Thursday, November 19, 2015

Godzilla (1954) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) [Criterion Blogathon 2015]

While HubrisWeen was last month, I think the task before me today requires a substantially larger amount of hubris. For I am about to talk about one of the greatest giant monster films ever made, and easily one of the best films ever made full-stop--and I'm going to try and find something new to say about it.

I don't much care for my chances, which is fitting. Perhaps I am finally in the mindset of one of those hapless bastards who hops inside a tank to fire shells he knows will just bounce off, at a monster he knows will then turn around and wipe him from the face of the earth.

It's a strange thing, honestly, to be an American Godzilla fan born in the 1980s. I was born two years before Godzilla made what would turn out to be his last big screen appearance in the United States for 15 years in Godzilla 1985. By age eight I had heard of Godzilla, but only as a joke fodder and I had no idea what he even looked like until a friend showed me a worn, orange-spined book in the school library:

Reading through Ian Thorne's (actually the pseudonym of author Julian May) marvelous yet often hilariously misinformed book, I fell absolutely in love with the concept of the creature and needed to find a Godzilla movie right away. Luckily, a local video store had several titles for me to choose from. However, I was overwhelmed by my options and the fact that several of the movies I had read about in the book went by names I did not recognize on VHS--and I settled, oddly enough, on Godzilla 1985 to usher me into a world I would never want to leave.

I'm going to skip ahead a bit because I could go on for an entire post just talking about my introduction to Godzilla. The important part of my experience is that Godzilla was still nothing but a joke to the masses in those days. I quickly became a bit too defensive of the indestructible radioactive dinosaur, but it wasn't just the pop culture razzing that was a problem. No, the big issue was that Godzilla was considered nothing but a silly amusement for children alone, and as such warranted no special treatment when his movies were released to video. It was tough to find a lot of the films on anything but the lowest quality tapes--luckily, my son's generation will never know the disappointment of discovering the movie you bought was an EP tape instead of SP.

I spent years of my life being derided by others for liking Godzilla because it was so cheesy. The 1998 film certainly did nothing to dispel this conception, especially given the false sense of superiority the filmmakers evinced when talking about their project.

Yet, somewhere in the early years of the 21st Century, I began to notice a change in how Godzilla was perceived. Art house theaters proudly touted that they would be featuring the original Japanese cut of 1954's Godzilla. Low end distributors like Classic Media and even Echo Bridge began to take Godzilla so seriously that they released the films in their license in the best conditions they could--even including extras!

And then, a moment I thought I would never see: the original Godzilla was given the Criterion treatment. Suddenly, it felt like people were actually taking Godzilla seriously!

Well, people in the West, that is. While even in his native Japan, Godzilla's films were largely recognized as containing effects maybe somewhat less accomplished than Western counterparts--I'll touch more on that later--Godzilla had always been taken pretty damn seriously. It would actually be pretty hard for the Japanese audiences to not take Godzilla seriously. As many, oh-so-serious Godzilla fans love to point out any time anyone tries to enjoy Godzilla for fun, the beast was far more than just another matinee monster: Godzilla was a symbol. A symbol of the devastation Japan had felt as the only country to have a nuclear weapon used on its civilian populace, not once but twice--and possibly even thrice if you consider an incident I'll touch more on shortly, although that was a accident.

Godzilla didn't start that way, of course. Humorously enough, Godzilla started in much the way as his cash-in at a rival studio would a decade later: a big project at Toho studios went bust. In this case, it was a war film called "Behind the Glory" that was to be shot in Indonesia, only for a myriad of political issues to stop production cold. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was left holding the bag, but legend says on a flight back to Japan he was looking out over the ocean from his window when he began to think about what might be lurking beneath the waves. What if it was a prehistoric monster, big enough to destroy a city?

Of course, while that could very well be the true motivation for Tanaka's "eureka!" moment, a more pragmatic person would realize it was more likely that Tanaka knew exactly what the hell he was doing as a producer. Monster movies were clearly big bucks at the time. In 1952, King Kong had been re-released in Japan to tremendous success and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had also been a huge hit in 1953. The evidence of this is clear enough in the film's original, delightfully ludicrous working title "The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"!

