Next week the new "Godzilla" opens, and while we must wait to discuss it (other than to say it's really good) it's never too late to pay tribute to the 1954 film that made it possible.
The original Japanese "Godzilla" has returned in a Rialto Pictures re-release for a weeklong Music Box Theatre run, in a crisp digital edition, with fresh, idiomatic English subtitles and extra-crispy sound. And what sounds! To mangle Shakespeare, they give delight and hurt plenty in director Ishiro Honda's grave classic. Under the stark opening credits, and throughout the picture, Godzilla's fantastic roar was created by using a contrabass (double bass) with loosened strings, manipulated by a musician wearing leather gloves. That sound was recorded, then played back at an eerie, slower speed for maximum effect. Godzilla's concrete-shattering footsteps, meanwhile, were made by using the first few milliseconds of a recorded explosion, with the recognizable bomb-blast sound removed.
There's grim aptness in that second sound source. Made by Tokyo's legendary Toho studio, "Godzilla" unleashed its fury on an eager moviegoing public nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Images of screaming children and a devastated, irradiated populace recur with startling frequency in Honda's film. The premise of "Godzilla" pulled an idea from "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" released a year earlier. Godzilla literally is the bomb — awakened by atomic tests in the Pacific, fed by the power of humankind's latest and worst form of mass destruction.
If you've seen the version of "Godzilla" featuring Raymond Burr, you've seen the American release edition with all the frivolous additional English-language footage. This is not that version. This is the one to see. It was called "Gojira" in Japan, because in early planning stages the prehistoric creature was described as a cross between a "gorira" (a gorilla) and a "kujira" (a whale). The Americanized handle, Godzilla, sounded happily inevitable and the rest was history, the stuff of many sequels, many remakes, too many fleeting, jokey references to count.
This is one of the 20th century's key post-atomic pop artifacts. (Throw in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" if you like, since that play's anxious vaudeville near the abyss could not have been possible in the pre-1945 period.) Today, "Godzilla" works because its makers took the story seriously. The year Honda's film came out, Mickey Rooney starred in a truly bizarre comedy called "The Atomic Kid," about a schmo who survives an atomic blast but goes a little haywire in the process. Godzilla was the real atomic kid, however, and he's no joke.
It will take more than the '54 version's handy "oxygen destroyer" to rid the planet of its most karmically generated adversary.
"Godzilla" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:38; in Japanese with English subtitles
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre; musicboxtheatre.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun