'Gojira' vs. 'Godzilla': Which is better?
(See previous post: “'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!' & 1954 'Gojira': Two of the Greatest Monster Movies Ever.”) Such scenes make critics say the original is far better than the Americanized Godzilla. But the U.S. version, while it severely cuts the fight sequence, amply compensates by not having Serizawa's demise so manifestly foreshadowed. These sorts of wise screenplay and directing choices keep the American film not too far behind the Japanese original in overall artistic quality.
Besides, the fact that the U.S. version, told from an unnamed future, plays out from reporter Steve Martin's perspective should naturally allow for the condensation of many of the Japanese scenes because Martin sums up the plot points brought out by the other characters. Else, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! would have dragged on too long.
Another usually ignored plus 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.
That dissonance provides a dreamy quality to the narrative that the original lacks, something that is reinforced by the fact that Martin never really interacts with the main characters despite some quite skilled intercutting. In fact, he seems to exist outside the film. It's akin to having a lucid dream – that feeling that nothing can happen to the main character … you.
Nonetheless, this dreamy narrative is part of a documentary-like approach. Such schism affects the viewer in ways not noticeable the first time around – but that feeling lingers afterward. I've never known anyone who watched Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and was not affected by it, whether positively or negatively.
Now, a positive in both films is that much of Godzilla's destruction is filmed in night scenes and in black and white – as this heightens what the viewer can imbue. The imagined is always more frightening than the real.
This also goes for Godzilla, the monster itself, for in the cross-cuts from rubber-suited man to miniatures, matte paintings, and puppets, the creature seems to be a shapeshifter, a preternatural beast – e.g., 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 (1957), 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 as some sort of cosmic coincidence, Tourneur's film was also released in an American version that has been ripped as a bastardization: Curse of the Demon.)
'Modern monster mythos'
Also worth noting, is that whereas later films gave Godzilla a traditional dragon's fire breath, the original beast spews atomic radiation in a mist that ignites fires – showing that the roots of Godzilla were not in Japanese lore but in modern monster mythos.
All of these effects were skillfully created 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 Akira Ifukube's score. The opening footfalls of the monster are still as scary as any nightmare, while the main Godzilla theme, as well as those in other scenes, still resonate because they are fully apropos.
Who was responsible for Godzilla's trademark roar I don't know, but that roar is equally memorable.
'Gojira' & 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!' DVD
The two-disc set comes with Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! on separate discs. The former is subtitled; the latter is dubbed. Neither film was given a digital restoration along the likes of what The Criterion Collection usually does. Even so, especially in the American version, this is not a problem for it adds to the documentary feel of the films.
The commentaries by Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski are the best bonuses. Both are excellent, fully delving into the history of the films – e.g., explaining that the monster is not green, but charcoal gray.
The Godzilla, King of the Monsters! commentary also features Terry Morse Jr., the son of Terry O. Morse, the American director who filmed the Raymond Burr scenes. Morse Jr. also did some work on the U.S. version, and debunks the notion that either his father or the film's U.S. producer, Joseph E. Levine, ever set out to mute political messages.
Considering that only $10,000 was spent to shoot the American scenes, Levine made a fortune in profits.
'Godzilla' 1954 & its 1956 U.S. version: 'Great movies'
Unlike in most other monster films, the heroes in both Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! are fallible little mortals whose heroism comes from their choices, not their strength or superhuman powers. That is especially true in the Japanese original, in which the de facto lead character, like Godzilla's size and appearance, seems to shift throughout the film.
This is what humanizes these two Godzilla 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?
Once again, neither Gojira nor Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a great film. But they are great movies – something that is a rarity. In addition to being two of the best monster movies ever made.
This recent 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!
Review text © Dan Schneider. Image captions © Alt Film Guide.
Note: This review of Ishirô Honda's Godzilla / Gojira and Honda's/Terry O. Morse's Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider's text, which can be read in its original form at cosmoetica.com.
The views expressed in the review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Godzilla / Gojira (1954)
Dir.: Ishirô Honda.
Scr.: Ishirô Honda & Takeo Murata.
From a story by Shigeru Kayama.
Cast: Akira Takarada. Momoko Kôchi. Takashi Shimura. Akihiko Hirata. Fuyuki Murakami. Sachio Sakai. Ren Yamamoto. Toyoaki Suzuki.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
U.S. version of Gojira, with additional footage directed by Terry O. Morse and featuring Raymond Burr.
Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Momoko Kôchi, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, and the giant monster in Gojira: Toho Film.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! trailer with Raymond Burr: Embassy Pictures / TransWorld Releasing Corporation.
“Gojira vs. Godzilla: Which Is Better? Is Japanese Version Superior to the American One?” last updated in March 2018.