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Godzilla aka Gojira (1954)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

GODZILLA (aka GOJIRA) (1954)

Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami

Written By: Ishiro Honda, Takeo Murata, Shigeru Kayama (story) Directed By: Ishiro Honda

The Short Version

Godzilla is not the cheesy monster flick Americans first saw in 1956.

The real version is never deliberately humorous at all.

Godzilla is actually a serious drama about a Japan still recovering from World War II.

With that said, it’s still the great old giant monster movie.

If you haven’t seen the original 1954 version of Godzilla, it’s a must-watch experience.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MUENSTER.

Tasty, though the American version is generally weaker than the stuff from the Old World.


Pairs Well With...

SAPPORO.

A giant Japanese monster deserves Japanese beer, and like the monster, while the beer’s not perfect, it’s better than its less-than-stellar reputation.

“He’s getting even closer!  It looks like our doom!  This broadcast is over!”


King Kong may have terrorized New York more than twenty years earlier, but when it comes to giant creatures stomping on major cities, Godzilla’s emergence from the Sea of Japan in 1954 marked the entrance of the one true champion onto the cinematic stage.

It begins on a Japanese fishing trawler, where the crew is enjoying a relaxing moment on deck.  Suddenly, the sea beneath them starts to glow, and an explosion rocks the water.  What could have happened?  Was it a volcano, or something else?

While the government tries to solve that mystery, local fisherfolk on Ohto Island become especially worried, because since the myserious incident, the fish have disappeared, and the elders of the island know that when the fish disappear, the undersea monster that normally feeds upon them comes to land instead.  It is a terrible monster from the Age of Dinosaurs: a fifty-meter giant known as Godzilla…

The single most interesting piece of restroom graffiti that I have ever seen had to do with Godzilla.

I was on a university campus and had need to visit the porcelain library.  When I closed the stall door, I discovered that someone with a lot of time on his hands (and perhaps a long reach?) had covered the inside of the door from top to bottom with an essay about how the evolution of Godzilla movies over time could be seen as a parallel to the state of cultural relations between Japan and the United States.  I admit that it made for interesting reading to pass the time, and though I didn’t buy into everything that the mysterious author had to say at the time, one item that I do find intriguing (and which the stall author curiously did not mention) is how very different the Westernized import from 1956 is from the original Japanese film from 1954.

The only version of the film generally available to North American audiences for almost thirty years, the 1956 Godzilla is the gold standard by which those audiences came to define giant monster movies in general and Japanese films in particular.  It also quickly became the gold standard of ridiculous cinematic cheese.  The 1956 cut removed 40 minutes of material, most notably anything having to do with the film’s actual symbolic content; in other words, the stuff that helps the movie to make sense.  (More on that later.)  It its place, this cut inserts Raymond Burr (aka “Perry Mason”) as plucky reporter Steve Martin, thus allowing the film to have an English-speaking white guy, which American theatres considered a prerequisite to selling tickets.  (It didn’t matter that Burr was Canadian; most Americans would never figure that out.)  To call the scenes with Burr in them “inane” is an understatement; often, he’s not even reacting to the situations he’s placed into while looking in the right direction.  And because subtitles were out of the question (the American studios figure that movie audiences don’t like to read), the print was dubbed… horribly.  (There’s a reason that even today, bad translations and poorly synchronized dubbing are popularly referred to as “Godzilla dubbing.”)  Given all of the above, there’s little wonder that for the better part of thirty years (and even up through today), most Americans saw (and see) Godzilla as a dumb comedic monster movie.

In fact, it’s anything but.

I will often be the first person to tell you that sometimes, symbolism doesn’t exist.  Sometimes, a cigar really is just a cigar.  At other times, however, stories are thick with it, and the authors really are spinning allegorical tales where things aren’t meant to simply be taken at face value.  With the full intent of director Ishiro Honda and his cast and crew, Godzilla is one of those stories.

Aside from being a monster movie, Godzilla is about the atomic bomb.  (For those who are quick to forget, it had been less than nine years before this film’s release that the only two nuclear weapons ever fired in anger were dropped on Japan, and before that, incendiary bombs had set parts of the country on fire.  Open wounds and unresolved issues?  Ya think?)

The true genesis of the Godzilla story comes from a real-life accident similar to the one suggested at the start of the film: a Japanese fishing vessel ended up being too close to an American nuclear test.  What else, it was wondered, could have gone wrong?  Asking that question led to the plot about first killing all of the fish in the area, and then disturbing something more sinister in the deep that would then come up to land for mayhem and revenge.

