Release Year: 1954
Genre: Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi, War
Director: Ishirō Honda
He's the star of more than 30 films. He saves the world again and again, even if he has to take down a city or two in the process. He defeats every enemy that comes his way, and while things get silly from time to time, he always keeps it classy.
James Bond, right?
Nope. Not even close.
We're talking about the King of the Monsters, the Beast from the East, the one, the only: Godzilla.
The word picture of the big guy that we painted above is the popular version of Godzilla we know and love today, but the Godzilla of the first movie is a different beast entirely.
A prehistoric dinosaur peacefully minding its own business in the ocean, Godzilla is rudely awoken one day by an H-bomb test.
We hate when that happens.
Irradiated and irate, Godzilla takes out its fury at Japan in a series of increasingly brutal attacks that end with the total destruction of Tokyo. The movie's story follows various scientists, professionals, and politicians as they try to figure out what to do to save their nation from the beast's radioactive rage.
1954's Godzilla—the original—is a classic monster flick. What might surprise today's audiences is how earnestly the original film takes the material. The King of the Monsters has starred in some silly movies, featuring the likes of giant lobsters, green-skinned ape extraterrestrials, robot dinosaurs, and an electrified King Kong (trust us, that's the short list). But the original film is pretty somber in its approach to storytelling.
If you guessed that the movie might be a metaphor for the danger of nuclear weapons, you guessed right.
The film uses Godzilla as a symbol for the destructive potential of nukes, and treats that idea with the gravity it deserves. By today's standards, the filmmaking methods may seem crude (what with the man in a rubber suit stomping on miniature train sets), but the film's onscreen destruction is consequential and the suffering of the people caught up in that destruction is vivid. It's a far cry from the crumbling buildings populating today's blockbusters for the sake of pizzazz.
Godzilla struck a chord with its Japanese audience, many of whom lived through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a runaway hit. It received a nomination for Best Picture from the Japanese Academy, but lost to Seven Samurai (Source). (A very respectable loss.) It did win Best Visual Effects, though, even with the guy in the rubber suit.
With such a huge success, Toho, the film's production company, made a sequel the next year: Godzilla Raids Again. This kicked off a series of films that, along with the Universal Monster series, became one of cinema's first shared universes.
Sorry, Marvel, but you aren't as original as you think.
Today, the Godzilla franchise is a worldwide phenomenon. Toho's made nearly 30 Godzilla films, and even Hollywood has taken on the Big G. Today, it headlines an American shared universe, the MonsterVerse, and we haven't even touched on the comics, books, cartoons, video games, and tie-ins. Not too shabby for what started as an honest, if B-rated, monster movie with a message.
Now, while you're enjoying this guide to the classic Godzilla, Shmoop's going to get started on a script treatment for that Bond-Godzilla crossover. We can see the tagline now: "They like their cities like their martinis: shaken, not stirred."
Toho, you've got our number.
Godzilla is a 60-year-old movie with an anti-nuclear proliferation message. But nuclear weapons are no longer being tested with the reckless abandon of the 1950s, and it's not like a man in a rubber suit makes a convincing argument for today's CGI-savvy audiences. So why should we care?
We can think of two reasons.
1. Sure, we don't train students today to duck under desks to protect themselves from inevitable death from nukes, and the U.S. and Russia aren't testing nuclear weapons in a bout of environmentally-devastating one-upmanship.
But both those countries still own about 7,000 nuclear devices each. And North Korea is having regular nuclear tests and shooting off ICBMs powerful enough to carry nuclear warheads too close for comfort.
So we can't get too complacent about nuclear annihilation, and the popularity of movies like Godzilla, which were made by the victims of nuclear weapons, keep us from forgetting even if the nukes are disguised as giant reptiles.
2. Godzilla is a hugely important figure in cinematic history, and during his 60-year career, he hasn't stayed locked into one issue.
