Gojira (1954) d. Ishiro Honda (Japan)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) d. Ishiro Honda / Terry O. Morse (Japan/USA)
It’s nearly impossible to approach the subject of Godzilla with any objectivity, so I’m not even going to try. After all, it was my love for this fire-breathing, Tokyo-stomping behemoth from Monster Island that first piqued my interest in monster movies, from which my love for horror films consequently followed, ultimately leading me to my current state of being dutifully strapped to my television set every spare minute to take in the latest fright flick, then rushing to the computer to discuss and critique. It’s to the Big G that we must raise our glasses and shake our fists, because it all started there. 60 years, 28 official Toho films, and two U.S. remakes later, he still stands head and shoulders above the rest.
(Even though its sex is never really specified, I’m going to refer to G as “him” rather than “it” for the purposes of this review. To me, Godzilla has always been an overgrown male child in a mutant dino outfit, and for the first 12 Toho pics, legendary suit-actor Haruo Nakajima was in fact that overgrown male child.)
Granted, my first encounter with the character (in 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah aka The Smog Monster) was a far cry from the dark and imposing figure introduced back in 1954. Throughout the '60s and '70s, G was a rambunctious fella, defending humankind from the evils of pollution, evil aliens, and the like. My Godzilla spewed blue animated flames, stomped, bellowed, and even flew or talked when the occasions called for it. But even before my shameless completist genes had been fully formed, I knew I would eventually have to find my way back to Godzilla’s humbler origins. (Or at least, one version of his origins, because as we all know by now, when the Americans adopted Godzilla, it was not without a few conditions.)
When I finally caught up with Godzilla, King of the Monsters! on television, he was certainly less spry, less colorful, and less...fun. He moved slower, his “atomic breath” seemed to be more of a misty spray than the fiery blast of later installments, and there were no other monsters for him to do battle with. But even more distressing, he was the bad guy, the villain. In this incarnation, Godzilla was not even a misunderstood victim like King Kong, but instead a vengeful spirit intent on nothing but destruction of people and property. Needless to say, the movie wasn't nearly as "enjoyable" as I'd hoped it would be.
Nonetheless, captivated by the big green stomping machine, I immediately trucked my way down to the public library and found as many Godzilla reference books as I could find. Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen To Scream was a wonderful source, and there were also Ian Thorne’s “Monsters” series of books for children (published by Crestwood), each about 50 pages, giving the spotlight to such famous icons as King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etc. One thing that was immediately made clear was that the version of Godzilla that we Yanks were watching was not the original vision imagined by director Ishiro Honda – rather, it had been markedly altered with new scenes (directed by Terry O. Morse) featuring Raymond Burr shot and inserted throughout. It had also been shortened from a running time of 96 minutes to a lean 80. Considering that the Burr scenes constitute nearly 20 minutes of new footage, it didn’t take much figuring to realize that there was a lot that we were missing.
But in the early '70s, viewers (especially of the 7-year-old variety) weren’t as fixated on uncut, original widescreen versions of films as we are today. We accepted the world of home viewing as imperfect but certainly preferable to nothing. Besides, as far as Godzilla went, there were already fifteen G movies released by 1975, as well as comic books, action figures and fan clubs, so we had plenty to keep us busy. We dutifully read up on little-known facts and rumors, such as those regarding King Kong vs. Godzilla's two different endings: one where a certain oversized simian wins for the American audiences, the other with ‘Zilla wearing the crown for his hometown crowd. You can imagine my frustration at not being able see the "Japanese version," and many a speculative schoolyard discussion on how it played out. (Of course, we all know now that the alternate ending is apocryphal, and that *SPOILER ALERT* Kong always wins.)
To be honest, however, as time went on, the notion of actually seeing the uncut version of the original Japanese Godzilla became less and less of a priority. Oh sure, if it ever came along, that’d be great, but I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it. However, when it was announced in 2004 that Honda’s version of Gojira would be released in its original form and distributed for theatrical release, I nearly lost my mind. This was history in the making: 50 years after he had first roared his way onto movie screens, the kaiju eiga (giant monster) that started it all – launching a million guy-in-suit monster movies in the process – was about to be released from bondage. As fate would have it, the film opened at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on June 30th (my birthday, no less!), and it was sheer bliss to be sitting there in a crowded theater, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to watch my childhood hero crush and destroy in all his big screen glory.
Or so I thought.
