Godzilla, Japan, 1954
On Tuesday night, Georgie and I went out to see the original, uncut version of "Godzilla", which has been restored, subtitled and has never before been shown in the United States. The prior US release was an ultra-cheap hack job, which interspersed scenes from the Japanese film with clips of actor Raymond Burr on a “newsroom” set narrating the action instead of it either being dubbed (except for a very few scenes) or subtitled.
The plot as it appears is actually very similar to "Beast From 20,000 Fathoms", the American film produced in 1953 with stop-motion monster by Ray Harryhausen, and based upon Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Lighthouse.” A long-dormant dinosaur is aroused by atomic testing—the “Beast” from a frozen tomb in Arctic ice, Godzilla from the depths of the Pacific; and starts moving towards built-up areas, causing mysterious disasters at sea and later on land. Both creatures are radioactive. Godzilla has been mutated by the radiation to have dragon-like atom breath that can melt steel and set cities ablaze. The creature in “Beast” has been weakened by the radiation, but not enough to kill it. Both are ‘destroyed’ by applied science—the “beast” by being shot with a radioactive isotope that is enough to kill it, and Godzilla by the terrible “Oxygen Destroyer,” the invention of the tragic Dr. Serizawa.
"Godzilla" differs from "Beast" in being a more thoughtful picture. Although "Beast" also briefly comments on the dangers of atomic testing, this issue is dealt with far more strongly in Godzilla. Ishiro Honda and Shigeru Kayama hoped that this movie, coming from the only country to have undergone atomic attack, would have great moral weight in the world—an effect it did not have in the major nuclear power, since all of those points were left on the cutting room floor in the USA. There are many such moments in the film which make it clear that, at least in Japan, "Godzilla" was a movie of genuine horror, and not just a thriller. A young woman declares that she survived the bomb at Nagasaki, and does not intend to become a victim of Godzilla, either. The recognizable skyline of Tokyo in flames must have been a horrid flashback to those who experienced the firestorms of 1945. And, to my eyes, most affecting of all, just a very brief, wordless scene in the emergency treatment center after Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo: a doctor tests an injured child with a chattering Geiger counter, and then shakes his head grimly to the attending nurse. I wonder if, by 2010, an American filmmaker would be able to refer to the events of 09/11/01 with such honesty and not be pilloried for it.
Like a lot of Japanese films of the period, there are some references to Western art: cameramen and reporters stay at their post as doom approaches when Godzilla is attracted to the transmission tower they are perched on: one declares to his audience that this is no hoax or fantasy—an evident reference to Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast wherein those reporting on the approach of alien machines from New York rooftops supposedly meet a similar fate.
The monster effects do not come off too badly. The black-and-white film, combined with the fact that most of Godzilla’s attacks occur at night, tones down the most egregious flaws of the rubber suit, whereas the miniature sets, (at that time the most detailed ever constructed) are truly impressive. Unfortunately this doesn’t carry over to other model work, as a wrecked helicopter and fire trucks are obvious toys, and the jet planes that attack Godzilla are one type of plane in close-up, and another in long and medium shots. Split screen shots with actors in the foreground and the monster in the background are of about typical quality for the period.
Dr. Serizawa’s crisis of conscience at discovering what could be a new weapon of mass destruction is played out with genuine feeling, as is the frustration of Dr. Yamane that Godzilla must be destroyed rather than studied. Yamane’s final prophecy that if “H-Bomb” testing continues, new Godzillas will arise, was of course also cut from the US release.
The real heroes of the movie are the scientists, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and Yamane (Takashi Shimura), with only a minor role given to Akira Takarada as the handsome love interest. (One wonders to what extent the image of lean, eye-patch wearing Serizawa informs later characters like “Captain Harlock”?) Momoko Kochi as Yamane’s daughter Emiko is a pretty competent heroine, pulling her weight on the expedition ship, although in skirt and low-heeled pumps--.
All of these actors have had long careers, including appearances in such famous films as "Chushingura", "Kwaidan", "Yojimbo", and the "Zatoichi" series, plus "The Mysterians", "Ultraman", and various Godzilla sequels. In fact, Kochi was appearing as “Emiko Yamane” as late as 1995, and Takarada has a part in “Godzilla: Final Wars” that is presently in pre-production. Acting standards are thus pretty good for 50’s B-movies, taking into account Japanese stylistic conventions.
This "Godzilla" deserves to be viewed as a serious movie for its time, not just the progenitor of a hundred campy sequels and knock-offs. It is worth seeing if you get the chance.