When the Japanese freighter Eiko-Maru is destroyed near Odo Island, the Bingo-Maru is sent to investigate and is lost with nearly all hands. Meanwhile, fishing catches disappear and many blame an ancient, legendary sea-creature called Gojira. Reporters are sent but their helicopter is destroyed and Gojira flattens 17 homes, kills nine people and their livestock.

The residents of Odo travel to Tokyo and demand disaster relief. The government sends paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) to study radioactive footprints and a trilobite that seems to have come from nowhere. When the village alarm bell rings, the villagers see an enormous dinosaur-like creature—fifty meters tall—that Yamane believes has been disturbed by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. Seventeen more ships are lost while the authorities debate.

Finally, ten frigates are sent to use depth charges in an attempt to destroy it, though Yamane suggests that, since it survived a hydrogen bomb it’s pretty much unkillable. Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) breaks off her engagement with scientist Serizawa (Akhito Hirata) because she has fallen for ship captain Hideto Ogawa (Akira Takarada). Serizawa refuses to divulge his research on Gojira to a reporter but demonstrates it to Emiko. She is horrified. Meanwhile, Gojira appears in Tokyo Bay and attacks the ward of Shinagawa, where many embassies are located. After attacking a passing train, it returns to the ocean.

The Japanese self-defence forces, after consulting with international experts, build a 30-meter-tall electric fence along the coast, hoping that 50,000 volts will stop Gojira. Back home, the romance is threatened when Captain Ogata argues with his future father-in-law Doctor Yamane about the efficacy of studying Gojira further. Meanwhile, the creature has used its atomic breath to burn through the fence, unleashing even more destruction. Tanks and fighter jets are useless and Gojira returns to the sea. The hospitals are filled with victims, many of them suffering from radiation sickness.

Distraught, young Emiko tells Captain Ogata about the research she saw, called the oxygen destroyer, which disintegrates oxygen atoms and causes living organisms to die of a rotting asphyxiation. Doctor Serizawa is reluctant to use it as the superpowers may force him to create a superweapon out of it. After watching the news, he breaks down and allows the government to use it, after destroying all his notes. A Navy ship takes them to place the device in Tokyo Bay, where Gojira is found. Serizawa opens the device underwater and cuts his own air supply, taking the secret to his grave. Gojira is destroyed, but it is feared that another such creature may arise in the future.

The film was directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, and produced and distributed by Toho films, unleashing a world-wide tidal wave of Godzilla sequels and remakes, plus dozens of films featuring Godzilla’s giant enemies. It was originally supposed to be about a giant octopus, but they decided on a dinosaur. The technique used was called suitmation, with a stunt performer stomping about a vast, detailed miniature landscape. It was made in 71 days and released to mixed reviews but became the longest running film franchise in history. Eventually, there were 36 sequels or remakes, plus video games, books, comics, and toys. It was nominated for the Best Film at the Japanese Movie Association Awards but lost to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Joseph E. Levine bought the rights to the movie for $25,000. It was released in the US as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, cut down to 80 minutes, and footage was added of Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin, interacting with body doubles to make it seem that he was part of the story. They did a fairly good job of this, though sometimes he seemed to be wandering in a daze, and much of the anti-nuclear sentiment was cut out in favor of action. Raymond Burr only worked for six days. He used his clout as Perry Mason to see to it that the movie was not too heavily edited. The Japanese version was revived after the American version became a hit and the reviews improved. My advice is to find the Japanese version with subtitles, not dubbing. It’s a much superior movie.

Godzilla has become the very symbol of nuclear power and was created as such. A few months before the film was made, the Japanese fishing trawler Daigo Fukurya Maru, or Lucky Dragon Number Five, was bombarded  with radioactive fallout from the hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll. The crew was sickened and one man died. The news in Japan was filled with warnings about contaminated fishing, and thus began the international anti-nuclear movement. Originally, there was supposed to be a movie called In the Shadow of Glory, a Japanese-Indonesian co-production about the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, but anti-Japanese sentiment in Indonesia put pressure on the government to deny visas for the Japanese crew. On the way back from Jakarta, producer Tomoyuki conceived the idea of Godzilla, inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, complete with a monster attacking a lighthouse.

It is not true that the name Godzilla is an American invention, as Toho Studios created the word. At one point, the creature was supposed to be a kind of whale-sized gorilla, thus it’s name Gojira—a combination of those two words. Now, most people know it by the mispronunciation Godzilla. Tsuburaya wanted to use Harryhausen-style stop-motion but realized it would take seven years to make the movie. The score by Akiri Ifukube was written without him having seen any actual footage, so the composer created music for something big and relentless, using low-pitch brass and string instruments. He thought it was his best score. Godzilla’s famous roar was created by loosening the strings on a contrabass and rubbing them with a leather glove, and the result played at reduced speed. This is rather similar to the invention of the TARDIS sound.

The creature was based on early drawings of the Iguanodon, with a bit of T-Rex thrown in and some Stegosaurus plates. Rubber was hard to get in postwar Japan, so the suit was made of a kind of concrete. It weighed 230 pounds at first, though later they used a polymer to get it down to a mere 200. The man in the suit could only wear it for three minutes before passing out. The mechanism of the oxygen destroyer resembles the implosion design of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki. When Honda and Tsuburaya were on the observation deck of one of the Tokyo buildings, discussing Godzilla’s path of destruction, they were overheard and questioned by the police. When Godzilla’s tail smashed the Nichegeki Theater in the movie, patrons in the theater ran out into the street. In 2004, Godzilla was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.