Cast & Crew
A 400-foot monster reptile with radioactive breath is revived, thanks to nuclear testing. It goes on a mad rampage, destroying Tokyo - how will they kill it?
Gojira (Godzilla) - Gojira
This took place in the Marshall Islands. Before we continue, let's clarify this point: the Marshall Islands had been taken forcibly from the Japanese by American forces during WWII, and the land was already scarred by relentless bombing. After the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US military began using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear proving ground. All told, 67 nuclear devices were detonated there, including the first H-bomb ever built. By 1956--the year that Gojira was exported to American movie screens--the Atomic Energy Commission had declared the place "by far the most contaminated place in the world." And it was practically at Japan's back door.
The world's first H-bomb was at the time called the "Super," and the folks who made it weren't 100% certain it would explode correctly. Best case scenario: it would explode with a force a thousand times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Worst case scenario: nothing at all. Setting aside the ironic aspect of what constituted "best case" and "worst case" in this situation, the upshot was that the Japanese public was told to stay away from the island in question, but weren't given an explanation why. For that matter, the whole "stay away" notice was about as prominent as the notice given to Arthur Dent that his house was scheduled for demolition in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--"on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"
The crew of the Daigo Fukuryo Maru (that's "The Lucky Dragon #5" to you) figured they were being extra-clever by heading out to trawl for tuna in the forbidden zone. There's no competition, they congratulated each other. Then, there was a flash in the sky, like a second sun. The light was so bright, it could be seen as far away as Okinawa. The Lucky Dragon was so far from the blast, they didn't hear its accompanying thunder for another 8 minutes. It was clear to them they'd made a mistake, but the consequences were now impossible to outrun. They pulled in their nets, stowed their catch, and returned to the mainland as quickly as possible.
They were sick. Horribly irradiated by the fallout, the radio operator would be the first to die from radiation sickness. The Japanese press noted that as the first human being killed by the H-bomb, he was Japanese, just like the only humans killed by A-bombs. It had been a period of contentious relations between the Japanese and their American conquerors--the prolonged and agonizing death of the Lucky Dragon #5's radioman became a rallying point for anti-American protests. As horrific as that death was, it was merely a convenient symbol for a larger problem: the Lucky Dragon had sold their tuna before anyone knew what had happened. The irradiated fish was now circulating through the marketplace, delivering second-hand radiation poisoning to anyone who ate it. Health officials took to the markets with their Geiger counters to try and find the contaminated tuna, only to discover to their mounting horror that the entire country was already bathed in radioactive fallout from Russian nuclear tests!
Put bluntly: the Japanese had been minding their own business and suddenly something monstrous was stalking them, systematically attacking them in their homes.
Slightly over a month after the radio operator finally died, a movie opened in Japanese theaters that begins like this: a fishing boat at sea, identified as "#5," afflicted by a mysterious and unexpected flash of light. The ship goes down--its radio operator is the first to die.
For Japanese audiences sitting in the dark that November 1, watching Ishiro Honda's Gojira unfold on the screen, the message was clear: this isn't science fiction, it isn't even fiction. These are recent events, recapitulated as a modern fairy tale, a contemporary folk myth for the nuclear age.
Because the movie seeded a franchise of increasing silliness that has been a drive-in mainstay for over fifty years, there is a certain tendency to dismiss Honda's original Gojira as "just another monster movie." Such casual contempt misses the mark several times over: Gojira is a work of earnest sincerity by a team of extraordinary filmmakers. Honda himself was friend, neighbor, and recurring collaborator of Akira Kurosawa's. When Toshiro Mifune goes staggering through the criminal underworld in search of his missing gun in Stray Dog (1949), he does so in a scene that Kurosawa sub-contracted out to Honda to direct. Gojira's cast is made up of a mix of highly esteemed thespians best known for their work with Kurosawa and up-and-coming young stars who would dominate the Japanese marquee for decades. It was an unprecedentedly lavish production that spared no expense, pioneered production techniques, and made previously unimaginable inroads into the mainstream international movie marketplace. Disregard these achievements at your own risk.
