Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Toho Studios, Jewell Enterprises, Transworld, 1954/1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night we turned on the TNT channel to a showing of the original Godzilla, a tie-in to last Wednesday’s official release of the massive high-tech remake by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich of Independence Day. (This is at least the third version of the original Godzilla story — there was a big-budget Japanese remake in 1985 as well.) This, of course, is the 1956 American version in which footage featuring Raymond Burr as journalist “Steve Martin” (it occurred to me that it would have made a marvelous in-joke for Devlin and Emmerich to cast Steve Martin in their version and have him play a character named “Raymond Burr”!) was rather crudely shot in Hollywood and added by American distributor Dave Kay, who was interviewed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. He said he spent $30,000 for the rights to the original 1954 Japanese film, Gojira, and $100,000 shooting the new footage with Burr — he also couldn’t remember the name of the person who suggested changing the name of the title character from “Gojira” to “Godzilla” but said he accepted the suggestion because “it sounded more rough and menacing.” Inoshiro Honda was the original Japanese director (and also co-scenarist with Takeo Murata), while a low-budget director named Terry Morse did the additional scenes for the American version, and L.A. Times writer Marla Matzer said, “Kay deftly wove the new footage and the old to the point where a lot of people thought Burr was in the film when it was first shot.” It may well have fooled people who had no way of knowing that Burr wasn’t in the film when it was first shot (there was even one amusing sequence in which Burr was intercut with a Japanese actress he was supposedly talking to, and Morse inserted a reverse-angle shot of an American actress with her back to the camera, wearing a matching costume, to heighten the illusion that the two people had been in the same scene), but if you’re looking for the differences between the two sources of footage you can easily spot the join lines — the original work by Japanese cinematographer Masao Tamai (Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film lists only credits for the Japanese version but co-credits the cinematography to Tamai and someone with the distinctly un-Japanese name of Guy Roe) is soft, gray-toned and a bit grainy, whereas the American footage is hard-edged and almost noir (there’s one surprisingly haunting shot in which a Venetian blind casts a shadow over an Oriental-looking actress who’s in the same scene as Burr — obviously this one, as well as the other scenes in which Burr interacts with Asian-looking people in the same frame, was shot in the U.S. with Asian-American actors).

Besides that, Godzilla deserves credit for at least attempting to introduce some intellectual depth to the monster-movie genre. One of the Japanese characters is an atomic scientist who has invented a weapon called the “oxygen destroyer,” but — fearful of what happened after the atomic bomb was invented — he doesn’t want anyone to know about the existence of this weapon, nor does he ever want it used. Eventually, his girlfriend leaks its existence to the authorities, and he agrees that it be used this one time to kill Godzilla — but he also destroys his plans for it and sacrifices his own life to kill Godzilla with it at the end, so the weapon will no longer exist. (Such issues of conscience almost certainly occurred to these filmmakers because their country is the only one that has actually been victimized by atomic warfare; Clarens noted the irony that “Japan, the only nation on earth to have actually suffered from atomic warfare, has become the world’s foremost producer of filmed holocausts.”) The opening scenes are also eloquent, excellently staged in their use of World War II-era newsreel footage to represent Tokyo in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction of the city — and, as all Godzilla buffs know, the monster was brought back to life in the first place as a result of the U.S. H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. That’s about all anyone can say in the positive side about Godzilla — in all other aspects of its production, this film is so cheesy and silly it makes The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (an American production in the same genre made at the same time) look like a masterpiece by comparison. Not only is there way too much stock footage in this film (there’s one clip of Godzilla rising up out of the water — with the same two toy boats between him every time he appears — that is used often enough to evoke Ed Wood comparisons; and while the opening sequences use World War II newsreel footage quite effectively, elsewhere in the film it’s clearly being spliced in only to pad out the running time and represent the futile use of conventional military equipment against the monster), but Godzilla himself is totally unconvincing. Ray Harryhausen's brilliant model work in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms actually made the title character seem credible; the monster in Godzilla is all too obviously a human actor wandering around miniature sets, smashing balsa-wood buildings and severing fishing-line electrical cables, and lumbering around in an overstuffed and unbearably heavy costume that makes him move so slowly he’s about as menacing as a glacier. (Only when he breathes — he has the capability to emit either fire or dry ice from his mouth — does he look even remotely dangerous.) Godzilla and its sequels, in fact, became cult classics precisely because of their cheesiness and cheapness — to the point where Japanese cities would compete with each other, lobbying Toho Studios for the honor of being the next city Godzilla would destroy in his subsequent films — which would seem to make the idea of a state-of-the-art high-tech remake seem rather beside the point. But (unlike my roommate) I’ll reserve judgment on the new Godzilla until I actually have a chance to see it … — 5/23/98


I decided to break out my DVD set of the original Godzilla from the Criterion Collection, which contains both the marvelous original Japanese version of the film — Gojira (1954) — and the American version from two years later, rather crudely dubbed into English and featuring quite a few new scenes directed by Terry Morse (who’d made some unusually interesting “B” movies for Warner Bros. a decade earlier) and featuring Raymond Burr as an Anglo character named “Steve Martin,[1]” a reporter who was on his way to Cairo for an assignment when he stopped in Tokyo for a little R&R — given what we now know about Burr’s real-life sexual orientation one would think he’d first head for all the Gay bars, but instead he’s hoping to see his old friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihito Hirata, a quite interesting actor who apparently made no other movies) when he gets caught up in the whole destructive madness involving Godzilla, a huge prehistoric monster who’s revived underwater by U.S. H-bomb tests in the Pacific. I wanted to run this now because two nights ago I’d seen the original Gojira for a second time at the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) after Charles and I got this DVD set containing both versions in 2015, ran the Japanese original and were knocked out by it — and with the original Gojira fresh in my mind I wanted to see the American reworking again for a point of comparison with the Japanese version. The two actually track fairly closely, and director Morse and his cinematographer, Guy Roe, do a quite impressive job of matching the new footage they show in Hollywood with Burr and several Asian-American actors (often standing with their backs to the camera as they talk to Burr so they could impersonate the different cast members from the Japanese original) with the original scenes by director Ishirô Honda and cinematographer Masao Tomai. Only the more creative, almost noir-ish lighting of the Japanese sequences, and a certain graininess about them compared with the crisper but also less dramatically lit U.S. scenes, gives the game away. 

