Wed
Apr 23 2014 1:00pm

Godzilla in the Mist: Rediscovering the 60th Anniversary Restoration of the Classic Film

Gojira Godzilla 1954

Right now, and for the rest of the summer, touring in select movie theatres in America is a cinematic 60th Anniversary Restoration of Ishiro Honda’s immortal monster film Gojira, or as we came to know him in the US, Godzilla. And with Bryan Cranston getting ready to do battle with the big G in the newest American reboot of Godzilla, this is the perfect time to revisit the first footprint from “the king of monsters.” And I do mean literally, because even in 1954, that footprint shows up way before the monster does.

The pop zeitgeist is a funny thing right now, mostly because the lightning of a fictional idea almost always seems to precede the thunder of the thing itself. When you’re going to see the new RoboCop, you’re not watching a new film, but instead, a sort of conversation the culture is having with itself on how this relates to other movies just like it. To put it another way: for about 70 years, certain kinds of films—let’s call them genre movies—are kind of in a perpetual monster-mash runway show with each other to figure out “who wore it best.” The “it” is whatever the cool idea is, while the “who” is the individual movie.

Here’s what’s weird: with the preponderance of remakes and re-jiggering of established genre characters and ideas, it’s actually really hard to watch the originating “it” and not have all sorts of prescient biases about what you’re watching. In the 1954 Godzilla, the footprint—the impact of the thing—is seen before Godzilla shows up, which is exactly how we digest these kind of movies today. We know what “it” means before we know what “it” is.

Son of Godzilla

Godzilla then, has a mixed heritage in wacky perceptions. After the original film, Toho Studios continued to make Godzilla movies right up until 2004. Overwhelmingly, these films are lighter and goofier than the dark, extremely political 1954 film. If 1954 Godzilla is Sean Connery in Dr. No, then the 1967 Godzilla is like Roger Moore in Octopussy. Why did Toho studios let a political metaphor become a zany piece of kitsch? Well, it might have something to do with the footprint Godzilla left in America, which is different than his initial footprint in Japan. He’s always walked a little funny, this monster, and when you think about it, it’s probably because thematically, he’s not sure where he wants to go.

When released in America, Honda’s original cut of Godzilla was radically alerted, dubbed and made lousy with Raymond Burr. Instead of slowly revealing a country under siege from a terrible monster, the American version—Godzilla, King of Monsters!—featured reporter Steven Martin (Burr) telling us about all the destruction and rampage of this monster after the fact. It can’t get any more clear than this: by re-ordering the impact of the Godzilla’s rampage to the beginning of the narrative, the horror and gradual parallels between human-woven catastrophe become lost. From his first glimpses in America, Godzilla was something that had already happened, a foregone conclusion to a subtitle that told us too much. Does watching the new 60th anniversary version of the film correct this? Kind of.

If you’re wondering if you should try to go see one of these limited screenings of the real Godzilla, the answer is yes. The cut is longer, the human drama is exciting (honestly, never forget somebody almost calls off their engagement in the middle of Godzilla attacking) and the political messages are way more disquieting and jarring than I’ve ever felt in prior viewings of the movie. The best example of this is a great scene featuring a few commuters on a train basically bitching about what a massive inconvenience Godzilla is going to be for their lives. A woman declares “Not after I survived Nagasaki!” in an almost glib way one of my friends or neighbors would complain about their cable bill. It’s here where the everyday realism (yeah, I just said Godzilla is realistic) of the constant threat of attack is most effective. And while I’m not going to pretend that Godzilla isn’t about a monster named Godzilla, he doesn’t have near as much screen-time as the folks talking about what he means and what should be done about him. If the Americanized version of the original film muddied the monster’s footprint, this re-release (complete with new sub-title translations) puts those indentations and claw marks back where they belong.

