Gojira (1954)/Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) – Film & DVD Review
To the average American audience, the original Godzilla is a cheesy man-in-a-suit monster smashing cardboard buildings and stomping matchbox-size cars – something so bad that atrocious computer-generated lizard in 1998’s American-made GODZILLA is actually perceived as an improvement. Science fiction fans may be a bit kinder in their assessment, acknowledging that Godzilla’s debut film is much better than the sequels that followed, but even they tend to rank the Japanese giant well below his American counterparts. In Japan, however, the original 1954 GODZILLA is considered to be a classic on par with KING KONG (1933).
Unfortunately, for decades, GODZILLA (known as GOJIRA in its native land, a combination of the English word “gorilla” and the Japanese word for whale, “kurji”) was seen stateside only in a heavily Americanized version, released in 1956 under the title GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. Since Rialto Pictures released the Japanese version in select U.S. theatres in 2004, in time for its 50th anniversary, American audiences have finally been able to appreciate the uncut, undubbed original. Those expecting a campy kiddie film were surprised to see a slow and somber mini-masterpiece, a black-and-white nightmare about the threat of nuclear annihilation – in short, a classic example of popular entertainment working as a serious metaphor.
GODZILLA* dramatizes nuclear horror unlike any other film of its period, because the fantasy element is clearly standing in for a reality too horrible to contemplate directly. In a cinematic world filled with denial regarding the lethal use of nuclear weapons, Godzilla stands as reminder not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also of the unfortunate fishing boat, The Lucky Dragon, which was irradiated by nuclear fallout from the U.S. test of an H-Bomb in 1954. This incident, which resulted in the subsequent death of a crew member from Leukemia, was as much an inspiration for the making of GODZILLA as were the obvious American antecedents, KING KONG and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).
Like many classic monster movies, GODZILLA gradually builds to the revelation of its title character, then keeps it mostly off-screen. Instead, the focus is on the human characters, who wrestle with the impact that Godzilla’s destruction has on their lives (something to which the film’s post-war Japanese audience could easily relate). The story even presents a genuine moral dilemma: should Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Harrata) use his Oxygen Destroyer to defeat Godzilla and, in the process, possibly reveal to the world a weapon even more devastating than the thing it’s meant to defeat? Or should he keep his weapon a secret? The question (at least in the original Japanese version) isn’t really whether the device will fall into the wrong hands; Serizawa has learned the painful lesson of Robert Oppenheimer: once the device is in any hands, its creator can no longer control it, and its use is almost inevitable.
The subtitled prints distributed by Rialto Pictures present the 1954 GODZILLA as it was released in Japan by Toho Studios. There are substantial differences between this and the dubbed American version, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. The subtitle “KING OF THE MONSTERS” was not the only addition; there were also new scenes with Raymond Burr playing American reporter Steve Martin (yes, his use of the name predates the famous comedian by decades).
This footage provided an audience identification figure who could narrate events, bridge continuity gaps caused by the re-editing, and explain what was going on (despite the dubbing of the lead characters, much of the supporting cast’s Japanese dialogue remained intact, while Burr’s footage was filmed and intercut to look as if his character were standing on the sidelines, having the conversations translated to him). To be fair, the American version was not a complete bastardization but a reasonable attempt to present a new and unfamiliar piece of filmmaking to an audience that needed some kind of bridge to cross the cultural gap. In at least one small way, the U.S. version improves on the multi-character scenario of the original: by using Burr’s reporter as a central viewpoint, the plot threads are tied up and presented much more clearly to the audience.
In every other way, however, the Japanese version is superior. With an opening scene that consciously recalls the fate of the unfortunate Lucky Dragon (a fishing boat is incinerated by a blinding nuclear flash from beneath the sea), the film intends to convey a shocking sense of the consequences of atomic weapons. Unlike the reassuring tone of American films of the period, which suggested that any nuclear aberrations could be dispatched by the same science that created them, GOJIRA offers no such consolation.
Director and co-writer Ishiro Honda (himself a war veteran) tried to capture a realistic sense of war-like devastation, a warning of what was bound to happen since the nuclear genie had been unleashed from the bottle. Aided by Eija Tsuburaya’s special effects and Akira Ifukube’s dramatic music, Honda went a long way toward achieving his goal, but much of the impact was mitigated in the American release, which not only added Burr’s scenes but also deleted several sequences (U.S. prints ran less than 80 minutes, approximately twenty minutes short of the original).
The restored footage helps fill out the characterization and ground the story in a convincing sense of reality. Several previously unseen moments stand out: the clarification that the film’s morally conflicted Dr. Serizawa lost his eye in WWII, meaning he’s a war hero; Serizawa’s overheated insistence that he “has no German friends” (he doth protest too much, making one wonder whether in fact he is not in touch with ex-Nazi scientists he might have met during the war); the insistence by paleontologist Dr. Yamane’s (SEVEN SAMURAI’s Takashi Shimura) that Godzilla is worth studying because he is capable of surviving an H-bomb (something that should be of interest to the only country ever to suffer a nuclear attack).
