Godzilla Vs. Gojira
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/6/07
Heaven. When I came across the long awaited release of the original 1954 Japanese monster film Gojira on DVD I thought I had struck heaven. That it was accompanied by its Americanized cousin, Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, only doubled the joy of expectation. And for once, I was not disappointed. The mark of a good critic is admitting biases, so I will state up front that as a young boy, growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, going to watch the annual American release of the latest Godzilla film at the old Ridgewood Theater (which I would always sneak into with my pals) was one of the few joys to be had in the depressing urban blight of Queens; so objectivity will not be feigned in this review/essay. There was a resonance to my plight that even those, by then, silly pictures had, for they often showed that archetypal Japanese boy with a baseball cap turned sideways in the midst of another form of urban blight, while fending off bullies and old men with seemingly pedophilic tendencies. The best of this sillier run of films was Godzilla’s Revenge, in which Godzilla took on a mythical stature in the mind of a lonely latchkey child who fended off bullies and gangsters while communing with Godzilla’s son, Minya.
Yet, nothing could top the original 1956 Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, with Raymond Burr- old Perry Mason and Ironside himself, as reporter Steve Martin. I must have seen that film on tv for the first time when I was four or five, and damn, it was scary. Other than the film’s quicky sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, none of the 1960s and 1970s era Godzilla films ever portrayed the beast as such pure hellish destruction. Yet, even in youth I could discern that the original film was easily the best, and that it was more than truly scary, it was scratching at that unnamed part in all developing minds. It had things to offer I could not quite place then. The scariness, however, was most likely a result of the subliminal effect of most of the film’s scenes of destruction being set at night, whereas Godzilla’s appearance by day was not so menacing, but rather benign in contrast. Of course, the latest release in the local theater was not my only exposure to Godzilla. Often, on Channel 7, WABC, they would have week long Godzilla Festivals on The 4:30 Movie. And, of course, what would Thanksgiving Day have been without NFL Football and the Monster Marathons that consisted of Godzilla films alternated with King King, Son Of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young? The film sequence would usually kick off with the original Godzilla, and end with the camp classic King Kong Versus Godzilla. Yet, I always had heard that my favorite film was derived from an original Japanese film that did not have the Raymond Burr intercuts, and wondered what it was like? Having become an expert in every Godzilla film, from the original to the direct sequel of Godzilla 1985, I was always excited by the prospect of some day seeing the Japanese original. I’d even seen a handful of the post-1985 films, and yet the original was still a mystery. Finally, in 2004, the Japanese original, Gojira, was released across American theaters, for its 50th Anniversary, and earlier this year it and the American version, Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, were released in a two disk DVD version, by the Toho film company, so that a side by side comparison could be made.
After watching both films, with and without the commentaries, I have to say that my appreciation for the original film, directed by Ishirô Honda, and written by Honda and Shigeru Kayama, as well as the American version, often derided as a bastardization, only grew. No, neither film can really be considered a great film, but great movies? Hell, yes! The difference between the two is the difference between a great novel and a great comic book. Great films really move one to think more deeply about life, whereas a great movie does that a bit, perhaps, but more often simply greatly entertains, and is well made. Both versions of Godzilla easily qualify on that score, and both films, with their anti-atomic messages, and unflinching look at destruction, are better films than the original King Kong, which is still a great movie itself. What raises Godzilla, and especially Gojira, above King Kong, despite the rubber suited monster which is scoffed at by stop motion action enthusiasts, is that the Japanese monster tale still has resonance today, and can be seen as an allegory, whereas King Kong is essentially just a ripping good yarn. In short, King Kong is more akin to Paul Bunyan while Godzilla is more like the Olympian or Norse gods.
Yes, Godzilla owes a great debt to King Kong, whose re-release in 1952 was a box office smash, far greater than its original release in 1933, but it even owes more to the box office success to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (based upon Ray Bradbury’s short story The Fog Horn)- which was a 1953 box office hit, just a year before Gojira was made and became one of the most expensive Japanese films made to that date. Yet, Godzilla had a political resonance and emotional depth, especially in its human characterizations, that both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms lacked. Kong was basically a victim and the Beast was just a hungry lizard, incidentally called a Rhedosaurus. Godzilla was a byproduct of the atomic age, even if, cleverly, Honda covered his ass by never explicitly showing this to be true. This posit of the beast’s origins is all from a modern human perspective, for we know that Godzilla, like Kong, is a small island’s legendary native god. In Godzilla the island is Odo, in King Kong it’s Skull Island. The Beast, on the other hand, is explicitly shown as being created by an atomic blast, just as other creatures in 1950s films were, even if that’s merely an excuse for it to just go hunting. Godzilla’s motives are never made clear. It does not seem to be seeking food, so is it nature’s revenge on humanity, or a cosmic random bit of fury?