To be fair, it's hard to say precisely how much influence they took from the earlier film because the two are, in the final accounting, very different. Hell, special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya wanted Godzilla to be a giant octopus, which would have meant beating It Came From Beneath The Sea to the punch. However, the biggest difference is, unquestionably, in the film's tone.

Director Ishiro Honda had toured Hiroshima after the war and he devastation there had haunted him. Eugene Lourie saw nothing wrong with using a nuclear bomb as a mere McGuffin in his movie, but Honda obviously saw something far more horrifying. And then the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident happened, when a Japanese fishing vessel strayed too close to an American H-Bomb test and was bombarded with fallout. I've mentioned the incident before, because Honda clearly thought it needed to be addressed as much as possible, but Godzilla was the first time he would comment on the tragedy--and how! Ironically, one could argue that the way the incident was exploited was more crass than the way the American Godzilla made 60 years later rendered imagery of Fukushima and the tsunami that caused it. That film was released three years after the tragedy it was evoking, but the Lucky Dragon No. 5 tragedy had happened a mere eight months before this film's release!

There's a few obvious differences, of course. First, the 2014 film was merely using the imagery in an attempt to create horror from familiarity and had no grander message behind it--while Honda's film used it to build on. Second, Honda's film can seen as a catharsis, a country commenting on real horrors it has faced through a fantastic allegory--while the 2014 film was another country using tragedy that someone else had faced. I certainly don't mean to rag on the 2014 film to much, especially since the film also uses obvious 9/11 imagery and that is closer to Honda's intent, but it is an interesting comparison.

Still, imagine how Japanese audiences must have felt in 1954, as they sat in the cinema and watched as this film opened with a ship drifting through the Pacific ocean, its crew strumming guitars and playing games on deck--before a blinding flash of light sends them all to their feet. The ocean before them boils, heated by the same white light from beneath the waves. It is too late for the ship to avoid the deadly water and a white heat washes over the deck, killing all exposed to it. The radio men are barely able to send a distress signal before water pours into the cabin, and then the entire ship explodes into flames and sinks beneath the boiling waves.

It's truly horrifying stuff when you consider that it symbolizes a real event, rendered to the fullest nightmarish extent. Back in the film, the SOS travels fast and Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a captain with the South Seas Salvage Company, receives a call at his home office ordering him in to the Coast Guard Office at once. That's terrible luck as he was just getting dressed for a fancy date with Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi). Ogata makes his apologies, but advises Emiko can still make it to the concert on her own.

At the Coast Guard office, it's utter chaos. Family members and other affected parties are crowding the door, demanding an update. As Ogata arrives, a rescue ship is being tracked as it heads for the last known position of the lost freighter. Unfortunately, whatever destroyed the first vessel is waiting for the rescue ship, and it is obliterated in a boiling white sea.

The natives of Odo Island are much closer to the site of these shipwrecks than those on Honshu, which means that one of their fishing boats is in a prime position to intercept a group of three survivors from the rescue ship, who can only tell them that "the sea just exploded" before collapsing. Odo Island's fishing boats aren't immune to the strange catastrophes, however, and word has barely reached the home office before word comes in that the fishing boat has also been sunk. As reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai) relates to his editor over the phone, that makes three vessels sunk in the same location under similar, bizarre circumstances.

While the villagers of Odo watch the ocean that night, apprehensive, young Shinkichi (Toyoaki Suzuki), spies a raft floating in. The raft is actually wreckage from the destroyed fishing vessel and has only one occupant, Shinkichi's older brother Masaji (Ren Yamamoto). Whatever Masaji saw, he's too weak to communicate it beyond a vague reference to "it got us and our boat." However, the next day when the village's nets all come up empty, the village elder (Kokuten Kōdō) says he knows what's responsible for the empty nets and swath of destroyed boats--Godzilla, the legendary sea monster that haunts their waters.

The young women of the village scoff at the old man because Godzilla is just that: a legend. And when a helicopter bearing Hagiwara and a group of investigators chooses to land just then, well, Hagiwara is just as skeptical of Masaji's insistence that some large creature is going crazy down beneath the ocean. However, Hagiwara's skepticism doesn't mean he isn't receptive--and he actually listens to the old man as he sits next to him that night while watching a haunting exorcism ritual designed to drive Godzilla away. The old man explains that once Godzilla has eaten all the fish in the sea, the great monster will rise up and devour people on the land as well. In the old days, they'd send a young girl out on a raft when the fishing was poor in order to appease the beast, but now all that remains in these less barbaric times is the ritual dance.

