Sunday, April 25, 2010

Godzilla, King Of The Monsters

"Godzilla was born in Japan but his ascent to international stardom began in America, thanks to his discovery by a handful of savvy Hollywood types who knew a moneymaker when they saw one, and how to exploit it." -Steve Ryfle, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star [p.51.]-

T
aking on the BIG G, Godzilla, is a bit of a monster undertaking. It's HUGE. MASSIVE. GIANT really. Seriously, it's turning out to be a more thorough and enjoyable task than I imagined. It's also far more in depth than one might expect from our dear Japanese creature friend.

As a follow-up to my review of Gojira [1954], there is the edited, abomination of a version of that classic film in the US-released Godzilla, King Of The Monsters [1956].

My two disc Gojira DVD features the second, heavily-edited version of Gojira dubbed Godzilla, King Of The Monsters released in the USA in 1956 and stars Raymond Burr. The release of the latter illustrates to a great degree how radically different the two films are. These two fundamentally different films offer dissimilar tones and endings. The unique perspectives speaks volumes about the year this film was released and where the two nations, Japan and the USA, were in coming to terms with World War II. These are films by individuals influenced and affected significantly by global events of the day.

The original is the only way to go. The US version with Raymond Burr popping up throughout the film like "Where's Waldo?" is interesting from an historical perspective and good for an entertaining bout with kids under twelve years of age. The new footage shot for the American cut while decent is notably out of place in its effort to match up with the original film's cinematic excellence as composed by Director Ishiro Honda and his team. The stock footage just doesn't hold a candle to the quality placed on film in the more constant and singular work that is Gojira. Godzilla, King Of The Monsters looks a like an odd cut and paste patchwork of a film. It's easy to see the color differentiation and whenever Burr enters the frame it's written all over his face as a result of the inferior stock used. Burr is merely there to deliver narration and tell a story to Americans and what a story it is. What a shame. It's wholly unnecessary. However this version alters the original story significantly by design. The point cannot be oversimplified.

The tale of nuclear terror is downplayed substantially in favor of something far more innocuous. Wounds were understandably still fresh in the hearts and minds of Japan, and they were equally troubling stateside. America simply couldn't release Gojira in its original form. America suffered heavy, heavy losses during World War II on a number of fronts. Perhaps distributors were concerned validating Japan's pain by releasing the original would America's own moral imperative during the war. The distributors knew they would need to soften the severe Japanese images and tone of the film's dialogue for the American market. This is partly the reason for the re-cut Gojira as Godzilla, King Of The Monsters. The changes are so great it really harms the intended visual experience assembled by Ishiro Honda.

If you've seen the original film, Gojira, and turn your attention to Godzilla, King Of The Monsters you will find the American cut distracting. Burr takes you right out of the well-executed, original experience. The cultural tone of Japan's filmmakers, the horrors of a nuclear nightmare, the national consciousness are all essentially quashed under the weight of Burr's presence. Burr and the American editors step on the classic original like people under Godzilla's crushing foot. The American version is a near straight-up monster movie defeating the purpose of the film. Further, the mood of the film is much stronger in its original form. The American take is a nice piece of cinematic memorabilia and it's amazing to think this much time was placed into re-editing the film for an entirely new presentation. Films don't often get this much attention. Godzilla, King Of The Monsters [great title, but not much more] takes the viewer out of the "postwar tragedy" and the postwar anxiety captured by Honda. The mindset of the original is stripped. Gojira is an extension of war history and a by-product of World War II. This is conveyed vividly through its dark, stark, haunting images.

Author David Kalat delivers an entire chapter, Chapter 4: Godzilla Conquers America (And America Conquers Godzilla), in his terrific book A Critical History And Filmography Of Toho's Godzilla Series. Kalat points to a host of examples whereby the original film was completely butchered by American editors in the "Americanization" process. He delivers in detail those involved and how the structure of the film, its dubbing and new footage with Actor Raymond Burr, radically changed the final product. Case in point, Godzilla, King Of The Monsters, is told in flashback. The original Honda tale is never structured this way. The World War II connections and allusions to the atomic bombings of Japan are also downplayed considerably. Some scenes are removed. Some terrific insight is offered by Kalat regarding a removed sequence pointing to Japanese intentions, patriotism and the political climate of the day. To illustrate his point he makes an interesting comparison to Atragon [1963], a film featuring nearly the entire creative team behind Gojira.

Kalat continues to cover the subject of America and its version of the Ishiro Honda/ Toho classic, Gojira, in Chapter 5: Godzilla, King Of The Monsters. Kalat really takes to task the implications of the war in this chapter as well as America's own handling of Gojira. Some of his comments reinforce some of the remarks I made in the Gojira posting. Sometimes it can feel as though Kalat sides more or is more sympathetic to Japan's perceptions of the war than those of America. But, he never goes completely overboard and some of his commentary is fair. There is a terrific segment by Kalat on King Kong and America's perception of Hollywood monsters movies as superior to those made by Toho. He points out America's Hollywood missed the point of Gojira's monstrous force. "The senselessness of Godzilla's attack is central to the effectiveness of the movie. It adds to the feeling of doom in the air, and it enhances the awesomeness of Godzilla." America looked at its creature films as more intelligent, but the reverse actually may be true. There is much to consider in Gojira that is not spelled out for the viewer especially when held up to King Kong's simple beauty and the beast tale. Could America grasp the motivations of Godzilla as directed by Honda? Gojira was something of a psychological nightmare deeply personal to the Japanese and articulated beautifully by Honda. "Godzilla is beyond human understanding and that makes him all the more frightening." At least he was, and arguably still is, beyond American understanding and I think that is safe and fair to say. Americans simply don't get Godzilla entirely and the mythology that would endure. Perhaps, it dates back to the original film, Gojira, and the American inability to grasp the concept of Godzilla as a "God" by the islanders of Odo. King Kong was a worshiped God, as Kalat put it, but there was a sense of fantasy and playfulness about King Kong's fiction whereby there is a grim and dark reality that feeds the beast of Gojira's awakened God.

