In 2024, Godzilla turns 70.

“The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Born from the ashes of World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the character is one of cinema’s most recognizable figures and has the distinct privilege of spawning the longest-running film series in history. Crossing national and linguistic barriers, evolving from a terrifying symbol of nuclear destruction to a beloved defender of Earth, Godzilla has captured the imaginations of audiences from vastly different cultural and generational backgrounds the world over for the better part of a century now. And with Godzilla Minus One recently winning the series its first Oscar and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire dominating both the box office and audience scores, the Big G is in shape and as spry as ever, showing no signs of slowing down.

In this four part series, we will take a look back on the character’s enduring legacy and the indelible footprint he has left on pop culture, beginning in this article with an exploration of the series’ origins in the Showa Era (1954–1975).

The Showa Era introduced the world to Godzilla. The original 1954 film, Godzilla (Gojira), directed and co-written by Ishirō Honda, came about as a direct response to the nuclear devastation of Japan and the subsequent hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific, both of which had a profound effect on Japanese society. Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka later said, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Honda and company established Godzilla as an imaginative work of science fiction, as well as a searing and bitter social commentary…

Ishirō Honda had himself witnessed the horrors of war firsthand, having been a Sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army from 1934 to 1946, spending a total of six years at the front. According to Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s biography of the man, Honda was plagued by nightmares about the war throughout his life. No doubt these experiences proved invaluable as he crafted his film to be something greater than the sum of its monster movie parts, casting Godzilla as a symbol of nuclear devastation—an unstoppable force awakened by humanity’s own destructive choices.

The film opens with a scene eerily reminiscent of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) incident, wherein a Japanese fishing boat was contaminated by radioactive fallout from Castle Bravo, the hydrogen bomb test conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This incident, which occurred a matter of months before the film’s release, was still fresh in the public consciousness and intensified the fear of nuclear power. From the opening shots, Honda and company established Godzilla as an imaginative work of science fiction, as well as a searing and bitter social commentary on the state of fear and anti-nuclear sentiments that were pervasive in Japan’s post-war years.

The design of the titular creature itself was left to Teizō Toshimitsu and Akira Watanabe, their efforts overseen by special effects art director Eiji Tsuburaya. Ryfle’s 1998 book, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the Big G, recounts producer Tanaka’s struggle to find a design that fit the film’s direction before ultimately landing on something reptilian that resembled a dinosaur. Taking inspiration from the likes of Tyrannosaurus, Iguanodon, and Stegosaurus, the team designed a suit of bamboo sticks, wire, latex, and rubber to be worn by actors Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. The final design (known to fans as ShodaiGoji), with its grotesque appearance and overwhelming sense of power, practically personified the atomic bomb. And just as the bombs left indelible marks on both the landscape and people of Japan, Godzilla left tremendous destruction in his wake, underscoring the irreversible desolation of nuclear weaponry.

Themes of human vulnerability and the ethical implications of scientific progress are salient throughout the feature. In this way, the movie becomes a kind of modern Prometheus story, questioning the morality of using nuclear power and unsubtly reflecting anxieties about humanity’s inability to control the forces it unleashes. As the story unfolds, Honda presents a stark dichotomy between the technological hubris exhibited by humanity and the raw power of nature. Or, to say it the way the Blue Öyster Cult says it in their clever little tune, “history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.”

Godzilla also taps into the mythic themes of forbidden knowledge and original sin, deeply rooted in our collective consciousness.

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), one of the key characters in the film’s ensemble cast, embodies this conflict between hubris and nature perfectly. He possesses the knowledge to create the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon of mass destruction and perhaps the only thing capable of destroying Godzilla. The weapon itself is also a mirror for the atomic bomb and its potential for cataclysmic harm. His moral dilemma throughout the narrative—whether to use the device to stop Godzilla and risk that it might be replicated and used as a new tool for human warfare—is the vehicle by which the film’s broader ethical questions about scientific responsibility and the cycle of retaliation that such weapons provoke are communicated. Like Prometheus, who defied the gods to bring fire to humanity, Serizawa holds the power to unleash a profound destructive capability under the guise of benevolence or necessity.

Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) concludes the film by speculating that, should nuclear testing continue, other monsters could awaken, suggesting that Godzilla could be just the first of many judgments against humanity’s arrogance. Writing for Vice, technology columnist Brian Merchant commented, “[i]t’s an unflinchingly bleak, deceptively powerful film about coping with and taking responsibility for incomprehensible, manmade tragedy. Specifically, nuclear tragedies.” He concludes that Godzilla is “arguably the best window into post-war attitudes towards nuclear power we’ve got—as seen from the perspective of its greatest victims.” I would expand Merchant’s apt conclusions a bit by suggesting that Godzilla also taps into the mythic themes of forbidden knowledge and original sin, deeply rooted in our collective consciousness.

The creation and use of nuclear technology is akin to the biblical account of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—which contained the original “forbidden fruit” that humanity was not meant to tamper with, yet could not resist. This hubris, tied up in the act of acquiring forbidden knowledge, carries through the narrative of the film as much as it does the pages of Genesis (and the rest of Scripture, for that matter), and the destruction of Tokyo is akin to the catastrophic flood or the plagues sent as divine punishments in the biblical texts. Just as those ancient punishments laid bare the vulnerabilities of sinful humanity and the severe consequences of transgressing against divine law, so too does Godzilla’s rampage expose the surprising fragility of human civilization in the atomic age. 

