It’s hard to come up with anything new and exciting to say about Gōjira (1954), because it’s such a pivotal piece of pop culture that there is very little new ground to tread. It wasn’t the world’s first Monster Movie (that goes to the equally important King Kong in 1933) or the first kaiju film (that’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms 1953), but it was the benchmark of the genre of that era and the go-to comparison from there on. Not only did it rake in the cash and start the longest running film franchise in history, but it managed to do so whilst working with a number of contemporary themes. Everyone knows about the allegory of nuclear war, both in the forces unleashed by Gōjira on Japan and the reasons for his rising from the depths. Director Ishirō Honda has gone on record as saying he was a walking nuclear bomb, and that the film mixed messages of a need for peace and the horrors of the weapons usage. It was trauma and catharsis for Japanese viewers, and eventually for the rest of the world.
But for the contemporary native viewer, there were a number of more subtle themes running through it that may get lost on any modern audience. The incompetence of the Japanese bureaucratic and political systems is heavily mocked for their inability to deal with the situation and implicit as a cause of the harm done. There are also tensions between the modern, scientific city and the backward, folkish rural communities, demonstrating the two Japans that were co-existing at the time. There was also, amongst the destruction, bits of cultural warfare as the national tax office got pummelled into the dust.
And, as is often forgotten, there was a human element spun through it all. The risqué love triangle (for it’s time) between the three main characters caused a stir, as did creation and discussions around the Oxygen Destroyer super-weapon that finally took Gōjira down. This paradoxical element is often forgotten, making the whole piece a far stronger stew of questions than some may give it credit for.
It’s also, by any measure, just a really good monster movie with some damn fine special effects and breathtaking scenes of mass destruction. Tokyo is the bored housewife, Gojira is the handsome plumber, and you get to see all the action up close and personal like never before. Okay, so in the first couple of sequences he looks like a dodgy hand puppet, but once he gets to just jumping up and down on buildings it’s a visual, audio, and destructive delight. You don’t need to understand any of the politics or history to just sit back and bask in the mayhem that still holds up even now.
And yet Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), the American edit of the original, manages to bugger all that up into one of the most cack-handed bits of film making you’re ever likely to see. The fact that this sack of twaddle didn’t sink the global appreciation for Mr Tall-Green-and-Stompy is both a statement of the original works’ majesty and utterly bewildering to me. Crapped into life, just two years later, and then sold back to the Japanese in 1957 with no recorded fatalities, it was all approved by Toho Studios but with no involvement from the original writer and director Honda.
To set the tone, King Of The Monsters starts, medias res, amidst the destruction of Tokyo during Godzilla’s attack. Raymond Burr gives a fine example of delicate voiceover work as, with a measured midwestern tone, he talks us through “the smouldering memorial to the unknown”. Highly evocative, especially as you’re waiting for him to go “it’s almost as bad as that time my Uncle Paul Tibbets bombed the shit out of Hiroshima”. From there, he picks up the pace as mild-mannered American news reporter Steve Martin, who just follows the original plot like a bad cloud and explains everything on screen for the thickos at the back. Because any extra footage made meant extra money spent, this is done as cheaply as possible. So, it’s a cavalcade of badly dubbed shots of the original actors, giving out exposition about human misery like they were the football results, chopped in with Martin nodding like the Churchill Dog as we see the back of some random stand-in’s head.
The producers did try to keep a number of the original sequences intact, which is nice, but you end up with a bizarre split focus effect. In the high-tension Diet scene, the camera stays on Martin smoking a pipe, with great style, whilst listening intently to politicians debate how to stop the end of the world. For the action scenes you have two groups, the Japanese cast from the original where the main events are happening and Martin’s ad hoc group doing a bizarre “yeah, me too!” weak response to the same events.
For the love triangle scenes, the producers went whole hog and use original footage, as well as some of the original voices which just gets confusing. However, as we don’t have half the build-up, Martin has to hammer in the exposition about a group of people at least 10 years younger than him, acting somewhere between a gossiping aunt and creepy uncle. The extensive use of “tell, don’t show” is even extended to the attacks on Tokyo, with what feels like a constant monologue explaining why a 60-foot death-lizard chewing a building in half is bad. The words themselves are fine, often being rather poetic and evocative, but even then: Shut Up!
Which version you want to watch is a split decision. The American version starts quicker and has less of the human plots, but there is no getting away from it being clunkier and putting things firmly into B-Movie territory. It’s also just that bit inappropriate to have an American talking over a narrative about the Japanese experience of nuclear warfare, and it nags after a while. The Japanese version is, all told, a much better film in terms of plot, acting, editing, and composition. But it also takes longer to get to the destruction and a lot of its impact hinges on your cultural awareness of the era.
If what you are after is city stomping mayhem, then you’ll be better off picking one of the later movies (I’ve always had a soft spot for Invasion Of The Astro Monster), as that’s when the 60s action-adventure vibe and kitsch really kicks in. Like many “important” films, Godzilla is showing its age to the modern audience. It’s still better than the recent remakes (“hey, let’s do a monster movie and not focus on the monsters!”), but time makes Gōjira a contemplative experience rather than the original, visceral one. The big man still looks great though, and that’s the key thing.