GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
Pros: Still powerful and moving, all these years later
Cons: Black and White films may not work for everyone, and the effects are primitive by today’s standards.
If you are anything like me, you probably grew up in front of your television sets wasting your Saturday afternoons after the wrap up of cartoons watching a show not to dissimilar to KSTW’s “Sci-Fi Theater”. Every Saturday afternoon like clockwork, KSTW would run “This Island Earth” or “Attack of the Wasp Woman” – and of course one of Sandy Frank’s poorly dubbed and heavily edited Godzilla movies would be featured occasionally in the rotation. For years, I was fed a diet of cheese and monsters and spacemen dressed like Devo, and loved every moment of it. Yes my friends, I am a Kaiju Eiga fan.
And I am proud to tell you that all your preconceived notions of a schlocky badly dubbed B-movie with grown men in baggy rubber suits smashing a model city or spacemen dressed like Devo in spandex jumpsuits is dead wrong – at least as far as the first Godzilla movie is concerned. Quite the reverse, in fact. Instead of cheese, Godzilla is a stark, frightening look at the repercussions of the destructive and indiscriminate power of atomic weapons – a subject then modern day Japan knew all too well – and a commentary on the fears of society.
In 1953, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was in talk with Indonesia co-producers for a movie. When the deal fell through – the bad blood between the two countries was too tumultuous for a deal to be struck – Toho suddenly was left with a gap in their release lineup. Tomoyuki hit upon an idea during the trip, home, gazing at the water and imagining what lurked below them. Drawing on the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and inspired by a Japanese tuna fishing trawler accidentally caught in an American nuclear bomb test at Bikini Atol, Godzilla began to take shape.
The plot of the movie, in case you’re one of the few on the planet not to know what’s going on and you clicked this link by accident, is thusly: Cargo ships off the coast of Japan are reporting a bright flash of light moments before vanishing from the seas. Fishermen from nearby islands believe that it’s a native sea god who has returned (another of the films non-atomic themes, the Old Way versus The New Way of Japan), but Doctor Yamane knows better – that a prehistoric creature has been awoken from it’s two million slumber (whoops! Someone slept through history missed by a factor of 10) by the atomic testing, and now seeks destruction! Unfortunately the good Doctor is proven right as Godzilla, King of the Monsters rises from the depths of the ocean and makes landfall in Tokyo bay, ravaging the city. Tanks cant stop him! Planes cant stop him! Only Doctor Serizawa and his terrible Oxygen Destroyer holds the key to saving the world. . . .
Inshiro Honda, second unit director to Akira Kurosawa, managed to take a novice special effects team, a monster suit that almost didn’t work, and a budget that wasn’t nearly as big as it should have been and made something special. Godzilla wasn’t just another monster, but a force of nature personified. He levels buildings, sets fires to cities (a disturbing sequence to the Japanese, I’m sure – having just lived through the Tokyo fire bombings not by a decade previous), and kills indiscriminately. Honda doesn’t pull punches with the aftermath of the deviation, bodies lined up in hospital hallways, the cries of the dying, the orphaned children weeping for their mothers – it’s bleak and horrific, and not at all the “Friend of Children Everywhere” Godzilla that he would become in the 1970s.
The humans are often an afterthought in these movies, regulated to one of two rolls: standing around asking “where is Godzilla?” when he is not on screen, and running in terror when he is on screen. The humans here get more character development than that, and are actually interesting enough to carry the story when Godzilla isn’t smashing things. Dr Serizawa has to wrestle with the burden of unleashing a weapon on the world far worse than any atomic bomb, while the love triangle usually tacked onto these type of movies actually adds depth to the problem. And thankfully, there isn’t a Kenny in sight.
The special effects have a Doctor Who-ish quality about them. Primitive by today’s standards, they are exceptional and imaginative considering the time and circumstances they were made. Godzilla himself (aside from the occasional hand puppet) looks lifelike and well done. The miniatures are detailed and actually have weight to them. Some of the composite shots – Godzilla appearing over a building while people move about in the windows, is really well done. Like I said, there are the occasionally dodgy effect – the wires clearly visible on the fighter planes attacking Godzilla spring to mind. But for the most part, these instances are few.