Most significantly, though, the idea of "just another monster movie" presupposes some pre-existing genre of monster movies, to which this could claim lineage. In 1954, monster movies were yet too sporadically made and too inconsistent in content to be considered such a genre on their own. The progenitor of the form was 1933's King Kong, which had sired a few Japanese imitations in the 1930s, both sadly now lost to posterity. Even in the US, though, sons of Kong were limited to the things Kong's own makers churned out--like, ahem, The Son of Kong (1933). The first genuine attempt to make a monster movie that could bear comparison to Kong on its own terms was 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Ray Harryhausen, the inventive animator responsible for creating the monster effects in that film, has since nurtured a lifelong animosity towards Gojira for stealing his idea. Which is fair enough--it happens to be true.
Tomoyuki Tanaka was a producer at Toho Studios with a modest resume of war films and dramas to his name--his best days were decidedly ahead of him. Tanaka planned to shoot a film in Indonesia. In the Shadow of Glory it was to be called, a film designed to try to heal the bitterness between the Indonesians and the Japanese, but seeing as how that bitterness was due to Japanese atrocities, the Indonesians weren't entirely behind the idea. At the last minute, the Indonesian government yanked crucial visas and effectively canceled the project. Tanaka needed a replacement film--and had just read about The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in a trade journal. Although Tanaka always told the story with more dignity and self-importance, when it comes down to it, he basically decided to rip Beast off.
The story that the popular mystery novelist Shigeru Kayama came up with was a pedestrian clone of Beast, and early sketches for the project even duplicated certain scenes from the American picture. But once director Ishiro Honda was attached to the film, it began to take a different direction. Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata kept the broad outlines of Kayama's story but fleshed out its human dimensions, turned the monster into a walking allegory of recent horrors, and imbued the entire production with a grim seriousness of purpose.
Eiji Tsuburaya was the special effects guru who gave the monster life. He had been enervated by seeing King Kong in the 1930s and was inspired to pursue a career in special effects as a result--this, at a time when the Japanese film industry had no such career track. In fact, in his early days, Tsuburaya had to battle against an attitude that special effects were dishonest trickery. In the war years, his skill at making convincing miniatures led to some difficult questions: Allied troops mistook his films for actual footage of Zero planes in action. Such attention to detail made him invaluable for makers of war films, but he still longed to make a monster movie. When Tanaka asked him to join the crew of Gojira, he jumped at the chance--and handed Tanaka a copy of his own screenplay treatment for a monster movie about a giant octopus.
Tanaka and Toho president Iwao Mori preferred to have the star of Gojira be an irradiated dinosaur, which Tsuburaya originally wanted to realize using the same stop-motion techniques used in King Kong. The budget would not support such an approach, so Tsuburaya scaled up the size of his model miniatures, and commissioned a monster suit to be worn by an actor. Two actors, in fact--Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka, who each make cameos in mufti as newspaper reporters. Iwao Mori wanted the dinosaur's skin to show explicit scars from H-bomb exposure--so the suit designers crafted it with a distinctive skin modeled after the keloid scars of Hiroshima's survivors.
This would be but one of the direct connections to Japan's atomic history. At various points characters talk about surviving the atomic bombings and describe the monster as a child of the H-bomb. And then there's that opening sequence. This isn't "just another monster movie," it's a form of social catharsis. From 1945 through 1952, the American occupying forces enforced official censorship on Japanese films, explicitly forbidding open discussion of A-bomb matters. The thing about censorship is, "open discussion" isn't the only kind of discussion. Japanese artists had to deflect their ideas into forms sufficiently transformed to escape censorship. Gojira arrived two years after the American Occupation ended, and did not face direct censorship on this count--it was free to speak its mind openly, but found the use of metaphor and allegory a more powerful way to address such raw nerves.
