There was nothing like it when the original Godzilla (Japan, 1954) debuted.
It created an entire industry in Japanese giant monster movies, spawning dozens of sequels and opening the door for a whole host of oversized brethren: Mothra, Rodan, Gamera, and more. After decades of Japanese film, Hollywood took a couple of cracks at it and ended up creating its own version of the Monsterverse. But none of these sequels, spin-offs, remakes, or knock-offs ever matched the righteous anger or terrifying ferocity of the lizard king in his first film, rising from the radioactive depths and descending upon Tokyo like some biblical retribution.
The original 1954 Godzilla reflected the culture of its birth. Born in the wake of Hiroshima and America’s nuclear tests in the Pacific, Godzilla entered the international scene as an avenging devil rising from the radioactive ashes of the atomic age. It was a metaphor that Japanese audiences understood all too well but there was also another, a more immediate inspiration: the Bikini Atoll atomic tests and the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryo Maru, which drifted into contaminated waters in early 1954. The crew was exposed to nuclear fallout and suffered severe burns and radiation sickness.
The opening scenes of Godzilla evoke the event directly. For American audiences it’s an eerie prologue. For Japanese audiences it played upon very real fears and set the tone for a dark nuclear parable in a solemn key. Director Ishiro Honda (a former assistant to Akira Kurosawa) renders Tokyo in the manner of a neo-realist film rather than a splashy spectacle and Godzilla’s devastating rampage and radioactive breath leaves behind thousands of casualties and a city aflame, recalling nothing less than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Victory comes at a terrible cost, a weapon so horrible it kills everything within its reach. You can’t miss the nuclear parable, though the Americanized version that played stateside tried hard to play it down.
Joseph Levine, who also imported the Steve Reeves Hercules films from Italy and dubbed them for American release to great success, picked up the American rights to the film, cut it by some thirty minutes, and added new footage starring Raymond Burr as American reporter/narrator Steve Martin.
The original, uncut, Japanese version of the original atomic monster is a much darker film than the American version. It opens with a slower, moodier build-up in the first act, building a sense of mystery and foreboding before Godzilla’s first appearance, and it references the bombing of Hiroshima and acknowledges the survivors of the atomic bomb.
Sure it’s a guy in a rubber suit, but “suitmation” (Toho’s gimmicky name for the process) became the basis of all kaiju eiga to follow and a convention of the genre. To American eyes suitmation simply looks cheap and campy, but at its best the dreamy moments of the Big G tearing through Tokyo (overcranked to give it a power and sense of scale) have an otherworldly beauty.
In its original form, Godzilla uses fantasy to explore the legacy of the bomb.
Black and white, in Japanese with English subtitles, also available in English dub version
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Godzilla (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Godzilla (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Godzilla: The Showa Era Film 1954-1975 (15 film collection) [Blu-ray]
Criterion Collection released the restored version in a special edition in 2012. It shows the age of its materials but is also sharper and more detailed. It also includes a remastered version of the 1956 Americanized version Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” which features new footage shot by director Terry Morse and is still twenty minutes shorter than the original version. It also includes commentary by film historian David Kalat on both versions of the film, plus new interviews with actors and special effects technicians, an archival interview with score composer Akira Ifukube and a featurette on the fishing vessel “Daigo fukuryu maru,” a real-life event that inspired Godzilla.