After the ritual, a typhoon blows in. While Shnikichi, Masaji, and their mother try to sleep in the midst of the storm, they suddenly become aware that the ground--and their house--are shaking. Shinkichi runs outside into the rain to try and find out what is going on, and Masaji follows--only to look out the door and see something that makes him cry out in fright and rush back to his mother's side. It's too late for either of them, and as Shinkichi watches helplessly from a distance their house is crushed by the passing of something that looks like a gigantic, scaly leg. It's not the only house destroyed. The outsiders aren't spared from the wrath of whatever destroyed the house, because their helicopter is left twisted and smashed.

In Tokyo, a disaster petition group meets in the Diet Building to discuss the catastrophic loss of life, property, and livestock the island has suffered. Shinkichi swears that he saw something alive, and Hagiwara backs up the lad's tale by pointing out that the helicopter was crushed from above by some powerful force.

Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is asked to address the committee. In a moment that would become famous in Japanese pop culture--and is, indeed, referenced in other Godzilla movies--Yamane begins to speak at the podium, only to notice that his tie is hanging out of his jacket and he sheepishly tucks it back in. Yamane, whom we will later learn is Emiko's father, begins by saying that there are many mysteries in the world in the 20th Century, such as the abominable snowman, and that the ocean contains vast unexplored caverns where anything could be lurking. While he admits he has not yet examined the disaster site, he feels it is very likely that there is a distinct possibility that some unknown creature could have come ashore and he requests a research team be formed at once to go to Odo Island.

Yamane gets his wish, and soon he, Emiko, Ogata, and Hagiwara are departing by boat to Odo Island. Emiko notices the mysterious scarred and eye-patched Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) watching them depart. It will gradually come out that Emiko and Serizawa are engaged to be married, but she has fallen in love with Ogata. As the three are good friends, it has been tough for her to find the courage to tell Serizawa about their love--or her father, for that matter. Though naturally they have bigger concerns at present, since the route they're going has seen three different ships be mysteriously sunk and who knows if they'll fare any better?

Luckily, they will. On the island, strange things are definitely afoot--footprints, that is. One of the researchers discovers a well beside the apparent footprints is contaminated with radiation, but as Ogata points out--wouldn't nuclear fallout have contaminated all the island's wells, not just those on one side of the island? Stranger still is that the footprints themselves are radioactive--and then Yamane discovers a live trilobite in in one of the footprints. He excitedly grabs it without thinking as one of the researchers hisses at him not to handle it with his bare hands. Yamane puts it in a specimen jar, but the significance of his discovery has no time to sink in as a watch tower in the village hammers its alarm bell to advise that Godzilla has appeared on the other side of a tall hill. The villagers rush to glimpse the beast rather than fleeing in terror.

Yamane is the first of the investigators to crest the hill and he gleefully tells his companions that he has just witnessed a creature from the Jurassic period. There's no time for them to be skeptical, because Godzilla helpfully backs up Yamane's claim by rearing up over the hill and roaring at them. And while Ishiro Honda decided he wanted to build up to Godzilla's first appearance with mere implications and teases before this grand reveal (gee, where else have I seen that happen?), it must be said that the reveal is somewhat undercut by the fact that despite his many strengths Eiji Tsuburaya was never a particularly good puppet maker. In close-ups and expression shots, as with this sequence, Godzilla is rendered by a hand puppet--and the hand puppet is many, many times worse than the suit it is meant to look just like. For one thing, apart from moving like a hand puppet, its proportions are all wrong--I'm particularly fascinated by its skeletal, stunted arms. That said, the puppet actually looks good for most of this sequence so the first impression of Godzilla is actually fierce and bestial, almost terrifying--until he suddenly turns into a Muppet.

