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'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!' & 1954 'Gojira': Two of the Greatest Monster Movies Ever

Godzilla. Gojira aka King of the Monsters atomic age creature 1 of cinema's iconsGodzilla. Whether in Ishirô Honda's 1954 Japanese original Gojira or in the 1956 U.S. version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the destructive reptilian creature emblematic of the atomic age remains one of cinema's iconic creations. Like Harry Potter, James Bond, and Andy Hardy, Godzilla has been at the center of numerous big-screen sequels – not to mention a not inconsiderable number of remakes, reboots, and reedits.

'Godzilla': The King of the Monsters in iconic Japanese cinema classic

Heaven. When I came across the long-awaited DVD release of the original 1954 Japanese monster film Gojira a.k.a. Godzilla, I thought I had struck heaven. That it was accompanied by its Americanized cousin, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, only doubled the joy of expectation. And for once, I was not disappointed.

The mark of a good critic is admitting biases, so I will state up front that as a young boy, growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I used to watch the annual American release of the latest Godzilla film at the old Ridgewood Theater. That was one of the few joys to be had in the depressing urban blight of Queens; so, objectivity will not be feigned in this essay.

Nostalgia & 'subliminal effect'

The best of that sillier run of films was Godzilla's Revenge, in which Godzilla took on a mythical stature in the mind of a lonely latchkey child who kept bullies and gangsters at bay while communing with Godzilla's son, Minya.

Yet nothing could top the original 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, with Raymond Burr – old Perry Mason and Ironside himself – as reporter Steve Martin. I must have seen that film on TV for the first time when I was four or five, and damn, it was scary. Other than its quickie sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), none of the 1960s and 1970s Godzilla films ever portrayed the beast as such pure hellish destruction.

Even in youth I could discern that the original was easily the best and that it was more than truly scary: it was scratching at that unnamed part in all developing minds. It had things to offer I could not quite place at that time.

The scariness, however, was most likely a result of the subliminal effect of most of its scenes of destruction being set at night, whereas Godzilla's appearance by day was not so menacing but rather benign.

Elusive Japanese original

I'd always heard that my favorite film was derived from an original Japanese production that did not have the Raymond Burr intercuts.

Having become an expert in every Godzilla film, from the original to Godzilla 1985, I was always excited by the prospect of some day seeing the Japanese original. I'd even watched a handful of the post-1985 films, but the original remained a mystery.

Finally, in 2004 Rialto Pictures released Gojira across American theaters for its 50th Anniversary, and earlier this year Classic Media released that 1954 Toho Film production and its American version in a two-disc DVD, so that a side-by-side comparison could be made.

'Great movie'

After watching both films, with and without the commentaries, I have to say that my appreciation for Gojira, directed by Ishirô Honda, and written by Honda and Takeo Murata, from Shigeru Kayama's “story” – as well as the U.S. version, often derided as a bastardization – has grown stronger.

Neither one can really be considered a great “film,” but great movies? Hell, yes!

The difference between the two is the difference between a great novel and a great comic book. Great films really move one to think more deeply about life, whereas a great movie does that a bit, perhaps, but more often it greatly entertains.

Both versions of Godzilla easily qualify on that score, while both films, with their anti-atomic messages and unflinching look at destruction, are better than Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's original King Kong – which is still a great movie itself.

'Godzilla' vs. 'King Kong' & 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms'

What raises Godzilla – and especially Gojira – above King Kong, in spite of the rubber-suited reptilian scoffed at by stop-motion enthusiasts, is that the Japanese monster tale still has resonance today. It can thus be seen as an allegory, whereas King Kong is essentially just a ripping good yarn.

Yes, Godzilla, reportedly the most expensive Japanese production up to that time, owes a great debt to King Kong, whose rerelease in 1952 was a remarkable hit. However, it owes even more to the success of Eugène Lourié's 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (based on Ray Bradbury's short story “The Fog Horn”).

Even so, Godzilla had a political resonance and emotional depth, especially in its human characterizations, that both King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms lacked. Kong was basically a victim and the Beast was just a hungry lizard (incidentally called a Rhedosaurus).

Godzilla, on the other hand, was a by-product of the atomic age, even if, cleverly, Honda covered his ass by never explicitly showing this to be true.

In fact, the monster's motives are never made clear. It does not seem to be seeking food – so is it nature's revenge on humanity or a cosmic random bit of fury?