For example, Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) was released in 1971, when the environmental movement was gathering bioethical steam. The movie is basically Godzilla meets FernGully, and sees the King of the Monsters battling an embodiment of pollution, the aforementioned Hedorah.
On the other hand, 2016's Shin Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla: Resurgence) returns the beast to his big baddie ways. This film reintroduces Godzilla as a national disaster of the likes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant incident, and explores the incompetence of elected officials in handling such situations. Even American filmmakers have gotten in on the act; 2014's Godzilla makes the beast into a balancer of nature in the wake of climate change.
Ultimately, it's up to you how to care about the original Godzilla. If you want to explore how the victims of nuclear war use art to address their grievances, then this film's for you. If you prefer more contemporary environmental problems dressed in bumpy green skin, then choose your adventure.
On the other hand, sometimes it's just fun to watch giant monsters, go head to head in a royal rumble set to awful '90s rock music.
And you know what? Godzilla's got you covered there, too.
Like most iconic sounds in movie history, Godzilla's fearsome roar has a surprisingly humble origin. The film's sound department created those reptilian vocals by rubbing a resin-coasted leather glove up and down the strings of a contrabass. As for the monster's footsteps, that resounding gait came courtesy of beating a kettle drum with a knotted rope. (Source)
There's a legend of a man so burly that the King of Monsters took its name from him. According to several of the filmmakers, a stagehand who worked at Toho was nicknamed Gojira because his huge physique reminded people of a gorilla and a kujira (read: whale). Director Ishirō then named his giant monster after this giant man, and the rest is cinematic history. Or is it cinematic folklore? No one's ever come forward claiming to be Gojira. And details of the story, such as the man's job at Toho, have changed with subsequent retellings. Honda's widow, Kimi Honda, has said that the guys at Toho sure enjoy their tall tales. (Source)
Think it's horrible being attacked by Godzilla? Try being Godzilla. Temperatures inside the 200-pound rubber suit were so hot that actor Haruo Nakajima could reportedly wring out half a bucket's worth of sweat from his shirt after a day's shoot. That's one gross way to achieve cinematic stardom. (Source)
Godzilla took inspiration from those once and terrible lizards, the dinosaurs. In turn, the King of the Monsters inspired paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter to name a dinosaur after it. Carpenter christened his discovery Gojirasaurus quayi, a combination of "Gojira" and "sauros." The name literally means "the lizard Godzilla." The dinosaur is a theropod from the Triassic period, and like its namesake, it is not something you'd want to find cruising your neighborhood. (Source)
Godzilla has played basketball with Charles Barkley. It was for a Nike commercial, and the whole thing feels like a forty-second fever dream. (Source)
America's Godzilla (1998) proved such an embarrassment that producer Shogo Tomiyama renamed the American creature Zilla. His reasoning was that "they took the God out of Godzilla." To further cement Zilla's status as a lesser monster, Toho included her in Godzilla: Final Wars and had her fight the original Godzilla in Australia. Zilla was KO'ed in ten seconds flat.
Toho They Didn't
Oh, Toho they did…. Yeah, it really doesn't work there. Bad wordplay aside, here's the English website for Toho Studios, the people who have brought you Godzilla films for more than 60 years.
Weird Name, Amazing Results
Gojipedia is the fan wiki for all things Godzilla, and we mean all things. Ever wanted to know about Godzilla: Heart-Pounding Monster Island!!, the 1995 video game released for the obscure Sega Pico? This site has your back.
Want to get to know Ishirō Honda? This site sports a biography, filmography, and a section where people who knew and worked with the Godzilla director discuss the man and his work. By the time you're done here, Ishirō will practically be your BFF.
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths
Just one of the literary swarm that is the collected novels, comics, manga, and non-fiction book about Godzilla. Why did we choose to feature this particular one? Just look at that title. How could we not?
