In the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the Japanese island of Odo, tragedy awaits. A freighter sailing through those waters is suddenly shaken by an unknown force, which not only dazzles the crew but sets their craft aflame, killing them all. When word gets back to the mainland, there is a shock reaction, and the question arises: what could have caused it? When another ship, this one full of fishermen, falls prey to the mystery destructive force, the nearby islanders recall the legend of Godzilla, a huge lizard that was supposed to haunt the sea, and the elders suggest a female sacrifice to appease it...
...but they'll need more than that, as Japan's scientists and military soon discover. This was the one that started perhaps the country's most popular cycle of films, where the giant, green lizard with the radioactive breath and tendency to squash buildings made his debut. Called Gojira originally, the epic was translated into English for Western audiences two years after making a huge success of itself in its native land, where it also gained Raymond Burr in specially-shot scenes to make it more friendly to the non-Japanese. This was aimed at kids who were lapping up the American monster movies, contrary to the more grown up message it carried before.
In fact, the Japanese Godzilla is a far more serious affair, with a sober, even maudlin tone as the characters fret over their country being laid waste and the dreaded solution that one scientist, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), is forced to rely on. He has been scarred in the Second World War, and it's that conflict that casts a long shadow over the story, specifically the way it ended. When the monster lizard stops overturning ships and makes for the land, the analogies between his fictional behaviour and the actual dropping of atomic bombs on the country are impossible to ignore.
The human side of this is not simply anonymous extras fleeing for their lives, and it's not entirely the love triangle between Serizawa, Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the childhood sweetheart he is supposed to marry, and Ogata (Akira Takarada), the man who has won her heart. This is because among those bit parts are characters lamenting that they don't want what happened to them in Nagasaki to happen again, or in the midst of an attack a mother shielding her children and reassuring them that they will soon be reunited with their father in heaven, the father presumably having died in the war. The nation is as much a character as the stars.
Writer and director Ishirô Honda keeps this focus on social and political issues paramount, not something that happened in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms which this film is often accused of being inspired by. In some ways, the themes weigh too heavily on the film, which may test the patience of the fun-seeking monster movie fan who wanted to see things go boom and crash - it's certainly different from those later in the series where spectacle and combat were at the heart of the narrative. Yet for those seeking more depth, Serizawa's dilemma will provide it as he devises a superweapon but has to do a lot of soul searching over whether it's a good idea to use it or not. And even at the end, which concludes much as you would expect, the way is left open for the danger to be ever-present, not so much with Godzilla (although he would be back), but with the more genuine menace of the atomic bomb. Music by Akira Ifukube.