Raymond Burr Godzilla King of the Monsters: Perry Mason actor added to US versionRaymond Burr in Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. Terry O. Morse directed the additional scenes edited into the 1956 U.S. version of Ishirô Honda's 1954 box office hit Gojira. Edited out were a number of scenes featuring the Japanese characters found in Honda's original, so that Burr, now better known as TV's Perry Mason and Ironside, ended up as the de facto lead of the American version, which was distributed (in the Eastern half of the U.S.) by Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures – later of The Graduate and The Lion in Winter fame. TransWorld Releasing Corporation handled the Western half of the country.

'Gojira' vs. 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!'

The plot of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is well known: an American reporter, Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), tells the story in flashback, after Godzilla has leveled Tokyo, leaving him recovering in a hospital. He is reputedly pals with a brilliant scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), although the two never seem to meet up.

Martin always turns up at key moments in the film, to act as an impassive observer, until he ends up being nearly killed by the beast, along with thousands of others. Eventually, he recovers and witnesses Serizawa descend to the depths of Tokyo Bay to destroy Godzilla with a weapon as powerful as the atom bomb: the Oxygen Destroyer.

Gojira is a bit different – obviously there's no Raymond Burr character – and it's also longer, at 98 minutes vs. 80 for Godzilla. It opens with a scene of a fishing ship consumed by glowing, boiling water – something that resonated with the Japanese public, as earlier that year a fishing ship caused an international stir after accidentally sailing too close to an American H bomb test in the Pacific.

Comparing it to the shorter American version, much of what was cut out featured references to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, arguments between politicians over Godzilla, references to the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other scenes that fleshed out the main Japanese characters who were relegated to lesser roles in the U.S. release.

But despite accusations that these scenes were cut from Godzilla, King of the Monsters! to downplay anti-Americanism, that is simply not the case.

Anti-war & anti-A bomb monster movie + Yasujiro Ozu connection

By 1956, when the U.S. version debuted, World War II was long gone and the Japanese were now our friends against the Red Menace. Thus, the idea that the low-budget filmmakers who added the Burr scenes were censoring a political message is a bit far-fetched, especially considering that the dangers of atomic testing and radiation fallout from the monster figure prominently in both versions.

The reasons for the cuts are more easily explained if one imagines what would have happened had Roger Corman gotten a hold of – and reedited – Nosferatu, Metropolis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even The Birth of a Nation. Major political and sexual themes would have been lost, but this would be attributable to a lack of artistry, not to Corman's political or sexual views.

On top of that, Gojira is explicitly anti-war and anti-atomic bomb, not anti-American. When discussing nuclear technology and its consequences, mankind in general – not any specific nation – is always referred to as the cause. This is a central point many critics have missed.

Godzilla Takashi Shimura Momoko Kochi: Japanese Gojira + most frequent Akira Kurosawa actorGodzilla 1954 a.k.a. Gojira, with Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kôchi. Somewhat surprisingly, Ishirô Honda's monster movie tackles the sociocultural upheavals in post-World War II Japan, as the young daughter (Kôchi) of a respected scientist (Shimura) chooses to rebel against convention by refusing to marry the eyepatch-wearing scientist (Akihiko Hirata) the young woman's father had chosen for her – after all, she is in love with a handsome oceanographer (Akira Takarada). Takashi Shimura (Rashomon, Seven Samurai) is noted for having appeared in more Akira Kurosawa films than any other actor, including Toshiro Mifune.

Akira Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura

Politics aside, Gojira can also be seen as a representation of the changing Japanese culture of the 1950s, right alongside the great later films of Yasujiro Ozu – in which there are always young Japanese challenging seemingly silly social traditions. For instance, in Ishirô Honda's film the youthful female lead dares to turn down her arranged husband-to-be.

As a plus, there is the great actor Takashi Shimura, a veteran of many Akira Kurosawa films, just off of his excellent roles in Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Shimura's stature in a movie like this was something akin to Gary Cooper or Cary Grant getting cast in a Frankenstein movie.

In Gojira, Shimura plays Dr. Kyouhei Yamane, a paleontologist who becomes the film's resident monster expert, naturally fearing that destroying the creature will be a great loss to science. Of course, he does get his geology totally wrong, stating that the Jurassic Period was only two million years ago (the Jurassic ended 130 million years ago) and that the Age of Dinosaurs ended with it (the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period).

That said, along with the often ridiculed dubbing, Godzilla films are recalled with affection for their bad science.

On the brighter side, Shimura does bring his usual humane feel to Dr. Yamane. This is seen in Gojira when, after differing over how to handle Godzilla, the doctor tosses out of the house oceanographer/diver Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), the suitor of his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi).

