There are many ways to begin speaking about 1954's Godzilla, the film that introduced one of the most iconic figures ever put to celluloid, but I shall chose to start the same way that the movie does: over black, with the sound of crashing noise and something that sounds like the scream of an elephant raping a lion. As the titles appear, this repetitious cacophony is replaced by a throbbing bass line, that ushers in the sawing, martial strings of one of the great piece of theme music ever written for the movies, composed by Ifukube Akira. It's unmistakably Japanese, but at the same time it's dramatic and urgent according to European standards: in a slightly menacing key, promising danger but also excitement. I do not know if Godzilla would be a great film without Ifukube; I only know that I can never think of it without hearing his theme marching through my ears, and I don't want to know what it would be like sapped of his influence. Even the mercenary American re-cut of the film released two years later, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! knew enough not to fuck with the music.

But we're not here to talk about that project, similar in so many ways and so fundamentally a different thing. The original Godzilla, unseen in the West in any sort of official capacity for nearly a half-century, is absolutely of a whole different order than what we native speakers of English, resident in the United States, are first inclined to think of when the name of the monster is brought up. From King of the Monsters all the way to the present, films with Godzilla in them are mostly though of as campy, trashy B-movies. Which is already unfair, I'm inclined to say: there are at least a couple that are pretty much no good at all, but most of the ones I've seen (and as I write these words, I should make it clear that I've only seen around half of the 28 Japanese Godzilla films) are utterly charming in a goofy but sincere way.

This is not the case with Godzilla. It's not a movie that you can twist around enough to claim that it's "good" and not feel like you're being fast and loose with aesthetic judgments; it's a very good movie all on its own, in ways that neither ironic camp nor B-movie charm can account for. I get the sense that this fact has been so quickly absorbed into the anglosphere since the 2004 reissue of the original Japanese version of the film that it's no longer controversial in the slightest; Godzilla being a terrific, drum-tight horror-thriller with deep and rich overtones of social panic is now received wisdom. One thinks with kind pity on the pre-2004 critics who ferreted out what they saw as a clever subtext about being the only nation ever on the receiving end of a nuclear attack, only to find that the original script makes it so clear that Godzilla is a commentary on the trauma of living in post-Hiroshima Japan, undergoing the painful struggles of rebranding itself as a Westernised industrial nation, that the word "subtext" is laughably insufficient.

Indeed, both the idea for the film and the plot itself started with inspiration from another nuclear run-in between Japan and the United States: early in 1954, the fishing boat Lucky Dragon 5 got a little too close to the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, and the crew suffered radiation poisoning as a result. Producer Tanaka Tomoyuki had the idea to combine this event with a monster movie to cash in on the success of the American import The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (the logic of film producers in any culture is a marvelous and cryptic thing), and so we get a story that opens with a fishing vessel, Eiko Maru, being mysteriously lost during the night, accompanied by lights that unpleasantly suggest some form of high-energy attack. The first demi-protagonist we'll meet in the film, Ogata Hideto (Takarada Akira), is called away from a night of high culture with his girlfriend, Yamane Emiko (Kōchi Momoko), to serve as leader of the salvage operation to find out what happened; this reveals nothing, though a rescue vessel perishes under the same circumstances as the first boat. That boat, the Bingo Maru, happens to have three survivors, one of whom remains conscious just long enough to blame a monster for what happened. This is received with some trepidation by the eldest villagers of Odo Island, where the survivors landed, who have a relic of a ritual meant to appease Godzilla, a sea demon that eats fish and keep fisherman starving; to them, this recent development (and, sure enough, a recent drought of fish) suggest that Godzilla has returned.

When a typhoon rolls in that night, their worries are born out: something levels a couple of houses, and we're able to see just enough to be sure that it wasn't the weather, but something big and fleshy. These new reports catch the eye of a certain Professor Yamane Kyohei (Shimura Takashi), who just so happens to be Emiko's father, and he heads straight to Odo to investigate, thus being the first to observe that the unusually radioactive pit created during the storm - an littered with extinct fauna - is in exactly the shape of a giant foot. It's only now that the pieces come together that the film finally tips its hand, and at the 22-minute mark, we get to see, over the crest of a hill, a large tyrannosauroid head, shrieking an unearthly, metallic bark. Ladies and gentlemen, Godzilla.

Now, the first thing you'll notice after all these decades is that our first-ever glimpse of Godzilla is performed by a hand puppet. Moreover, the hand puppet is of immensely low quality. I mean, you couldn't put together such a good one on your kitchen table in the next couple of hours, but the little arms flop about like rubber stick, and the face looks awfully like something more apt to pop up on Fraggle Rock than in the nightmares of a small Japanese child. Not, all in all, a very auspicious introduction, certainly not from the POV of history, and not even really within the context of a single movie, where so much rides on the constant terror of this giant beast, a towering 50 meters of cryptozoological menace. When he shows up later, to bash his way through impressive models of Tokyo (that are not, mind you, anywhere near the level of quality that Toho's models would eventually reach, but in '54, it was like virtually nothing else out there), played by the incredibly patient Nakajima Haruo in a suit made by technicians who had no experience yet, Godzilla is a commanding, dramatic presence, always shot in potent shadows that emphasis the bulk and weight of the monster, with Nakajima's deliberate movements creating a sense of implacability: he is an unstoppable force of destruction moving slowly enough for his inescapable menace to make itself known (this is amazingly well-expressed in what's certainly my favorite scene of the film, where a radio announcer describes in something almost like ecstasy the doom coming his way).

