NOTE: Spoilers abound.

There will never be another movie, Godzilla-specific or otherwise, quite like 1954’s Gojira.

Godzilla is a global franchise teddy bear at this point. gojira (1954)He’s the king of the men-in-suits monsters, the silly kaiju era of Japanese (and also American) movies about “what if this insect or animal was very big and could step on the skyscrapers.” In Japan, Evangelion‘s director Hideko Anno brought a blend of genuine weird aesthetic and bureaucratic parody to the franchise with 2016’s Shin Godzilla; in America, we got the increasingly stupid but never smart franchise reboot that started in 2014 with a couple moments of good atmosphere, a largely wasted Bryan Cranston performance, a sort of embarassing Ken Wantanabe performance, and a lot of dimly lit CGI.

That 2014 reboot, particularly in its early promotional materials, seemed to be trying to evoke an apocalyptic, terrifying vision of the titular monster as an echo of the consequences of humanity’s development of nuclear weapons. The earliest preview I saw uses voiceover from the Oppenheimer tapes, for Christ’s sake.

Gojira, in stark contrast to its many successors, is elegaic. I’m not saying it’s not silly in moments, and ham-fisted, with stilted dialogue and weird pacing, but it’s a movie about a tragedy, both past and ongoing, literal and metaphorical. It hides its monster-costume goofiness in dramatic lighting and careful cinematography, but isn’t afraid to use light and contrast to emphasize fear or hopelessness, usually in the faces of the many miniscule onlookers to the monster’s inexorable destruction.

There is of course a sequence where Godzilla steps all over Tokyo, but its dramatic core isn’t the monster’s roar or the breathless salvos of fighter jet bullets, but instead a beat where we see a cowering mother and child, doomed in an alley between buildings about to be obliterated; the mother comforts her child by telling her they’ll be with her father soon. This is 1954; the woman’s husband died in World War II; this movie is scarred to its core by Japan’s horrific, traumatic, lingering losses from the end of that era.

After the Tokyo destruction sequence, the next significant set piece doesn’t have Godzilla at all in it: it’s a funereal sequence in which we watch a televised performance of a children’s chorus of a “Prayer for Peace,” a ridiculously haunting piece of music laid over images of the convalescing, the suffering, the rubble.

Post-war Japan was occupied by the American military until 1952, during which time the press was not allowed to distribute photography of the aftermath of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. A nation’s suffering was stifled for nearly a decade. Consider, then, what Gojira‘s Prayer for “Peace” is doing taking up so much time in an ostensible monster-movie goof. It’s a totem, a recreation and a reminder that violence is loss, but also that survival is omnipresent, that humanity rebuilds and reforms around what it’s lost.

That’s a lot to ask from a Godzilla movie, but remember that this film exists before “Godzilla” had any cultural cache. In this movie, he’s a mindless monster, a force of nature birthed by man’s meddling in powers beyond its control. He’s pure metaphor, in other words, and the movie uses him like it.

The story, then, isn’t about Godzilla but about what he does to Japan and to Tokyo in particular. This story works better in the broad strokes than it does in some of the details; like I said, the dialogue isn’t very good, and the character dynamics are all rough archetypes lacking much in the way of nuance. Serizawa has this silly eyepatch and barks all his lines, Emiko has no personality except to scream at appropriate moments, Ogata is so unmemorable I had to get his name off IMDB. Only the eternal Takashi Shimura elevates his character, bringing tremendous pathos to his haunted scientist who understands better than anyone throughout the movie the horror that has been unleashed.

Really, the people are metaphor just as much as the monster: reporters who report on atrocities even as they become victims, helpless but to observe and record; a society and military that defend and protect with a desperation that almost creates a personality, but one warped and over-defined by violence; an old man burdened by the weight of history; a youthful couple who can’t fully grasp the meaning of the horror they witness; and a scarred war soldier who cannot escape war, who sacrifices himself and his perpetuation of violence for the sake of a future that will have to remember, but shouldn’t have to suffer a constant re-perpetuation of that violence.

This movie exists in the immediate wake of the Bikini Atoll incident, remember, when more innocent Japanese suffered for the sake of nuclear weapons testing; the movie ends on a very blunt cry of slumping rage at the fact that they cannot rest, cannot put this past behind them. The fear of Godzilla returning, as the final lines of the movie formulate it, is actually a fear of humanity causing his return, or the return of something enough like him to be another apocalypse, another trauma for a wounded collective psyche, and the potential for another fracture in a cultural identity already teetering in existential crisis.

On the one hand, I think it’s a shame that this film is the progenitor of goofy popcorn flicks, because it saps our collective cultural memory of its power. (“Our” here meaning American, or Western if you want; I don’t think anyone in Japan is liable to forget this movie’s legacy any time soon.) On the other hand, there was no way you’d make Gojira again, in this form or context; it is an absolutely singular work that transcends its form and genre, and it’s probably a positive sign for the slow evolution of post-war Japanese cultural identity that they didn’t make this movie again.