But is it possible to actually “see” Godzilla without thinking about his impact? Can we watch this movie the way its original audiences saw it in Japan in 1954? Probably not; even if we’re not burdened with too much knowledge about how it was made or what came after it, the clichés are still there. Even the origins of the design of the big G come from another film—special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya cited King Kong as his biggest influence in creating Godzilla to begin with. Notably (and detailed in Jim Shepard’s short story “Gojira, King of Monsters”) Tsuburaya initially hoped Godzilla would be a stop-motion monster, one rivaling the technological realism of Kong, but because of time and budget constraints, his monster was relegated to a man in a rubber costume.

So, what is Godzilla? A metaphor for the horrors of war? An important first step in the genre of Kaiju monsters? These are all certainly evident in the film’s impacts, and we certainly feel these tremors before we even begin to watch this—or any—of the Godzilla movies. But what is it actually?

I think it’s a prehistoric lizard suit with a man inside of it wishing he was really a jerky monkey made of clay. Which, if you’re going to have any biases before you revisit this wonderful film, might be the easiest one to dismiss. Because, if you’re actually going to “get” the message of Godzilla, it’s best to try not to think about it too much and let the film just work its monstrous magic.

Check out a full list of the original Godzilla’s American Tour right here.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

15 comments
Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
The original Gojira is an amazing film, perhaps the smartest, most poignant and thoughtful monster movie ever made. The cheesiness of the effects is merely because this was the first special-effects film Japan ever made and they were starting from scratch. But the film was made by some of Japan's top filmmakers, colleagues and contemporaries of Kurosawa, and FX aside, it's an incredibly classy and sophisticated film. What I find striking about is is that Godzilla isn't even awake for the climax of the film. Because ultimately it's not a film about a monster smashing stuff, it's a film about humans debating the ethics of weapons of mass destruction and struggling to cope with living in a world where they exist.

Unfortunately, its sequels didn't follow suit, going more for action and disaster-movie spectacle with much-diminished allegory. Indeed, after that first sequel in '55, Toho shifted to making movies about other monsters like Rodan and Mothra before eventually bringing Godzilla back as the special guest villain in films starring King Kong and Mothra, and then beginning to reform him into a good guy in team-up movies with other kaiju.

Although it's an overstatement to say the Godzilla series as a whole is "overwhelmingly... goofier" than the original. Certainly very few of them aspire to the same darkness and intensity as the original, but it was really just in the '60s and '70s that the series became goofy. In 1984, for the 30th anniversary, they rebooted the continuity, ignoring everything but the original film, and relaunched the series with a film that aspired to be another dark, serious nuclear allegory, and was pretty good at it, though not as much so as the original. (It's unfortunately the only Godzilla film that's never had a proper US DVD release, but it can be watched in Japanese on Metacafe.) That new continuity went on for another six films up through 1994, and continued in a mostly serious vein with Godzilla remaining a villain -- though not without elements of humor and camp, and with one serious misfire (Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla) that felt like a reversion to the cheesy '70s films. Then there was another continuity reboot starting in 1999 -- indeed, multiple reboots, since the six films from 1999 to 2004 were set in five different realities, although nearly every one acknowledged the '54 original as part of its backstory. These were an eclectic mix with some more serious than others -- the standout being the 2001 film known as GMK, which was an allegorical condemnation of modern Japan's willful blindness to the sins of the nation's past and which portrayed Godzilla as a supernatural force of vengeance for the crimes of Imperial Japan.
Alright Then
2. Alright Then
I'm a little disappointed to see the new movie, judging from the trailers, taking itself sooo seriously. Not saying it has to be as goofy as some of the older movies, which I like, but I do hope it doesn't turn out to be another po-faced exercise in mass destruction and crying (looking at you, Man of Steel).