Mad scientist Akihiko Hirata

Although Ogata and Emiko are in love, she has been betrothed to the eyepatch-wearing Dr. Serizawa, who, on first blush, seems to be the archetypal mad scientist working alone on a top secret project.

Akihiko Hirata is great as Serizawa, struggling with the fact that his fiancée loves another man – who then comes to plead with him to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla. It is a wonderfully written and acted scene.

First, Serizawa sees Emiko and smiles; then, he sees Ogata and realizes he has lost her. When Ogata asks him to use his weapon, he knows that Emiko has doubly betrayed him – by divulging the weapon he vowed her to keep secret.

After Serizawa locks himself in his basement laboratory, Ogata breaks in and the two men fight. We never get to see the actual fracas, for Honda lets us only hear it. This approach to the scene demonstrates the sort of filmmaker Ishirô Honda might have become had he nor been relegated to monster movies for most of his career at Toho.

Finally, the scene ends with Serizawa conflicted, but agreeing to use his weapon after hearing devastated schoolgirls singing on television. He also burns his life's work, which prefigures his fate at the film's end.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! & 1954 Gojira: Two of the Greatest Monster Movies Ever” follow-up post: “Gojira vs. Godzilla: Which Is Better?


Raymond Burr Godzilla, King of the Monsters! image: Embassy Pictures / TransWorld Releasing Corporation.

Images of Momoko Kôchi, Takashi Shimura, and the reptilian monster in Gojira: Toho Film.

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7 Comments to 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!' & 1954 'Gojira': Two of the Greatest Monster Movies Ever

  1. Robert Whitaker Sirignano

    I wrote a summary of the initial Godzilla film on my blog. It's called “Godzilla Versus Ray Bradbury”, which explains some of the story line origins of the film, and why Bradbury thinks he's been “ripped off”.

  2. Connie Chapman

    Twenty seven sequels could not even begin to hold a candle to the sheer power of the original. An American remake wimps out next to the starkness of the original. Even Raymond Burr in all his wooden deadpanning could not wreck the solemnity of the original Godzilla- a testament to the awful power of the atomic bomb.

    The events from Pearl Harbor (1941) all the way through to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945) were the real world precursor to one of the scariest freaking periods of American history — the arms race. Prior to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese imperialist aggression was literally taking the South Pacific by storm. Guam — the Phillippines — Taiwan — even mainland China, all suffered terribly before the might of the Japanese military.
    It was after the raid on Pearl Harbor which wreaked havoc on the US Navy's Pacific Fleet and destroyed the USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma that one of the Japanese generals solemnly stated “We have awakened a sleeping giant.” His words would eventually be realized on August 1945… not with one, but two atomic weapons, bringing the Japanese to their knees, and World War II to a conclusion.
    Less than ten years after the explosions, the Japanese economy still had not made a lot of headway toward bouncing back. There was still much anxiety about the nuclear weapons the United States was constructing- and testing — en masse.
    What made the original Godzilla movie so intense was the personal experiences of some of the filmmakers. Several of them had seen firsthand the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, others had been POW's in mainland China. It was this wartime experience that they effectively managed to channel into “Godzilla”. Godzilla was an allegory for the horror of war in general and the horror of atomic war in particular, while the direct outcry was against atomic testing.

    It was just such an atomic test on the Bikini Atoll that poisoned the crew of the Lucky Dragon #5 and sparked fears anew of nuclear apocalypse. It was this event which was still fresh in the mind of the Japanese public when the first Godzilla movie was born. The images of sailors suddenly crying out as the ocean explodes, running for their lives and all for naught -touched a nerve. (The real Lucky Dragon incident was far more insidious. The crew members saw the bomb flash but did not know what it was, and began scooping up the fallout by the armful intending to take some of it back to their families to show them. Little could they know of what horror awaited them!!!) The images of a huge black terror slowly advancing, only lit by flames, was reminiscent of the night time firebombing raids on Tokyo 10 years before. The rampant carnage portrayed in Godzilla mirrors that of the real life carnage in WWII.

    But it is the apolitical message of Godzilla that drives the point home. It is not America or Russia or any other single nation that is solely responsible for unleashing the horrors of the splitting of the atom, it is man. What one man did with E=MC2 Serizawa attempts to undo in the gothic setting of his basement laboratory with the formula for the O2 Destroyer, with mixed results, the eventual destruction of Godzilla along with himself. Godzilla himself is seen as alternately an incarnation of the atomic bomb as well as a victim of it…removed from his own natural habitat, his own natural life span, even seemingly his own mortality, as a creature which should not have been alive but was…at once powerful and…pathetic.

