How can I begin to understand something I’m not a part of?
The first time I saw Gojira, I was 13. The original Japanese version had just been released on DVD in America. I was thrilled that I would finally get to understand the ravings of so many internet fanboys on Godzilla message boards (they are a thing). After all, I was a huge giant monster movie fan, and no monster was better than Godzilla. I had seen everything he had ever actually been in, besides the original Gojira.
I had, of course, seen the American release of the same film, called Godzilla: King of the Monsters. In that form, I never really got the love. It seemed cheesy and blunt but without the fun of the later giant monster face-offs that had those same qualities. Plus, the American dude seemed awkwardly spliced into the film. In the hype over Gojira’s release, I found out that was because the American dude (Raymond Burr) literally was spliced into the film.
I truly experienced the film for the first time with that DVD release, pure and raw, like Ishiro Honda intended. Something was hypnotic about it, absolutely transfixing. The black and white photography captured the now-standard, then-new giant monster wreaking havoc on Tokyo, but it captured something I had never quite felt before too.
There was something deep, dark, and melancholy contained with the frame. A pain, a wound that didn’t seemed healed. It was the first time I grew some understanding of the power of film, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary for it all just yet. Some idea of film as not just entertainment, but as an expression of something more.
Gojira is the prototypical giant monster movie. An ancient megafauna rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, disturbed by nuclear weapons testing. He terrorizes the nation of Japan, eventually breaking through to destroy Tokyo and kill thousands. The only man who can stop him is Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant scientist who has created the Oxygen Destroyer, the most dangerous weapon the world has ever seen.
There’s some other human stuff in there, actually pretty solid human drama. But it’s all backdrop to this central story, this story of destruction that is and can be wrought by the weapons that humanity has created, and that nature itself is destroying us for that hubris.
There are two images, or scenes really, from Gojira that have stuck with me for all these years. The first is likely obvious enough:
Godzilla’s attack on Toyko, the city destruction that launched a thousand giant stomps onto various cities around the world. But it was never done like it was in Gojira.
It isn’t just director Ishiro Honda and cinematographer Masao Tamai’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, though it helps, giving the attack a hazy and almost otherworldly glow that’s weirdly beautiful. In fact, it’s one of the oddest parts about this sequence, how weirdly sort of awe-inspiring it is, trying to capture some fractured memory that inspires equal parts terror and reverence.
Gojira isn’t just a piece of mythmaking, creating a whole set of genres and ideas and rules. It’s also a document of a national psyche. Gojira is Japan after the atomic bomb. It’s about a country trying to understand what just happened to it, having to be helpless before a demon to even begin to process the magnitude of what just happened to them.
It’s why this is the other moment that has stuck so strongly with me from this film:
(It may come a little bit after that time stamp, just hold with it)
The song in that clip is an elegy written by the film’s composer, Akira Ifukube, entitled “Prayer for Peace.”
It’s haunting and beautiful, and maybe even a little on the nose. But there’s something about it that’s so ruthlessly effective and powerful, a moment of grace in the middle of a montage of death and destruction. Of children losing their parents, of parents losing their children, and a nation having its soul torn out of it forcibly. It’s a simple prayer that something will save them from the nightmare this monster has visited.
It’s Japan simply trying to understand what they could ever do against the face of a monster like nuclear weaponry, being the only country faced with that ravage. It’s the simple allegorical beauty of Godzilla, turning nuclear weaponry into something physical, something with a twisted face..
Gojira wants to pretend that there is a way that you could end it but tells us plainly that any weapon that could match it would only cause more destruction. Gojira is a nation sitting shell-shocked, trying to give the horrors they knew the rest of the world would soon be facing, and pleading with them to stop.
More importantly, it returns to that original question. How do I understand something I was never a part of? First off, I can’t. My home was not leveled by nuclear fire, nor was my family taken by radiation. But the power of film is that I can at least see some expression of what that was like. Bring myself into a world where that emotion is everything.
Gojira does that. Gojira gives me some small glimpse of what it must have been like to have been attacked like none ever had, and hopefully none ever will be. To be alone in the world for the destruction that was visited.
Through the years, there have been countless giant monster movies, many terrible, some truly great. But none have ever told the story with the brilliance or the beauty or the sorrow that Gojira told the story. It didn’t just write the book, it damn near perfected it.