||Terrence Rafferty 's "Arts & Leisure"|
|May 2, 2004|
Monster That Morphed Into a Metaphor
Godzilla taking a shortcut. An uncut, undubbed version of the 1954 film is finally being shown in America.
IT'S just 50 years since a 150-foot-tall prehistoric creature with a spiky back, a nasty attitude and radioactive breath rose from the sea to pulverize Tokyo. The Japanese called the beast Gojira. When it arrived on our shores it was rechristened "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," though the big fella had in fact lost a good deal of his terrifying majesty in the passage.
Film Forum in Manhattan is celebrating the anniversary of the pre-eminent movie monster of the 50's with a two-week presentation of the restored, uncut, Japanese-language version of "Godzilla," (opening on Friday). And while this might not, on the face of it, seem like one of the more urgently needed film-preservation projects, the buffed-up "Godzilla," radically different from the truncated, risibly dubbed version American audiences know, is a surprisingly compelling pop-culture artifact: a picture of the strange forms nuclear anxiety took in an era that now feels nearly as remote as the Jurassic.
For Godzilla was, even in its bowdlerized "King of the Monsters" incarnation, an obvious — gigantic, unsubtle, grimly purposeful — metaphor for the atomic bomb. The Americanized "Godzilla,' which removed about 40 minutes from the Japanese original and inserted 20 minutes or so of new scenes featuring a sympathetic Yank journalist (played, with burly gravitas, by Raymond Burr), did its darnedest to minimize the nuclear theme. A lot of the Japanese characters' explicit references to the bomb were jettisoned. But Godzilla's back story was left basically intact: the beast, we're told, had lived more or less peacefully in the ocean for a few hundred thousand years (only very occasionally requiring the sacrifice of a virgin or two by nearby islanders), until H-bomb testing killed off its food supply and, as its fiery exhalations indicate, irradiated the creature itself. And since the stateside distributors were understandably reluctant to tamper with the meat-and-potatoes scenes of the monster's rampages, the most memorable images, even in the American version, are those of a Japanese city burned and crushed to dust by a lethal, apparently ungovernable force. You'd have to be pretty thick — thicker than Raymond Burr — to miss the point.
The most significant difference, really, between the Japanese "Godzilla," directed by Ishiro Honda, and "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," which credits one Terry Morse as co-director, is that of tone. Honda's "Godzilla," while far from a great movie, has a distinctively haunted, elegiac quality, which surfaces only sporadically (and, in its new context, puzzlingly) in the choppy "King of the Monsters." Bad dubbing, of course, imparts at least a whiff of ridiculousness to any movie, and in the case of "Godzilla" it works like a toxic cloud. If audiences remember the Japanese monster movies of the 50's as campy, cheesy spectacles, it's partly the soundtracks that are to blame: no matter what horrors are unfolding on the screen, the sound of dialogue that appears to have been learned phonetically, emanating from actors whose lips move with the surreal irrelevance of ventriloquists' dummies, does sort of undercut the solemnity of the proceedings.
And Honda's "Godzilla" is extraordinarily solemn, full of earnest discussions about how to respond to the apocalyptic threat — one thoughtful scientist, played by the perennially wise-seeming Takashi Shimura, argues that the monster should not be killed but studied for clues to surviving the effects of radiation — and long, mournful pans across the rubble of post-Godzilla Tokyo. (Some of these shots are eerily reminiscent of scenes from Akira Kurosawa's 1949 thriller "Stray Dog," on which Honda had worked as an assistant.) In "Godzilla," the comic-book premise is never allowed to overwhelm the director's clear intention — to measure the aftershocks of the nuclear obliteration, nine years earlier, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The outlandish metaphors of the science-fiction and horror genres are useful vehicles for imagining the unimaginable, speaking the unspeakable. In pop creations like "Godzilla," the blunt metaphors, like the monsters themselves, tend to develop minds of their own: they run rampant, flattening even the sturdiest intentions. The most peculiar thing about Godzilla as a metaphor for the bomb is the creature's simultaneous status as a legendary beast of Japanese islanders' mythology: surely a more precise representation of the disaster that befell the country at the end of the Second World War would be an agent of destruction from far away, unheard of even in legend, not this native, almost familiar monster. Is Godzilla, then, also on some subterranean level a metaphor for Japan's former imperial ambitions, which finally unleashed the retaliatory fury that leveled its cities?