    Various angles have been played on the nature of the character Godzilla. Godzilla as a force of nature, Godzilla as the homeland defender, Godzilla as ancient deity, Godzilla the friend of all children, Godzilla the concerned dad. And all are unique in their own manner. But in this day and age where terrorism and amoral brutality runs rampant, where terrorists lust after the power promised them by possession of the Bomb, where even 64 years after the fact we are still haunted by the shadow of the possibility of nuclear conflict, the most relevant is still the Godzilla which is the epitome of mindless, brutal nuclear rage, leaving a path of death and misery in its wake.

    And the warning still lives on that in the next armed nuclear conflict a monster may yet arise that even an Oxygen Destroyer may not remedy…

    So far, mankind appears to have heeded this warning, as despite being nuclear proliferation, the human race has not yet stepped into the abyss from which there is no return. And if the large black figure with a demonic glare and terrible teeth stationed at the entrance to that abyss still cranks out movie after movie after movie for us to watch because we are still here….

    Then he has done his job.

  3. Dan Schneider


    Here's an overview I did of the Apes mythos: http://www.cosmoetica.com/B673-DES569.htm.

    BTW- there is a new 5 or 6 pak of early Godzila films- most on 2 DVDs- incl. Godzilla Raids Again. I plan on getting it, and it includes Godzy/Gojira. Look on Amazon and it should be here:


  4. James V. Mendola

    Dear Mr.Schneider,

    I have read a lot of movie reviews and even wrote a few of them myself, and I honestly must say that I found your reviews of Gojira & Godzilla to be among the best written movie reviews I've ever had the pleasure to read. I have never really been much of a Godzilla fanatic,(My brother is the
    Godzillaphile of the family, while I have always thought the Planet Of The Apes films were the best Sci-Fi/Fantasy films ever made.) But my brother suggested a few times that I should go and check out a few Godzilla movies. So I recently began doing some reading up about them just to see what some of the best known critics have to say about Godzilla and to find out what all the fuss is about. Now after reading your extremely inspired, informative and entertaining reviews, I can't wait to go out and buy myself a copy of the Double Disc DVD versions of Gojira & Godzilla, King Of The Monsters. I just happen to come across your review by accident recently and even suggested to my brother that he ought to read it too. I'm glad that I took the time to read it all even though I felt like I needed a dictionary and a thesaurus to understand some of it,(lol)this is still one of the best movie or film reviews I ever read. Thank You very much, you may have done what my brother has tried to do a few times, turn me into a Godzillaphile too! If you could just write another article like this about the Planet Of The Apes movies I'd really appreciate it! lol.

  5. Jeffrey Witt

    Gentelemen: I hope you will add more Ishiro Honda films like “Gojira Raids Again!” (Japanese; 1059) In Japanese -With English subtitles),”The Manster” (JAPAN NSES:1962) IN Japanses;with English Subtitles, and other horror MOVIES MADE IN jAPAN!

  6. mike

    Dear dan, please excuse my lack of patients and spelling errors. Take in mind that i cannot use the real language that i would normally use. Ever since i could remember i have been a huge godzilla fan. The original movie scarred the hell out me when i was like 6. It blew my mind and for weeks that was all that i could think about. and now that i watch it when im older about 12 years older, and i appreciate it for other reasons.
    And i know its hard to admit this. when i was a kid i just kept it botteld up inside. But i have come to a sad conclusion that when i was a child i did not recagnize the fact that in most godzilla movies suck ass! The simple plot of most of the movies just blow me away new and old they suck!
    Its difficult for a kaiju fan to admit this but i cant stay silent. I mean look at a movie u mentioned here. (Godzillas Revenge)! HOnestly this movie is the worst peace of human escrimant ive ever laid eyes on. I have considerd to use this a punishment for my kids. PRobobly the worst movie ever made.Its Kind of Funny! But no it isnt funny in a good way its funny that a movie soo seriouse and intellegent can somehow morph into this. A cheap low production peice of garbage.
    this isnt the only movie no there are more. Hell my favorite godzilla villan spacegodzilla, is a terrable movie. But it is terrible in a good way. its cheesy and fun but most godzilla movies particuarly the showa series are just alot of mindless plots and stupid looking guys in suits.
    Sorry to get off topic But yea godzilla and gojira are very good movies and just a point i didnt feel that raymond burr was outside of the picture like u exclaimed. But then again it wasnt pointed out to me. Um thank u and good review u have alot of presence and carrisma.

  7. Kaleb Korer

    I hope Godzilla 1985 comings on DVD.