It's the second Godzilla movie, rushed into cinemas only six months after the first one.
The original transcended its genre and was one of the most important Japanese films ever made. This... isn't.
Fans don't give it much love and I can see why, but it's okay. It's a bog-standard monster movie without a fraction of its predecessor's power or thematic depth, but there's nothing wrong with that. It looks great, it's taking itself seriously and it's above-average for its genre in the 1950s. I didn't find it gripping, but I'm still fond of it. It's in black-and-white, for a start. Everything's better in black-and-white.
Our heroes are two pilots (Shoichi Tsukioka and Koji Kobayashi) and the girls manning the radios back at base. Kobayashi's plane goes wrong and he's forced down on an uninhabited island, so Tsukioka goes to his rescue... and only once they're both on the ground do they realise that 100-metre-tall dinosaurs are fighting nearby. You know, because that would be so inconspicuous from the air. One of them's Godzilla, obviously, while the other is a pineapple-like Ankylosaurus who's generally called Anguirus although I've no idea where they got the "u" from. Anguirus and Godzilla hate each other's guts here, but in later films they'd team up and Anguirus is apparently a popular kaiju. Not counting stock footage, he'd return in Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Gigan, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Godzilla Final Wars.
So you've got two nobodies who've seen something unbelievable. If this were a 1950s American movie, they'd spend half the film telling no one what they'd seen because they'd know they'd just be laughed at. Japan proves its superiority. Tsukioka and Kobayashi immediately tell the authorities, who believe every word without a blink and throw everything they have at the problem. The mighty Takashi Shimura returns from the first film to explain what they can do to defeat Godzilla... which is nothing. Human technology can't touch the dude. Mankind is screwed. A clip montage from the first film is played to demonstrate this. Admittedly they'd presumably be able to kill this new Godzilla as they did the first one if they had another Oxygen Destroyer, but they don't.
So that's the run-down on Lizard #1. Telling us about Anguirus is a dinosaur expert who has photographs (eh?) and would seem to know all about dinosaur psychology (um...). Apparently Ankylosaurus was the same size as Godzilla, carnivorous and "one of the few creatures that had a thorough hatred for war-like predators". I never knew the fossil record could even tell us about pacifism in the Cretaceous era. Anguirus is perhaps a tad aggressive by pacifist standards, given that he never does anything in this film except fight Godzilla to the death, but this is a post-WW2 Japanese film and if there's one thing they're consistent about, it's hostility towards war and all things military.
So you've got dinosaurs the size of cruise liners on your doorstep. Tokyo got flattened in the last film, so this time we're in Osaka. What should we do? Shimura remembers that bright light made the first Godzilla even more angry and violent... so they try that. What's more, it works. Godzilla follows the pretty lights. However you just know something's going to go wrong and sure enough, it does. Osaka gets stomped.
All this is quite nice. It's just the usual monster nonsense, but it's charming and well acted. It's even good-humoured. This is no metaphorical nuclear holocaust, presumably because the authorities knew what to expect this time and had managed to minimise the casualties. There's a romantic subplot about Tsukioka being engaged to one of the radio girls and Kobayashi having romantic hopes for the other one, despite never having said anything. People make jokes and laugh. It may not have the original's weight, but these feel like real people and I liked them. The film's problem is that its dramatic climax comes at the end of act two, with the Osaka-flattening sexual encounter (maybe) between Godzilla and Anguirus, after which the survivor swims off to a deserted island and stands there doing nothing while Japanese planes drop bombs on him. This isn't dramatic. There's good involvement for the human characters and the film remains likeable, but in a low-intensity way that might not always hold your attention. I enjoyed Godzilla getting annoyed with the human planes and smacking down the occasional one or two, though.
This doesn't add up to a great movie, but by all accounts it's still far better than the American version, called Gigantis the Fire Monster. The original plan had been to cut out all the Japanese actors, write a new script, shoot new footage and call it The Volcano Monsters. This never happened because in 1957 the studio, AB-PT Productions, went bust. The version that eventually got released was just heavily edited, but it was still considerably less faithful than the Raymond Burr version of the original Godzilla. It includes the following:
(a) Godzilla is no longer Godzilla, but instead has lost his trademark roar and is called Gigantis.
(b) there's a narrator talking almost throughout, usually describing what you can see for yourself on the screen.
(c) a stock-footage introduction.
(d) stock music from the Warner library.
(e) the dubbed Kobayashi has a Stupid Comedy Fat Guy voice.
(f) George Takei does his first ever movie acting on the English dub, for you collectors of Star Trek trivia.
Overall, this film's neither one thing nor the other. It's not a terrifying metaphor for the nuclear holocaust, but equally it's not camp kaiju nonsense like the later Godzilla films. It's just a 1950s monster movie. By those standards, it's quite good. By normal movie standards, it's a bit dodgy and has a weak third act, but it's likeable. Godzilla standing amid ice is pretty, oddly enough. Would I recommend it? No. It's a curate's egg, but I'm willing to give it a pass mark even though it made my mind start wandering towards the end. Its sins are inoffensive and it has charm.