American audiences witnessed two tragedies when they saw Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956. One was the devastation of Tokyo by the titular lizard; the other was the state of the film itself. Perhaps banking on the raw animal charisma of actor Raymond Burr (most recognizable from reruns of Perry Mason that you watched at your grandpa’s house), Godzilla’s American distributor hacked it to pieces in the editing room and reassembled it, Frankenstein-like, into a much different film. Burr’s scenes were spliced in among the original footage, establishing his character as the new protagonist. Much of the Japanese dialogue was replaced with dubbed English or cut entirely. The film received a clunky new title festooned with an exclamation point. It would be almost fifty years before most stateside audiences would have the chance to see director Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 cut.
That this is presented as popcorn entertainment (albeit with some very serious subtext), instead of a buzzkill reminder of our meaningless existence, seems to offer reasonable evidence that our existence is not meaningless.What’s surprising about the original Godzilla, upon revisiting it, is how not-about-Godzilla it is. Just as the malfunctioning mechanical shark on the set of Jaws forced Steven Spielberg to get creative, logistical and budgetary limitations forced Honda to use his monstrous star sparingly. In his physical absence, the film has the breathing room to examine what Godzilla means. The big Tokyo-wrecking centerpiece aside, Godzilla spends most of his film as an unseen, menacing manifestation of twentieth-century humanity’s appetite for and worship of destructive power. The human characters spend at least as much time talking about the frightfulness of atomic-age weaponry as they spend fighting off the radioactive beast that those weapons helped create. One thinks of the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut: come for the genre trappings, stay for the critiques of humanity’s myopia and hubris.
Of course, Godzilla would not have stuck in the popular imagination if Honda and his collaborators hadn’t been able to deliver the goods on those genre trappings. Godzilla’s nighttime attack on Tokyo is a sight to behold, bathed in shadows and lit by burning buildings. The darkness also serves to mask the cheapness of the special effects and miniatures, but even the toylike flimsiness of the tanks and airplanes works to the film’s benefit by underscoring just how helpless Japan is against this new threat. Honda’s shot of Godzilla rearing back against the night sky, a train dangling between his jaws, is the stuff of both old-school movie magic and childhood nightmares.
This mingling of awe and terror has been a common hallmark of monster movies ever since RKO Pictures put King Kong on display as the eighth wonder of the world. It’s reminiscent of the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, who conceived of the earth as an insignificant speck in a vast, chaotic universe. His short stories are full of horrific creatures from the depths of the ocean, utterly alien in their whims and nearly godlike in their physical might. The horror comes from the idea that we are adrift in a hostile cosmos, at the mercy of forces we cannot control, much less understand. Really, Ishiro Honda’s King of Monsters isn’t so different from Lovecraft’s creation Cthulhu, give or take a few tentacles.
That this is presented as popcorn entertainment (albeit with some very serious subtext), instead of a buzzkill reminder of our meaningless existence, seems to offer reasonable evidence that our existence is not meaningless. We watch Godzilla’s rampage of death and destruction and listen to Takashi Shimura’s protagonist lament mankind’s ineluctable rush toward extinction—and then we walk out of the theater, blinking in the sudden light. We know that no 200-foot-tall firebreathing dinosaurs will suddenly emerge from the ocean tonight to stomp our roofs in. If we are Christians, we have the additional assurance that God’s grace is present for us every day, no matter how dark the world becomes. And if we were feeling frisky, we might go so far as to suggest that Lovecraftian horror or Godzilla movies can serve as weird twists on apophatic philosophy that lead us to discover truth by depicting what is not true.
Perhaps we’re not feeling that frisky—after all, this is still a movie that features an eye-patch-wearing scientist portentously revealing a super-weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. But one of the chief pleasures of the original Godzilla is its ability to keep one scaly foot planted in pulpy entertainment and the other planted in deeper waters. We can only hope that the remake coming out this weekend follows its ancestor’s lead.