Because when Godzilla first poked his head over the mountaintop to terrorize the natives of Odo Island, he was met not with the screams or shrieks of terror befitting the king of the monsters. Instead, the audience burst out with howls of derisive laughter. I was appalled. Sure, the puppet head was limited in its motion and wasn’t all that convincing, but surely these idiots could afford to be a little generous, right? After all, they had turned out and paid their money to pay homage the same as me, hadn’t they? They weren’t just here to mock the Big G, were they?
Sadly, as the film continued so did the laughter, and I eventually realized two things: 1) True horror fans are a rare breed, often willing to overlook technical shortcomings in order to immerse ourselves in the world of the film, and 2) Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects in Gojira are perhaps not all that impressive to a 21st century audience’s eyes. That damned goofy puppet head continues to make appearances for close-up shots, and the models (and fly-lines) of the ineffectual Japanese Air Force are painfully obvious at times. Additionally, the love triangle between the fair Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her two suitors, naval officer Ogata (Akira Takarada) and atomic research scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) often comes off as melodramatic and flat.
In short, Gojira is not a perfect film, especially if one is expecting a good ol’ fashioned creature feature. But, as a side-by-side comparison (available in a glorious 2-DVD set from Toho/Classic Media) of the two versions clearly illustrates, different agendas were at work at the time of their respective releases. One is a vivid condemnation of atomic weaponry – presented by the only nation on earth to endure such an attack – while the other is purely a giant-monster-on-the-loose movie. In the former, human struggles are on full display, while the latter follows a standard “Man vs. The Other” formula. One explicitly recreates the Geiger-clicking aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the other focuses on a bandaged American newspaperman in a hospital bed.
Finally, the Japanese version has characters that vehemently oppose the destruction of Godzilla in favor of learning from it, as well as serious meditations on the ethics of creating an awesome weapon (the “Oxygen Destroyer”) to vanquish the immediate menace, knowing full well that such a weapon could be used for less benevolent purposes in the future. For the American release, it’s all about munching the popcorn, watching the monster stomp the living daylights out of everything in sight, and ultimately killing said monster in time to grab a burger and fries afterwards.
The Classic Media release features expansive and informative audio commentary – providing the listener with the necessary historical context for both features – by enthusiastic Godzilla experts/authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, and it is to their credit that there is not a clear preference expressed for either version. While they defend the heartfelt and damning anti-war message of the Honda original, they also acknowledge that without the restructuring and streamlining of the American release, it is entirely possible that Godzilla might never have evolved into a worldwide cultural icon.
Likewise, they are not shy about pointing out the technical snafus, but also laud Tsuburaya’s innovative expertise in creating something entirely new. When one considers the production’s time and financial restraints, the work of the special effects maestro and his team here is nothing short of miraculous. Also given his due is composer Akira Ifukube, whose “Godzilla March” and “Requiem” are two of the most recognizable anthems in horror history. (He is also credited with co-creating the mighty monster’s distinctive roar.) World cinema fans will also recognize Takashi Shimura, star of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Seven Samurai (released the same year as Gojira), as the wise and benevolent paleontologist Dr. Yamane.
The commentaries and accompanying featurettes, “Godzilla: Story Development” and “Making the Godzilla Suit,” offer a welcome wealth of background info and trivia to fans and newcomers alike. As well as providing background for the various players involved in the “Americanization” of the film, elements such as the influence of Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ and the origins of Gojira’s name (a combination of the words “gorilla” and “whale”) are discussed.
Additionally, discrepancies over the monster’s height (164 ft. in the Japanese release, while Burr reports it at a whopping 400 ft.) and the strategic use of Japanese actor doubles in the American version are pointed out. (Ryfle makes an amusing speculation regarding the auditions for these individuals: “All right, thanks so much for coming in. Now, please turn around.”) Even more impressive is the knowledge that for the Stateside release, only three actors were used to dub all the Japanese characters into English, one of whom was character actor James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Ninja III: The Domination).
Also revealed is the fact that Godzilla’s scaly skin was not green but charcoal gray – not surprising since the film is shot in black and white. However, it may be a shock for some to learn that it was a shade he would retain – even after the G movies switched to color – until the 1984 remake. (Stunned, I quickly busted out my copies of Godzilla vs. Megalon and Destroy All Monsters to confirm this and it’s true, the big green stomping machine is bluish-gray at best. Huh.)
Regardless of which version you prefer, Godzilla’s significance to the giant monster genre cannot be understated and this DVD set is a blessing for suit-mation fans everywhere. While I will readily confess to enjoying the series’ goofier, Godzilla-as-hero installments of the '60s and '70s as much if not more so, it is good to see the big G finally given his/her/its due respect and reverence.