That said, the plot of the original Godzilla is well known: an American reporter, Steve Martin (Burr), tells a tale in flashback, after Godzilla has leveled Tokyo, and left him recovering in a hospital. He is reputedly pals with a brilliant scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), although the two never seem to meet up. Martin always turns up at key moments in the film, to act as an impassive observer, until he ends up being nearly killed by the beast, along with thousands of others. Eventually, Martin recovers and witnesses Serizawa descend to the depths of Tokyo Bay to destroy Godzilla with a weapon as powerful as the atom bomb, his Oxygen Destroyer. So that the world will not get ahold of his weapon, he kills himself by cutting off his oxygen supply from his diving suit and he and Godzilla are consumed by his weapon.
Gojira is a bit different. Obviously there’s no Burr character, nor any of the American filmed scenes intercut with the original. The original film is also longer, at 98 minutes to 80 for Godzilla, and it opens with a scene of a fishing ship consumed by glowing, boiling water, which then resonated with the Japanese public, as earlier that year a fishing ship had accidentally sailed too close to an American H Bomb test in the Pacific. and caused an international stir. Much of what was cut out in the American version had references to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, arguments between politicians over Godzilla, references to the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other scenes that fleshed out the main Japanese characters that took a backstage to Steve Martin in the American film. Yet, despite what critics have claimed- that the American version cut these scenes to downplay anti-Americanism, this is simply not the case. Gojira is explicitly anti-war and anti-atomic bomb, not anti-American. When speaking of nuclear technology and consequences, mankind is always referred to as the cause, in general, not any specific nation. This is a central point many critics have missed. Gojira, the monster, is also not so much a metaphor for the bomb, but a variant of it incarnate- thus it lacks a motive, such as King Kong’s lust for human females or the Rhedosaurus’s hunger.
Yet, Gojira, the film, also focuses on four main characters that give it a human resonance beyond monster films and politics. There is the great actor, Takashi Shimura, a veteran of many Akira Kurosawa films, and just off of his great roles in Ikiru and Seven Samurai, and whose stature in a film like this was equivalent to a Gary Cooper or Cary Grant doing a Frankenstein movie. He plays Dr. Kyouhei Yamane, a paleontologist who becomes the resident, and requisite in this sort of film, monster expert, and, naturally, fears that destroying the creature will be a great loss for science. Of course, he does totally get his geology wrong, stating that the Jurassic Period was only two million years ago, when the Jurassic ended 130 million years ago, and that the Age of Dinosaurs ended with it, when the last dinosaur died out 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Along with the often ridiculed dubbing, Godzilla films are recalled with affection for their bad science, and even at our or five, being the All-American dinosaur loving boy I was, I knew this was wrong, and this irked me far more than the special effects’ failings.
Despite that, however, Shimura brings his usual humane resonance to the role, and this is seen, in Gojira, where he tosses his daughter Emiko’s (Momoko Kouchi’s) suitor Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) out of his house, when they differ over how to handle Godzilla. Ogata is an oceanographer and diver, and he and Emiko are in love, despite her betrothal to the one eyed Dr. Serizawa, who wears an eye patch, and on first blush seems to be the archetypal mad scientist working alone on a top secret project. Hirata is great as Serizawa struggles with dealing with knowing his fiancée loves another man, who comes to plead with him to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla. It is a wonderfully written and acted scene. First, Serizawa sees his woman, and smiles, then sees Ogata and realizes he’s lost her. Then, when Ogata asks him to use his weapon he knows that Emiko has doubly betrayed him, by divulging the weapon he vowed her to keep secret. After locking himself in his basement laboratory, Ogata breaks in and the two men fight. Yet, we never see the actual fight for Honda lets us only hear it. This sort of touch shows the sort of filmmaker Honda may have become had he nor been relegated to monster movies for most of his career with Toho. All we see are fish in the aquarium where Serizawa had shown the power of his discovery to Emiko. Finally, the scene ends with Serizawa conflicted, but agreeing to use his weapon after hearing devastated schoolgirls singing on tv. He burns his life’s work, though, which prefigures his suicide at film’s end.
