With yet another American remake of Godzilla coming next month, there will be a whole new generation of American moviegoers who will miss the point of Godzilla entirely. The original Japanese version of the film wasn’t a monster movie for kids. It was a serious tale for adults and an allegory about the consequences of nuclear weapons. Audiences weren’t supposed to cheer when Godzilla blew stuff up, they were supposed to feel a deep sense of shame and terror. The American film industry saw potential in Godzilla because of Hollywood’s “Giant Atomic Monster” phase, but they didn’t care for the anti-nuke themes, or the lack of square-jawed caucasian heroes. What was Hollywood to do?
They cut out 40 minutes of footage and shoehorned in shots of Raymond Burr. There have been several Japanese cuts of the film that made their way to American shores but these have left out a few scenes from the original. This summer a fully restored version of Godzilla is making a brief run in American theaters, and it contains the material that was previously cut, along with the original Japanese language, and no Raymond Burr.
Godzilla was the most expensive movie made in Japan in 1954, and it became an unexpected success. It got a quick sequel the following year, and there was a new Godzilla movie almost every year throughout the sixties and seventies. Unfortunately the subsequent films took a rapid trip toward campy action aimed at children. Men in rubber monster suits stomped through tiny towns, while inconsequential human characters padded up the running time between monster fights. Robots and aliens made frequent appearances, as did humans piloting fantastic anti-monster machines. Godzilla has become a cultural icon, but for all the wrong reasons, not for the original movie’s profound themes.
The new restored version of Godzilla is quite different from what audiences will expect. It’s a slow-paced film that takes its time before revealing Godzilla, and only has a couple of scenes where he rampages through cities. He doesn’t fight other monsters, or aliens, or giant robots. Instead he fights a hopelessly outmatched Japanese military. While the later movies depicted him as an anti-hero, here Godzilla is a malevolent force of nature. A destructive beast that punishes humanity for our crimes against the natural world.
Sixty years after it first appeared, the message is still just as relevant as Japan still struggles to clean up the Fukushima reactor site. In the aftermath of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, there is a series of shots that depict the wounded (And irradiated) being treated in hospitals around the city. It was deliberately graphic and turned the focus of the story to the humans who had to rebuild in the aftermath of the attacks. One of the scenes restored in this version shows a group a Tokyo commuters humorously discussing the inconveniences of repeated monster attacks, although this is a rare moment of comic relief.
Even though the themes are still highly topical, the film suffers from dated special effects. There is some bad compositing to make Godzilla suddenly appear in the background while actors flee in terror in the foreground. A groundbreaking moment sixty years ago, but laughable in the age of digital effects. Modern audiences will also snicker at the model trains and tanks as they are stomped by a stuntman in a rubber suit.
Despite these technical failings, this restored edition will give viewers a chance to see the lofty origin of the Godzilla franchise in a rare theatrical screening. Godzilla: The Japanese Original is currently playing in New York through April 24th, and will play throughout the country until August. More information on scheduling is available at: www.rialtopictures.com.