Godzilla (1954) [Trans World]

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4/5)
Janurary 18, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Well, here it is… number one. Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the American version of Godzilla, is an amazing first entry in the long running Godzilla series. Despite the clumsy editing of American-added footage and the rather poor dub job, this is likely the version that most Godzilla fans in the US see, and it still very often fails to disappoint. The sullen nature of the film, complete with social commentary and a tragic love story, is among the most brilliant monster movies ever created. Maybe the American version seems slightly butchered (even to someone who hasn't seen the Japanese version, like myself), but it still stacks up to be a brilliant viewing experience nonetheless.

What was only supposed to be a brief layover in Tokyo became something much more terrifying for United World Press correspondent Steve Martin. As his passenger jet soared over the deceptively peaceful waters of the Pacific, a fishing yacht suddenly burst into flames and sank into the ocean depths. Those aboard the passenger jet were brought in for questioning, but it was clear that no one was fully aware of the full scope of the situation. Over the course of several days, more and more ships were sinking at sea, and the survivors weren't living long to tell their tale. Japan's leading paleontologist, Dr. Yamane, suggested an expedition be sent to Oto Island, a small isle close to the incidents in question. Steve Martin was allowed to accompany the expedition, and it was from the natives' ceremonies that he learned a name that would soon strike fear into the hearts of many men: Godzilla. This native legend soon peeked into the realm of reality when night fell, and strange and destructive forces accompanied a ferocious typhoon.

Bringing the Oto Island natives to Japan for official questioning at the Diet, it became clear that they were all highly convinced that a living creature was responsible for a great deal of damage that accompanied the storm. Open-minded, Dr. Yamane led a return expedition to the isle… only to unveil a shocking truth. Monstrous footprints were discovered, and suddenly, the village's bell was rung. The natives and the members of the expedition fled to high ground… only to see a horrifying face peeking over the grassy ridge. Godzilla was all too real. The monster was uninterested in the humans however, and returned to the tides from whence it came.

Upon returning to Japan, the existence of Godzilla was revealed to the entire world. The Self-Defense Force, much to Dr. Yamane's chagrin, immediately attempted to locate and destroy the creature using sonar and depth charges. This campaign was ultimately a failure, as Godzilla soon appeared in Tokyo Bay. Panic spread, and the situation became all the more critical when the monster came ashore. Destroying a great deal of property in the dock section of the city, it was clear that the defeat of this beast would have to come quickly. A series of high-tension wires were erected, but Godzilla broke through these defenses with ease. Tokyo was at his mercy. Though guns, howitzers, and jets were all summoned to defeat the creature, Tokyo was left in ruins… a raging, fiery inferno.

After Godzilla's return to the sea, hospitals were severely taxed by the increasing number of casualties. Injured in the process of covering the story, Steve Martin soon came to learn that Dr. Yamane's daughter, Emiko, might be aware of a method by which to defeat Godzilla. Emiko, caught in the twisted emotions of a difficult love triangle between her arranged fiancé Dr. Serizawa and the man she loved Hideto Ogata, was at Serizawa's house some days earlier, prepared to tell him the truth about her feelings. Her need to disclose this important information was sidetracked however, when Dr. Serizawa took her into his confidence and revealed a remarkable discovery: the oxygen destroyer. By targeting the oxygen molecules in water, the oxygen destroyer would liquefy all organic material within the proximity of the device. This process could very well mean the death of Godzilla…

Ogata and Emiko confronted Serizawa, and pled for the use of the weapon. The scientist was well aware of the grave repercussions of this device: the potential death of Tokyo Bay. And so Serizawa was left with an enormous responsibility… to give in to his fear, or to take action and destroy the nuclear menace. Serizawa finally relented, destroying his notes so that no one would ever reproduce this terrible invention.

Locating Godzilla's whereabouts, an expedition was helmed to unleash the full potential of the oxygen destroyer and to annihilate the monster once and for all. Ogata and Serizawa dove into the bay, and the chemical was released into the water. Serizawa, understanding his fiancée's torn love, sacrificed himself in the process. The deadly chemicals in the boiling waters completely devoured Godzilla's body, and the king of the monsters was no more…

Unfortunately from my position, it is difficult to tell how badly certain aspects of the film were mangled in the American editing (excluding the obvious addition of Raymond Burr, whose inclusion was meant to capitalize in American theaters). So, in this regard, I am at an advantage… as I will judge this version from the position of most Godzilla fans. Concerning the Americanization first and foremost, the US filmmakers seem to try a little too hard to fit Raymond Burr into different relationships and situations with the surrounding characters. Coupled with the clashing quality of the American and Japanese footage, Burr unfortunately seems out-of-place at times. However, for the most part, he blends in relatively well. The sets used in the American footage, for example, match those in the Japanese scenes with effectiveness, and the back-of-the-head shots (with the exception of the encounter between Steve Martin and Dr. Yamane in the Diet) are done with a fair amount of believability. In fact, it is not too uncommon for people to mistake the American edits as intentional additions to the original movie, and the US filmmakers do receive kudos for not going overboard (i.e. Varan, the Unbelievable). The dubbing is pretty poor, though. Perhaps this is mostly due to the fact that the voices don't seem as though they should be coming out of the respective characters. The dubbing for Momoko Kochi's character is way off, for example, and the dub job on Takashi Shimura's character is almost comical (a rare phenomenum). Akihiko Harata's American voice seems a little Germanic at first… almost a stereotypical jest related to his mad scientist look. The fact that the dubbed words hardly match the actors' mouths is another thing, but the quick cuts do distract from this observation.

