Recovered from the Wayback Machine.
I recently received two new DVDs: This Island Earth and the original Godzilla, Gojira as it was released to a Japanese audience in 1954.
Gojira comes in a two DVD set with the original Japanese film and the Americanized Godzilla with Raymand Burr. There’s also a small booklet with background information, all in a surprisingly nice case.
I had not watched Gojira before, but from my experiences with other Japanese films where there has been an original and a ‘Americanized’ version, I expected differences. I was amazed, though, in how much of the original movie was lost in the American version.
Gojira was made in a post-war Japan still reeling from the shock of extensive firebombing and having not one but two atom bombs dropped on it. We look at Pearl Harbor and talk horror. The bombings in Japan destroyed not ships in harbor but entire cities: from smallest child to oldest woman. Not just lives, but entire familes and their history destroyed in a land that revered both.
The movie was as much warning against war and such weapons of war, as it was a ‘monster’ film. In a way, the true monster in this film is war, represented metaphorically as Godzilla: the dark beast that walks the land destroying and burning all in its wake.
All of this was lost in the American remake. All of it cut out. I watched the original Gojira, and then the modified Godzilla, and cringed at how badly the film was edited–Raymond Burr added in to provide a clean, non-guilt inducing narrative to cover that ripped from the original.
In the effort to sanitize the film for American audience, much of the brilliance of the film was also lost. In the original, the director managed to create a sense of nemises of the monster, enough so that when it did appear, it became quite easy to ignore the lack of ‘special effects’. This is true science fiction mastery: less a reliance on CGI than on talent and story telling, skill with camera and interaction of characters.
In Godzilla, Burr’s presence tended to disrupt this flow, and kill the suspense. It was like watching a safari being held in a zoo. The fakery at which the original characters were ‘seen’ to be talking with Burr, when they were originally talking with others, becomes even more glaringly odd when you watch the two films, one right after the other.
I grew up with Godzilla and it was a beloved film. It still holds a special place in my heart for its role played, but I would have rather had the original all along. Thankfully future generations won’t have to settle for less.
On a scale of one to five, with five being exceptional, I give Gojira a five and Godzilla a two, for old times sake.
I read the booklet that came with the Gojira/Godzilla twin DVD set and found that it was the director’s original intention of equating Godzilla with war, or at least, nuclear destruction. The director, Ishiro Honda, wrote:
If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed with one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.
I also found a bit of history new to me. The opening of Gojira features a fishing boat subjected to a blinding white light and in the next scene we see it on fire. In the movie, this is caused by the awakening of Godzilla. In reality, this was inspired by an actual event: the nuclear contamination of the fishing boat The Lucky Dragon.
This Japanese fishing boat was plying the waters around Marshall Island in spring of 1954, when the crew noticed a sudden light in the west and then a huge multi-colored ball of light that exploded into the sky. Ash fell down from the skies, which the crew gathered for souvenirs. By the end of the day, the crew was ill with radiation poisoning from being too close to a nuclear weapons test in the Bikini atoll. One crewman eventually died, and several suffered long term effects–in addition to others in the Marshall Island who also suffered such effects.
No one knew this testing was going to occur because the US kept such tests secret. It created a huge diplomatic incident.
Eventually the US compensated the Japanese government and the families of the impacted fisherman. While the negotiations were underway, out of worry about fallout, the government had all fish destroyed and none allowed to be sold in markets, decimating the fishing industry in Japan.
Several months later, when Gojira opened to movie theaters, it must have been a shock to see that opener–fact blending in with fiction, as it does uncomfortably throughout this film. I’ve always known Godzilla was one of the most important science fiction movies. I didn’t realize until watching Gojira and reading more of its story that we should drop the ‘science fiction’.
Returning to the movie as cinema rather than social commentary, what’s especially surprising about the movie is how quickly it was made: about three months. It was, in part, inspired by Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (one of my all time favorites). But the production couldn’t take the time to have the beast managed through claymation, so they invented the concept of a wearable suit–a move which was to follow Godzilla even into modern films.
I strongly recommend if you get this set–and you should get this set–that you read the booklet that accompanies it first before watching Gojira.