There are reasons not to take Godzilla seriously. They hardly require enumerating. Foremost among them is ubiquity. This is a figure with more screen appearances than James Bond and an even more checkered cinematic history. Everyone knows the sound of its roar, the urban devastation, the showdowns with equally improbable monsters. It’s all low-rent matinee silliness, made exceptionally durable through sheer iconic power. That is the first layer, but a deeper layer isn’t difficult to unearth. Roused from slumber in the ocean’s depths by hydrogen bomb testing, Godzilla is a mirror of the Atomic Age. The nation that created this monster was itself a victim of the real-life monster less than a decade before. Looking back on Ishirô Honda’s original Godzilla, the historical context is impossible to miss among the film’s references to the war and weapons of mass destruction. As Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi were getting international attention, Godzilla appeared to be one of those movies that were “too Japanese” to have much of an impact in the West. That is, until a new cut of the film was made and released two years later under the matinee-friendly title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! This version became a hit in the United States, helped make Godzilla a global icon, and more or less wrecked what was good about the original movie.
Like many a classic genre film, Godzilla trades special-effects shortcomings for the power of suggestion. The monster isn’t seen at all for the first twenty minutes, and only sparingly until it sets its sights on Tokyo. At first, the film recounts what might as well be a series of natural disasters: ships burned and sunk, a brutal island storm. The reaction to these events is the emphasis, from the throngs of grieving family members, to the ancient religious ceremony on the island, to the scientists trying to piece it all together. The richness of this background overcomes any sense of goofiness to watching someone in a rubber suit destroying miniature sets. From the moment Godzilla first appears on land the film descends to ever more somber depths. No weapons or defenses can stop the creature. There is no glee in the devastation, only despair informed by real-world experience.
Given that description and the latter-day Criterion Collection stamp of approval, it might be easy to forget that Godzilla is a piece of popular entertainment. There’s an upward trajectory to the story, as well — a romantic subplot, even. The pivotal character is Emiko, daughter of the paleontologist Yamane, long betrothed to the scientist Serizawa but now in love with the sea captain Ogata. She is the one who successfully channels the three men’s conflicting viewpoints on the Godzilla problem into a workable solution. The latter half of the film is taken up with the ethical dilemmas of Serizawa’s invention, the Oxygen Destroyer. The scientist hates what he made and is certain that world leaders will wreak havoc with it. When Tokyo is annihilated, he finally agrees that desperate measures are called for. But there is no triumph in the finale. Akira Ifukube’s sorrowful score accompanies the slow descent underwater, where Serizawa and Ogata set up the weapon that will obliterate an unsuspecting Godzilla. One weapon of mass destruction is used against another, but the fear is that the escalation of threats will continue unchecked.
When considering Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, it is important to note both what was added and what was taken away. New footage was shot for the American version, but the newer film is fifteen minutes shorter than the original. The new footage introduces an American character, played by Raymond Burr, who happens to be in Japan when things start to happen. This man is a journalist and therefore takes a keen interest in observing all the strange events. The most interesting thing about the film is the way in which the new shots are spliced into the original footage by editor and director Terry Morse. The original cast didn’t take part, so Burr always occupies separate frames from them or otherwise addresses stand-ins only seen by the camera from behind. In its way, this is all skillfully executed, if not quite natural. In terms of storytelling and politics, it fails utterly. Burr’s character (named Steve Martin, it must be said) is essentially an audience member transplanted to the screen like Buster Keaton, watching a movie that already existed and not contributing to the plot at all. He repeats conclusions drawn by the Japanese characters in an authoritative tone, and his narration is an uninvolving commentary track. His presence, apparently necessary to draw American audiences into a Japanese story, has a distancing effect on every other character. The love triangle is briskly and superciliously explained. The structure itself is altered to accommodate Burr, starting in medias res with the American trapped under rubble. This drains the story of suspense while building up to nothing more shattering than the sight of a man in a makeshift hospital, recovering nicely.
It was smug of me to expect that the American perspective, in the year 1956, on a Japanese nuclear allegory might incorporate a sense of remorse or even guilt. I freely concede that. But taking out all references to the war, much less references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is still extremely frustrating. It robs the story of most of its pathos. One essential moment during the destruction of Tokyo says it all. In Godzilla, King of the Monsters! some, but not all, of the Japanese dialogue is dubbed into English. Naturally, this was done in scenes involving Burr, but the characters sometimes “speak” English in scenes without him to help explain the story. The lines spoken in the original Japanese are not subtitled. In the aforementioned scene, Masao Tamai’s camera settles on a mother and her three small children. Godzilla is about to bring down a building on top of them. The woman comforts the children with the thought that they will soon rejoin their father. The war isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it’s an easy inference to make. This woman appears in the American cut as well. Her words are left untranslated, the use of her purely exploitative.
For fifty years after its release, the original Godzilla was difficult to come by in the West. It was King of the Monsters! that set the template for the monster, exclamation point and all. My first exposure to the character was through the 1960s sequels, dubbed into English. This is the way to form a very particular point of view toward the franchise, one that the rediscovery of the original film finally helped to dispel. King of the Monsters! isn’t a total loss. All the best footage is still there, somewhere, allowing the subtext to be excavated through careful attention. With or without a narrator, it means something to see two generations of Japanese, their war wounds still fresh, confronting the steady march of atomic doom. It’s just better to let them tell their own story.