Of the restored scenes, most memorable is a brief dialogue aboard a train: when a male passenger jokes that his girlfriend will be the first victim should Godzilla appear in Tokyo, she responds, “Not me. Not after I survived the bomb at Nagasaki.” One shouldn’t overemphasize the impact of this scene (as filmed, it’s almost a throwaway) but the fact that it was deleted from American prints for decades lends its reappearance here the uncomfortable cutting edge, reminding viewers that Godzilla exists because of America’s nuclear attacks on civilian populations.
In other cases, subtitles enhance scenes that were visible but not translated in the U.S. version. In one scene, a mother hopelessly huddles with her two children on the sidewalk; with nowhere left to run from Godzilla’s rampage, the only comfort she can offer to her offspring is, “We’ll be with your father soon. We’ll see him in heaven.” In the second, as a crowd of evacuees stands near the shore, one orphaned character repeats, “Damn it!” while helplessly watching Godzilla overturn a bridge on its way back to the ocean. Unlike later Godzilla sequels, which filmed endless monster battles as if they were a wrestling matches staged atop a toy train set, moments like these keep the camera at eye level with the human characters, so that the special effects never become mere fun-filled spectacle. This is a film that makes you want to cringe at the destruction on screen, not applaud the ingenuity of the technicians.
This approach helps overcome the flaws in the special effects. The film’s “suit-mation” technology has always been derided by American purists, who preferred the stop-motion techniques used by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen (in which puppets with metal armatures are filmed one frame at a time). But the use of a man-in-a-suit, stomping around a detailed miniature cityscape, allowed for scenes of destruction that would have been impossible to achieve with the painstakingly slow stop-motion process. Filmed with low-key lighting to suggest the nighttime attacks, Gojira’s raids on Tokyo achieve a wonderfully moody atmosphere that does not quite blind the eye to the occasionally visible wires, but does incline one to forgive the mistakes in favor of appreciating the overall tone.
That’s because these sequences have a cumulative effect that is more impressive than anything scene in the 1998 American blockbuster. Edited together with shots that are always dramatic (even when not convincing), the imperfections fly by almost too fast to register. Thanks to fast-paced editing and stark photography, Godzilla’s rampage conveys a sense of approaching, inevitable doom as no other special effects sequence ever has. With numerous composite shots to put Godzilla in the frame with his human victims, the sense of danger is conveyed unlike anything in any subsequent sequels. The achievement is best illustrated, perhaps, by the brief moment when television cameras atop a tower broadcast long shots of the Tokyo skyline engulfed in a sea of flames. The reporter on the scene insists to his viewers (and by extension to the film’s actual audience) that this “is not a play or a motion picture!” Of course, we know it really is a movie, but we get the message: the film is telling us to take what we’re seeing seriously, and for perhaps for the one and only time in a Godzilla film, we do.
Classic Media’s two-disc DVD contains both versions of the film, plus some nice bonus features. The DVDs are packaged in a lovely box that, intentionally or not, suggest the look of import DVDs of the film that you used to find in specialty stores like Anime Jungle in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Inside the box there is a glossy sixteen-page booklet, featuring a few publicity photographs from the film, along with an excellent essay on the film’s history by Steve Ryfle (author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the “Big G).
Disc One contains GOJIRA(divided into 24 chapter stops), plus a handful of extras: an audio commentary, two featurettes, and a Japanese trailer.
Both featurettes consist of voice-over narration illustrated by publicity stills and/or storyboard artwork. The first documents the development of the story (along with the many changes that occurred betwixt conception and final execution). The second performs a similar service regarding the design and construction of the Godzilla suit. Both are so informative that even well-read fans may find much they do not already know, and the absence of on-screen interviews is hardly felt, thanks to the effective use of still images to illustrate the spoken text.
The audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski fares slightly less well. If you have read books are articles by either of these two experts, you are likely to hear much that is familiar, especially during the early portions of the film, when the discussion examines the general background of the film, rather than scene-specific details. Fortunately, as the two authors delve deeper into the subject, they mine details and offer opinions that should entertain and enlighten the faithful. In one case, they even point out a special effect that I had never noticed, despite watching the film numerous times: when the villagers on Odo Island respond to the alarm bell by running up hill, you can see Godzilla’s footprints in the hillside.
