Director: Ishiro Honda
Cast: Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi
One of childhood's enduring staples are dinosaurs, and chief among them, is Hollywood's most famous mutated thunder lizard, Godzilla. I watched most of these films voraciously as a child, enjoying the sheer level of destruction and mayhem that ensued. The plots were never great and the dubbing and the effects were often comical, but they were entertaining films, nonetheless.
The reputation of the Japanese giant monster movie, and for that matter, most dinosaur and giant monster films, is based around a camp factor, as these are often lumped in with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd and sometimes, for good reason.
Most in this genre could never hope to be as effective as King Kong(1933), but there were a few near-mortals, the original, Godzilla, being one of them.
Where the later Godzilla films were made for children, the original film is a dark, serious and even scary picture that ranks with the best sci-fi/horrors of the 1950s. The original Japanese film, in particular, is something of a minor classic of the horror film, working as an effective allegory against the deathly effects of radiation and nuclear fallout, Godzilla becoming a walking metaphor for the atomic bomb.
The film was originally released in 1954 and was a very dramatic and serious film, even being nominated for a Japanese Oscar(losing to Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.) When it was released in the United States, it was re-edited and shortened some and lost some of it's impact. American distributors added scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter and some useful dubbing and this became the version most Americans grew up with. Admittedly, it's a marvel of editing, not quite as powerful as the initial vision, but not the disaster that so many claim it to be, either. If the original worked best as a social message, than the latter, reveals it's power as a horror film, it's images of the great monster set against the burning landscape of a destroyed Tokyo, both haunting and sad, appearing as one of the cinema's most bizarre and potent figures of death.
The film begins with the haunting image of a ruined Tokyo, looking much like it had in 1945 after being firebombed. Few are left alive. One of the lucky is American reporter, Steve Martin(!) played by Raymond Burr, who recounts the events that led to this terrible disaster.
Martin was en route to Cairo, when he took a detour to Tokyo to meet an old friend, Dr. Serizawa(Akihiko Hirata), though they never actually meet each other. Martin arrives right when a strange phenomenon is dominating the local media, that being the destruction of a local ship by unknown means. Soon, other vessels are being mysteriously destroyed and the few survivors claim it to be the work of a monster.
Well, sure enough it is. A local island believes it to be the reappearance of an ancient God, known only as "Godzilla," and one frightful night, during a storm, something huge and scaly disrupts the small island. Dr. Yamane(Takashi Shimura) investigates and finds a heavy dose of radiation in the nearby water, but also prehistoric life, including a trilobite. Unfortunately, they also discover Godzilla, who rears his ugly head(literally) over the hills and roars ferociously at the local inhabitants, before disappearing.
Despite, the many deaths, Yamane wants to study the monster, but the military wants only to destroy it. The military send depth charges and believe they have destroyed the monster, but they would be wrong.
Before long, Godzilla rises from Tokyo harbor and descends on the city, leveling everything in his path. The first night, he stays in the harbor and destroys much of it. The second night is much worse.
The monster braves right through 300,000 volts of electricity and artillery bombardments, stepping on trains(and even chewing on them, amusingly) and showing off his radioactive breath as he burns building after building. Martin narrates the entire onslaught from his news office and it's the most effective use of the actor, as he nervously reports the full scale horror before him. In the end, Tokyo is a wasteland and few are left alive, and nothing has stopped Godzilla.
However, there's still hope. Emiko(Momoko Kochi) reveals that Dr. Serizawa has developed a weapon that obliterates oxygen. She prods him into using it against Godzilla, and he agrees, but destroys the blueprints of his new and terrible weapon. Going below into the water with his device, he encounters the monster and sacrificing his own life, reduces the beast to a mere skeleton and then, nothing. The world has been saved and we have lost a great man in the process. Sadly, the American version chose to eliminate(among many things) the ultimate denouement on nuclear war and the possibilities of other monsters through extended testing.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters is one of the most influential horror films of the 1950s, even if it's plot bears a striking resemblance to 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. While, that film contained the more sophisticated work of Ray Harryhausen, Godzilla is more potent in it's terror and apocalyptic imagery, even in this truncated version.
The scenes of Godzilla rising from the black depths of the ocean, roaring that horrifying, iconic roar and rending and tearing Tokyo to pieces, make for some of the great images of the monster movie. Godzilla is no mere dinosaur or dragon, but something more horrifying. He's an abomination, mutated and ridden with blotchy and cancerous flesh, a figure of death with it's twisted head and protruding fangs. In appearance, this demon from below is very much, a king of monsters.
Much of the human element is missing in this American version, at least the most powerful bits, especially those involving the triangle between Kochi, Hirata and Takarada, who portrays a young sailor that vies for Kochi's affections. The Burr footage replaces most of this and can be most awkward and sometimes, hilarious. I especially enjoyed Emiko's visit in the hospital in the beginning, when she yells out, "Steve! Steve Martin!" as if they are old friends, though they never associate with each other in the rest of the film.
Still, there's something haunting about Burr's correspondence, eliciting a different horror for American audiences, and anticipating a new one in the 60s, that of televised horror, as Burr's broadcast eerily reminds me of the sorts of things such straight faced reporters would be reporting on Vietnam and other catastrophes. There's a gritty realism to Godzilla's destruction and while some may knock Burr's simplistic description of the creature, it's understandable when one conceives the horror of what he is facing.
It does not replace the drama of the original film and most of that is missed, especially the characterization of Hirata, who was the standout in the original, as a man torn apart, fated to sacrifice himself for a humanity he feels so dis-attached from. However, the original terror still comes through and it makes for one of the most unforgettable monster movies ever made.
No doubt, this is a classic film. It led to one of the longest running film series in history and has been the cornerstone of many monster fan's obsessions. Godzilla is one of the great movie monsters, the essence of what this blog is really about. It lacks the sophistication of other 50s horror classics, including The Thing(1951) and Them!(1954), but few offer such a glimpse into doomsday or as bone chilling a ride into terror, as this, Ishiro Honda's masterpiece of monster film making, even if it largely exists in edited form. Don't let that dissuade you from viewing one of the genuine essentials of the monster film. There's a certain poignancy when the great beast is ultimately defeated, even though we are glad humanity has been saved. We feel guilty, not only for destroying something that however dangerous, was entirely unique. We, the audience, may also feel a bit of guilt, for Godzilla, like Frankenstein's Monster before him, is a monster of our own designs and we may feel accountable for it's actions. If anything, the picture serves as a collective guilt for mankind having split the atom. It's core question is if we have the responsibility to take account of our actions.
Maybe it's time to read Frankenstein again.