A Brief History of Godzilla, Our Never-Ending Nuclear Nightmare

Here's the thing about the original Godzilla movie: It's an unflinchingly bleak, deceptively powerful film about coping with and taking responsibility for incomprehensible, manmade tragedy. Specifically, nuclear tragedies. As such, Godzilla isn't just the best monster flick I've ever seen. It's arguably the best window into post-war attitudes towards nuclear power we've got—as seen from the perspective of its greatest victims.

And it still rings brutally true today. There's a reason that, after the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daishi reactor, Google searches for 'godzilla' spiked in Asia. The world's most famous kaiju—Japanese for 'strange creature'—remains for many the cultural embodiment of nuclear hubris, and they returned to him perhaps to be reminded of what seemed at the time an unheeded warning. Because that's clearly what Godzilla was: A somber, cautionary tale about nukes.

Let's clarify. I'm talking about Gojira, Ishiro Honda's original 1954 Japanese cut. It screened at the Film Forum this week, where I watched it for the first time. I was expecting a Mystery Science Theater 3000-type setting, with a giddy crowded theater making wise-cracks at the shoddy special effects and bad acting.

Maybe that's because I was only familiar with the version popular here in the states, Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956). That film features some of the same footage as the original, but Hollywood studios cut large chunks out to make room for a new plot following an American reporter in Tokyo. The result is a goofy, disjointed film that was nonetheless extremely popular—it was Godzilla, after all.

But the original is different. While there were definitely moments where the crowd chuckled at hammy lines and some particularly model-rific special effects, for the most part, the theater was silent. That's because Godzilla is not just groundbreaking as the genre-defining 'giant beast terrorizes city' film; it contains the most successful—and most severe—monster-as-metaphor in cinema history. Everyone already knows that Godzilla was a stand-in for atomic power gone awry, but I had no idea how bluntly or brutally the film hammered the point home.

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