Godzilla — that fire-breathing, car-snatching, building-smashing potbellied and ferocious sky-high reptile — was never beloved by American adults. But in Japan, Godzilla the movie is considered among the country’s best in postwar cinema, praised for its “intellectual content,” according to Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie’s definitive book The Japanese Film.
Say what? What possible “intellectual content” exists when the main attraction is a rubber monster suit stomping on obvious miniatures? Apparently the Japanese have been watching a different Godzilla. And indeed they have.
To launch its upcoming summer/fall season, the Detroit Film Theatre is showing the original, 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, a movie that at its debut was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. The film was co-written and directed by cinematic master Akira Kurosawa protégé Inoshiro Honda and featured another Kurosawa associate, actor Takashi Shimura, who that same year played the leader of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Shot in noir-ish black and white, the tone of Godzilla the original is often somber; its explicit theme is the danger of nuclear weapons in the devastating aftermath of U.S. bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla, awakened from his undersea slumber by nuclear testing, wreaks the kind of havoc on the Japanese that they know firsthand.
Set in this context, the scenes of destruction and devastation, especially scenes in hospitals, take on a poignancy that the American version couldn’t even suggest.
Monster movie fans have known for a long time that the American version differs considerably from the Japanese original, but to see it is quite a revelation. The original was inspired in part by the American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). (That film’s director, Eugene Lourie, went on to helm Gorgo, considered by some a Godzilla rip-off.)
When Godzilla was picked up for American distribution in 1956 about 40 of its 98 minutes were cut. The story was edited to be told in flashbacks, the Japanese actors were badly dubbed and 20 minutes of new footage was added, featuring Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin. The Americanized version, named Godzilla, King of the Monsters, was cheesy fun that nobody would mistake for a good movie.
The original is more densely plotted, including a love triangle that leads to heroic sacrifice that is more fleshed out, as is the original’s theme of questioning scientific curiosity. One scientist, the mysterious Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), has developed a device that might be capable of killing Godzilla, called the Oxygen Destroyer; the machine does pretty much what its name implies. Serizawa desires to keep his invention secret because he’s afraid it might fall into the wrong hands. This subplot leads to the movie’s best unintentionally funny line: When Serizawa is confronted about the machine, he replies, “What Oxygen Destroyer?” Aside from that, this isn’t campy stuff.
If some people find it hard to take Godzilla seriously, it isn’t solely the fault of Americans. Though they mangled a very good film into schlock, it was the Japanese themselves who quickly grasped the money-making potential of the film and produced a ton of follow-up features aimed at the indiscriminating kiddie and monster-buff market.
In order to get into the true version of Godzilla, you have to forget all the dopey sequels and variations, the Rodans and Mothras and Gammeras, and accept the film on its own terms, as a cautionary fable with such an overriding patina of sadness that even Godzilla’s famous bellow sounds forlorn.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the DFT (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday, July 16, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., on Saturday, July 17, at 1, 4, 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, July 18, at 1, 4, 7 and 9 p.m. Call 313-833-3237. To see the entirety of DFT’s new schedule, visit www.dia.org/dft.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].