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Can a classic live up to its weighty reputation, or will it underwhelm after decades as a campy pop icon?

Intro by Phil

Godzilla is the monster movie to rule all monster movies. Ever since making a debut in the 1954 Japanese film Gojira, the titular mega-lizard has gone radioactive on major metros and lesser movie beasts in nearly 30 films. Directed by Ishirō Honda, who went on to make King Kong vs. Godzilla and 44 other features, the original is a landmark in the malicious monster genre.

Now that Godzilla has been a pop culture icon for nearly six decades, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t cinema’s first rampaging monster. King Kong premiered in 1933, and it featured a much different beast for a much different time. It was a thoroughly American film, using the plight of a giant ape as an allegory for slavery. Released more than 20 years and a world war after King Kong, Gojira (translated as Godzilla) was a foreboding look at issues more universal than America’s selfish, barbaric past. With all the symbolic weight the two monsters now carry, it’s no wonder they went on to face each other in later films.

Honda’s Godzilla takes place in post-WWII Japan, where fishing ships are mysteriously vanishing. Natives on a local island blame Godzilla, a mythical beast said to be over 1,000 years old. When archaeologist Kyohei Yamane (and an American journalist in the U.S. version) discover the creature, Japanese officials blame H-Bomb testing at coastal facilities. The radioactive lizard makes its way to Tokyo, threatening Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, and millions of others. Emiko’s husband by an arranged marriage, the scientist Daisuke Serizawa, discovers a way to destroy Godzilla, but ironically, it’s nearly as dangerous as the beast itself.

For half a decade, the only cut available in the U.S. was Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), essentially a dubbed version of Honda’s 1954 release (Hollywood’s Terry Morse shares directing credits) with one important addition: Raymond Burr, an actor known for TV roles on the American hits Ironside and Perry Mason. In the tumultuous 1950’s – just a decade after Japan was scarred by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – relations across the Pacific were strained, particularly on the subject of nuclear warfare. As the on-screen narrator, Burr lent a familiar, Humphrey Bogart-esque face to a parable of scientific progress gone awry, making the volatile message at Godzilla’s core more palatable.  As with slavery, Americans would rather claim no ill will for unethical actions and move on.

Funny thing is, the 1956 version does more to soothe American anxiety than express Japanese outrage. The terrified citizens of Tokyo see Godzilla as a monster they brought to life, not a malevolent force that couldn’t be prevented. (In an early scene, Kyohei Yamane even says the beast shouldn’t be killed.) Yet stateside distributor Transworld Pictures believed Godzilla would be viewed as an attack on the U.S., and rather than welcome controversy, producers fed into the xenophobia of the time with Burr’s narration. Over the years, this change has made Godzilla, King of the Monsters! more than a bastardization of a classic: You can sense how American audiences wanted to pretend Hiroshima and Nagasaki never existed, while Japanese filmmakers made a movie that addressed their country’s pain, as well as the unpredictable, inevitable threat that nuclear war presented for humanity.

That said, is Godzilla, King of the Monsters! a good entertainment? Art-house tripe is full of metaphors and themes, but it’s nearly inaccessible to the Average Joe. A film with rollicking explosions, cardboard skylines and a fire-breathing lizard should be richer than a dry doomsday parable – it should be fun and goofy, Dawn of the Dead style. After all, director Honda always meant for Godzilla to be more than a symbol: “Monsters are tragic beings,” he said. “They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy – they are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy.”

No matter how flimsy his original special effects look, Honda gave birth to an all-purpose monster, the sort of threat that just won’t die. It sounds a bit like nuclear technology itself, a force that recently ravaged modern-day Japan. Let’s see if Godzilla lives up to the hype.

Wanna watch? Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is on Netflix Instant. We plan to cover the uncut Japanese release, Gojira (1954), as soon as we can track down a copy. Keep checking Twitter, which of course you follow us on.

Chris: This movie had one thing that I absolutely cannot stand: Filling an original movie with new edits. Maybe it’s just the editor in me who notices the jump cuts and mismatched backgrounds and random Japanese standing around with Burr in the middle, but a lot of scenes were so obviously edited in, and they distracted me the entire film. Beyond that, I enjoyed the classically slow pace and, as Phil so lightly puts it, Americanization of the Japanese film. I like B&W films with the classic narration. Reminds me of film noir, like Maltese Falcon or Citizen Kane. What are your thoughts on the above and on the FX, Phil?

