What do you call a 165- foot metaphor
with a bad attitude and a taste for Japanese?
Call him 50 years old. "Godzilla"
- tall, dark and radioactive - was released
in Japan in its original form in 1954 and went
on to leave deep, wide footprints not only
on the sci-fi genre but the international film
industry at large. Some of its influence has
been less than beneficial - the ludicrous dubbing
into English of the American version was a
major factor in turning at least three generations
of intelligent moviegoers here against anything
but subtitled foreign films. And in turning
the dubbed Japanese horror film into a joke.
When you factor in Americans' lack of enthusiasm
for subtitled films (I don't get it, but
that's what distributors tell me), "Godzilla"
probably did for foreign film distribution
in the United States what its title character
does to Tokyo.
But what may surprise people who know Godzilla
only from reruns on the old WOR-TV or the obese
remake of 1998 is that the first "Godzilla"
is a first-rate movie. On Friday, the original,
uncut, never-before-released-in-America version
is being distributed by Rialto Pictures (and
opening at Manhattan's Film Forum), and what
is being presented to us is not just a landmark
monster flick but a hard lesson in disparate
worldviews - to wit, the post-nuclear Japanese
versus the Cold War American.
Godzilla himself (how they know he's
male is never explained, and we really don't
want to know) is a walking, stomping metaphor
for the atomic threat. Long the stuff of Odo
Island legend, Godzilla has been roused from
the ocean floor by U.S. H-bomb tests that have
rendered him highly radioactive. Freighters
begin spontaneously combusting, mid-ocean;
enormous tracks are found on beaches. And after
a series of depth- charge attacks are launched
against the monster, he reduces Tokyo to smoke
and ash (the images clearly meant to evoke
the Allied firebombing of the city in 1945).
Despite the occasional model helicopter
tipping over, or the ship-in-the-bathtub
technique resorted to by a time-pressed director,
sci-fi master Ishir" Honda, the film has
a great deal of humor - in one particular shot
the monster, being approached by two scientists
in divers' suits, looks over his shoulder so
nonchalantly it's hilarious. But all of this,
and the anti-nuclear message, were lost in
translation when Godzilla hit America.
Besides the bad dubbing, the most noteworthy
(and strange) addition to the 1956 U.S. version
were the scenes shot in Hollywood featuring
actor Raymond Burr (as scientist Steve Martin)
and theninjected into a film that was already
being made 18 minutes shorter than the original
Japanese version. The Burr stuff is generally
silly and forced; it's the deletions from the
film that are most provocative.
Among them: a sequence in the Japanese
Diet in which a politician argues that the
threat posed by Godzilla must be kept from
the public, while a woman citizen (suggesting
a new feminism in Japan) insists that the public
needs to know, her vehemence suggesting the
lingering rage over Japan's nuclear bombings.
(Later, a woman commuter hopes Godzilla won't
get her - "not after I survived Nagasaki.")
The role of Godzilla as a kind of stand-in
for the H-bomb is played down throughout the
U.S. version. And the conclusion - in which
Godzilla can be defeated only by a weapon that
may prove equally or more perilous than atomic
energy - is made downbeat in Japan, upbeat
Which is not to say one needs a degree in
political science to enjoy "Godzilla"
(or "Gojira" in Japanese,
which apparently means "gorilla-whale").
The new 35mm print looks terrific, and the
movie works - as it was meant to - as purely
popular entertainment. Takashi Shimura, a star
of Akira Kurosawa's "Rash"mon"
and "Seven Samurai," brings
his mournful eloquence to the role of Dr. Yamane,
who insists Godzilla must be studied, not killed,
so they can learn how he survived the nuclear
blasts. And much of the film is dedicated to
the romantic triangle involving Yamane's daughter,
Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her rival scientists
- the mysterious, eye-patch- wearing Dr. Serizawa
(Akihiko Hirata) and Ogata (Akira Takarada),
who is less appealing. Why? Because he lacks
Serizawa's dedication and brilliance and seems
generally more self-absorbed, which makes his
characterization another interesting factor
in the crossover life of "Godzilla."
In an opening scene, Ogata is disappointed
that the Godzilla emergency is forcing him
to miss that evening's performance of what
we see on his program is the Budapest String
Quartet. Is it significant that Emiko's less
charismatic suitor would be the one absorbing
Western culture and becoming, by implication,
less Japanese? It's just one more intriguing
aspect to a movie with an ever-critical message,
and a fascinatingly checkered past.
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