What’s really wrong with the U.S. Godzilla is how much of the subtext got drained away in the reworking: the 1954 Japanese Gojira has an extraordinary sense of pain about it, as if Japan was going through a sort of collective national post-traumatic stress disorder from the relentless bombing they’d undergone from U.S. aircraft in the last year and a half of World War II. First there had been a succession of raids with incendiary bombs dropped by planes launched from the islands of Saipan and Tinian (in Martin Caidin’s book A Torch to the Enemy he talks about how U.S. Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay pressured the Navy and the Marines to attack this island group, which also includes the larger and more famous island of Guam, two years ahead of schedule because he needed them as a base to get his planes close enough to Japan to launch bombing raids), which destroyed 50 percent of Tokyo and wreaked similar havoc on other Japanese cities, then the atomic bomb raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (picked because there were so few “virgin targets” that hadn’t already been largely decimated by the fire raids). There’s even one remarkable sequence in the Japanese original in which just before Gojira attacks the elevated train (one of two sequences, along with the sacrificial dance the natives of Odo Island do as they await the coming of the monster, Honda and his writers cribbed from the other truly great giant-monster movie, the original 1933 King Kong), one of the passengers announces that she survived the Nagasaki bombing and now she’s facing the terror again. Though the Japanese original has less specifically anti-American content than has been reported — the U.S. is never named as the source of the H-bomb tests that awakened Gojira/Godzilla — clearly the monster, like the real-life bombers that had terrorized Japan a decade before the film was made, is a U.S. product because the U.S. was the only country that was doing H-bomb tests on islands in the Pacific Ocean. (The Soviet Union was the only other country that had an H-bomb, and they were doing their tests on land, on their own territory in Siberia.) The most annoying aspect of the U.S. Godzilla in comparison with its Japanese counterpart is actually the narration by Raymond Burr; like Castle of Doom (the God-awful U.S. butchering of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1931 horror masterpiece Vampyr), Burr and whoever was voice-dubbing Momoko Kochi as Emiko, the woman who’s torn between her arranged engagement to Dr. Serizawa and her attachment to the young naval officer Ogata, played by Akira Takarada, give us long, tendentious explanations of plot points that were easy enough for us to “read” without the help of a narrator in the Japanese version. 

Charles wondered when we saw Gojira if any footage from the Japanese original not involving Godzilla made it into the U.S. version, though actually quite a lot did, including the scenes on Odo Island in which Japanese paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who was billed fourth in the Japanese version but second, just below Burr, in the U.S. cut) takes a Geiger counter to Godzilla’s giant footprint and thus proves that the monster is radioactive; and the sequence late in the movie in which Dr. Serizawa watches a telecast of a memorial service for Godzilla’s victims in Tokyo and hears a children’s choir sing a lament (a quite haunting composition by Akira Ifukube, whose score is otherwise pretty variable: a rather inappropriate gung-ho “military” march accompanies the Japanese naval vessels that set out to do battle with Godzilla, but some of the scenes of destroyed urban environments — I suspect many of these were stock footage of actual destroyed Japanese cities from World War II newsreels — get quite impressively doleful music), which decides the reluctant Serizawa to use his fearsome “oxygen destroyer” to kill Godzilla. There are shards of the original film’s pacifist and anti-nuclear message in Serizawa’s reluctance to use the weapon he’s developed for fear it will just make future wars even more destructive, and his insistence once he decides to use it not only to burn all his plans and notes for it but to sacrifice his own life to destroy Godzilla so the secret of how to make the “Oxygen Destroyer” will die with him. Otherwise the U.S. Godzilla is a perfectly acceptable giant-monster movie but one which is a pale shadow of the surprisingly intense original Gojira (the name, incidentally, is a mash-up of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” and the original intent was to make the monster just that — a visual mash-up of a gorilla and a whale — but at the last minute Honda and his effects crew decided it would look more believable and scary to make Godzilla a giant dinosaur instead), though enough of the Japanese version’s depth and veiled anti-nuclear message remains that the 1956 U.S. Godzilla can at least be taken more or less seriously instead of turning into the camp-fest later Godzilla movies became, especially given the slapdash dubbing they were given in their English-language versions. Surprisingly, much of the footage from the 1956 Godzilla that was retained from the Japanese original wasn’t dubbed at all: instead we get a lot of untranslated Japanese with Burr and the woman who dubbed Emiko explaining to us what the actors were originally saying. It seems that only the professional Japanese scientists and military personnel rated voice doubles; the Japanese proletarians in the movie didn’t — how classist! — 11/21/17

[1] — I remember that when the first U.S. Godzilla reboot came out in the 1990’s I thought they should have done the in-joke of hiring Steve Martin for the cast and having him play a character called “Raymond Burr”!