You wouldn't know it from the sixty years of sequels, but Godzilla dies at the end of the first film. True fact. Stranger still, it isn't a fellow monster that deals the death blow. Mothra, Rodan, King Gidorah, they don't even show up. Instead, it's people that slay the beast. Nope, not mutants, superheroes, or one of the Z Fighters. Just regular old folk.
Isn't Godzilla supposed to be the King of the Monsters? What's going on here? That's what we're here to find out.
Catching Up with the Past
When considering Godzilla, one thing to always keep in the back of your mind is the year it was released, 1954. This date came less than a decade after the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and mere months after the Daigo Fukuryu-Maru incident, in which that boat's 23-man crew, in addition to several other vessels, received radiation poisoning from the U.S. testing an H-bomb on the Marshall Islands.
The film's release also came two years after the ending of the occupation of Japan's. After World War II, Japan unconditionally surrendered to the United States. The U.S. occupied the country and went about reforming and reconstructing it. Changes included convening war crime trials, dismantling the Japanese Army, transforming the economy into a free market capitalist system, and drafting a new constitution.
Now, we're not here to argue whether the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary or not. We're also not here to dig into the failures or successes of the occupation. Those debates are necessary and worth consideration, but our purpose here is to set the historical scene for the atmosphere in which Godzilla was released (Source).
The main takeaway is that the ten years following World War II were a difficult time for Japan's people and their national pride. A country once dedicated to militaristic expansion was defeated, humiliated, and then forced to watch as an occupying force decided its future without input from its own people. And we haven't even touched on the economic crisis of the late 1940s. Justified or not, that's got to be a kick in the sovereign pants.
Given this historical context, Godzilla's conclusion was in many ways a chance for Japanese audiences to revise the last ten years of their history, while also providing the chance to reestablish a sense of national unity.
The film ends as Serizawa and Ogata travel to the bottom of the ocean with the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon of mass destruction created by Serizawa. In the sunken depths, the two find Godzilla. Serizawa activates the device and signals for Ogata to return to the surface. However, Serizawa cuts his own line, choosing to die with the monster. He succeeds, both in killing Godzilla and himself.
As we mention in our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section, Godzilla is a symbol of nuclear weapons. It's birthed in radiation from the U.S. H-bomb tests in the Pacific, and it uses its atomic breath to raze Japanese cities to the ground. These two facts connect the monster to the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also the Daigo Fukuryu-Maru incident.
If Godzilla represents the nuclear bomb, then this ending shows Japan overcoming that horrible fate that has disproportionately affected its people. Unlike 1945, the Japanese are victorious against such an enormous threat. In this way, Godzilla's postwar Japanese audience could enjoy a bit of revisionist history masked in allegory.
Bolstering a sense of national pride would be Serizawa's sacrifice. Serizawa's choice goes back to something he told Ogata to explain why he did not reveal the Oxygen Destroyer sooner:
SERIZAWA: Ogata, we human beings are weak creatures. Even if I burn my notes, everything's still in my head. As long as I'm alive, who can say I wouldn't be coerced into using it again? If only I'd never invented it!
So, Serizawa sacrifices himself to ensure that the Oxygen Destroyer is only be used against the terror of Godzilla and never against his fellow human beings.
In some ways this is a shot against the United States. The U.S. continued to create and experiment with nuclear weapons, despite all the evidence pointing to how destructive they are. And as a result of those experiments, people continued to be hurt (see the aforenoted Daigo Fukuryu-Maru incident). And the threat of nuclear war, while not at Cold War levels, still hangs over our heads to this day.
Unlike the United States, Serizawa takes responsibility for the threat of what he has created. By killing himself and burning his notes, he ensures the technology will never be used to harm a human being—excluding, of course, himself.
While Serizawa's sacrifice allowed a postwar audience to enjoy some revisionist history, it also shows a new path for national unity. Gone is pre-war militaristic nationalism that led the Japanese into a war of expansion and ultimate defeat. After all, Serizawa's main concern is that the Oxygen Destroyer would be used as a weapon, which would have been the bee's knees for a militaristic society.
In its place, Serizawa and Ogata foster a sense of national unity concentrated on humanism, self-sacrifice for the greater good, and science that benefits, rather than harms, humanity.
After Godzilla's death, Emiko and Ogata mourn Serizawa's death but the path is now clear for their inevitable nuptial. Together, this couple represent the future—the hardworking Ogata marrying the thoughtful and caring Emiko. Unlike Serizawa, who carried the scars of the war in his missing eye, these two show the promise of a new Japan for the second half of the century.
While the news media relay the happy news of Godzilla's defeat, Professor Yamane stares pensively at the ocean and ruminates, "I can't believe that Godzilla was the last of its species. If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear."
This one doesn't need much unpacking. As long as nuclear testing continues, Japan, and the world, won't be safe.
Of course, Godzilla has returned again and again and again to destroy cities across Japan, the world, and occasionally in space, but these follow-up rampages originate from a different kind of horror: the horror of the box office returns.