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.
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.