Heaven. When I came across the long-awaited release of the original 1954 Japanese monster film Gojira on DVD, 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 watched the annual American release of the latest Godzilla film at the old Ridgewood Theater, where I would always sneak into with my pals. 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.
Those by then silly pictures had a resonance to my plight, for they often showed that archetypal Japanese boy with a baseball cap turned sideways in the midst of another form of urban blight, while fending off bullies and old men with seemingly pedophilic tendencies. The best of this 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 fended off bullies and gangsters 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 the film's quickie sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, 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 film 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 then. The scariness, however, was most likely a result of the subliminal effect of most of the film's scenes of destruction being set at night, whereas Godzilla's appearance by day was not so menacing but rather benign.
Of course, the latest release in the local theater was not my only exposure to Godzilla. Often, on WABC's Channel 7 they would have weeklong Godzilla Festivals on The 4:30 Movie. And, of course, what would Thanksgiving Day have been without NFL Football and the Monster Marathons that consisted of Godzilla films alternated with King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young? The film series would usually kick off with the original Godzilla, and end with the camp classic King Kong Versus Godzilla.
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 seen a handful of the post-1985 films, but the original remained a mystery.
Finally, in 2004 Gojira was released across American theaters for its 50th Anniversary, and earlier this year the Toho film company released that film and its American version in a two-disc DVD version, so that a side-by-side comparison could be made.
After watching both films, with and without the commentaries, I have to say that my appreciation for the original, directed by Ishirô Honda, and written by Honda and Shigeru Kayama, as well as the American 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 simply greatly entertains.
Both versions of Godzilla easily qualify on that score, and both films, with their anti-atomic messages and unflinching look at destruction are better than the original King Kong, which is still a great movie itself. What raises Godzilla, and especially Gojira, above King Kong, despite the rubber-suited monster which is scoffed at by stop-motion action enthusiasts, is that the Japanese monster tale still has resonance today. Thus, is can be seen as an allegory, whereas King Kong is essentially just a ripping good yarn. In short, King Kong is more akin to Paul Bunyan while Godzilla is more like the Olympian or Norse gods.
Yes, Godzilla owes a great debt to King Kong, whose rerelease in 1952 was a box office smash, but it owes even more to the box office success of the 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (based upon Ray Bradbury's short story “The Fog Horn”), which was released just a year before Gojira was made. (It should be noted that Gojira was one of the most expensive Japanese films to date.)
Yet, 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 was a byproduct of the atomic age, even if, cleverly, Honda covered his ass by never explicitly showing this to be true.
This posit of the beast's origins is all from a modern human perspective, for we know that Godzilla, like Kong, is a small island's legendary native god. In Godzilla the island is Odo, in King Kong it's Skull Island. The Beast, on the other hand, is explicitly shown as being created by an atomic blast, just like other creatures in 1950s films, even if that's merely an excuse for it to go on a hunting rampage. Godzilla'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?
The plot of the original Godzilla is well known: an American reporter, Steve Martin (Raymond Burr, right), tells a tale 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, Martin recovers and witnesses Serizawa descend to the depths of Tokyo Bay to destroy Godzilla with a weapon as powerful as the atom bomb, his Oxygen Destroyer.
Gojira is a bit different – obviously there's no Burr character – and it's also longer, at 98 minutes to 80 for Godzilla. It opens with a scene of a fishing ship consumed by glowing, boiling water, which then resonated with the Japanese public, as earlier that year a fishing ship had accidentally sailed too close to an American H Bomb test in the Pacific, which caused an international stir.
Much of what was cut out in the American version had 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 American film. But despite what some critics have claimed – that the American version cut these scenes to downplay anti-Americanism – is simply not the case.
Gojira is explicitly anti-war and anti-atomic bomb, not anti-American. When speaking of nuclear technology and consequences, mankind is always referred to as the cause, in general, not any specific nation. This is a central point many critics have missed. Gojira, the monster, is also not so much a metaphor for the bomb, but a variant of it incarnate – thus, it lacks a motive, such as King Kong's lust for human females or the Rhedosaurus' hunger.
Additionally, Gojira also focuses on four main characters that give it a human resonance beyond monster films and politics. There is the great actor, Takashi Shimura, a veteran of many Akira Kurosawa films, and just off of his great roles in Ikiru and Seven Samurai, and whose stature in a film like this was equivalent to Gary Cooper or Cary Grant doing a Frankenstein movie.
Shimura plays Dr. Kyouhei Yamane, a paleontologist who becomes the film's resident monster expert, and, naturally, fears that destroying the creature will be a great loss for science. Of course, he does totally get his geology 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 dinosaur 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. Even at four or five, being the All-American dinosaur loving boy I was, I knew this was wrong. That irked me far more than the special effects' shortcomings.