That sort of pretentious self-importance in summers movies is getting old. It's a monster movie for Godzilla's sakes! Have some fun with it.
Scott Silver
3. hihosilver28
@2 You should check out the original Gojira, it's pretty serious. And a much better movie than I expected. I think the new one is going to be more in line with that than the lighter monster movie fare.
Christopher Bennett
4. ChristopherLBennett
@2: The difference between Man of Steel and Godzilla is that if whole cities get destroyed in a Godzilla movie, then the title character is succeeding at his job, whereas if whole cities get destroyed in a Superman movie, then the title character is failing at his job.

Anyway, the reason MoS's disaster porn was so creatively bankrupt is that it totally ignored the human consequences of the destruction, reducing it to nothing more than a gratuitous and interminable exercise in digital animation. From the trailers, it looks like Godzilla 2014 is all about the human consequences, about the way the devastation affects the lives of its characters, and that makes it the polar opposite of MoS.

And it makes it, hopefully, a film in the same spirit as the original Godzilla. Most Godzilla movies, even the more serious ones, tended to have everyone evacuate the cities before the kaiju showed up and started tearing things down, so there was little focus on the human aftermath. But the original film did focus on human suffering in a very powerful way. There are unforgettable moments in it like the shot of a weeping mother holding her child to her as they're about to be killed by Godzilla, and like the hospital just filled with wounded and dying disaster victims in the wake of the attack, with the survivors numb and overwhelmed by the sight of it. It's affecting stuff, especially when you realize that the filmmakers, actors, and audience had lived through things like this less than a decade before, not only in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but in all the other Japanese cities destroyed by conventional firebombings (a few of which caused even more damage in the immediate term than the atomic bombings did).

I think we've already had a very effective American take on a fun, crazy kaiju movie, namely Pacific Rim. So I think it's good that Godzilla is going in the other direction and embracing the original solemnity of the concept. That way we can have the best of both worlds, both the lowbrow adventure and the classy allegory. Indeed, most Americans don't even realize there's such a thing as a serious, dramatic Godzilla movie, because their perceptions have been shaped by the sillier movies and by the dumbed-down English dub of the original film. So it's good to expose American audiences to Godzilla's more serious side.
Alright Then
5. SKM
I was lucky enough to see the original version of Gojira in theaters for the 50th anniversary, and I second everything ChristopherLBennett said. It's an amazing film--and definitely not the movie pop culture thinks it is.
Alright Then
6. Alright Then
#4

Yeah, I see what you mean. My first Godzilla movie was 1985 with Raymond Burr, so I'm familiar with a more serious version (and a sad ending). My concern is that the new one could be so serious it takes the fun out of the spectacle.

I don't think it's a black and white matter with tone. A monster movie can be serious and fun, and full of wonder and social commentary. Take Jurassic Park for instance, which stops for ten minutes to discuss the ethical implications of cloning dinosaurs. Jeff Goldblum somehow manages to be the moral compass and the comedy relief. Will Bryan Cranston do the same in Godzilla? Doubtful.

But hopefully it's just the trailer trying to appeal to the MoS crowd.
Alright Then
7. anewname
Adding my voice to those who saw the original Gojira. It's a very
well-done drama, with first-class acting, that just happens to be about
a (mostly offscreen) monster. Well worth seeing.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@6: The American Godzilla 1985 version of the 1984 film is a little shallower than the original, adding in some facetious dialogue. It also alters the story to make America look more heroic and the USSR look more evil. In the original film, when Godzilla's rampage damages a Soviet nuclear-satellite control ship and causes a missile launch aimed at Tokyo, the Soviet captain heroically tries to stop the launch and dies in the attempt. In the American version, I gather, the Soviet captain intentionally launches the missile -- and its yield is said to be 100 times greater than it was in the Japanese version.
Alright Then
9. Alright Then
#8

Interesting. It's been a very long time since I saw Godzilla 1985. I was a big fan of it... as a five-year-old. All I can remember is the cool VHS cover, the ending with the volcano, and before the movie the infamous Bambi meets Godzilla.

Not sure if I've seen the original, but you have me interested. Will have to track down a copy. Thanks.
Alright Then
10. AlanMorlock
Its actually a misnormer that Gojira is a more accurate transcription of the title. All Japanese words can be written multiple ways with English letters as their character system doesn't completely correspond with our lettering. "Godzilla" is actually closer to how it is pronounced in the film's native tongue.
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
@9: Actually the Japanese original of the 1984 film is not available on DVD in the US. As I said, though, it can be watched on the Metacafe website.

@10: In fact, the pronunciation is about halfway between "Godzilla" and "Gojira." The second consonant is very close to a J but sometimes sounds more like a DZ, and the third consonant is halfway between R and L. (Also the syllables are emphasized about equally, perhaps with a bit more stress on the first syllable. The first vowel is roughly as in the British pronunciation of "gore," and the second vowel is somewhere between a short I and an "ee" sound.) The difference is more one of era. In the romanization scheme that was favored in the 1950s, the three syllables that make up the name were transliterated as go-dzi-la, and a second L was added for aesthetics or clarity, possibly because the name was partly derived from "gorilla." But in the romanization scheme that's preferred today, those same syllables are written as go-ji-ra, even though they're pronounced exactly the same way. It's like the difference between the various spellings of the late Libyan dictator's name -- Gaddafi, Khadafy, etc. -- just different approximations of the same sounds that have no exact equivalences in English. They're both equally "accurate," or equally inaccurate, but one is older and one is modern.

It should be noted, though, that in the Japanese films where signage is written in English (surprisingly common), the spelling "Godzilla" is used, and when characters in the original Japanese-language soundtracks speak English, they pronounce "Godzilla" the same way Americans usually do, like "God-zill-uh" -- or sometimes more like "guh-dzill-uh," i.e. like "gorilla" with the R changed to a DZ. So that is the officially endorsed English spelling and pronunciation of the name.
Shelly wb
12. shellywb
I got the Classic Media DVD of this put out a few years ago, then went for the Criterion Collection's box set a couple years later. There are some good interviews and commentaries on the latter. I made my husband watch it, and he was shocked at how much better it was than the American version. The original is simply a great monster movie.

I'd love to see it in the theater, but of course my part of the country is being ignored. Maybe I need to move.
Christopher Bennett
13. ChristopherLBennett
@12: The American version (Godzilla: King of the Monsters!) is certainly inferior to the original, but it's also rather intriguing how it's approached. Instead of redubbing all the dialogue into English, to a large extent they basically create a parallel narrative that's supposed to be happening just offscreen of what's in the original movie, with Raymond Burr and his translator as spectators to the movie's scenes, talking over the Japanese dialogue as they stand off to the side. Although of course there are a lot of parts where the dialogue is dubbed into English, and there's one key scene where Burr talks the leading lady into making a decision she made on her own in the original, but a lot of it basically runs in parallel with the original, and that's really interesting. The shift in perspective makes for a far more detached and less powerful film, of course, but it's still fascinating from a structural standpoint.

Of course, one of the worst failings of G:KotM is the dubbing. It's painful to watch Momoko Kochi giving this poignant, emotionally powerful performance as Emiko while the English dubber just drones on dully as if she were reciting the phone book. It just destroys the intensity of her performance.
Alright Then
14. SeeingI
Hear, hear. The original Godzilla is intense and harrowing. I can't wait to see it on the big screen in Nashville!
Alright Then
15. JoeS
I had long read about the Japanese cut, but nobody stateside had apparently ever seen it (outside, some apparent brief showings at Japanese language theaters years earlier). I helped find a 35mm film print back in the early 80s - at the Library of Congress of all places! It played at a Science Fiction Festival in Boston. Wow. What an experience! A truly classic SF film. It wiped away all the memories of the (admittedly fun) but silly stuff like GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER!

Yes, it's out on DVD and BLU RAY. But, if this plays on the big screen near you - GO!!!

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