Audiences waited for hours to get tickets. The opening day sales were the highest in Japanese movie history; it was just the start of the film's blockbuster success. Gojira finished as the 12th highest grossing film of the year--which is even more impressive when you realize it faced competition from 348 Japanese-made films that year, and a slate of foreign (Hollywood) imports. Tsuburaya was awarded the Japanese Film Technique award for his work--the first of many such honors. Years later, the esteemed critical journal Kinema Junpo decided Gojira was one of the twenty best films ever made in Japan. Dozens of sequels followed; they continue to this day.
The distributors of the American release in 1956 re-edited the film, deleted subplots, and added footage of Raymond Burr as a journalist. Amidst these changes, there was also a question about whether they changed the title. The American recut was titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Godzilla was the preferred transliteration of the Japanese title into Roman letters under the most common transliteration schemes of the 1950s (and the American distributors signed a contract with Toho on which the Japanese title was already rendered in English as "Godzilla"). Since then, a different transliteration method has become preferred, which renders the same Japanese characters as Gojira. The difference is one of English spelling alone--both are equally legitimate renderings of the Japanese text, and ideally either spelling should lead to the same pronunciation. If you care about one spelling over the other, you're not pronouncing it right. Think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing, "Gojira, Godzilla, let's call the whole thing off."
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Director: Ishirô Honda
Screenplay: Ishirô Honda, Takeo Murata (writers); Shigeru Kayama (story)
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Art Direction: Satoru Chûko, Takeo Kita
Music: Akira Ifukube
Film Editing: Yasunobu Taira
Cast: Akira Takarada (Hideto Ogata), Momoko Kôchi (Emiko Yamane), Akihiko Hirata (Daisuke Serizawa-hakase), Takashi Shimura (Kyohei Yamane-hakase), Fuyuki Murakami (Professor Tanabe), Sachio Sakai (Newspaper Reporter Hagiwara), Toranosuke Ogawa (Nankai Shipping Company Manager), Ren Yamamoto (Masaji Sieji), Kan Hayashi (Chairman of Diet Committee), Takeo Oikawa (Chief of Emergency Headquarters).
by David Kalat
David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series.
August Ragone, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters.
Steve Ryfle, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G".
Guy Mariner Tucker, Age of the Gods: A History of the Japanese Fantasy Film.
Gojira (Godzilla) - Gojira
The Original Godzilla (1954)
On a sunny day and calm waters, a Japanese steamer sinks in flames when the sea erupts; a salvage vessel sent to the rescue disappears the same way; exhausted, incoherent survivors babble of a monster. Could it be...? GODZILLA was the biggest budgeted film in Japanese history at that time, costing nearly twice as much as the same studio's The Seven Samurai, released the same year. An enormous hit, it spawned 50 years of sequels, countless rip-offs, and a new genre: the kaiju eiga, or Japanese monster movie. Sold to an American distributor two years later, it was re-cut, re-arranged and atrociously dubbed, with added scenes (shot in Hollywood) of a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr observing the action from the sidelines. The re-titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters! still became America's idea of a classic Japanese movie - and of cheesy movie-making.
But the original Japanese GODZILLA is one of the great films by a sci-fi master, Ishiro Honda (Akira Kurosawa's close friend and occasional second unit director). The U.S. cut ran 20 minutes shorter, with another 20 snipped to make room for Burr, so that nearly a third (about 40 minutes) was shorn. The unrelentingly grim American version excised all of the film's comic relief (including some astonishing Strangelove-like black humor) and censored its strong anti-H-Bomb message, turning it into a run-of-the-mill monster-on-the-loose picture.
In Japan, the original un-bastardized GODZILLA is regarded as one of the great classics of the cinema. In 1984, the prestigious film journal Kinema Junpo rated it among the top 20 Japanese films of all time. In 1989, a published survey of 370 Japanese movie critics, Nihon Eiga Besuto 150 (Best 150 Japanese Films), ranked Godzilla the 27th greatest Japanese feature ever made.