It is scenes like this which make critics say the original is far better than the Americanized Godzilla. Yet, the American version, while it severely cuts that scene, and loses its power, compensates amply by not having Serizawa’s suicide so manifestly foreshadowed. In the Japanese film, once we see Serizawa destroy his life’s work, we know his life’s end will not be far behind. These sorts of wise screenplay and directing choices keep the American film not too far behind the original in overall artistic quality. Also, the fact that the American version plays out from a reporter’s perspective, and is told from an unnamed future, naturally allows for a narrative condensation of many of the Japanese scenes because the Martin character sums up many of the plot points brought out by extra characters. The American film would have dragged on too long had this not occurred. By 1956, when the American version debuted, World War Two was long gone, and the Japanese were now our friends against the Red Menace. Thus, the idea that the low budget filmmakers who filmed and added the Burr scenes were censoring a political message is a bit far-fetched, especially considering that the dangers of atomic testing and radiation fallout from the monster figure prominently in both. The reasons for the cuts are more easily explained if one imagines what would have happened had Roger Corman gotten ahold of, and re-edited, Nosferatu, Metropolis, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, or even The Birth Of A Nation. Major political and sexual themes would have been lost, but this would be attributable to a lack of artistry, not Corman’s political nor sexual views.
A positive in both films is that much of Godzilla’s destruction is filmed in night scenes, in black and white, and this heightens what the viewer can imbue. The imagined is always more frightening than the real. This goes for Godzilla, the monster, itself, for in the cross cuts from rubber suited man, to miniatures, to matte paintings, to puppets, Godzilla seems to be a shapeshifter, a preternatural beast, and not the mere ‘force of nature’ other critics have lazily declared. There are times we see pupils in Godzilla’s eyes, and times the monster seems a white-eyed zombie, or demon. A few years later the great British horror movie, Night Of The Demon, directed by the great and inimitable Jacques Tourneur, would similarly make use of darkness to give its monster a shapeshifting feel, as well hide its flaws in construction. Perhaps, in a bit of synchronicity, that film was also released in an American version that has been ripped as a bastardization: Curse Of The Demon. Also, whereas later Godzilla films gave the monster a traditional dragon’s fire breath, this beast spews atomic radiation in a mist that ignites fires, showing that the roots of Godzilla, in the extra-diegetic sense, was not in Japanese lore but in modern monster mythos. All of these effects were skillfully done by Eiji Tsuburaya, and despite the ridicule that subsequent Godzilla films have engendered, this film had better effects, and was more skillfully filmed to downplay its shortcomings, than other monster films of its era. Equally impressive was the scoring of the film by Akira Ifukube. The opening footfalls of the monster is still scary as any nightmare, and the main Godzilla theme, as well as other scenes, still resonate because they are so apropos. Which of these two men was responsible for Godzilla’s trademark roar I don’t know, but that’s equally as memorable.
The two disk set comes with both versions on separate disks. Gojira is subtitled, while Godzilla is dubbed. Had Gojira been dubbed it would have been a good bonus. Neither film was given a digital restoration along the likes of what The Criterion Collection usually does. Yet, especially in the American version, this is not a problem for it adds to the documentary feel of the film. Another uncommented upon plus the American version has over the original is that there is a subliminal dissonance between what we see- i.e.- the cinema verité newsreel like images, and the fact that, since Martin tells the whole tale in flashback, and he seems to magically appear at all the right moments in the film, there is a dreamy quality to the narrative that the original lacks, and this is reinforced by the fact that he never really interacts with the main characters- despite some quite skilled intercutting, and seems to exist outside the film, even when he is nearly killed by Godzilla. It’s akin to when one dreams but one is aware of the dream, thus there is a feeling that nothing can happen to the main character….you. Yet, this dreamy narrative is very documentary in approach. and this schism effects the viewer in ways not noticeable in a first viewing, but which linger afterwards. I’ve never known anyone who watched the original Godzilla and was not affected by it, positively or negatively.