For release in America, director Terry Moore changed the title of the movie to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, shifted the focus of the movie to the almost completely unrelated character of reporter Steve Martin (no relation) played by Raymond Burr, and trimmed about 40 minutes from an 98 minute movie (inserting about half an hour of new American footage). Whole subplots were trimmed, simplified or outright dropped in favor of Godzilla’s rampage. The underlying anti-war message was toned way down or otherwise morphed into something more acceptable to American ears and eyes of the 1950’s.
Although the weaker of the two films, the American cut does improve one or two points. Serizawa’s final decision isn’t as telegraphed in the American version as it is in the Japanese, making it that much more potent. The writing is better in some places – such as the line used to confront Doctor Serizawa and convince him to use the Oxygen Destroyer: “Then you have a responsibility no man has ever faced. You have your fear which might become reality. And you have Godzilla, which *is* reality”.
But overall, the changes to the Japanese diminish the film, not enhance it.
The Americanized version of Godzilla has taken quite a bit of stick over the years, from purists and fans who were long denied the original version. While I do share their pain, I think that there is value to the American version too. For starters, as far as inserting scenes that don’t belong there into a foreign movie goes, Moore did a pretty good job with what he had to work with. Secondly, the importance of the American movie should not be downplayed – without this cut, Godzilla may not have become as big a hit as it did. Would it have carried on for the next 50 years as a cult classic if it hadn’t played on “Sci-Fi Theater” around the nation all those many years ago?
So no, purists may look down but both movies have their place in Godzilla history.
THE GODZILLA SCORECARD –
AND THE WINNER IS: GODZILLA VICTORIOUS
While Godzilla is killed at the end, the total and utter destruction of Tokyo forces me to put a check mark in the WIN box for G.
AND NOW YOU KNOW:
Atomic war is bad! Science without a soul will doom us all.
THE KENNY FACTOR: 0%
Since this is a particularly dour and serious movie, thankfully an obnoxious little kid in tight short pants is nowhere to be seen.
THE END. . . ?
While Doctor Yamane’s speech at the end, “If we continue to test Atomic weapons, we will surely create future Godzilla’s”, could be read as setting up future sequels, this was not Honda’s intent. The fact that he went on to star in 29 more movies was purely accidental.
THE DVD –
Criterion release a very nice Blu Ray of Godzilla, in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio – and it looks light years better than the older Classic Media version. The detail and clarity looks great. The black levels look solid, there’s no print damage that I could spot, the brightness seems spot on and the contrast looks good. It’s worth upgrading from the Classic Media disc. The soundtrack is the original Japanese 1.0 mono track and sounds crisp and clean.
Still, keep the Classic Media disc for the extras. . .
THE EXTRAS –
First off, we get the American release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters as an extra. It’s awesome that they gave us the Raymond Burr version – comparing and contrasting the two cuts of the movie is an interesting exercise in localization needs. Plus, as I said above, I welcome the King of the Monsters version just as much as the Gojira version.
We also get an audio commentary from David Kalat, Godzilla fan and author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. While I don’t think the commentary is quite as good as the one from the one from the Classic Media disc with Kiju Histroans Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewsky, it’s still a worthy listen. Additionaly, we get a series of short interviews with some of the cast and crew of the film – actor Akira Takarada, actor Haruo Nakajima (one of the men in the Godzilla suit), model builder Yoshio Irie and and Godzilla suit constructor Eizo Kaimai and an old interview with composer Akira Ifukube.
There’s a brief section from photographic Effects director Koichi Kawakita and SFX cameraman Motoyoshi Tomioka with some unused test footage and some composite images, a section discussing the creation of Godzilla and its relation to Japanese culture, a brief documentary about the Lucky Dragon No. 5, the real life fishing trawler that was caught in an atomic blast near Bikini Atoll and served as the inspiration for Godzilla. Rounding out the disc are the original theatrical trailers for both Gojira and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
THE BOTTOM LINE –
Even if the new, big screen remake of Godzilla is a total stink-bomb, it’s a good time to be a Kaiju fan. Several older Godzilla films are being released on DVD, in addition to the already robust versions of the old Showa films, we’re getting flicks from the Heisei and Millennium series too. But it all wouldn’t have been possible if the very first movie was not so damn memorable, so good. This is intense, somber movie that has not lost any of its power in the years since it’s release.
I give it 5 Godzookies out of 5!