Mild spoilers for 2014’s Godzilla and spoilers for 1954’s Gojira.
The only named character who loses anything in the recent reboot of Godzilla is Joe (Bryan Cranston), who has to watch his wife die in a so-called accident at the nuclear plant where they work. His grief propels him to investigate the accident’s cause; he becomes obsessive, haunted, and determined.
He is killed off by a collapsing bridge about 20 minutes later, and the movie instead follows his son Ford, who never mentions his father or mother again for the duration of the film. When Godzilla retreats to the ocean at the end of the film, major characters smile; humanity applauds; a newsreel refers to the monster as a “savior.”
Even if Joe survived (and a much more intelligent script than this would have made him the central protagonist), 2014’s Godzilla would bear little resemblance in its examination of grief to 1954’s Gojira, to which the newer film’s creators repeatedly swore fealty during the movie’s marketing campaign. Of course, it never had much hope. The 1954 film (in the original Japanese cut) is not a thriller or a popcorn flick; it is a movie of mourning and of ongoing tragedy. Gojira itself is a confused, angry spectre of the past awoken by modern atrocity.
It’s important to remember that the movie was made in the wake not of the nuclear bombs that ended the second World War, but just after the hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, which irradiated a Japanese fishing boat and killed many of its crew. This isn’t a movie about a single act of horror; it’s about humanity’s insistence on repeating that horror, and the implication that we live in a world where atrocities cannot be prevented, merely postponed.
When Gojira is killed at the end of the film, the soundtrack is mournful; the scientist who knows the most about the monster ensures the viewer that it, or one of its brothers, will return so long as humanity continues to activate nuclear devices.
The major “action” set piece of Gojira is the destruction of Tokyo, which is shot in darkness (a concession to technical limitations, but affecting either way) and has little music to hide the sound of carnage and the monster’s roar. Tellingly, the music swells most dramatically not to herald Gojira’s atomic breath or his slashing down a passenger train, but at the scene of mourning: a television broadcast of the dead and wounded, the devastated city, as children sing a funereal dirge called a “Prayer for Peace.”
Gojira isn’t about a monster restoring balance, as one character asserts in the 2014 version, or at least it wasn’t once; in its original form, the monster meant we had lost our balance, we would never recover it, and, in a world of such massive horrors, we would be left only to grieve our dead again and again.