This Will Take Some Splainin'
Hanna-Barbera and Toho joined forces in 1978 to create the Godzilla cartoon. It featured Godzooky, Godzilla's nephew, and Ted Cassidy (aka Lurch from The Addams Family) voiced the King of the Monsters like a phlegm-ridden iguana. In the show, Godzilla fights giant beasties to protect humanity, while Godzooky pratfalls so often it would make Scooby-Doo embarrassed. Don't believe us? Check out this opening sequence.
Worth Taking a Rosetta Stone Course?
There's a 1954 serialized novel adaptation of the original film out there in the world somewhere. Unfortunately for Shmoop and you, it's in Japanese.
Roger Ebert reviews the original Godzilla, calling it "idiotic" and a movie that has "earned its place in history." How can it be both? Read on to find out, intrepid Shmooper. Read on.
Best of the Worst
In his review, Owen Gleiberman calls the original Godzilla "the most awesome of tacky movie monsters." We're starting to notice a reviewer's theme here.
The Why of Godzilla
Why watch the original Godzilla? After all, the new movies are bigger, badder, flashier, and more computer graphicer. Christopher Orr argues that few other movies have "dealt so directly with a tragedy so fresh" and that makes it worth the effort.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Monster
David Ropeik explores the relationship between Godzilla, Japan, the atomic bomb, and modern environmentalism. Lot of love-hate going on in this relationship.
The Secret Life of Godzilla
What do the atomic bomb, Vishnu, Spider-man, and Lucky Dragon have in common? Read this essay by Kevin Lankes discussing the origins of Godzilla to find out. Sadly, it's not a weirdly specific "walk into a bar" joke.
Tom Hawker takes you through the 60-year cinematic history of Godzilla. From the B-movie cheese to the 2000's titan of Tokyo, it's all here. (Well, except for Godzilla 2014 and Shin Godzilla as they hadn't been released yet).
Take That Star Wars
Explosions. Excitement. Large kanji obscuring your view. The Japanese trailer for Godzilla proudly proclaims it the greatest movie of the century…about 50 years prematurely.
Dynamic Violence! Savage Action! Spectacular Thrills!
Here's the trailer for the English re-edit of Godzilla. You just got to love that old-timey radio voice. That voice really knew how to sell papier-mâchémonsters and sweaty Raymond Burr.
Making the Godzilla
Ed Godziszewski gives the history of how Eiji Tsuburaya and his team managed to create an iconic, building-sized monster in an era before computer graphics.
Of Monsters and (Very Tiny) Men
This visual history shows the evolution of Godzilla, from the original to the googly-eyed '70s version to the beast-mode modern takes.
Bambi Meets Godzilla
Godzilla gets the Monty Python treatment in his short-short cartoon by Marv Newland.
It's the Godzilla theme. They still use this theme in Godzilla movies today. Because why mess with perfection?
In the Know
Film historian David Kalat knows him some Godzilla and has provided commentary on the film for the Criterion collection. If your copy lacks this vast pool of audio knowledge, you can find it here.
Go, Go, Godzilla
Any reason to listen to some Blue Oyster Cult is a good reason to listen to some Blue Oyster Cult.
YouTuber Dan Pavitt tries to recreate that classic Godzilla roar on a double bass. His attempt is admirable, if not spot on.
As evident by this 1954 Godzilla poster, Toho certainly knew how to make its movie posters visually stimulating and informative.
Awesome. And Then Some
The poster for the American re-edit of Godzilla, title Godzilla: King of the Monsters! We hope the "screen-shattering" plug was a bit of hyperbole. Because otherwise that must have been crazy expensive for the theater owners.
The original Godzilla in all his destructive glory.
A poster comparing the anatomy of 1954 Godzilla, 2014 Godzilla, dinosaurs and other movie monsters. It's everything you didn't know you wanted in your science textbook.
In this shot from the movie, Dr. Serizawa shows Emiko his oxygen destroying. Because if there is one mystery left for humans to solve, it's how to show fishes that we're in charge of this planet.
Katsumi Tezuka poses for a photo wearing half the Godzilla suit. The monster is a little less intimidating knowing this grinning guy is the one doing the stomping.