This begins the film’s first symbolic theme that wonders what the results of continued nuclear experimentation and testing might me.  Well, partially symbolic, anyway; if you’re watching the original 1954 cut, much time is given to explicit discussion of exactly that.  It’s not just window dressing discussion, either; the debate gets lively, and is meant to be taken very seriously.  Destruction or contamination of food and water supplies, drudging up horrific monsters of doom… what’s next?  It’s something that the Japanese had been giving a lot of thought to ever since 1945.  Eventually, the rest of us caught up.

As you might imagine, the discussion of nuclear weapons and testing in Godzilla doesn’t really fall on the “pro” side.  However, what’s fascinating to me is that time is given to symbolically present the American side circa 1945; in other words, to have a discussion in favor of dropping the first atomic bomb.  Within the context of the script, it’s the dilemma being faced by Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has secretly discovered a process that can be made into a weapon of mass destruction that may also be the only hope of stopping Godzilla.  Serizawa knows that if he reveals his weapon (the “Oxygen Destroyer”), even for a good cause, its secrets will inevitably be sought by governments and armies, resulting in a doomsday arms race and the threat of worldwide chaos and destruction.  Yes, killing Godzilla will save millions of lives at the present time, but is the revelation of his doomsday weapon worth the future cost?  This is the question with which he wrestles, and his friends end up making the same arguments that American officials made in justifying the use of the atomic bomb.  When you realize the analogs here, it’s an amazing grant of “equal time.”  (The solution arrived at, while impossible in fact, ends up being very elegant, and very classically Japanese.)

And in the midst of all of this, the horrors of war are revisited.  For Japanese people less than a decade removed from World War II, the scenes of destroyed cities must surely have resonated deeply.  There’s a particularly powerful moment when a mother holds her children close to her as the city is being demolished and death inevitably approaches, and she tells the children that it will be just a moment more before they can join their daddy.  It doesn’t take much to understand that daddy is already dead, and if you’re any kind of decent human being, there’s no way to not be moved by that scene.

So, just a cheesy, stupid monster movie?  Not if you’re watching the real version.

Does this mean that Godzilla is perfect in its original form?  Not a chance.  Better movie, yes, but…

While the symbolic story is powerful, the surface plot often ventures into “ridiculous” territory.  While I will grant that if a real Godzilla type monster was stomping around, people really would try whatever was at hand to stop the creature, let’s be honest: he stepped out of the sea in the first place because of an atomic bomb blast that just annoyed him.  If he’s going to survive a nuke, does anyone really think that power lines and bullets are going pose a threat?  And come to think of it, when the planes start shooting rockets at him, almost all of them miss.  Not only does this make the pilots seem like idiots, but one also has to wonder how much more destruction that wayward rockets caused.  And then there’s the matter of the story’s initial reasoning behind why Godzilla surfaces in the first place: the death of his food supply.  Except that Godzilla never actually, y’know, eats anything while on land, so is he just exacting a little revenge before moving on to the South China Sea, or what?  [I will note that Ishiro Honda showed Godzilla eating a cow at one point, but his producers talked him into changing the scene.]

And while the dialogue in the real cut of the movie is better than what Americans got in 1956… Kurosawa it ain’t, folks.  And there, perhaps, those who saw the American cut from 1956 got one good thing the original Japanese audiences did not: humor.  There is no intentional humor to be found in the real Godzilla, save for a single sight gag which, honestly, is very easy to miss (and which many Westerners wouldn’t even find funny).  While I’m certainly not questioning the film’s truth depth  and thoughtfulness, the fact remains that it does take itself a bit too seriously.  After all, this is still a flick about a giant dinosaur stomping Tokyo.

As for the effects, there’s no question that they look cheesy to modern eyes, but for 1954, they’re not bad, especially when one understands that Godzilla was the first effects-heavy movie ever attempted by a Japanese studio.  Having no local expertise in stop motion modeling and no budget to import it (Godzilla was already going to be the most expensive movie in Japanese history at the time), the filmmakers went with a guy in a monster suit to stomp through a miniaturized and/or superimposed Tokyo.  Personally, I think the results turn out better than they would have with Harryhausen-style stop motion, and some shots – most notably when Godzilla hits the power lines – really do come across as outstanding.  It’s easy to call it cheese now, but then?  A better variety of cheese, at the very least.

And that, when all is said and done, is an apt description for Godzilla as a whole: a better variety of cheese than most people tend to give it credit for being.  More than just a monster flick, it’s a deeper philosophical attempt to wrestle with demons that were still haunting postwar Japan.  It is, in highfalutin’ critical jargon, “a serious film.”  And yet it is also a still flick about a massive dinosaur wreaking havoc all over Tokyo, which makes it pretty damn cool for everyone else, too.

Bottom line, Godzilla is a better movie than you probably remember it to be.  While it’s not perfect by any means, the 1954 Japanese cut is still required viewing for any monster movie fan, and well worth the time for anyone at all who’s even the least bit curious.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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