The real (human) star of the movie is Takashi Shimura (best known for his Kurosawa roles, including the leader of The Seven Samurai and the doomed man of Ikiru), as a revered paleontologist who insists that Godzilla must be studied, not destroyed (he's in the minority). This first Godzilla is truly terrifying - a 30-story Jurassic behemoth intent on destroying an exquisitely detailed miniature Tokyo - a tour de force by special effects genius Eiji Tsubaraya. Tsubaraya's use of "suitmation" - the often-belittled "actor in monster suit" method - was due to time and budget restraints, but, in concert with noirish cinematography, his low-tech approach is still as thrilling as ever. This print also features new subtitles by Bruce Goldstein and Michie Yamakawa.
The Original Godzilla (1954)
Godzilla - GODZILLA - The Criterion Collection Edition of the 1954 Japanese Sci-Fi Epic
This original Japanese-language Gojira balances its spectacular monster rampage against human issues and post-atomic moral questions. Japanese sailors are irradiated and their ship sunk by an unknown flash of light and heat that continues to destroy other vessels. Searching for the cause, scientist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) travels to a tiny fishing island, and is confronted by a colossal water dragon. It soon comes ashore to march through Tokyo, leaving a broad wake of utter destruction. Conventional weapons prove useless, which puts the mysterious, secretive Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) in a bind: he's invented a new device he calls an "Oxygen Destroyer" but refuses to use it against the monster. He feels morally compromised: if the device's existence is revealed, governments will rush to exploit it as another weapon of mass destruction. Serizawa's fiancée Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kôchi) begs the scientist to reconsider.
The scenes of Godzilla crushing Tokyo underfoot thrilled American youngsters of the 1950s. Toho would later expand and tame the franchise, adding new monsters and adapting the formula to create a series of increasingly juvenile epics. But every schoolchild of the late '50s knew that Godzilla was a symbolic substitute for The Bomb, and was curious why the Japanese would make such a movie. According to the esteemed Japanese critic Tadao Sato, the vision of Tokyo once again reduced to ashes allowed Japanese audiences to deal with the communal guilt still felt over the war. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka did not copy the theme of Ray Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a popular movie about a dinosaur revived by a bomb test. Godzilla is not a dinosaur but a new force of nature, a dragon that breathes Atomic fire.
Godzilla was made soon after the end of the American Army's occupation of Japan. Rather than address the wartime nuclear bombings, events still spoken of in hushed tones, producer Tanaka seized upon the topical Lucky Dragon 5 incident, in which a Japanese tuna boat defied warnings to stay clear of the Bikini Atoll, unaware that the U.S. was testing its new Hydrogen bomb. As critic David Kalat points out in his Criterion commentary, Gojira restages the event, substituting the radioactive monster for the nuclear blast. The horror-beast rising from the Pacific to threaten Tokyo is an enormous political statement: for much of the world, America will forever be seen as an Atomic aggressor.
Seen in this rejuvenated presentation, Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects look better than ever. Considering the limited technical means available in 1954, the resourceful Toho technicians found clever ways to combine their rubber Man-in-suit-a-saur with live action and impressive miniatures. Hand-rotoscoped mattes are employed to composite the beast into several shots. Stop-motion animation sees use in a couple of shots as well. What's most impressive is the depth of focus maintained on the miniatures, even with the camera rolling at four-times speed.
The "towering titan of terror" is unlike the giant monsters in American movies. Godzilla is not a dinosaur or giant animal, but a cultural fantasy. He rises from the sea not to eat or spawn, but for the express purpose of annihilating Tokyo. Godzilla is a post-modern version of a traditional Yokai demon, writ large. And that billowing, notably non-reptilian hide? He's meant to look like a walking atomic mushroom cloud!
