japanese really did learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.
If this is all you know of the Japanese Godzilla, then you owe it to yourself to track down Ishirô Honda's Gojira (1954), now making the arthouse rounds on the 50th anniversary of its production. The black-and-white original was dubbed and heavily edited for its 1956 U.S. release into something called Godzilla, King of the Monsters, with spliced-in shots of Raymond Burr (who worked a total of one day in a small Los Angeles studio) as American reporter "Steve Martin." This dilute Amercanization isn't terrible, but it has nothing like the apocalyptic intensity of the Honda original.
Gojira is a remote, primitive thing, with no Raymond Burr on a radio microphone to give us our bearings. The first half-hour, in which the monster is kept offscreen, is impossibly bad: choppy, poky, stiffly staged and acted, with the few special effects looking like obvious miniatures. Expressionless men in faceless buildings wonder dully about a series of disasters at sea, and there's some sort of love triangle between the insipid Emiko (Momoko Kochi), the insipid seaman Ogata (Akira Takarada), and the scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), whose black eye patch makes him, in this context, devilishly interesting. There is some brainless blather from Emiko's scientist father about capturing the monster and learning from it—difficult to imagine, as Gojira is said to be 150 feet tall and like an endlessly self-recharging H-bomb.
The movie is funereal—but that turns out to be a good thing. The early part of Gojira induces a trancelike funk, the perfect state in which to meet one of the most bone-chilling monsters that the movies have ever belched up.
The film bestirs itself slowly, like a beast awakening on the ocean floor. The first pricks of life come when the scientists move among survivors of an attack on a remote island: They scan small children for radiation, then look at one another and shake their heads. Babies shriek in pain as their mothers expire. Men lie sprawled on the ground with blood trickling from their eyes. Americans would have recognized the scene from John Hersey's "Hiroshima"—at least, they would have if it hadn't been axed fromour Godzilla.
Then comes a radio report—"Gojira has been sighted"—and a special bulletin—"All residents need to be evacuated immediately"—and then a long, long silence, the army's enormous spotlights playing over the black ocean waters. The reptile's head, with its cruel, beady eyes, appears—to the heraldic low horns and drum rolls of Akira Ifukube's stunning overture, which segues into a mournful march reminiscent of the first movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and then into the film's most famous musical phrase, the sawing, three-note string motif that sings, "GO-ji-ra GO-ji-ra GO-ji-GO-ji-GO-ji-GO-ji GO-ji-ra."
On he comes—robotic and implacable. It occurred to me watching the risible American Godzilla of 1998—in which the beast looked like an actual lizard and darted quickly, like an actual lizard—that I didn't want an anatomically correct Gojira. The 150-foot-tall monster of Gojira is a fusion of ancient and modern nightmares: a fire-breathing dragon whose fire is radioactive, part machine, part Golem, something summoned up out of all the dark forces of this world that can't be destroyed by any of this world's weapons. The Gojira who lumbers through a metropolis on two legs, erect, mechanically stepping on cars and smashing through skyscrapers, pitilessly training its nuclear breath on anything and everything he sees, his roar ending in a metallic shriek, is a vision of a scientifically engineered Armageddon.
The long section of Gojira—nearly 15 minutes—in which the monster destroys much of Tokyo is like nothing in any science-fiction film before or since. In the American cut, there are frequent inserts of Burr, yakking away on his mike as he narrates the creature's comings and goings. The original, though, is nearly wordless. There is a Japanese TV announcer: He watches the devastation from a high tower; wonders, "Has the world been sent back two million years?"; and has time to report on his own death as Gojira moves toward his tower, closing with an earnest, "Sayonara." Elsewhere, a mother leans against a wall and whispers to her little daughter, "We'll be joining your daddy soon. Just a little longer." It's the last minute or two that is the most harrowing. The music stops, and in the silence Gojira walks between the broken buildings, the cityscape behind him aglow, seeming to contemplate his handiwork.
Watching Gojira brought back for me seeing the World Trade Center burn from the roof of my building; I can only imagine what it felt like for the Japanese less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagaski and the firebombing of many of the country's major cities. For pure horror, the climax actually tops what has preceded it. The black-patched scientist watches schoolchildren sing a "prayer for peace" on TV, then decides to employ a weapon he had vowed to keep under wraps, one potentially more lethal than Gojira: a bomb that destroys the oxygen in water and "disintegrates its elements."
The deep-sea final sequence is underlit and hazy, the music deeper and slower, invoking Wagner's Götterdämmerung; and you can only just make out the blurred monster as it contemplates the divers, seeming to await its own demise. Gojira is no masterpiece, but it has the power of a masterpiece: It's the most emotionally authentic fake monster movie ever made.