Yet, Shimura brings his usual humane resonance to the role. In Gojira, this is seen when he tosses his daughter Emiko's (Momoko Kôchi) suitor Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) out of his house, after they differ over how to handle Godzilla. Ogata is an oceanographer and diver, and he and Emiko are in love, despite her betrothal to the one eyed Dr. Serizawa, who wears an eye patch, and on first blush seems to be the archetypal mad scientist working alone on a top secret project.
Hirata is great as Serizawa struggles with the fact that his fiancée loves another man who comes to plead with him to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla. It is a wonderfully written and acted scene. First, Serizawa sees his woman, and smiles, then sees Ogata and realizes he's lost her. Then, 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 locking himself in his basement laboratory, Ogata breaks in and the two men fight.
We never see the actual fight for Honda lets us only hear it. This sort of touch shows the sort of filmmaker Honda may have become had he nor been relegated to monster movies for most of his career with Toho. All we see are fish in the aquarium where Serizawa had shown the power of his discovery to Emiko. Finally, the scene ends with Serizawa conflicted, but agreeing to use his weapon after hearing devastated schoolgirls singing on tv. He burns his life's work, though, which prefigures his suicide at film's end.
Such scenes make critics say the original is far better than the Americanized Godzilla. But the American version, while it severely cuts that scene, compensates amply by not having Serizawa's suicide so manifestly foreshadowed. In the Japanese film, once we see Serizawa destroy his life's work, we know his life's end will not be far behind. These sorts of wise screenplay and directing choices keep the American film not too far behind the original in overall artistic quality.
Also, the fact that the American version plays out from a reporter's perspective and is told from an unnamed future, naturally allows for a narrative condensation of many of the Japanese scenes because the Martin character sums up many of the plot points brought out by extra characters. The American film would have dragged on too long had this not occurred.
By 1956, when the American version debuted, World War Two 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.
GODZILLA Review: Part II
A positive in both films is that much of Godzilla's destruction is filmed in night scenes, in black and white, as this heightens what the viewer can imbue. The imagined is always more frightening than the real. This goes for Godzilla, the monster itself, for in the cross-cuts from rubber suited man to miniatures, matte paintings, and puppets, Godzilla seems to be a shapeshifter, a preternatural beast, and not the mere 'force of nature' other critics have lazily declared.
There are times we see pupils in Godzilla's eyes, and times when the monster seems like a white-eyed zombie or demon. A few years later, the great British horror movie Night of the Demon, directed by the inimitable Jacques Tourneur, would similarly make use of darkness to give its monster a shapeshifting feel, as well as hide its flaws in construction. (Perhaps in a bit of synchronicity, that film was also released in an American version that has been ripped as a bastardization: Curse of the Demon.)
Also, whereas later Godzilla films gave the monster a traditional dragon's fire breath, this beast spews atomic radiation in a mist that ignites fires, showing that the roots of Godzilla, in the extra-diegetic sense, was not in Japanese lore but in modern monster mythos. All of these effects were skillfully done by Eiji Tsuburaya, and despite the ridicule that subsequent Godzilla films have engendered, the original had better effects and was more cleverly shot – to downplay its shortcomings – than other monster films of its era.
Equally impressive is the score by Akira Ifukube. The opening footfalls of the monster are still as scary as any nightmare, and the main Godzilla theme, as well as those in other scenes, still resonate because they are fully apropos. Which of those two men – Tsuburaya or Ifukube – was responsible for Godzilla's trademark roar I don't know, but that roar is equally memorable.
The two-disc set comes with both versions on separate discs. Gojira is subtitled, while Godzilla is dubbed. Had Gojira been dubbed, it would have been a good bonus. Neither film was given a digital restoration along the likes of what The Criterion Collection usually does. Yet, especially in the American version, this is not a problem for it adds to the documentary feel of the film.
Another usually ignored plus found in the American version is that there is a subliminal dissonance between what we see – i.e., the cinéma vérité newsreel-like images – and the fact that Martin tells the whole tale in flashback, magically appearing at all the right moments in the film. That dissonance provides a dreamy quality to the narrative that the original lacks, something that is reinforced by the fact that he never really interacts with the main characters despite some quite skilled intercutting. In fact, Martin seems to exist outside the film, even when he is nearly killed by Godzilla. It's akin to having a lucid dream – that feeling that nothing can happen to the main character … you.
Even so, this dreamy narrative has a documentary-like approach. Such schism affects the viewer in ways not noticeable the first time around, but that feeling lingers afterwards. I've never known anyone who watched the original Godzilla and was not affected by it, positively or negatively.
The DVD set comes with an informative booklet, trailers for both films (though the Gojira trailer lacks subtitles), a “Godzilla: Story Development” featurette, a “Making of the Godzilla Suit” featurette, and commentaries on both films by Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. These commentaries are the best bonuses and make up for the rather skimpy extras because both are excellent, fully delving into the history and detailed making of the films.