Ishiro Honda's sober and respectful direction makes its anti-nuke statement without resorting to
moralizing speeches. The specter of the bombings is always present, even if no spokesperson steps
forward to deliver an overt author's message. Godzilla involves us in its human drama, even if
the characters are orchestrated along familiar lines. The scientist has a beautiful daughter (Momoko
Kochi, with her endearing, Gene Tierney-like overbite) who must choose between an eager young salvage
operator and her fiancé, a morbidly-obsessed scientist who does bad things to goldfish in his
Rotwang-like mad lab. All that is missing from the American formula is a representative of the
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Godzilla improves substantially on all earlier video versions. The blizzards of dust specks that marred earlier releases have been all but eliminated. Many scenes still carry fine scratches, but all the major damage has been repaired.
Criterion disc producer Curtis Tsui is responsible for some of the label's best fantasy discs, including Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face. His extras for Godzilla are on the same level as those for any other great work of world cinema.
First up is the 1956 American re-cut, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the version most commonly shown in other international markets. Director Terry Morse skillfully shoehorned additional scenes with Raymond Burr into the narrative. Burr's fly-on-the-wall reporter narrates the movie, aided by a newly imposed flashback structure. Rather than a pastiche, the American version is well written and cleverly assembled. This transfer is from pre-print film materials and looks far better than earlier videos. It includes the original Trans-World logo and closing credit crawl, albeit from a 16mm source. Author David Kalat provides an impassioned pair of commentaries for both feature versions. He explains what the original Godzilla represented to Japanese audiences, and examines the strange cultural re-mix of the American version.
Critic Tadao Sato explains some of the political context of the time in Japan, and offers his personal analysis of Japan's monster-who-became-a-friend. Other interviews give us input from the beloved composer Akira Ifukube, actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, the man who played Godzilla inside the rubber suit. Two effects technicians also comment, but an effects-oriented featurette has only a few examples to offer. Much better is a piece about the terrible fate of the sailors of the Lucky Dragon 5. With last year's near nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Godzilla's anti-nuke stance is more relevant than ever.
Trailers for both movies are included. The soundtrack for the King of the Monsters trailer throws an uninterrupted tirade of hyperbole at the audience, that must have left schoolboys in 1956 with their mouths hanging open:
Criterion's packaging sports colorful, imaginative cover art, which has instant possibilities as a commercial poster. As a special surprise, the folding disc holder opens up like a pop-up book to display a fiery image of "Big G" in all his glory. I imagine that some of the more fanatical Godzilla fans will be incensed that the monster image is not the original Godzilla, but a leaner, meaner design from the 1990s. Critic Sato opines that the fast-moving American Godzilla from 1998 had little appeal, and after seeing the Criterion extras we understand why. The 1998 monster is just a big lizard coming home to roost in New York City, like Ray Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Toho's original Gojira is a symbolic demon from the ghost-subconscious, the Stuff that Atomic Dreams are Made Of.
For more information about Godzilla, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Godzilla, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Godzilla - GODZILLA - The Criterion Collection Edition of the 1954 Japanese Sci-Fi Epic
Gojira - GOJIRA - The original 1954 Japanese version of GODZILLA on DVD
The story: A series of mysterious shipping disasters occur off the coast of Japan, with the few survivors telling fantastic stories of the sea bursting into flame. When citizens of nearby Odo Island also report strange occurrences, paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) leads a team to investigate and discovers huge radioactive footprints, one of which contains a living prehistoric trilobite. The source of the footprints, an enormous amphibious dinosaur, appears and Yamane is able to bring back photographic proof of the creature's existence. Yamane dubs the monster "Godzilla"after an Odo Island legend, and theorizes that it was revived or disturbed by recent atomic tests. The Japanese navy drops depth charges to kill it, but before long Godzilla appears in Tokyo harbor and attacks the city. A second attack, far more devastating than the first, follows days later and leaves the city in ruins. With all conventional weapons having failed, Japan appears doomed. Dr. Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) knows the country's only hope is a secret device, the Oxygen Destroyer, developed by her fiancé, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). With the future of Japan and perhaps the world at risk, Emiko and the man she truly loves, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), must persuade Serizawa to break his vow never to use his creation's horrible destructive power.
