Ishiro Honda (both)
Terry O. Morse (G:KotM!)
Akira Takarada - Hideto Ogata (both)
Momoko Kochi - Emiko Yamane (both)
Akihiko Hirata - Daisuke Serizawa (both)
Takashi Shimura - Dr. Kyohei Yamane (both)
Fuyuki Murakami - Dr. Tanabe (both)
Raymond Burr - Steve Martin (G:KotM!)
Frank Iwanaga - Tomo Iwanaga (G:KotM!)
Haruo Nakajima - Godzilla (both)
Genre - Science Fiction/Horror/Monsters
Running Time - 96 Minutes (1954)/ 80 Minutes (G:KotM!)
Sixty years have gone by, and the giant lizard creature known as Godzilla still captivates audiences stronger than ever. I'm not going to come out here and say I'm the biggest Godzilla fan and have seen every film this movie monster has starred in. But Godzilla was a pretty big part of my youth when it came to watching films, capturing my attention whenever he was battling some giant monsters - whether it was Mothra, Rodan, or even King Kong. When people think about monster movies, Godzilla is usually the first one that comes to mind. The creature has become a pop culture institution, his popularity growing not only in Japan, but all over the world. The fact that Hollywood has tried twice to reboot the franchise - first in the terrible 1998 version and now in, what seems to be, a very favorable installment that's being released this weekend - shows the power Godzilla and the franchise has on the public.
But before I can even discuss Godzilla's return to the big screen in a massive way - I think GODZILLA (2014) will be the movie of the summer - we must go back where it all started. So I decided to sit down and watch the original 1954 Japanese production, GOJIRA, and its 1956 American counterpart, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!. While both films are pretty much one and the same when it comes to the plot, both versions present the narrative in different ways. Is one better than the other? A better question is: Do these films still hold up sixty years later?
In post-WWII Japan, something huge is causing havoc near the island of Odo - especially where it concerns the fishing boats. While many of the citizens are unsure what's going on, a village elder believes that the damage is being caused by a so-called sea monster known as Godzilla. While some are skeptical about some mythological creature, the citizens learn that the village elder was right in his assumptions - Godzilla does exist and has been set free due to a nuclear explosion. Can anyone stop this creature, or is Japan doomed?
In GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!, the story is still the same. But this time, we watch the story through the eys of an American reporter, Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), as he investigates the situation on Odo Island.
GOJIRA, or GODZILLA (1954), is considered by many to be the best giant monster film ever made. It's definitely in the top three, next to the original 1933 KING KONG and 1953's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. GOJIRA is such an interesting film, mainly due to how it's told and the time period it's set in. Unlike the later films, in which campiness would set in and make Godzilla the film's focus, the original GOJIRA is a horror film that takes its subject matter and narrative very seriously. In fact, I think it's for that reason that GOJIRA remains the most timeless and relevant of all the GODZILLA films that have been made since.
Since this was released in 1954, GOJIRA is obviously a social commentary, or metaphor, on the events of the bombings that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring an end to World War II. Odo Island is a place still trying to rebuild itself after those events, with Godzilla being a reminder of the same events. The way Godzilla attacks the boats in the beginning of the film resemble bomb attacks more than they do a giant creature destroying stuff. Godzilla also breathes radioactive fire, his spine glowing anytime he burns buildings or people. Godzilla is a creature that seems unstoppable - a growing epidemic that these people have no idea how to handle. Instead of focusing on the monster and what he can do, GOJIRA is more concerned with the emotions of the citizens who have to deal with the monster's wrath and destruction. I'm sure like after the destruction left by the atomic bombs that destroyed Japan in 1945, we watch as these people struggle with the destruction and chaos caused by Godzilla. We see their pain. We watch their confusion. We see them fear for their lives. The scene where Godzilla destroys Tokyo and leaves the city in ruins is still as powerful today as it probably was in 1954. It's as if director Ishiro Honda used GOJIRA to express the pain and fear he experienced as he watched the ruins of Japan, wondering if the country would ever be able to rebuild itself after the events of the Second World War. It's for this reason that GOJIRA remains to be powerful.
It's the human element that keeps audiences coming back for more. The characters feel genuine and real, reacting believably and living their lives normally within this chaotic time. Dr. Kyohei Yamane is an archeologist who investigates the monster attacks, realizing that the footprints are radioactive and some of the citizens may be suffering from some of this. When the monster appears and the citizens want to destroy it, Yamane wishes against it so he can study Godzilla and learn about him. In a Hollywood film at the time, this man would probably be some genius, mad scientist who wants to use Godzilla as a way to take over the world or something. But Dr. Yamane is just a curious scientist who wants to learn about this threat so history doesn't repeat itself. It's a refreshing portrayal of the horror scientist role, grounding it in reality.
Even the love triangle between Emiko, Hideto, and Daisuke is believable and grounded. Emiko has been arranged to be married to scientist Daisuke since they were kids, but she's in love with a ship captain named Hideto. In some parts of the world, Emiko would be portrayed as some sort of tramp - a woman who has loose morals because she's attached to two men. But Emiko is never leading the other on, totally determined to stop her arranged marriage plans to be with Hideto - even trying to tell Daisuke of her decision before things get deeper. The triangle never becomes volatile or tragic. All parties understand their place and treat the situation as reasonable adults. Yes, Emiko does end up with one man at the end due to tragedy, but it's not done to punish her for her actions. It's done in a heroic, positive matter that brings a bit of hope to the rest of Oda Island. Hollywood probably would have murdered her, or sent her to jail for her actions due to the Hays Code they had in place at the time. So it's nice to see complicated relationship handled in an adult, serious manner that I could buy.