Neither man is a film historian or critic, so they have an enthusiasm that many such commentaries lack. As a plus they are well informed, fast paced, and non-fellatric in their opining. The Godzilla commentary also features the son, Terry Morse Jr., of the American director who filmed the Raymond Burr scenes, Terry O. Morse, a noted film doctor (someone who came in and took over projects abandoned by other directors). It is an informative few minutes on how the man's father took a terrific film and essentially remade it and plausibly worked in the Steve Martin character; in fact making him the de facto – albeit wholly passive – lead.
Morse Jr. also did some work on the American version, and debunks the notion that either his father or the film's American producer, Joseph E. Levine, ever set out to mute political messages. They just wanted a saleable picture, if a bit dumbed down, for American audiences. Considering that they only spent $10,000 to film the American scenes, they made a fortune in profits. Ryfle and Godziszewski also claim that Godzilla was the first recut foreign film in the American market.
The commentary duo also make numerous other good points, such as the fact that Godzilla is not green, as believed, but charcoal gray, and that when the monster first appears looking over a hilltop it was originally to have a bloody cow in its maw. They also point out that the villagers all run with guns and pitchforks to fend off Godzilla, for in the original film many dismiss the monster as legend.
Ryfle and Godziszewski also defend Raymond Burr's long-mocked acting, and rightly praise some of his voice-over narration as poetic and moving in its description of the destruction he witnesses. They also point out to the climactic scene where Godzilla pauses as the electrical wires – in the American version the tension is built longer because the Burr inserts drag it out. They also praise the screenplay and a scene where Ogata tries to rouse Serizawa by saying that the Oxygen Destroyer could do more harm than good, even if it kills Godzilla: 'You have your fears, which may become reality, and then there's Godzilla, which is reality.' Imagine that, a Godzilla film going meta-narrative fifteen years before Postmodernism.
It may be heresy to Godzilla fanatics, but the American Godzilla is no worse than Gojira. If this were a battle to be filmed, it would end up like King Kong Vs. Godzilla, the American version, where the ape seems to come out on top slightly, yet we know Godzilla isn't really the loser. Nor is the American version any more a bastardization of the original because of the Burr inserts than the original is a bastardization because it uses stock military footage from Japanese World War Two propaganda films.
Gojira also can be seen not as merely an anti-war or anti-atomic bomb film, but as a representation of the changing 1950s Japanese culture, right alongside the great later films of Yasujiro Ozu. In those films, as well as Gojira, there are always young Japanese challenging seemingly silly social traditions, such as Emiko daring to not marry her arranged husband, Serizawa.
True, both Godzilla films have flaws, including logical gaps: why, for example, do the Japanese only seek to protect Tokyo? How do they know the beast won't rampage across the country, or go to Korea? The building of the electric fence to defend the city is nonsensical, and occurs with a rapidity that, even assuming politicians agreed on a plan of civil action, simply could not be done in a few days – especially if this Tokyo was the same one that Shimura's character from Ikiru worked for as a bureaucrat.
Also, within seconds, Godzilla seems to change shape, size, and appearance – though this can be dismissed more easily in the more oneiric American version. And there are visible wires on the missiles and airplanes. But both films, especially Gojira, more than make up for such shortcomings with their passion and vision.
The monster in both films represents indiscriminate carnage. Yet, there is a scene, just before Serizawa kills them both, when we see Godzilla peacefully napping in the sea, almost yawning. We realize that the carnage wrought is neither retribution nor evil. It just is. Thus, it will be either Godzilla or humankind that survives, for we've seen the bodies in hospitals, the burned victims, the radiation poisoning. It can be no other way.
Unlike in most other monster films, the heroes in these cases, especially Gojira (where the true lead character seems to shift throughout the film, almost like Godzilla's size and appearance), are fallible little mortals whose heroism comes from their choices, not their strength or super-human powers.
And this is what humanizes these monster movies – not films – and makes them affect a viewer willing to suspend disbelief. After all, is a rampaging, giant atomic reptile really any more unbelievable than a huge ape who lusts after a woman one-twentieth its size, bloodsucking vampires, or aliens who grow out of pods?
Neither Gojira nor Godzilla, King of the Monsters is a great film. But they are great movies – something that is a rarity. Additionally, they are two of the best monster movies ever made. This DVD set should finally debunk claims to the contrary, thus allowing Godzillaphiles to come out of the closet to proudly proclaim who they are. I am one. Long live the roar!
© Dan Schneider
Gojira (1954) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). Dir.: Ishirô Honda; with additional footage by Terry O. Morse for the American version. Scr.: Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata; from a story by Shigeru Kayama. Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Toyoaki Suzuki. Also: Raymond Burr in the American version.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.