Luckily for the terrified islanders, Godzilla is content to terrify them with his roar and then return to the sea. Coming back from Odo Island, Yamane adresses the committee with the evidence he has found: the photographs of Godzilla, the trilobite specimen, and the presence of strontium-90 that proves a link between Godzilla and H-Bomb tests.  Yamane theorizes that the 165-foot tall beast was driven from its home in a deep sea trench when repeated H-bomb tests drove it from its habitat.  (Don't show this sequence to any actual paleontologists as Yamane uses time period names and dates interchangeably, as well as suggesting that dinosaurs and trilobites both went extinct only two million years ago)  Yamane's lecture is interrupted then by a political argument over whether the truth of Godzilla's origin should be kept secret or not, a debate that nearly tuns violent!

As film (and Godzilla) historian David Kalat points out in his commentary on the Criterion disc, this is both a reference to the division of public opinion in Japan at the time with regards to how much to blame America for the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident and something that would have been illegal under Japanese censorship laws just two years prior. Movies were forbidden from depicting scenes where the new, American-esque democratic government was depicted as ineffectual. And, while the violent end of the debate is left in the American cut, its vaguely anti-American motivations are cut out. More on that later.

The truth of Godzilla's existence does at least get out, however, as we see a truly fascinating scene (also cut from the American cut) where commuters on a train gripe about how Godzilla is going to force them to live the way they did during American bombing raids the decade before and one of them groans about having escaped Nagasaki only to face Godzilla, Well, the JSDF wants citizens like her to not have to worry about that, so they send frigates to try and kill Godzilla with depth charges. As Yamane, Emiko, Ogata, and Shinkichi--now adopted by the Yamane family, as many war orphans were a decade prior--watch the footage on TV, Yamane leaves the room in disgust.  He believes that Godzilla should be studied and not destroyed--after all, what could we learn from a creature that survived a nuclear explosion?

Well, Yamane need not have worried. We find our commuters from earlier on a party ship in Tokyo Bay, just in time for Godzilla to surface in the bay and menace the ship. (As an aside, thanks to David Kalat's commentary, I noticed for the first time in my dozens of viewings of this film that Kenji Sahara, one of the most prolific Japanese sci-fi and fantasy actors of all time and the human villain of my favorite Godzilla movie, has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance as a patron with a cigarette) Godzilla doesn't destroy the ship, but he does terrify its passengers before he submerges again,

More committees are formed, desperate to kill Godzilla, but Yamane points out a fallacy in their certainty that they can beat the monster: "Godzilla was baptized in the fire ofthe H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now?" Well, Yamane may not have any ideas--but it turns out Hagiwara may know someone who does. See, his editor has informed him that a German scientist recently let it slip that Dr. Serizawa may be researching the very answer to the Godzilla problem the Japanese are seeking. Emiko is willing to take Hagiwara to see her fiance, but Serizawa vehemently denies knowing any German scientists (no doubt a loaded thing to admit to in 1950s Japan, just on the face of it) and asks Hagiwara to leave.

Emiko stays, intent on telling Serizawa the truth. He stops her, however, because he wants to show her his work, so she'll understand why he couldn't tell the reporter. He shows her to a fish tank in his lab and drops a small object into the tank, before activating a switch. Emiko screams and recoils in horror, but later swears to keep his discovery secret. Honda plays coy at this point, not revealing the truth until later, but Serizawa has accidentally stumbled across a destructive chemical he dubs "The Oxygen Destroyer" which completely dissolves all organic life in any body of water it's dropped into.

Serizawa fears that if this discovery got out, governments the world over would salivate at the prospect of another super weapon. He fears the lengths they'd go to get his invention, so he has determined that its secret will go with him to his grave. Yet how can Emiko possibly keep secret what she knows when Godzilla comes ashore in Tokyo and destroys a crowded train as prelude to his next attack, when he reduces Tokyo to nothing but flames and ruin?

With all the various mutations Godzilla has gone through over the last 61 years, 29 follow-up films, and myriad comic books and cartoon series--it can be easy to forget that this original film is a grim, harrowing horror tale that absolutely earns its somber quality.

When Godzilla's plates glowed with white-hot intensity in 2014, the audience cheered. In 1954, it was the only warning before hell was unleashed on anyone in his path. And Ishiro Honda never lets the audience forget the human cost. We see the aftermath of Godzilla's destruction in a way that King Kong or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms largely glossed over. Honda makes us dwell on the wounded, the dying, and the grief that the lucky survivors feel. And he even makes us feel the pain of the most unlikely character: Godzilla himself.

