Fifty years later, 'Godzilla' still mutating, multiplying


Yes, America, it's finally here - Godzilla, the director's cut.

To anyone familiar with the original U.S. release, such a notion may come as a shock, nearly as hard to believe as a fire-breathing mutant dinosaur destroying Tokyo.

Godzilla might seem a questionable candidate for a director's cut. This is not Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, after all, but a run-of-the-mill creature feature, good mostly for laughs, not a place in film history. Not even if it did launch a film franchise for Japan's Toho Co. that has lasted half a century, apparently a record.

Toho is celebrating Godzilla's 50th birthday this year by releasing the 28th (and supposedly last) Godzilla movie in December, and by providing some classic and rarely seen films from the series to a Godzilla film festival scheduled for Hollywood's historic Egyptian Theatre next month.

The anniversary also is being observed with an exhibit at Columbia University's East Asian Library, featuring posters and memorabilia from the whole run of Japanese monster movies that began with Gojira in 1954.

The director's cut of Godzilla is, in fact, Gojira, the version released in Japan two years before its American release. The beast's name is a fusion of gorilla (as in King Kong) and kujira, a Japanese word for whale. Opening in limited release (New York and San Francisco) this weekend, it is the original film's first extended release in America, though many hard-core fans have seen it on bootlegged videos.

Rialto Pictures of New York, which specializes in theatrical revivals of recognized classics such as The Battle of Algiers and Nights of Cabiria, is taking something of a gamble on Godzilla, which is recognized as classic shlock by many who vividly recall its 1956 release.

But that's because the Americanization of Gojira was one of the most appalling butcher jobs of all time, experts say. About 40 original minutes were removed and 20 new minutes added - footage shot in Los Angeles of Raymond Burr as a reporter who stumbles onto a pretty big story on a visit to Japan.

Mostly he hangs around on the periphery of the action, with an interpreter explaining to him (and us) what's going on. The few times he interacts with characters in the Japanese film, their backs are turned in a clumsy attempt to hide the deception. Also amusing are the cutaways to Burr during Godzilla's rampage so he can comment, somewhat superfluously, on what a setback it is for Tokyo.

Now in Silver Spring

That's a much different film from the one that got an unusual two-screen run at the prestigious Film Forum in New York City this weekend and will open for a two-week run May 21 at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.

"The original Japanese [version] is one of the great films by a sci-fi master, Ishiro Honda," writes Steve Ryfle, author of Japan's Favorite Mon-star: The Unauthorized Biography of 'The Big G' (Toho wouldn't let him use "Godzilla" in the title).

"This first Godzilla is truly terrifying, a 30-story Jurassic behemoth intent on destroying an exquisitely detailed miniature Tokyo," Ryfle writes. Although Godzilla is plainly a guy in a lizard suit, he says, the noirish black-and-white cinematography tends to mask the cheapness and enhance the horror.

The most extensive cut made for the American version was a subplot about a love triangle involving two of the men who eventually kill Godzilla (or appear to; the monster is reduced to a skeleton, yet makes two dozen sequels). The lost footage would have explained to U.S. audiences why one man stays on the ocean floor to die with Godzilla.

The American version also left out some scenes on Odo Island, where villagers are already acquainted with Godzilla as "a force from above" that empties their fishnets and makes off with cows and other livestock. This introduces a Godzilla mythos and makes the film spookier.

More sinister, according to many critics, were smaller changes that watered down the movie's anti-nuclear message.

Japan, of course, had been the target of the only atomic bombs dropped in warfare. The next generation, the hydrogen bomb, had been tested in March 1954 on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, and its fallout was suspected in the mass sickness aboard a Japanese fishing boat 100 miles east of the detonation.

The film's American rights holder, Jewell Enterprises (whose only previous hit was something called Untamed Women), removed or failed to translate dialogue that referred to American bombings and the dangers of the H-bomb.

The anti-nuclear theme could not be entirely eliminated, though; the movie is drenched in it. Director Honda, Ryfle says, was a World War II veteran who passed through Hiroshima on his way home.

"He felt that Godzilla should represent the atomic bomb and all the destruction it creates," Ryfle says. "That's why the Japanese military is completely ineffective against Godzilla, as it was against the atomic bomb. Godzilla doesn't even notice when he's stepping on people. He's almost like a ghost or a god descending on the city." Ryfle, 38, first saw the American Godzilla on television when he was 4 or 5.

"It actually scared me," he says. "It was extremely eerie."

Others clearly recall their first look at Godzilla, too, but mostly its cheesy effects and bad dubbing. In 1956, this was probably what we expected. "Made in Japan" was synonymous for "cheap imitation," an attitude that seems quaint now. But with Godzilla, it wasn't far off.


The idea for the movie came to producer Tomoyuki Tanaka after he saw The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 release from Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, in which a model monster was moved and blended with live action frame by frame.

Tanaka made no attempt to hide his film's inspiration, giving it a working title of "The Giant Monster From 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea."

An early decision was made to forgo expensive stop-motion animation. Instead, Tanaka's crew would put a man in a monster suit and build a miniature city for him to destroy. They called this cut-rate special-effects process "suitmation."

The decision to make the monster a dinosaur (mutated by radiation from the H-bomb test) was made about the same time, replacing the "gigantic gorilla-whale" imagined by Tanaka, Ryfle says. The gorilla-whale title stuck in Japan, but Toho renamed it Godzilla for foreign markets.

The rest, as they say, is history - one still being made.

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