The above synopsis makes Gojir sound little different from other 1950's monster movies. The key difference is in the film's tone. American science fiction movies of the period almost always used the atom bomb or radiation as an explanation for the origin of the featured monster, but it was seldom more than a story device for lazy screenwriters; anxiety over the nuclear age was merely a subtext in shallow films that had no ambition beyond delivering cheap monster thrills. Honda and co-screenwriter Takeo Murata moved the subtext front and center, and decided to treat Godzilla as a serious metaphor for the horrors of the atom bomb. The tone is kept consistently somber and often grim. Radiation is no mere story gimmick, but is presented as a threat in itself, a modern-day plague with Godzilla its deadly carrier. The opening of the film, in which a fishing trawler is destroyed by Godzilla, is a direct reference to the "Lucky Dragon No. 5" incident from March of 1954, in which a Japanese fishing boat strayed too close to an American atom bomb test and the crew became sick after exposure to radioactive ash. On Odo Island, Yamane discovers that water in a village well is radioactive, and the villagers are warned not to drink from it. Later, after Godzilla's attack, a doctor is shown examining a child with a Geiger counter and gravely shaking his head.
The dialogue and imagery often evoke the destructive force of the atom bomb and, more broadly, modern warfare in general. When there is talk of preparing for Godzilla's attack, a couple on a train wearily recalls wartime bomb shelters. Long shots of Tokyo in flames remind one of the firebombing of that city during the waning days of World War II, and the smoldering ruins suggest the utter devastation of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. A significant amount of time is devoted to showing the wounded being treated at emergency hospitals. Of all the 1950's giant monster movies, Gojira is the only one to emphasize the death toll caused by the creature. This is not just exciting spectacle-this is injury, suffering, loss and death.
Honda and Murata use the visual and verbal references to atomic warfare to stress the peril the modern world faces; to dramatize their perspective on the situation, they use the characters of Dr. Yamane and Dr. Serizawa. Dr. Yamane understands the threat Godzilla represents, but also recognizes an unparalleled opportunity to learn. He wants to know how and why Godzilla survived the nuclear blast that roused him, and hopes that knowledge will help mankind survive in the event of an atomic war. His pleas for an opportunity to study Godzilla are ignored, and Yamane becomes an isolated and depressed figure as the military prepares to kill the monster. In essence, society, faced with a new form of threat (the atomic age), relies on old methods of conflict resolution (traditional warfare) that have been rendered obsolete and are thus doomed to fail. Science and understanding, as represented by Yamane, are the true hope of the future, but face resistance and skepticism.
The character of Dr. Serizawa is used to explore issues of scientific ethics and responsibility. It is hinted that Serizawa's wartime experiences have made him sensitive to the possibility of his research being used for weapons, so he believes he is doing the right thing by keeping knowledge of the Oxygen Destroyer from the world. The problem is that Serizawa has so isolated himself from human contact that he has lost his perspective. After Godzilla's attack, he's still at work in his untouched lab, seemingly unphased by what has happened; when Emiko arrives, he smiles, thinking she's there to discuss their marriage. Emiko and Ogata have to literally force him to face what is transpiring outside by making him look at scenes of devastation broadcast on television. Only when he reconnects with humanity in this fashion does Serizawa finally take steps to save Japan while preventing his knowledge from being misused. Honda and Murata's belief that scientists can and should take total responsibility for their creations today seems a little naïve, but the passion and sincerity of their convictions is striking, and unique in the giant monster genre.
