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Review - Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) (2005 release)
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Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) 50th Anniversary at the Castro (2005 release)

Toho Studios

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

Godzilla is back. For a two-week run. The one, the only, the original--uncut, subtitled, in its original edit and with lots and lots of footage never before seen in America--and it’s terrific!

Let’s face it. Most people are familiar with Godzilla--either from the long series of poorly dubbed, rather cheesy color films showing him battling every manner of monster and menace to society, or from that unfortunate 1998 American remake with Matthew Broderick which was both a misfire and miscalculation.

But it is the original Japanese-language film, Gojira, or Godzilla, from 1954, shot in black and white, which is the key to Godzilla’s well deserved popularity and enduring appeal. The film, directed by Ishiro Honda concerns a giant 400 foot creature resurrected from the ocean’s depths by repeated atomic testing. That original film is a serious, powerful, artistic creation which has stood the test of time. The movie created a sensation when initially released in Japan. In order to give the film an American release, an American producer rearranged and re-cut the film, dubbed it into English, and added scenes filmed in Hollywood with an American actor--a young Raymond Burr, who later achieved television fame portraying Perry Mason.

The resulting film was called Godzilla: King of the Monsters and it is the only version of the original Japanese film that has been shown in the United States. This version has been called unrelentingly grim as it begins with documentary footage showing the aftermath of Godzilla’s murderous rampage as narrated by a news reporter, played by Burr. The rest of the story is told in flashback and includes Burr traveling to Tokyo and later investigating events as they unfold.

Even though the American version is shorter than the original and alters parts of the story, the American version is a fine achievement. Most viewers never guess that Burr was not really in the film, so cleverly (for the most part), is footage of him intercut into the film. Burr’s grave demeanor further suits the noir-ish cinematography style and the almost documentary realism of the original film. When Godzilla starts destroying Tokyo with Burr watching and reporting from an office building window, Burr looks up at the precise moment that a snarling Godzilla looks down at him before bringing the office building down on him. The effect works nicely.

But now, on its 50th anniversary, viewers finally have a chance to see the famous original Japanese version (without Burr) which contains 40 minutes of footage not seen in the American release. Where the American version starts with the massive destruction, the Japanese version very skillfully builds up to it. The subplots involving the four principle characters are more fully developed, and the film’s anti-nuclear theme (toned down in the American version, which also contained a different ending) is eloquently developed here. Godzilla is, after all, a metaphor for the Bomb itself.

But there is more: humor not found in the other version, and a stark poetic quality--a very Japanese sensibility and an epic grandeur. Everything you love about Godzilla is here: those slow lumbering movements as the giant monster is seen in the distance--the famous Godzilla roar--the pounding Godzilla footsteps--the way the dorsal fins on his spine light up whenever he emits his incendiary radioactive breath. The nightmarish dreamlike quality of the film just draws you in as the monster moves throughout Tokyo. The magnificent restored musical score by Akira Ifukube featurs the naval forces march, the destruction music, the tragic aftermath themes and the famed Godzilla motif. There is even an homage to King Kong as Godzilla destroys a commuter train much like Kong demolished the elevator train in New York City.

The low-tech special effects vary in quality but there is a sincerity and purity about the original Godzilla film that is irresistible. It’s a classic. Maybe we all recognize something in it about ourselves that we would rather not look at, and yet we can’t look away.

Godzilla is back restored and uncut. He’ll be stomping civilization for two weeks at the Castro Theatre beginning May 7th. He’s bigger, badder, and yes, better than ever!

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski/ Celluloid Dreams

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