Perhaps no series in the history of movies ever went to hell as fast as the seemingly endless spawn of Gojira (1954) — or Godzilla as it came to be known in the West. Oh, sure, the immediate cheapjack sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955) — which made it to the U.S. in 1959 as Gigantis the Fire Monster — was at least seriously-intended, but it was a cheapjack sequel that showed up in Japanese theaters about four months after Gojira. It also had none of the first film’s genuine sense of dread or weightiness of theme — perhaps because co-writer-director Ishirô Honda was nowhere to be found. However, this first film is a kind of post-war masterpiece. And there is very much the specter of the war haunting the film. One of the early scenes — after Gojira has made his presence known — involves people on a commuter train talking about bomb shelters, with one commenting, “The shelters again. That stinks.” The whole very anti-nuclear tone (a staple in Honda’s films) is plugged into that mindset and the ghost of the atomic bomb. Gojira is even said to have been released by nuclear testing — and you hardly have to reflect to find the allegory in an unstoppable force that can incinerate people and level entire cities with its radioactive blast.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film’s power owes less to the image of the giant monster himself (though in this one incarnation that can be pretty potent) than to the havoc he brings: the twisted, burned-out wreckage of his fury that lingers in the mind — to say nothing of the scene of a cowering mother telling her child that they’ll “be with daddy soon” as they await destruction. One of the most striking things about all this is that, despite what we think of as the “Godzilla Theme” (the same music Leos Carax uses for his M. Merde character in Tokyo! and Holy Motors), the musical score by Akira Ifukube is mostly somber. Most of the action — and the entire final act — is underscored with dirge-like music that, instead of hyping the action, making it seem almost inexpressibly sad.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Gojira (Godzilla) Thursday, Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.