In Godzilla, the world becomes a kind of modern Babel, where humanity’s pursuit of technological advancement and ultimate control leads to divine intervention and dispersion—a theme that continues to resonate strongly in the twenty-first century, with the rapid progression of technologies such as artificial intelligence. It’s a film that underscores the ongoing cycle of sin and consequence, reminding us that the upshot of hubris is not something confined singularly to the past.

As the Showa Era progressed beyond that original feature, the series developed a richer narrative palette by introducing a variety of monsters and scenarios that challenged both Godzilla and humanity to rise above their origins and destructive impulses. Godzilla Raids Again, the first sequel released just a year later, in 1955, proved critical in establishing a continuity hinting at an expanding universe, setting the stage for the plethora of sequels that would follow.

Picking up where the original left off, the sequel introduces a new Godzilla, suggesting that the creature is not unique but part of a species that might continue to interact with humanity. This represented a significant shift in the narrative structure of the fledgling universe, introducing recurring threats that reflect the ongoing anxieties of nuclear proliferation and environmental concerns. Perhaps inadvertently, Dr. Yamane’s words at the close of the original film become a kind of prophecy foretelling the numerous threats that will eventually arise.

The character of Godzilla also underwent a kind of transformation as more stories were told, evolving from a mere force of nature into a fierce protector of Earth.

The first comes in the form of Anguirus, introduced in Godzilla Raids Again as an ankylosaurus. This marks the first time Godzilla is seen battling another giant monster, or “kaiju.” The setup of monster versus monster became a defining feature of the Godzilla franchise during its early Showa Era expansion, moving these films from being straightforward horror mixed with disaster flicks to something more complex and dynamic: a fictional universe where multiple giant monsters coexist and interact, often with humanity caught in the middle.

Continuity with the first film is maintained through thematic underpinnings of potential cataclysm and the misuse of nuclear technology; however, with Godzilla Raids Again, the series also began integrating more action-oriented scenes that focused on the spectacle of monster battles. This change in narrative emphasis telegraphed the series’ future direction towards more entertainment-focused narratives, broadening their pulpy, B-movie appeal while still grounding the stories in the real-world fears of its original audiences. 

The release of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) significantly boosted international interest in the series. This film was not only the first to capitalize on the popularity of both monsters and draw attention from audiences worldwide, but it also marked a turning point for how kaiju films were perceived globally while demonstrating the universal appeal of giant monster battles as a form of entertainment that transcended both cultural and national boundaries. As the series developed, it continued to reflect global concerns with each new kaiju introduced, enriching the fictional universe and offering fresh lenses through which to explore pressing issues. Films like Godzilla vs. Hedora (1971), also known as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, directly tackled environmental pollution, for example.

The character of Godzilla also underwent a kind of transformation as more stories were told, evolving from a mere force of nature into a fierce protector of Earth. This shift is most noticeable between the films Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), where Godzilla initially appears as an antagonist, and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), where he fights alongside Mothra to protect humanity against a new threat. Insofar as narrative strategies go, moving Godzilla from destroyer to protector (or villain to anti-hero) allowed for more complex storytelling choices and made room for the growing global consciousness about environmental issues, as well as the potential for collective human action to combat such crises. Appealing to a sense of heroism and justice that would find footing with audiences—especially younger viewers—helped to sustain the franchise’s popularity through the decades, even if it lost the films their favor among critics and embraced the zany campiness for which the series later became known.

Moreover, the variety of monsters and the expansive settings of the Showa Era contributed to the series’ longevity and adaptability. Other kaiju films, such as Rodan (1956) and Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965), were produced to capitalize on Godzilla’s success during the period. But the Godzilla franchise remained dominant in the public imagination, exploring various themes such as coexistence, mutual understanding, and even, to a degree, redemption, often culminating in climactic battles that emphasized teamwork and alliance over destruction and chaos.

These stories retain a widespread, long-lasting, even mythic, appeal that keeps them from falling completely out of the zeitgeist. 

The Showa Era, from its more serious early entries to its wackier later outings, set the stage for the wide-ranging universe of kaiju that would come to dominate the Japanese cinemascape, and cemented Godzilla’s place as a cultural icon capable of moving beyond the confines typical of monster movies. As Godzilla retaliates against monsters and men alike, these movies invite audiences to reflect on their own societal and environmental responsibilities, providing a narrative commentary on humanity’s perpetual struggle with its innate destructive tendencies and the higher call of guardianship and protection.

Uniquely, and perhaps most importantly, the Showa Era films are time capsules, serving as allegories for the real-world anxieties of their times—nuclear peril, the growing awareness of environmental degradation, and the existential dread of the Cold War period, are perhaps the most salient. They also offer escapism and a frequently cathartic sense of justice through Godzilla’s battles, ensuring that these stories retain a widespread, long-lasting, even mythic, appeal that keeps them from falling completely out of the zeitgeist. Undoubtedly, the dynamism and versatility of the Showa Era films paved the way for the Heisei Era in the decade to come, which would further explore and redefine Godzilla’s role within an ever-changing world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *