Godzilla is the Severus Snape of giant, fire-breathing dinosaurs. That is, we tend to remember them as heroes because of where their multi-movie character arcs took them, but when they first showed up, they were totes jerks.
Yep, as surprising as it may sound, the King of the Monsters, who has saved Earth from big bad beasties numerous times, started its career as a villain.
Well, perhaps "villain" is too strong of a word, but he certainly started out as a symbol for a particularly unpleasant aspect of modern history.
Cause I'm T-N-T (I'm Dinomite)
Shmoop always thought Godzilla was…the bomb.
In fact, Godzilla symbolizes nuclear weapons and the devastation such weapons brought upon the Japanese—and may still bring to another country's populace in the future if we're not careful.
Godzilla's birth is our first clue to symbolic connect. As Yamane explains to the Diet committee, Godzilla's a holdover creature from the age of the dinosaurs. Its sanctuary was destroyed by nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean by the United States. Without a home, it was driven from the ocean and toward Japan: injured, infuriated, and irradiated.
Yamane concludes by noting that Godzilla isn't just hurt by nuclear bombs; it has become nuclear and is "emitting high levels of H-bomb radiation." Basically, it's a walking, roaring nuclear weapon itself.
The smoking gun of this evidence is Godzilla's nuclear breath. When Godzilla attacks Tokyo, it uses a devastating breath attack, akin to a dragon's fire breath. The breath melts and ignites anything it touches while Godzilla's spine plates glow with radioactive energy. The images of the city after the attack look eerily similar to those of a ravaged Hiroshima. And while never directly named in the film, this attack is officially known as Godzilla's atomic breath, which really tells you everything you need to know.
But there are subtler references to the beast's nuclear namesake, too. Its initial attack on a Japanese ship in the Pacific is reminiscent of the Daigo Fukuryu-Maru incident, in which a Japanese fishing vessel was irradiated by an H-bomb test in the Marshall Islands.
As noted by Aaron Kerner, the creature's skin is "leathery and marked by a chaotic web of raised areas and depressions," resembling the keloid scars suffered by survivors of the atomic bomb.
All of these images directly relate Godzilla to nuclear weapons. It's also important to remember that Godzilla was created by Japanese filmmakers, and Japan is the only nation to have suffered a wartime nuclear attack—an attack launched against its civilian population no less.
Note that Godzilla's most devastating attack is on the Japanese capital, and it reduces buildings central to that city, such as the National Diet Building and the Wako Clocktower, to rubble. This isn't just a monster killing people; it is a threat striking at their national identity.
The result is a movie that seeks to encapsulate the Japanese experience of nuclear weapons within the allegory of the monster. At the same time, the film promotes an anti-nuclear message of peace, arguing against the further development of nuclear weapons to prevent future disasters, both for Japan and the rest of humanity.
As Professor Yamane puts it, "If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear."
Rockin' Like a Hurricane
Godzilla encapsulates another quality of the movie monster: nature's punishment of humanity for transgressing the boundaries of the natural world with science. John Baxter summarizes this monstrous trend in American science fiction as follows:
In all these [creature] films, it is possible to see the characteristic American ambiguity about technology. Anxious both to control their environment and to placate the fates, Americans must frequently reaffirm their belief in the overwhelming power of nature, […]. To American audiences, the havoc wreaked on their homes by various dinosaurs is as welcome as the last to a flagellant, while ritual phrases like 'There Are Some Things Man Is Not Meant to Know' assume the importance of a litany. (Source)
Think movies like THEM!, Tarantula, The Fly, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Mess with Mother Nature and you're asking for trouble.
Of course, one notable difference is that the Japanese in Godzilla didn't invite the monster to their door by testing nuclear weapons. They are the victims of another nation's meddling with nature. Nevertheless, nature still lashes out at humanity through the monstrous.
When Godzilla first starts sinking ships, he remains unseen, and only its unnatural glowing is seen from beneath the waves. It's almost as if the ocean itself is striking the ships, and later the incident is compared to a volcano eruption. Similarly, when Godzilla crushes Odo Island, it does so under the guise of a typhoon, so that no one sees it through the violent wind and rain.
These initial assaults strongly connect the creature to nature, and the fact that it's a dinosaur—easily one of nature's most terrifying creatures if you happen to be descendant of tiny lemurs—seals the deal. Godzilla is nature's wrath for humanity mucking it to develop nuclear weapons. Maybe next time it could just send us a strongly worded letter?
Sympathy for the (Thorny) Devil
Also different from its American counterparts, Godzilla isn't a completely unforgivable monster. In fact, it's almost a human character in a way.
As Chon Noriega notes, American monsters typically have irradiated backstories like Godzilla, but they tend to lack characterization beyond the threat. They're impersonal and completely other. This is signified by their names, like "Them" or "It" or "The Beast."
But Godzilla has a name and a personality, and far from being completely other, it's understandable to us. This is a trait it shares with many of its kaiju kin, like Mothra and Rodan (Source).
Yamane represents this view in the movie proper. While he's terrified at the pain Godzilla causes, he also views the creature sympathetically. He laments that the Japanese government wants to kill Godzilla and even tells the president,
YAMANE: "Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now? Right now, our priority should be to study its incredible powers of survival.
This is key to why Yamane, and audiences, sympathize with Godzilla. In a way, it's as much a sufferer of nuclear weapons as its Japanese victims. Its home was destroyed, it became irradiated, and its skin grew deformed with keloid scars. While it's never explicitly brought up in the story, one can easily imagine the incredible pain the creature is in and that its attacks on Japan are the result of that pain.
And that makes Godzilla a complicated movie monster. On the one hand, it represents the death and destruction caused by nuclear weapons. One the other hand, it too is tortured by an encounter with the bomb. We cheer when Godzilla is defeated by Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer, but we also feel sorry for it.
Perhaps this sympathy for the devil is why later movies casted Godzilla as the hero. No matter how hard we try, we just can't stay mad at the big lug.