Ships are mysteriously sinking off the coast of Japan, and rescue missions are unsuccessful. The cause of the destruction is revealed when a giant dinosaur, woken and mutated by atomic testing, is discovered on a small island. He soon makes his way to the mainland, and lays waste to Tokyo. Things are dire enough already, but will be even worse when he returns. Now mankind only has a limited time to figure out how to stop Godzilla before they are all destroyed...
For almost 70 years, Godzilla has been one of Japan's most iconic and successful characters. His 1954 debut has been a classic since its release, and for good reason. It has everything you could want from a monster movie. Mystery, thrills, good characterisation, and great effects.
A surprise to many is just how intense this first entry is, and for good reason. It came out only 9 years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the memories of that trauma were still very fresh. The result is that this film is not only not goofy in the slightest, it's almost the only film in the series that can really be called a horror. It does not shy away from the devastation left by Godzilla, on a large scale or on a human level.
The film has a clear sense of escalation. First we see ships being attacked by an unseen force. The threat expands before the cause is discovered. Then Godzilla finally makes landfall and walks directly into Tokyo, and we see his terrible power firsthand, and how truly unstoppable he seems.
There seems to be no hope of stopping Godzilla, until the heroes learn of Dr. Serizawa's secret invention-The Oxygen Destroyer. It could well destroy Godzilla, but at what cost? Would this end up being a new addition to man's arsenal of weapons, even worse than nuclear bombs?
The characters here are very good. Ogata and Emiko are good leads. For such a well-regarded and remembered character, Serizawa actually has surprisingly little screentime for a while. But each scene is extremely important, and does a great job in fleshing out his character. The struggles he faces, and the decisions he ultimately makes are compelling stuff.
The amount of screentime Godzilla has is pretty small, but used really well. He's a constant spectre even when not onscreen, and the damage he leaves behind is a reminder of his presence.
The climax is pretty low-key, but no less impactful. Godzilla is asleep for most of it, which doesn't make it the most exciting scene, but we did just come off of vast city destruction. Where this ending impresses is on a character level, and the tension we feel.
The effects are a standout, not only for the Godzilla franchise, but for kaiju cinema as a whole. Even 68 years later, they're every bit as impressive. The titular monster towers over Tokyo, fitting in well with the great miniatures, and effective composite shots.
The direction by Ishiro Honda is great, showing the destruction from both a human scale, and from the monster's giant perspective. The black-and-white photography not only hides any possible cheesiness of the effects, but helps give a horror vibe.
The score by Akira Ifukube is still iconic. For the first time we hear the famous Godzilla theme, among other great tracks.
The American version of Godzilla is considered a lesser product, dampening the grim themes of the original, as well as conveniently downplaying the American part in atomic attacks/testing. It also felt the need to crowbar in some new footage with American actors to make it more palateable. As annoying as all these things can be, it's hard to be too mad at this version. It doesn't butcher the film like other re-edits, it doesn't turn the film into a gentle summer picnic, it gave us the kickass name King of the Monsters, and it spurred Raymond Burr's lifelong respect for the character. And considering it helped make Godzilla a household name in the U.S., it must have done a little something right, even if later films would turn the American perception of him into a joke.
Godzilla is one of the greatest monster movies to come out of Japan, or anywhere else, and tops Best of the series lists so often, it's easier to name your favourite Godzilla movie besides the original. It deserves all the praise it gets for kickstarting the kaiju genre, as well as a series that still runs to this day...