But when we first see him, and semi-regularly throughout, he looks like a fucking rubber hand puppet. I love low-fi practical effects, and I adore without a whisper of irony even the most feeble-looking suits in the franchise; but the puppet is a bridge too far.

Anyway, all that gives us more than enough to go on. The truly impressive thing about Godzilla is that it's two entirely different movies, and both of them are excellent: on the one hand, it's a really fantastic horror movie (a distinction it does not share with most of its sequels, nor with the bulk of daikaiju eiga, the genre of giant monster movies that Godzilla created out of thin air), with Ifukube's score leading the way for some genuine moments of shredded-nerve fear, as we watch people with absolutely no damn idea where this thing is going to show up or what it's going to do; director Honda Ishirō (whose career never left the genre ghetto to join the hallowed ranks of close friend Kurosawa Akira, though I think it's safe to call him an invaluable figure in the development of the kaiju films) handles the slow rise of tension punctuated by lengthy moments of chaotic violence so perfectly one could nearly weep simply out of how brutally effective the movie is at wrenching the viewer from place to place. Is it scary, in the least, to a modern viewer?, of course it damn well isn't, but that merciless simmer, the sense of total inexplicable anarchy, they are still palpable and rich, and they make Godzilla easily the best of the many '50s giant monster movies, and probably the second-best giant monster movie of all time behind only the surely unbeatable 1933 King Kong. There are virtually none from anywhere in the world, of any epoch, in which the monster is so effortlessly demonstrated as a threat to everything and everyone, random and annihilating - a shot of a tail crushing a building, a few touches of otherworldly elements (the glowing dorsal spikes jump to mind), that roar!, and Honda is able to quickly sketch out exactly why Godzilla strikes such horror into his victims.

That's a fine way in to the other, equally brilliant film sitting inside Godzilla. There's absolutely no sport anymore in teasing out the "Godzilla is the H-bomb" connections, not with scenes like a woman on a train grousing "I barely escaped the bomb at Nagasaki - and now this!", or with scientists gasping lines that are literally some variation on "Godzilla is just as bad as the atom bomb". But still, the entire structure of the film is perfectly designed to drive that point home, from the opening reference to Lucky Dragon 5, to the discovery that Godzilla himself was a giant primitive monster released into the world by the energy of atomic explosions (best not to think about how that's meant to work - nor linger too long on the film's incredibly absurd paleontology about the dating of the Jurassic Period and trilobites - because it's all captial-S Symbolism anyway), this is all openly referencing the way that Japan was reeling even nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the totality of the devastation in those cities. Some of the most keen shots in the film are of rubble; a lateral tracking shot across what used to be Tokyo is unquestionably the most effective and unnerving model shot in the film, and the best parts of a surprisingly sophisticated visual film put together by Honda and his cinematographer, Tamai Masao, are those in which human pain is in the forefront of the image (though as is weirdly typical of even Japanese junk food cinema, the images are uniformly striking, especially on Odo Island; I like to think it's because the old-fashioned traditions on that island are being married to the angular, dramatic compositions of traditional Japanese art), making the actual cost of Godzilla's passage felt in ways that no American big monster movie has ever even daydreamed about (one of the other best moments is a slowed-down narrative pause to watch as a girls' choir sings a song of prayer for deliverance). As much as there is the movie horror of a big lizard, the film also trades on the social horror of being damaged by something huge and unstoppable and foreign.

Beyond that, Godzilla has quite a lot within about Japan in the first decade after World War II more generally, especially as embodied in the character of Dr. Serizawa (Hirata Akihiko), Emiko's fiancé before Ogata entered the picture, and the man whose creativity has led to the one device that might be able to stop Godzilla. Here's just the short catalogue of interesting thing about him: he lost his right eye during the war, he knows at least one German scientist to the degree that he is intensely anxious to clarify that he doesn't know any German scientists, he is the only person in the whole film ever depicted listening to Western music - and in a film with as distinctive a score as this, I can't take that as incidental - and he bemoans how he wishes he'd never pursued science to the place that a weapon resulted in language neatly echoing Einstein's declarations against his theories having been used to create atomic bombs. In a film with bits and pieces littered throughout that hint at Japanese anxiety around adopting Western habits (the very first fear ever voiced by any character about the effects of Godzilla's attacks is that it will embarrass Japan in the eyes of foreign governments), Serizawa is the most in-between character of all, burdened with the guilt of two cultures, and it's that makes him interesting both as the film's ultimate hero and most tragic figure, and and the most complex representative of national psychology found anywhere in the film.

That is, anyway, the pedant's version of Godzilla. There is, I need to emphasise this, an entirely brilliant genre movie right along side it, in which an unstoppable perversion of nature needs to be stopped, and it is thrilling, tense, and anchored by a couple of shockingly good performances from Hirata and Shimura. The latter is, okay, not remotely shocking for anyone with the most remote working knowledge of Japanese cinema. But it's a hell of a lot of intriguing, well-built humanity for a rampaging monster movie, and that is, of course, why Godzilla is a masterpiece: even in its most generic elements, it's never just a monster movie, but a fantastic depiction of how humans survive and struggle. Trashy elements or not, this is exactly what great cinema looks like, in any country and any decade.