Speaking of Daisuke, I really appreciated his character. He creates an Oxygen Destroyer, which pretty much disintegrates oxygen atoms, causing the organisms to die from asphyxiation while accidentally creating a new energy source. Daisuke keeps it a secret, even though he knows it can kill Godzilla and stop the destruction. You'd think he's a terrible person for doing that, but once he explains his actions, it makes him sympathetic. Daisuke is afraid that the wrong hands will use his weapon in a destructive way, repeating history and doing more harm to Japan than already necessary. Even though he does eventually agree to use it, Daisuke destroys the formula so no one can build a second one. It's a commentary on nuclear weapons and how the bombs destroyed the country, even though Japan was the one who initiated the attacks when they bombed Pearl Harbor. Daisuke is tired of the fighting and the destruction that comes with too powerful weapons. It's refreshing to see a character who is sensible about a dangerous situation and taking all precautions to make sure the weapon is used for the right reasons.
The special effects in GOJIRA still holds up very well today. Sure, we know Godzilla is really a dude in a monster suit, walking around model sets and smashing things. But how the effects are integrated into the rest of the film is pretty neat for its time. Even though we know better today, I can only imagine that audiences really believed that a monster was attacking Japan. The effects would get cheesier in later installments, but they're used in a subtle way here.
That's thanks to director Ishiro Honda, who manipulates the actors' footage with the special effects footage in a cool way to blend the two inside of one scene. The film is also well paced, well shot, well edited, and has a great atmosphere and dark mood. And how Honda shoots Godzilla is perfect. He lights the monster in such a way that Honda hides the flaws to the costume. Godzilla is mostly shot at night, or in shadows, giving him this image of evil and menace for the Japanese characters. I mean, he's not scary or anything. But the idea of Godzilla definitely is, and the visuals represent that well.
The acting is pretty great as well. Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kochi are the standouts as father-and-daughter Dr. Yamane and Emiko. But the actors convince you that real destruction is being caused by Godzilla through their body language, dialogue delivery, and even their screams and tears after Godzilla destroys Tokyo. The acting is effective and powerful in a subtle manner.
As for the American cut known as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!, most of the Japanese footage remains, but it's dubbed for American audiences. Since Hollywood knew that Americans probably wouldn't flock to a Japanese made film so soon after the events of World War II, it was pretty smart to add an American character who would be sort of a narrator and guide to explain the story of Godzilla. The Steve Martin character doesn't really add much in terms of substance to the original film, but it's an interesting counterpoint to see an American's perspective to an already well-told story. I thought it was quite amusing to see this Steve guy be so chummy with so many of the original characters, as if he had been there through this the entire time. But it's done well and having Steve around probably made GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! more appealing to an American audience.
The American cut does have its positives and negatives. Like I already mentioned, the Steve Martin character is someone American audiences can relate to, in terms of feeling like an outsider in a foreign world. GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! is also quicker paced and focuses more on the creature himself as more of a spectacle than a metaphor for the nuclear weapon threat. However, a lot of GOJIRA's identity is lost due to certain aspects either being shortened or edited out entirely. The love triangle aspect isn't given much focused, probably due to the arranged marriage deal that Americans probably wouldn't have understood all that much. And making the Japanese characters sympathetic probably would have been a tough pill to swallow at the time, which is why Steve was used to begin with. GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! takes away the substance and identity GOJIRA proudly displayed, which is understandable.
The American scenes directed by Terry Morse do blend in well with the Ishiro Honda GOJIRA scenes. Nothing too exciting or special about these new scenes really. I do find it funny when body doubles are used for the original Japanese characters as they interact with Steve as if they have been friends for years. Still, I don't think Morse did a bad job or anything. It's just that all the good material was already shot two years prior in another country.
Speaking of Steve, Raymond Burr - the future Perry Mason - does a decent job in the role. Honestly, he doesn't do a whole lot. He just stands, looks, and chew on his pipe really. His voiceovers are done well though. Burr would later return in the same role in GODZILLA 1985, which was meant to be a sequel/reboot of sorts after all the campy sequels that were released after GOJIRA. It's a film I ought to rewatch, as I don't remember it being too bad honestly.
THE FINAL HOWL
GOJIRA, or GODZILLA (1954), is an absolute classic when it comes to science fiction and monster movie cinema. Unlike the campy pop culture icon most folks probably remember, the original film is deadly serious in its tone, as well as being haunting and smart in terms of its commentary on the dangers of nuclear weapons. The American Cut, 1956's GODZILLA: THE KING OF THE MONSTERS! is a fun watch and an interesting counterpart to the original Japanese version. But it sort of loses the identity and substance that makes GOJIRA a respected classic. If you had to watch one, definitely choose the original Japanese film as it still holds up very well today. Definitely in the top 3 of giant monster films of all time, in my opinion.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!
GOJIRA/GODZILLA (1954) Trailer
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! Trailer