These days we take movies like this for granted, but in 1954 when Toho released Godzilla it was a huge gamble. Not only had nothing like this ever been done (at this point in time it was the most expensive movie ever made in Japan), it was also a huge risk for Toho financially. They were simultaneously filming Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the production of both nearly bankrupted the company. If Godzilla didn’t perform well, Toho would fold.
At first, it didn’t look great. Critics destroyed the film, saying that special effects were best left to Hollywood. Luckily for Toho, and the future of giant monster movies, the Japanese public didn’t listen. The film was a huge success and went on to get nominated for Best Picture at the Japanese version of the Academy Awards. While it ultimately lost to the aforementioned Seven Samurai, it did win the award for best special effects (vindicating the filmmakers from the sneers of the initial critical reception).
Following the success overseas, Godzilla was brought to America under the name Godzilla, King of the Monsters! This version featured Raymond Burr who explained the events of the film as an on the scene reporter. It was heavily re-edited and the two films are very different when viewed side by side. It did bring Godzilla fever to the States and won a great deal of critical success. After the excellent reception it received in America, the Japanese critics ended up softening their views on the film and it now sports a 93% Fresh Rating on the aggregate site, RottenTomatoes.
While Godzilla later turned into a tongue-in-cheek franchise, often dabbling in silliness and over the top quirky storylines, the original was a very serious film. It was very much a representation of the war that had recently ended with use of the atomic bomb in Japan. Godzilla was the embodiment of all that was evil about atomic warfare. The film served as a warning and a reminder of the effects that war has and how quickly things can get out of control. It wasn’t done in a heavy handed way. It was a neutral warning to all of the world that atomic warfare has consequences for everyone. This theme was much heavier in the Japanese version but was still featured in the American film. These themes and well directed script earned Godzilla the only best film nomination it would ever get until Shin Godzilla was nominated and won in 2017.
The Japanese version of the film was next to impossible to get a hold of until the 2000’s when it first became available on DVD. It’s now part of the Criterion Collection featuring tons of extras and everything a Godzilla fan like myself could ever want on DVD or Blu-Ray. Though it’s a much more somber film than you would expect if you’ve only seen the 70’s and 80’s version of Godzilla, the original is a noble start to one of the most important “big guys” in cinema.