Bringing Honda's vision of living atomic horror to the screen was the responsibility of Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects unit. The quality of their work is variable and some of it will strike modern audiences as quaint, but overall the effects remain exciting and memorable-an impressive accomplishment considering that the Japanese film industry had no tradition of monster movies, Tsuburaya's budget was modest and much of the work was trial-and-error. Just about every technique that existed at the time is employed: miniatures, matte paintings, animation, stop-motion, puppets, etc. Standout sequences include the monster's attack on the train, with fleeing crowds matted in as he approaches, and Godzilla's confrontation with a barrier of electrical towers, during which he first uses his atomic breath. In both instances Tsuburaya and his staff successfully create a sense of the creature's massive size and power. For the main attack sequence, moodily set at night, large sections of Tokyo were reproduced in detailed miniature sets, and when buildings collapse they convey a good sense of weight. Tsuburaya and Honda pepper the attack sequence with interesting, unusual moments to keep it from being a monotonous orgy of destruction, such as Godzilla pausing to roar at birds in an aviary, a group of reporters in a tower coming face-to-face with the monster and a scene of a terrified mother reassuring her children that they are going to join their father as a building collapses on top of them. Long shots showing entire neighborhoods in flames create a sense of scope to the destruction far greater than that featured in any of the American creature features of the era. The centerpiece of the effects work, the Godzilla suit, is well designed, suggestive of a dinosaur yet different enough to be distinctive. The suit was extremely heavy and stiff, but the limitations this forced on the movements of suit actors Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka helped Godzilla appear massive and non-human.
Also helping bring Godzilla to life is the music of composer Akira Ifukube. It would be difficult to overstate the contribution his score makes to the film. By turns solemn, suspenseful and tragic, Ifukube's music brings emotional weight to scenes that otherwise might have come across as pure fantasy. It is, quite simply, the best score ever written for a giant monster movie.
The human cast of Gojira does the best they can with underwritten, sketchy roles. The mysterious, enigmatic and ultimately tragic Dr. Serizawa is the only really interesting character, and Akihiko Hirata does a good job bringing subtle shadings to the part. For example, Serizawa's decision to show Emiko the horrifying Oxygen Destroyer experiment at first glance may seem like a plot contrivance, but Hirata's performance suggests that the reclusive, work-obsessed Serizawa is attempting, in his own way, to share and grow closer with his fiancée. Takashi Shimura, familiar to American audiences from his appearances in Akira Kurosawa classics such as Ikiru (1952) and Seven Samurari (1954), gets the thankless task of having to deliver reams of expositions, but invests Dr. Yamane with the necessary authority and gravitas. Akira Takarada, who would later appear in numerous Godzilla sequels and other kaiju eiga, doesn't make a very strong impression in his first outing here. Momoko Kôchi was inexperienced when she took the role of Emiko, and unfortunately it shows in her performance.
As most movie fans know, when Gojira was brought to the United States, new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin were shot and intercut with the original footage. Since the original Japanese cut of Gojira became more widely available for viewing in the U.S. a couple of years ago, it has become fashionable to dismiss the American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, as a vulgar mutilation of a classic. Reviews and articles often accuse the American producers of "removing all the scary stuff"and excising anti-American and/or anti-nuclear content. These accusations don't hold up. In 1956, monster fans were not going to sit through a subtitled Japanese film, and the small audience for foreign films would have looked down their noses at a monster movie. In reworking the film to give it broader appeal to western audiences, director-editor Terry Morse and American screenwriter Al C. Ward didn't trash the original; they tightened the pace and inserted an American star, but they kept the tone serious, albeit with more melodramatic sensationalism and less pathos than in the Gojira cut. Most of the footage cut from the Japanese version consists of early expository scenes and scenes dealing with the Serizawa-Emiko-Ogata love triangle; the action highlights of the original (the "scary stuff") were retained, and although references to atomic testing were reduced, the implication that Godzilla is a by-product of American A-bomb tests is still present. As for removing overt anti-American sentiments, there were none in the original to remove. Ward's dialogue for the U.S. version is intelligent, with much of the voiceover narration particularly effective. Raymond Burr, best known at the time for playing heavies and still a year away from Perry Mason, plays his part with sincerity and does a good job, in spite of having to spend most of his time reacting to off-screen events and characters. Godzilla, King of the Monsters is definitely inferior to the original, but it's a respectable adaptation that proved enormously popular and was crucial in establishing Godzilla's worldwide popularity.