Godzilla is the walking avatar of the nuclear bomb. He is death and carnage--and yet Honda never lets us forget that he is as much a victim as the people he kills in his angry rampage. When Godzilla's defeat comes, and it is shockingly final for the first film in a series that is still producing entries, Honda makes the sympathy we feel for Godzilla at the end truly earned. That last haunting howl before he sinks beneath the waves is a marvelous send-off for the beast.

And the film ends with Yamane hinting that Godzilla might not be the last of his kind. In the far remove of 2015, when everything is expected to set up a sequel, this feels like an obvious hook. Yet, it is actually intended as something entirely separate--something greater.

The film is pleading with the world to not continue to create monsters out of nuclear fire, to not wipe whole cities off the map, and to not ruin innocent lives. The film is echoing the words of the real-life radio operator of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 as he succumbed to radiation poisoning, "I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb." Far from teasing a sequel, the film means, "Please, let there be no more Godzillas."

It's a resonant, possibly futile message...that would be lost on Americans, so it's gotta go!

When American distributors got ahold of Godzilla in 1956, they had a strong conviction about a few things: One, that the film had huge potential to turn a hefty profit in the US just as it had in its native Japan. Two, that those profits would be neglible if they released it in subtitled Japanese because the film would never play anything but arthouse cinemas in the American market. Three, American audiences were fucking racists who would never identify with the plight of an entirely Japanese cast.

So the distributors hit upon an idea that was, when you really look at it, kind of a brilliant compromise. They hired director Terry Morse to oversee new scenes where an American reporter named Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr hot off his notable turn as the villain in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and a year before he really rose to fame as Perry Mason on television, becomes caught in the middle of the events of the film and relates the story back to his editor in the states while being assisted by Security Officer Tomo (Frank Iwanaga), and released the film as Godzilla, King of The Monsters!

Now, the truly hilarious thing is that it was decided that Steve Martin--I'm still hoping for the next American Godzilla movie to have a cameo of Steve Martin playing a reporter named Raymond Burr--needed to interact with the story proper and, indeed, to be an old friend of Serizawa and Yamane. This means lots of scenes of Burr addressing the back's of people's heads.

Clearly, that is the back of Professor Yamane's head.
Now, there's no question that Godzilla, King of The Monsters! is a very altered film when compared to the original. Godzilla runs 96 minutes and Godzilla, King of The Monsters! runs a comparatively scrawny 80 minutes. Much of the original film has been torn out and replaced with new footage, especially any scenes where the anti-nuclear message becomes too strong. The film has also been rearranged greatly--it opens with Steve Martin coming to in a ruined Tokyo, having barely survived Godzilla's rampage and flashes back to the beginning where it's revealed his flight passed over the area where the first ship was attacked, so Tomo holds him for questioning after he gets off the flight and then ends up inviting him along on the rest of the story so both characters can hover at the periphery. Martin also becomes an omnipresent narrator, occasionally even talking over character scenes that they couldn't squeeze him into, while other such scenes are dubbed almost at random--the decision for which scenes would be narrated and which would be dubbed are rather haphazard, since the needs of the audience to know what the hell is going on were wisely put before diagetic logic. As for Martin's narration he thankfully does not follow the path that subsequent Americanizations would take in that he does not just narrate what's happening on the screen and, in fact, knows when the hell to shut up.

Although he, hilariously, cannot pronounce "helicopter."

The astonishing thing about the edited film, though, is just how faithful it remains to the original version. Unlike other altered versions, director Terry Morse was wise enough to see that Akira Ifukube's amazing score should be left unaltered. The tone of the film was left unaltered as well: while the explicit warnings about how awful nuclear weapons are may have been toned down, the grim tone of the film was not. Indeed, Godzilla's rampage in Tokyo does not appear to suffer a single cut, even if many very moving scenes lose their power by being left untranslated--if the scene of the mother assuring her children that they'll be with their father soon as the flames close in on them doesn't hit you in the gut, then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

I will even go so far as to say that, occasionally, I prefer some of the alterations made by the Americans. While the rampage scenes are largely unaltered, there are two destruction sequences where Terry Morse decided to add the sound effect of Godzilla's victims screams--when he tosses a train car to the ground after picking it up in his jaws and when he obliterates a police car with his atomic breath before the driver can escape. Without the screams those two bits are the only ones that feel less effective in the original film.