With all the American additions and edits to the film, it is a little difficult to judge the acting as a whole. When concerning the American add-ins specifically, Raymond Burr and Frank Iwanaga, it is quite easy to assess their prowess. Both have a somewhat deadpan demeanor in their performances, but they still manage a natural dialogue. The only problem is emotion, which is severely lacking in Burr's performance during the attack on the city. You would think that seeing Godzilla suddenly, and for the first time, unleash a blast of thermonuclear radiation would cause him to look shocked or surprised. No... he just gets sweatier. As for the Japanese actors, they tend to do a much better job. Akihiko Harato's tortured appearance during the children's prayer accurately portrays his character's internal struggle. Momoko Kochi's internal struggle, torn between her true love and fiancé, is well played out, but her sobbing seems very unrealistic at times. Takashi Shimura, as always, is an excellent addition to the cast. His expressions greatly reflect a man of curiosity, understanding the importance of nature and the need to study, not immediately destroy, the unknown. Akira Takarada's role seems to be a little more low-key; however, he portrays the logical character, desperate for the safety of Japan and the world, very proficiently when he confronts Harato's character in his home. His expressions after learning of Harato's character's death also allow the audience to delve deep into his guilt and sadness.

The special effects in this movie are some of the best of the original series, and it would be another thirty years until The Return of Godzilla (1984) challenged this title. The black-and-white environment does greatly add to a sense of contrast; the bright lights and darkened sets creating a horrific, often inexplicably realistic display of size, awe, and fear. The G-suit is bulky, imposing, and has a nice heft. The puppet head is grossly out of proportion however, and the steamy breath is a little unrealistic (even more so when rendered through rotoscoping). To accentuate the size illusion, the film is slowed to a nice speed much of the time, although the slower frame rate in some areas is a little jarring. While discussing this area of size perspective, it must be noted that the miniatures are excellently well crafted. The only problems here are the ships, which look very fakeish when sinking. The ocean minitature scenes are also a problem here, as the ripples of the sea (it's a pool) are supposed to appear like waves, but in the end look very small. Overall, the visuals are very professional in this first entry, especially for the time; and this is one of the many reasons the movie is held so highly in peoples' eyes.

Of course, one shouldn't be remiss to ignore the social commentary of this film. This story is a lesson that when mankind tampers with mad science like nuclear weaponry, repercussions will surely follow. Simply, all the potential consequences of the nuclear age are summed up in one terrifying creature: Godzilla, that unstoppable juggernaut of atomic doom. In this regard, the oxygen destroyer also becomes symbolic of weapons of mass destruction. Dr. Serizawa would not allow another weapon of immensely dangerous potential to be released into the world, and so, he silenced any possibility that it could be used. He is a mad scientist of the nuclear age who redeems himself by destroying all the notes of his discovery, and sadly, causes his own death in the process of using the weapon once, in part to strive for peace.

The music of this movie is just phenomenal… no complaints whatsoever. There are the heavy, dark tones… the resonating themes and the sense of devastation and hopeless that are portrayed very well by many of the tracks. The children's prayer is the most powerful in this respect, and it brings a tear to one's eye (especially when seeing Harata's character's reactions to it). The early versions of the themes that would eventually become synonymous with Godzilla also find their roots in this film (some of which would ultimately be perfected in Mothra vs. Godzilla [1964]). Even the upbeat military themes fit well in the film, adding a sense of urgency and hope to the particular scenes they accompany. Even minor themes, like that which plays during the Oto Island scenes, create an eerie atmosphere and a lingering sense of uncertainty. There is no doubt that this movie contains some of Akira Ifukube's best, a remarkable collection that effectively touches the emotions of the audience.

It is the first, it is among the best, and it is the birth of Godzilla. Despite the obvious problems with the American version, there is still that certain spark that makes the core of this film shine through… the lessons about the dangers of nuclear weapons… a warning against our recklessness as a civilization. Beautifully orchestrated and wonderfully conceived, this film will continue to live on as an excellent classic and a brilliant cinematic experience. Although, perhaps my opinion of the film would be one of even greater enthusiasm, had I seen the Japanese version. Even still, I consider this movie a monumental success, the film that launched over two-dozen sequels and completely redefined a genre across the globe.