Ryfle and Godziszewski make a solid argument for considering the film as a classic, and they do a good job of underlining the film’s themes, particularly as they are expressed in the conflicted character of Dr. Serizawa, a scientist whose invention can destroy Godzilla – but only at the potential cost of releasing an even more dangerous superweapon upon the world. They also acknowledge the film’s flaws (e.g., the miniature missiles bouncing off the painted sky in the background) without undermining their central thesis, that the film is a somber work worthy of serious consideration.
Disc Two contains GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (divided into a meager 9 chapter stops), a U.S. trailer, and another audio commentary by Ryfle and Godziszewski.
Unlike the Japanese trailer, which emphasizes the somber tone of the film, the American trailer is awash in enthusiastic hyberbole that is not only rather infectious but also gives a good idea of the diverging approach the American produces took when preparing the film for U.S. audiences, tightening the pace and emphasizing the action, so that the result emerged looking rather like a typical American sci-fi film from the period.
The audio commentary on this re-tooled version of the film is perhaps more interesting, because there is so much ground to cover in terms of pointing out the changes made and discussing the details of transplanting Gojira/Godzilla from Japan to America. Ryfle and Godziszewski are joined at different points by Ted Newsom and Terry Morse, Jr (son of the man who directed the new American footage), and Ryfle also plays audio excerts from interviews he conducted with some of the people involved in purchasing the rights to distribute the film in the U.S.
Although Ryfle and Godziszewski obviously prefer the original GOJIRA, they treat the Americanized version with respect, even pointing out a few instances when it improves upon the original, such as Ogata’s line to convince Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the monster: “You have your fear, which may become reality. And you have Godzilla, which is reality.”
Perhaps the most salient point that the duo make is that, although GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may seem like a bastardization of the original, it nonetheless deserves its place in film history because its success helped launch the Japanes giant monster craze that followed. GOJIRA may be the superior version, but it never would have played in local theatres across America. By adding Raymond Burr as a reporter-narrator, director Morse and company gave the film a much needed Occidental point-of-view that allowed audiences a way of seeing into the Japanese world of the film.
Unfortunately, as essential as this DVD set is, it is not quite perfect. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS lacks subtitles of any kind, making it difficult to follow the story while listening to the audio commentary (something I prefer to do). The subtitles on GOJIRA are of a slightly dull color, making them sometimes hard to read depending on the background image. Both prints are in good shape, having been struck relatively recently, but the sad fact is that that film may never be seen in pristine form again, thanks to wear and tear on the negative that especially rears its ugly head during the special effects scenes.
Ryfle and Godziszewski make a gaffe or two. In the GOJIRA commentary, Godziszewski refers to a shot (of a mother huddling with her children during Gojira’s night-time raid on Tokyo) as missing from the American version, which is incorrect. Fortunately, in the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS commentary, Ryfle rightly points out that the shot is there; it is simply not subtitled, so you miss its significance. (The young mother hopelessly tells her children they will be joining their father soon in heaven – which evokes thoughts of the Japanese soldiers who died in World War II.)
Perhaps most disappointing, the GOJIRA audio commentary mentions a reference to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that does not actually occur in the film, at least in the print on this DVD. In the scene (which was deleted from the American version), a woman commuter laments the appearance of Gojira and – in the subtitles for some prints – adds, “I hope I didn’t survive Nagasaki for nothing.” Although both Ryfle and Godziszewski mention the reference (Ryfle even quotes it later, in the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS commentary), it is not seen in the subtitles here. And truth be told, listening to the Japanese dialogue, I’m not sure I can hear the woman say Nagasaki, leaving me to wonder if the subtitles on earlier prints were a mistake. In any case, it is a glaring anamoly to hear the two experts discussing something is not actually visible to the viewer, and only someone who had seen older import tapes of the movie would know what they are talking about.
Despite these minor flaws, the new GOJIRA DVD is a genuin gem. Thanks to later sequels, which rapidly descended into juvenile, anthropomorphized antics, with Godzilla acting as the proctor of Earth against other monsters and/or alien invasions, Godzilla is not something we take seriously as film art. Yet the monster’s very first film appearance ranks as one of the classic sci-fi-fantasy-horror films, worthy of standing beside the original KING KONG in all his majesty. Hopefully, this DVD will help secure GOJIRA’s rightful place in the pantheon of movie monsters.
GODZILLA (Gojira, Toho Studios, 1954; a.k.a. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS,1956). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata, from a story by Shigeru Kayama. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura.
- Alone among Godzilla films, the 1954 original was known for many decades – even in English-speaking circles – only by its Japanese title, GOJIRA. This usage made sense when the film had not been released under the title GODZILLA; it helped distinguish the uncut Japanese version from its Americanized off-shoot, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. However, since Rialto’s 2004 release used the English title GODZILLA, that is the usage adopted in this review. As a side note, no one seems to know precisely why or how Toho Studios decided to rename their most famous monster for export to the rest of the world.