Kalat also goes into detail about the war and the responsibilities of the nations involved. He points to the Japanese unwillingness to accept responsibility in World War II. While I felt Kalat was playing devil's advocate over what may or may not have been an objective analysis, I do believe Kalat was fair in his criticism or presentation of the facts. He offers much consideration on the subject. When he began discussing Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb, and creation of the bomb, I couldn't help but make the parallel to Dr. Serizawa in Gojira as being a post-atomic scientist with yet another potentially mad device. Perhaps Serizawa was Japan's reference to Oppenheimer in this science fiction classic. Kalat talks of the incident involving the Lucky Dragon No.5 tuna vessel and the testing on the Marshall Islands. The bomb tested there was "a thousand times more powerful" that the one dropped on Hiroshima. Kalat does a good job of enlightening the reader on geo-political events surrounding the birth of Gojira and eventually Godzilla, King Of The Monsters concluding "Godzilla-fandom has helped with... keeping memories alive that have otherwise fallen through the cracks of American education." It's fair to say some of these finer points surrounding World War II have certainly not been discussed along with a host of other American and Japanese World War II history. There's certainly only so much history covered unless one reaches into higher education with a more specialized and scrutinizing curriculum. Kalat would be fair to point out other countries have their own educational biases and shortcomings when it comes to indoctrinating its own citizenry.

Godzilla, King Of The Monsters is an understandably edited version of the original given the political climate of the day. Still, the American version is far inferior to the superior original. Gojira is the film to see and in hindsight, resonates as the classic it definitely is. I couldn't help but wonder. I don't say this in callousness or with disrespect to a nation plagued by the pains of an atomic world, but it's strange to think Godzilla and its many incarnations [Godzilla vs The Thing, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla, etc.] would never have come to pass had World War II not ended with the unfortunate fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as we know them. It's a sad, sobering reality.

Godzilla, King Of The Monsters: C+.

7 comments:

J.D. said...

Wow, what a detailed, fantastic analysis of this classic monster movie! I love this film and really enjoyed the special edition that came out a few years ago. It really doesn't get better than this and I hated the Roland Emmerich version that suckered so many of us in with those intriguing teaser trailers only to serve up a crappy, badly written, acted and directed movie! Watching the original serves as potent reminder of just how good it is and how it has stood the test of time.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Boy J.D.- I couldn't agree with you more. You hit it on the head. In fact, given your recent review of The Hitcher and your reference to Michael Bay's remake of The Hitcher I made a connection here.

Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay may be the two biggest blockbuster styled hitmakers in Hollywood, but save for The Island and Stargate, both have served up utter shlock. Simply garbage. Like the clasic Hitcher, and Godzilla [or more importantly Gojira] these are the films to see and appreciate.

By the way, no disrespect to Sean Bean, he's a fine actor, as you mentioned, but he's working with Michael Bay. It's a money move. What can you do?

J.D. said...

You write:

"Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay may be the two biggest blockbuster styled hitmakers in Hollywood, but save for The Island and Stargate, both have served up utter shlock. Simply garbage."

Agreed! I do have a soft spot for THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW which is so ludicrous in its logic that I just have to laugh but generally his movies are just awful... Ewe Boll with more money. As for Michael Bay... ah, don't even get me started on that guy. His TRANSFORMERS movies are horrible and I'm glad I can go back to the animated movie when I want to get my fix.

I dig Sean Bean and I can see why he probably agreed to do THE HITCHER. That character is so iconic and it is probably a blast to play someone so malevolently evil but maybe he shoulda took a look at the script. But as you say, it's a paycheck gig and he needs to eat, too so I can't begrudge him.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

I have to admit I have not seen Day After Tomorrow, but I have been interested, 2012 not so much, but I'm sure it's crazy okay. I wasn't a big fan of Independence Day or Godzilla. They just lack a certain soul or something. I'm not sure what it is. Too loud. Too sterilized. I'm not sure.

I'm with you completely on Sean Bean. I really like the actor and you can't fault a guy for that move for the reasons you detailed. You can't get them all right.

Pleasure to have your input. You've sold me on Radiator Heaven. Great site.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

I have to laugh. You read my mind. I joined your site apparently while you joined mine. Great minds think alike they say. Good luck with that Michael Mann publication.

J.D. said...

You hit the nail on the head with Emmerich's films being too sterilized and lacking soul. They are cookie-cutter formula films for the masses. It looks like he reached his zenith with 2012 which seems to be his ultimate disaster film but all the reviews I've read make it sound like its pretty awful.

Heh, that's funny how we ended up joining each other's blogs. Great timing, indeed.

Thanks for the words of encouragement re: my Michael Mann book. When I can find the time I have been working on it piecemeal. I hope to have it completed soon.

Oh, btw. I really enjoyed your FIREFLY posts. Love the show and esp. the film! The cast, the writing, direction, etc. was amazing and I am still bitter that it was canceled/cut down before it got a chance to really get going.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you JD. I look forward to your continued sucess on RH! I'll be along for the ride. Thanks again for the words of encouragement as well.