Godzilla is one of those iconic creatures that everyone knows, even if they've never seen a Godzilla movie: a giant radioactive reptile who likes to smash his way through Japanese cities.
But for people who have only seen him fighting Mecha-Robo-Mothzilla or whatever, the original "Godzilla"/"Gojira" will probably seem like a very different movie. Despite having a man in a rubber suit squishing miniatures, this is no campiness, no silliness, no over-the-top action. It's a sobering, slow-moving movie that just happens to involve a giant nuclear lizard.
Two Japanese vessels suddenly explode and sink, and the Coast Guard has no idea what or who could have done this. A single survivor washes ashore, declaring that a "monster" destroyed the boats. Oh, and fish have mysteriously vanished from the ocean, which a superstitious old guy attributes to a sea god called "Gojira."
Like all superstitious old guys, he's actually right. While a group of scientists investigate the weird goings-on on the island, a vast reptilian creature appears, says hi, and then vanishes back into the ocean. He is "Gojira," aka "Godzilla," a prehistoric monster who has been woken from his aeons-long slumber by recent thermonuclear activity in the Pacific. Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is conflicted by the government's determination to destroy Godzilla.
Meanwhile, Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) reveals to her new boyfriend Hideto (Akira Takarada) that her reclusive fiance, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) has a dark secret -- a scientific weapon that might be able to stop Godzilla. But Serizara fears it could also be turned against other human beings.
People probably scoff at the idea of "Godzilla"/"Gojira" as a slow-moving metaphorical movie, but that's usually because they're either A) hung up on the rubber suit, or B) only thinking of the smash-em-up Godzilla Vs. Other Monster movies. The original movie is a far more sober affair, with more of a focus on the human characters and the struggles they go through.
It's also worth noting that this movie was made a scant decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Godzilla himself stands in for the bomb. But the metaphor has no hostility, no anger, no blame. There's just a sense of raw sorrow and pain, and a sober warning about ANYONE using the bomb. In fact, a good portion of the movie is devoted to a man who has created a horrifying superweapon, and will literally do whatever he can to MAKE SURE nobody ever can use it.
Director Ishirō Honda pretty clearly knows what he's doing, littering the story with sobbing children and ordinary people freaking out. The story drags a bit when it focuses on the Emiko/Serizawa/Hideto love triangle, though -- it's at its best when it focuses on Godzilla, the havoc he wreaks, and the moral issues that crop up.
Honda also gives the movie a genuinely epic scale, sweeping from a tiny fishing village to the flaming ruins of Tokyo, with people ranging from elite scientists to crusty old men who believe in sea-gods. Lots of wide shots show Godzilla smash as he lumbers through Tokyo, destroying everything in his way. Yes, it's a guy in a rubber suit, but if you can overlook that, then everything else is beautifully intense.
It also has a pretty good cast -- the perpetually droopy-faced Shimura, Takarada, Kōchi, and many others. There are so many people in the movie that to describe all the good performances would take forever, since there are good ones on every level -- even extras who appear in just one scene can give amazing performances.
But the most important performance here is from Akihiko Hirata. It's a little hard to get past Hirata's pirate eyepatch (why did he need that?), but he gives a raw, painful quality to Serizawa. At first he seems like an insensitive weirdo, but gradually we see that he's a man given a horrifying choice -- no matter what he does, people will die horribly. He can let Godzilla kill hundreds or thousands, or he can unleash something that could kill even more.
"Godzilla"/"Gojira" is a slower, deeper, wiser movie than many of the goofier sequels that came after it, and is a harrowing, intense sci-fi movie despite the rubber suit. Definitely one to see.