Behold, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
The original Japanese version of the film, Gojira (which few Americans saw until a decade and a half ago when it first appeared on DVD), was produced in 1954, just nine years after we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. When the heavily Americanized version of the film came out in 1956 it had been retitled, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
About the Japanese version, Gojira, film scholar Tim Lucas writes [the film is] “dark, melancholy, crushing, and relentless” in his late lamented magazine Video Watchdog (Special Issue 2, 1995/96).
On Wikipedia, Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka is quoted as saying, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Thus Gojira is a dramatic embodiment of the earth’s rebellion against man’s stupidity: a blow-torched stomping rumination on the horrors of the atomic age,
The idea of a big rubbery monster emerging from the ocean sounds silly, however Gojira is anything but. The destruction it causes, though the special effects are primitive by today’s standards, is genuinely horrific. You might be one of those folks who chuckle at the marvelously-crafted miniature cities being destroyed by what is obviously a guy in a monster suit, but if you think about what it really means, your laughter should catch in your throat. The film has a prominent anti-nuclear message and is one of the earlier films to shove it right in your face.
Lucas’s description of “dark, melancholy, crushing, and relentless” perfectly describes the savage devastation caused by the seemingly unstoppable monster. From hell it came. Few seem to escape: either you are crushed or roasted alive. Survivors who witnessed the actual effects of the atomic bombs in both Japanese cities describe peoples’ flesh melting from their bodies.
When an American distributor bought the rights to release the film in the U.S., the anti-nuclear message was mostly deleted (go America!) and the film was dubbed into English with dialogue being changed in the process. The original Japanese film runs 96 minutes; the American version cuts 16 minutes of the original and runs approximately 80 minutes. It’s also padded with scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter filing dispatches throughout the film. So, if you remove all the scenes of Raymond Burr even less of the original film exists in the English version. Cut were scenes of Japanese social culture and politics, and the bulk of the anti-nuclear message, leaving a mostly solemn film that still works, albeit with more focus on the monster and less on the reason it exists and the country which it terrorizes.
Both films are worth experiencing, and quite different. The segments with Raymond Burr are surprisingly well integrated in the U.S. version, with recreated sets and doubles standing in for the Japanese actors, and his narration adds even greater solemnity to the horror. He is the perfect messenger of doom. But it is the Japanese version that fully reveals the insanity of nuclear weapons. If you haven’t seen it you’re in for a surprise, and as a warning against the use of nuclear arms, it ranks with The Day After, a 1983 telefilm from which scared the hell out of most of America—43 million people watched its original broadcast and saw a radiation-burned Jason Robards wandering through a United States in ruins after a nuclear holocaust.
The best way to watch both versions of Godzilla is the Criterion Blu-ray, which has excellent transfers of the films and ample extra features.
The terror embodied in Gojira now seems more real than at any time in the last quarter century. North Korea is engaged in a mad race to build and launch nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Misses. It is likely the country could annihilate most of South Korea and Japan before other nuclear-ready countries could retaliate. And it only gets worse from there. World leaders don’t know how to cope with this. There is a sense of rational destabilization that makes Godzilla more timely than ever.