In the end, of course I will always say that Ishiro Honda's original film is superior. However, it is a fallacy that even I have been guilty of to say that Godzilla, King of The Monsters! is somehow worthless because it altered a great film. For starters, without Terry Morse's version who knows if Godzilla would have ever been as popular in the West as he eventually became? More intriguingly, it's entirely possible that Godzilla would never have made more than two screen appearances without Morse's version.

Godzilla was, after all, a massive hit in Japan. And just as had happened with King Kong in the 1930s, the decision was made to rush a sequel into theaters a mere six months later! Now, while I think Godzilla Raids Again is far superior to Son of Kong and, frankly, is often unfairly maligned by the fandom--Japanese audiences clearly did not agree with me. While not entirely a flop, there's no question that the film fizzled at the box office. Toho decided that, instead of bringing Godzilla back for a third fim, they would branch off in other directions--such as introdcuing the world to the first flying kaiju in living color with Rodan and charging into luxurious TohoScope (their answer to CinemaScope) with alien invasion epics The Mysterians (which also features a giant robot monster) and Battle in Outer Space (which doesn't).

The success of Godzilla, King of The Monsters! overseas (so successful, in fact, that it was actually given a theatrical release in Japan in 1957 as Monster King Godzilla) convinced Toho that there was an interest in their biggest star overseas. Even if they, oddly, were completely on board with the plan to erase Godzilla's name value from Godzilla Raids Again when it was first intended to have its effects footage reused for the scrapped project "The Volcano Monsters" about a giant Tyrannosaurus (Godzilla) and a giant Ankylosaurus (Anguirus) tangling in San Francisco, and again when it was finally released as Gigantis, The Fire Monster in 1959.

Point is, without Raymond Burr talking to the backs of heads, the world would never have gotten the third appearance by Godzilla in the biggest screen match-up ever: 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla. And we most certainly would not be getting its rematch, Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. I think that deserves a lot of respect.

Of course, critics of the the time certainly did not agree.

Just look at the dismissive review from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, whose very name tells you he's a smug prick, frankly, and having browsed some of his other reviews of genre film I find that the man seems an inveterate killjoy. However, his attitude towards Godzilla, King of The Monsters! is truly insufferable:
To say that this Oriental monster is fantastic is to state but half the case. "Godzilla," produced in a Japanese studio, is an incredibly awful film. It looks as though its Japanese producers, assisted by a stray American—fellow named Terry Morse, who is an alumnus of Hollywood's Poverty Row—made a close study of the old film, "King Kong," then tried to do substantially the same thing with a miniature of a dinosaur made of gum-shoes and about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains. 
Their idea is that this monster, which exhales atomic breath, much as the cigarette billboard in Times Square blows out puffs of smoke, takes it upon itself, for no clear reason, to destroy Tokyo. And a good half hour of the picture's eighty minutes is devoted to this pursuit.
Makes me want to go back in time and give the man an atomic wedgie. Especially since, I have become increasingly aware as I grow older that the only difference between "about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains" and praise worthy special effects is what country is making the effects.

In his book, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, David Kalat raises a beautiful point--one he also touches on in his Criterion commentary--that the aggravating tendency to dismiss Godzilla movies has a distinct whiff of prejudice about it. Kalat writes:
I do not wish to accuse anyone of racism, certainly not over something as trivial as a monster movie. Nevertheless, I am left speechless by reviewers who spend one page deriding Japanese productions for man-in-a-suit monsters but then on the next page express admiration for Western films using the same techniques. I have read countless apologists for some of the worst science fiction films ever made that just happen to be American productions, while Japanese imports of extremely high quality receive ridicule and contempt.
Indeed, how often are War of the Worlds or When Worlds Collide hailed for their special effects, which use miniatures not exceptionally better than Godzilla. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a man in a suit, and so is Alien. Yet somehow Godzilla continually gets dismissed for being cheap. Now, Kalat has also pointed out that Japanese audiences don't care as much about whether a film's special effects are "realistic" the way Americans do. While I have no doubt that there is a lot of truth to that, I still feel that the bigger difference in acceptance of the effects that bring Godzilla to life are simply a matter of who is doing them.

