‘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.
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?
‘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 re-edited – 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.
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.
“Godzilla, King of the Monsters! & 1954 Gojira: Two of the Greatest Monster Movies Ever” last updated in March 2018.