The Japanese Kaiju genre (giant monsters and the like) is mostly nonsense, but their loose-cannon entertainment and simplicity are precisely what have made them so popular as exports, especially in the West. People love to pull up the 19th film in a series about a giant moth, sit back and laugh. Consequently, the original Godzilla usually comes as a surprise to viewers expecting rubber suits clambering up against each other. Chiefly, it is somber. The monster of Godzilla is the product of the radioactive fallout of
nuclear testing in Japanese fishing waters, his leathery skin matching those of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Very rarely has a horror film creature so directly been used as a symbol for one event or real world horror. Per producer Tomoyuki Tanaka; “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.”
In a manner of speaking, Godzilla is the bomb through the havoc he wreaks, but he also calls to mind the victims of the bomb. The aforementioned skin, his creation being the byproduct of American nuclear action, leading directly to the justice the monster doles out on humanity. We see the cost of the bomb’s creation, scrounging through hospitals, meeting cowering mothers and children, locked inside a burning home with a pair of songbirds. We have wrought Godzilla, and nothing can be done to stop him. Except…
Doctor Serizawa has a solution. A terrible, terrible solution. His Oxygen Destroyer, an impossible bit of kit with the capability of rendering Godzilla a smelt, places the good doctor, and his friends, into the position of having to choose: unleash an even greater evil upon the world that stands a good chance of being abused in the same manner as the Bomb, or allow the devastation of Godzilla to continue. Serizawa knows it’s too great a risk to implement.
Serizawa is convinced after a moving funeral tribute by choir of schoolchildren, the sort of sight Japanese audiences would have been very familiar with. Serizawa delivers the bomb to a slumbering Godzilla on the ocean floor, but cuts off his air supply before reemerging. He takes the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer with him to the grave.
This moral quandary is far more central to the film’s drama than Godzilla’s rampages, and it was downright brave of director Ishiro Honda to ask that his Japanese audience, with no established interest in the genre to speak of, identify with the dilemma of those who had caused them untold suffering; the American occupation. Godzilla peddles melodrama and some goofy material to set itself up for a genuinely confrontational climax. It’s the sort of gently intellectual complication that sets the original Godzilla apart from his many, many progeny, in leaving a lasting impression on the viewer.