Categorized | Danny Peary on Film

Japan’s Greatest Monster Breathes Once Again

Posted on 16 April 2014

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By Danny Peary

You can already see the trailer on television for the latest epic version of Godzilla that opens theatrically on May 16.  More interesting is that from April 18 to 24 the Film Forum on Houston Street in New York City will be showing Godzilla: The Japanese Original, a sixtieth anniversary restoration, including new subtitles, of Japan’s most successful monster movie, Ishiro Honda’s Gojira.

The new American, 3-D blockbuster, which stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Bryan Cranston, is the second remake of Terry Morse’s familiar 1956 American film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, starring a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr as a US reporter in Japan. Burr’s Steve Martin serves as our eyes as a 400-foot-tall prehistoric beast is awakened by atomic testing in nearby Bikini Atoll.  He marches through Tokyo, spewing his atomic breath, crushing buildings, and killing thousands of people.  When all weapons prove ineffective, a scientist (Daisuke Senzawa) must decide whether to use a terrible weapon he invented, the Oxygen Destroyer.

Honda was credited as codirector because all the non-Burr footage came from his two-year-old Japanese version. To make room for Burr in his 80-minute version and to excise a strong anti-nuclear subtext, Morse deleted 40 minutes from the Japanese version including the opening credits; a Japanese newsman; Tokyo commuters wisecracking about surviving yet another disaster; a volatile session in the Japanese parliament; and more scenes with Takashi Shimura, best known for his starring roles in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and not the Seven Samurai.

Because of Burr’s wooden performance, the sloppy dubbing of the Japanese actors with silly English dialogue, and an optimistic ending, Morse’s film was best suited for juvenile sci-fi movie fans.  It wasn’t until 1982 that Gojira 2 played in America and we could see that Honda intended his film to be a solemn, sobering adult movie that was a scathing indictment of the Bomb and how America brought WWII to an end.

This is some of what I wrote back then:

“It may be surprising to some that in Japan Gojira is regarded with the same awe and pride as Americans feel toward King Kong (1933). (King Kong was the major influence on Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho Studios’ special effects master.)  Not only did the first Japanese monster film cost thirty times that of the average Japanese film of the day and break all attendance records during its much ballyhooed November 1954 premiere engagement (a Gojira radio play had heightened anticipation), but it also received much serious critical attention in its native country.  As Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie point out in The Japanese Film, even those who criticized “the picture’s exploitation of the atom-bomb scare, praised it for an ‘intellectual content usually lacking in foreign pictures of the same genre.’” It won many awards, including the Japanese Film Technique Award for Tsuburaya.

“What makes both versions interesting is that, unlike all those giant creatures of American science fiction films of the fifties, Godzilla was no simply a bad consequence of foolhardy nuclear testing.  The merciless monster which kills and destroys with machine-like precision is meant to be the embodiment of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This horror film gave Americans one of their first opportunities to see Japanese rage and disgust over what America did to them in August 1945.  Morse’s version makes deletions to cover up references to damage done by the A-Bomb.  But, ironically, he makes changes that further identify Godzilla with the A-Bomb.  Significantly, in his version characters die from radiation poisoning.

Oddly, Morse has Burr (in cleverly edited sequences) tell us Tokyo is evacuated before Godzilla’s attack on the city, implying that the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were prepared for the attack.  Knowing this wasn’t the case, Honda didn’t evacuate Tokyo in his film, and inadvertently stuck Morse with footage that makes no sense in the U.S. version–after Godzilla leaves, Tokyo hospitals are full of people who were supposed to have been out of town. The Honda version ends gloomily, the Morse version optimistically: “the whole world could wake up and live again.”  That the scientist uses his Oxygen Destroyer on moral grounds in both versions is philosophically confusing because it backs up America’s claim that it used the A-Bomb to end the war quickly and stop the killing immediately.  But only Honda’s version makes a plea for peace and no more nuclear-bomb testing. Too bad nobody outside of Japan was listening.”

Showtimes for this landmark of the kaiju eiga (the ever-popular Japanese monster movie) will be daily at 1:15, 3:15, 5:15, 7:30, & 9:45.

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