Combustible Celluloid
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With: Takashi Shimura, Kokuten Kodo, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata
Written by: Ishiro Honda, Takeo Murato
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 11/02/1954

Godzilla (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Stomping Tokyo

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

By now most Godzilla fans realize that Raymond Burr was never part of the plan. In 1954 Ishiro Honda (sometimes incorrectly credited as "Inoshiro") directed a 98-minute film about a monster that took Japanese fear and anger over the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and put it into visual form. Far from his image as a "B" movie hack, Honda had previously worked as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla was taken seriously.

However, the 1954 American distributor cut some 40 minutes from the film and dubbed it into English, which is not all that different from what Miramax does to Jackie Chan movies today. They also hired director Terry Morse (a genuine "B" movie hack) to direct about 20 minutes of footage with Raymond Burr playing American journalist Steve Martin; this footage was then spliced throughout the Japanese footage to make it look as if Burr was there. Moreover, the Americans re-ordered the footage so that the picture starts with the destruction of Tokyo.

This decision can easily be seen as a paranoid conspiracy to cover up the damage U.S. bombs did to Japan, but I suspect that it was merely a marketing decision.

The 80-minute American version, titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was a hit, but it's a seriously boring film, lacking any kind of pacing or suspense. Now Rialto Pictures has restored and subtitled the original Japanese version and released it to U.S. theaters for the first time. It's a revelation, and it's a great film.

This time the film opens on a rash of mysteriously disappearing ships. An island elder (Kokuten Kodo) warns people of Godzilla, but no one believes him. The monster appears, stomps a few people, and goes back into the water. A scientist, Dr. Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura, who was in Seven Samurai the same year) wants to study the beast, but the military wants to wipe it out. Another scientist (Akihiko Hirata) reluctantly allows his "Oxygen Destroyer" to be used -- but at what cost?

Of course the movie has a girl (Momoko Kochi) who is torn between two lovers. Despite the fact that she's one of the movies' most passive heroines, she's the catalyst that helps destroy the monster.

The replacement of the Japanese soundtrack alone adds a whole new layer to the film; dubbing almost always makes a film look low class. But we also get new scenes such as a conversation in a subway car between some locals; they complain about the inconvenience of evacuating -- again. In another scene, a mother gathers her children in the monster's path and promises them that they'll join their father soon.

The "money" shots, Godzilla's rampages, are still intact, but they now have new meaning. The film builds to them and pays off after them, unlike in the American version. Not to mention that the sound and picture are better than ever, and the rampages look more like documentary than spectacle.

Best of all, we get more footage of Takashi Shimura, who was undoubtedly among the greatest actors in all of Japanese cinema. In addition to his role in Seven Samurai he also played the heartbreaking lead role in Kurosawa's Ikiru of the dying man who tried to make his last few months of life count for something. He does the same thing in Godzilla, only on a much larger scale.

The new Godzilla will open in major cities throughout May and the rest of the summer, and eventually the Criterion Collection will release a new DVD.

After eight years after the movie's restoration and theatrical re-release in 2006, the Criterion Collection has finally released the official U.S. DVD and Blu-Rays. Extras include a new high-definition digital restoration of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Terry Morse's 1956 reworking of the original, audio commentary for both movies by film historian David Kalat, new interviews with actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, and interview with legendary Godzilla score composer Akira Ifukube, a featurette detailing Godzilla's photographic effects, a new interview with Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato, an illustrated audio essay, and trailers. Critic J. Hoberman provides the liner notes essay.

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