The DVD set comes with a very informative booklet, trailers for both films- although the Gojira trailer lacks subtitles, a Godzilla: Story Development featurette, a Making Of The Godzilla Suit featurette, and commentaries on both films by Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. These are the best bonuses and make up for the rather skimpy extras, because both are excellent and really delve into the history and detailed making of the films. Neither man is a film historian nor critic, so they have an enthusiasm and love that many such commentaries lack, plus they are well informed, fast paced, and non-fellatric in their opining. The Godzilla commentary also features the son, Terry Morse, Jr., of the American director who filmed the Raymond Burr scenes, Terry Morse, a noted film doctor- someone who came in and took over projects abandoned by other directors. It is an informative few minutes on how the man’s father took a terrific film and essentially remade it and plausibly worked in the Steve Martin character; in fact making him the de facto lead character, even though he is wholly passive, merely rooting on the original Japanese characters. Morse, Jr. also did some work on the American version, and debunks the notion that either his father or the film’s American producer, Joseph E. Levine, ever set out to mute political messages. They just wanted a saleable picture, if a bit dumbed down for American audiences, and for $10,000 to film the American scenes, they made a fortune. The pair also claim that Godzilla was the first recut foreign film in the American market.
The commentary duo also make many other good points, such as the fact that Godzilla is not green, as believed, but charcoal gray, and that when the monster first appears looking over a hilltop it was originally to have a bloody cow in its maw. They also point out that the villagers all run to fend off Godzilla, with guns and pitchforks, they do not run away from the beast, for many, in the original film, dismiss the monster as legend. The pair also defend the long mocked acting of Burr, in the American version, and rightly praise some of his voiceover narration as very poetic and moving in its description of the destruction he witnesses. They also point out to the climactic scene where Godzilla pauses as the electrical wires- in the American version the tension is built longer because the Burr inserts drag out the tension. They also praise the screenplay, and a scene where Ogata ties to rouse Serizawa by saying, of his fears that the Oxygen Destroyer could do more harm than good, even if it kills Godzilla, ‘You have your fears, which may become reality, and then there’s Godzilla, which is reality.’ Imagine that, a Godzilla film going meta-narrative fifteen years before Postmodernism.
It may be heresy to Godzilla fanatics, but the American Godzilla is not really a worse film than Gojira. If this were a battle to be filmed, it would end up like King Kong Vs. Godzilla, the American version, where the ape seems to come out on top slightly, yet we know Godzilla isn’t really the loser. Nor is the American version any more a bastardization of the original because of the Burr inserts than the original is a bastardization because it uses stock military footage from Japanese World War Two propaganda films. Gojira also can be seen not as merely an anti-war or anti-atomic bomb film, but a film on the changing 1950s Japanese culture, right alongside the great later films of Yasujiro Ozu. In those films, as well as Gojira, there are always young Japanese challenging seemingly silly social traditions, such as Emiko daring to not marry her arranged husband, Serizawa.
Yes, both films have manifest flaws. There are logical gaps in the plots of both: why, for example, do the Japanese only seek to protect Tokyo? How do they know the beast won’t rampage across the country, or go to Korea? The building of the electric fence to defend the city is nonsensical, and occurs with a rapidity that, even assuming politicians agreed on a plan of civil action, simply could not be done in a few days- especially if this Tokyo was the same one that Shimura’s character from Ikiru worked for as a bureaucrat. Also, Godzilla seems to often change shape, size and appearance, within seconds- although this can be dismissed more easily in the more oneiric American version, and there are visible wires on the missiles and airplanes; but both films, especially in Gojira, more than make up for such lapses and shortcomings with the passion and, yes, vision, of the works. The monster in both films is indiscriminate carnage, yet there is the shot, just before Serizawa kills them both, when we see Godzilla peacefully napping in the sea, almost yawning, and we realize that the carnage wrought is not retribution nor evil. It just is, and it will be either it or us, humanity, that survives, for we’ve seen the bodies in hospitals, the burn victims, the radiation poisoning. It can be no other way. And, unlike most other monster films, the heroes in these films, especially Gojira (where the true lead character seems to shift throughout the film, almost like Godzilla’s size and appearance), are fallible little mortals whose heroism comes from their choices, not their strength nor super abilities.
And this is what humanizes these monster movies, not films, and makes them affect a viewer willing to suspend their disbelief. After all, is a giant, rampaging atomic reptile really any more unbelievable than a huge ape who lusts for a woman a twentieth its size, bloodsucking vampires, aliens who grow out of pods, or have acid for blood? I think not. No, neither Gojira, nor Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, is a great film. So what? They are great movies- a thing that is a rarity enough, and amongst the four or five best monster movies ever made. This DVD set should finally debunk claims to the contrary and let Godzillaphiles come out of the closet and proudly proclaim themselves what they are. I am one; long live the roar!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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