In the end, I'm obviously biased. Godzilla has been a part of my life for about 24 years as of this writing. I can find something good to say about his most bizarre, most threadbare, most despised, and most mediocre entries. That said, I think that Godzilla is absolutely essential viewing. Perhaps some modern audiences need to have their special effects cynicism turned off before viewing it, but even if they must snicker at the special effects I can only hope that they at least give the story a chance. They won't regret it.

And naturally, I also have to say that the Criterion edition is the best way to go. It's the best the film has ever looked, has an amazing wealth of extras, and the packaging is beautiful.

This review is my contribution to the Criterion Blogathon! Click the banner below to check out the scores of other amazing entries, including several from the other Celluloid Zeroes!

(And if you don't already have it, pick up the Criterion edition below!)


  1. Awesome post, loved reading this and even as a Godzilla fan I learned more. Never mind the derision by dumb critics and silly friends, you were right all along. So glad you joined the blogathon and covered this movie for it!

  2. I'm with you: Bosley Crowther does deserve an atomic wedgie.

    I've only seen the Americanized version, and now need to track down the original Japanese version. I didn't realize the the post-WWII movie censorship when it came to portraying Americans. I can see that in a movie like Godzilla, that would be quite a balancing act.

    Loved your review, and your memories of discovering Godzilla as a child. This is a beautiful tribute to the films, but also to the Japanese who suffered and lost much in the last days of WWII.

  3. Queue the BOC music! Having been born in the 60s, I'm much closer to the original's born on date, but still came after. Fortunately, an old theater down town that I went to as a kid showed all the old Godzilla movies along with serials and stuff, so I got to experience them in the theater anyway. Thanks to Alamo Draughthouse, I've got to re-live one with my kids too. They don't always like the stuff I try to foist off on them, but everyone in my house speaks Godzilla! What's not to like? (Well, having said that, I didn't care for the new one much. Final Wars is our favorite.)

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  5. P.S.- "I'm still hoping for the next American Godzilla movie to have a cameo of Steve Martin playing a reporter named Raymond Burr."--That's awesome, right there! Me too!

  6. Oh, yeah, one more thing. Not sure if it's true or not, but I heard once that Kurosawa wanted to direct a Godzilla pic. Now that would have been something!

  7. You're the same age as my daughter and I remember one Sunday morning when I had SON OF GODZILLA on TV when she was 4 and she stopped playing to watch it and loved it! As they say, the apple never falls far from the tree.

    I saw GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS in its first TV showing when I was five. By then, Raymond Burr had become a big star as "Perry Mason" and we all watched the show, so when GODZILLA came on we were so impressed that Perry Mason was in Japan fighting dinosaurs. For most of the Baby Boomer generation, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS was our first exposure to Japanese cinema. A year later, RODAN came on TV and it had an all-Japanese cast, with no American stars and no reediting, so it was our first "real" Japanese movie. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    Thanks for this detailed piece and thanks for recognizing the unique qualities of the American reedit. As great as the original GOJIRA is (a film I saw when it first appeared in the U.S. in 1982 and one I wrote about in a fanzine I published in the pre-blog era), the American reedit has special meaning for a lot of us and did a number of things right and deserves credit for it. Thank you.

  8. I admit, I love the man-in-a-monster-suit horror movies, but the original Godzilla transcends its genre. It's really a serious, affecting film; having watched it in theaters with audiences, I can attest to the grip it produces on spectators (no one laughs or smirks). So much fascinating background info you provide in your post - thanks!

  9. I'll happily lend my small container of flux-capacitor-powering plutonium to the wedgie effort. Anyone deriding Godzilla effects needs to be strapped down and made to watch all of "The Crowded Sky" for a forceful lesson in how badly a major US studio could mishandle effects (the mid-air collision I'm thinking of is about fifteen seconds long; the punishment is in having to watch the rest of the film).

    I'm also with you on the relative merits the Original and US versions; apart from the discomfort of listening the the dubber's struggle with "phenomenon", the differences are merely of flavour rather than value.