Classic Media's new 2-disc DVD release of Gojira gives American fans an opportunity to finally compare the two versions. The first disc contains the Japanese cut in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is a little dark, even given that much of the film is set at night, but fairly sharp and with good detail. Scratches, dirt and speckling are evident throughout, which has prompted some harsh criticism on the web. In fairness to Classic Media, much of this damage, particularly in sections with opticals, is built into the film and has been there since it was made. Digitally cleansing the film of every bit of damage wouldn't be restoring it so much as creating a version that never existed before, and producing a distorted impression in viewers of the state of Japanese optical effects in 1954. The ideal solution would have been a more moderate digital cleanup chiefly addressing the age-related damage in the live-action scenes. Audio for the Japanese version is good. The removable English subtitles have prompted some complaints because of the skinny font and bright yellow color. This reviewer had no problem with them except when the letter "l"was followed by an "o." The font tended to make this combination look like a "b", so that characters appeared to be greeting each other with a cheerful "Helb!"
The chief extra on Disc One is an excellent commentary by Ed Godziszewski, publisher of Japanese Giants magazine, and Steve Ryfle, author of Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. Focusing chiefly on the production of the film and the backgrounds of its creators, the commentary is never condescending towards its subject; it's densely detailed and serious without coming across as pretentious or dryly academic. Godziszewski also writes and narrates two featurettes, one on story development and deleted scenes, and one on the creation of the Godzilla suit. Both run approximately 12 minutes. Rounding out the extras on Disc One is the original Japanese trailer.
Disc Two contains the American version of the film. The transfer appears identical to Classic Media's prior release, except for the addition of the original End Credits, which have been absent from all prior video versions. (Still missing from this version is the original Transworld logo that opened the film.) Overall the transfer is good, but the framing is a bit tight at the top, and the audio suffers from some moderate noise and occasional distortion. Godziszewski and Ryfle return for another audio commentary, this time concentrating on how Gojira came to the U.S. and was transformed into Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Film historian Ted Newsom joins in to contribute some interesting anecdotes, and Terry Morse Jr., son of the American version's director, also participates with first-hand recollections of his father's work on the film. An American trailer is also included.
The two discs come packaged in an attractive book-like case with a Japanese-style "belly band." A 16-page booklet includes an essay by Steve Ryfle titled "Godzilla's Footprint"that presents a condensed history of the film's creation. In the coming months, Classic Media will be following this release with several Godzilla sequels, all of which will contain both the Japanese and American versions, and all featuring commentaries by kaiju eiga authorities such as Stuart Galbraith IV and David Kalat.
For more information about Gojira, visit Sony Pictures. To order Gojira, go to TCM Shopping.
by Gary Teetzel
Gojira - GOJIRA - The original 1954 Japanese version of GODZILLA on DVD
"If we don't defend ourselves from Godzilla now, what will become of us?"- Hideto Ogata
"And what will become of us if a weapon such as I now have falls into the wrong hands?"- Dr. Serizawa
"Then you have a responsibility that no man has ever faced. You have your fear which could become reality, and you have Godzilla, which is reality."- Hideto Ogata
Contrary to popular belief, Godzilla is 50 meters (164 feet) tall, not 400 feet, as stated in the edited American version.
Also contrary to popular belief, Godzilla is charcoal gray, not green.
The idea for Gojira (aka Godzilla) was spawned after producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was forced to cancel a planned Japan-Indonesia co-production called Eiko kage-ni (Behind the Glory). The story was inspired by a real-life nuclear accident in which a Japanese fishing boat ventured too close to an American nuclear test and was contaminated.
Tomoyuki Tanaka originally wanted Godzilla as a giant fire breathing ape.
Eiji Tsuburaya, the film's special effects director, originally envisioned Godzilla (Gojira) as a giant octopus before settling for a more dinosaur-like creature.