It’s the movie that launched at least 30 sequels, but the original has rarely been seen in the U.S. For most Americans, Godzilla: King of the Monsters started the franchise in 1956, and things devolved from there: from the barely comprehensible mashup of Raymond Burr attempting to interact with Japanese footage to badly dubbed city-stomping to cuddly monster toddler fantasies.
But it all started with an authentic and truly historic Japanese film that dealt courageously with the theme of nuclear war. On its 50th anniversary in 2004, a restored Gojira was finally seen in a few U.S. theaters, and has since been paired with the Burr version on a DVD that’s recently become available for rent locally.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Japan became the first and so far only nation to suffer the hellish devastation of an atomic bomb explosion. The destruction of Hiroshima was followed a few days later by the obliteration of Nagasaki, and Japan had formally surrendered by the end of the month. U.S. forces occupied Japan until 1952. Only two years later, one of the first Japanese films that wasn’t required to pass through U.S. censors was Gojira, by the young director Ishiro Honda, a friend of the great Akira Kurosawa.
Superficially it was the Japanese film industry’s first attempt at a special effects movie in the manner of King Kong -- and that aspect is about all that survived when the American version cut 40 minutes and substituted 20 minutes of Raymond Burr. But Gojira is much more -- and a much better movie. The story works on both literal and deeply symbolic levels, while the imagery and the music by Akira Ifkube are riveting.
The story basically follows an elder scientist, his daughter, her boyfriend and the brilliant young scientist the daughter was betrothed to as a girl, who hid himself away to work on his experiments after receiving a disfiguring wound in the war. This story alone is a fascinating study of postwar changes in Japanese culture. (The DVD's excellent commentary highlights the significance of cultural plot points, like why the daughter is so afraid of telling a secret.) All, of course, are involved in discovering, escaping from and battling the monster -- and even as a monster movie, this version is well paced, becoming a template for the better American monster movies of the ’50s.
The American version censors all but one of many direct references to the atomic bomb, and the continuing testing of hydrogen bombs, implicated in the radioactive monster’s arousal, but also metaphorically in the destruction it wreaks. At the time, U.S. officials were denying that atomic radiation was hazardous to health. Still, the symbolism -- right down to specific real-world events -- would have been clear to Japanese audiences.
Early in the film, villagers on a remote island perform an exorcism to protect themselves from the monster Gojira. In a way, the whole film is an exorcism of civilian suffering during World War II. Even before Hiroshima, some 80 Japanese cities were bombed to rubble. In a single night, American bombers set Tokyo aflame, killing upwards of 100,000 people. So there is a more sobering emphasis on the victims of monstrous destruction. And what Americans wouldn’t know is that the filmmakers meticulously re-created the actual city of Tokyo, with models of landmark buildings for Gojira to destroy.
Gojira features the great Takashi Shimura, who played in several Kurasawa films, including The Seven Samurai, and Akihiko Hirata as the tortured young scientist who provides more than one reminder of the conundrums of scientists developing the atomic bomb. Monster movies in the ’50s would become the expression of nuclear fears suppressed by Cold War “patriotism.” This is one of the best.