Phil: It’s funny you should bring up the film noir tradition, because my first impression was that the film is darker than I ever expected – in a way, the weighty human drama sat uncomfortably with the campy fun. It’s hard to grasp the scale of Godzilla’s rampage when half the shots are of Raymond Burr staring blankly at a man in a rubber lizard suit. He is an awful actor, and watching the film today, he definitely highlights the special effects shortcomings. No-name extras in front of a green screen give a better sense of reality, and his unnatural performance is by far the most distracting thing in a film of epic distractions. Aesthetically, I’m like you and appreciate B&W, but the film’s visual style seemed pretty routine, and that’s trying to ignore 60 years of changes in cinematography. Yet human drama is something anyone of any time can understand, and I was surprised at how much screentime Honda (who shares writing credits with collaborator Takeo Murata and Japanese sci-fi writer Shigeru Kayama) committed to the love triangle between Emiko, her betrothed scientist husband, and the ship captain, Hideto Ogata – after all, this is an 80 minute film with only 15 minutes of monster mayhem. Beyond the laughable (and infrequent) FXs, what did you think about the plot? It’s surprising and unexpected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

Chris: The plot was entertaining to say the least. The love triangle was an odd centerpoint and hit me completely unexpected. But the all-too-common “let’s start at the end of the film and then flashback and narrate the last 48 hours” storyline was a little boring, even when thinking about the age of the film. Overall, a bland yet entertaining plot. You say “campy” and I think it’s good to point out that what we find campy in 2012 was scary as hell in the ‘50s. Although Godzilla is clearly a person in a rubber suit to us, the hype that this film caused in the ‘50s scared Japan. It seemed so real, especially when Godzilla first appears over the hill and we’re concurrently shown both the creature and Japanese running away from it. Also, this was one of the first times that a monster movie was made without stop motion. Take away the familiarity of fake and easily-spotted stop motion, and original audiences would have shit their pants at the thought of Honda filming a real-live monster. You mention the “visual style of the film” – since neither of us have seen the original, how much do you think the added edits and somewhat altered story changed the style?

Phil: Nice distinction between intentionally “campy” films and those that are simply dated. Godzilla was played straight, and early audiences had good reason to be frightened by the monster and apocalyptic undercurrent. It traces back to how unexpectedly dark the film is, and I’ll argue that the flash-forward/flashback framing device only makes it darker. Unlike the distracting love triangle, Honda uses this device to his advantage. The opening scene is of total destruction, with a long, slow pan across the ruins of Tokyo (à la Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as Burr waxes somberly about “the stench of scorched flesh.” Honda’s message is clear: The aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage is more frightening than the monster itself, and starting the film with such a dire image casts a shadow over everything else. Actually, with the exception of Burr’s choppy scenes — which I think greatly alter the film’s flow —  the first 30 minutes are methodical and ominous, culminating with Godzilla’s reveal on the island. The sound effects really sold it: The monster’s roar holds up extremely well, and the villagers’ chaotic fleeing gave me the chills, even if the iconic close-up of someone screaming “GODZILLAAAAAA!!” is now the mark of a lazy horror spoof. Akira Ifukube’s score is foreboding and dissonant, with squealing violins and plodding bass drums (I love how they mimic Godzilla’s footsteps). The sparse music returns for the closing credits, and hints at the nihilistic film Honda made before Burr was added to lighten the mood for American audiences. Of course, it could also imply that Godzilla is still alive – if only modern horror films were as subtle about sequels. So, what was your overall impression? A worthy classic or a badly-aged fluke?

Chris: Spot on with the score, brother. That was by far one of the best audio tracks on a horror film up until John Carpenter sat at a synthesizer nearly 25 years later for Halloween. It really captured the terror of a monster attack and had the uncanny ability to make my heart race. The tone it sets and continues to weave is brilliant, and is one of the darkest elements to the film. Also good call on the introduction and how ominous the ruins of Tokyo are. Put yourself in Japan when the original came out and watch the intro again: How much do those images remind you of similar footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It’s eerie how similar they are to the vast devastation of those two horrible bombs, like watching a documentary. Now think how seeing that just about a year after it happened and how scared shitless you would be, all backed by the great sound effects mentioned earlier…wow. Don’t mind me if I say, “Too early, Ishirō, too early,” just about 60 years down the road. Creepy.

My overall impression is of a worthy classic ruined by Americanization. I can’t wait until we get our hands on Gojira and test the waters of the original. I have a feeling that we will both be more impressed, and engage better with it. The Burr moments were rather drowning me. I know I said this already, but his silly reaction shots kind of ruined the film for me. I almost want to take the movie with his voice over, cut all the scenes with him in it, and then watch it. I bet it is a shit-ton better! Right now, the film is about like watching the Olympics, but skipping all the action and just watching the announcers blab. I mean, hell, you might as well take The Sound of Music and cut out all the songs and dancing from it because it is too long…oh wait, India already did that. Alright Phil, give us your score.

Phil: I definitely think you’re right, and I’ve read a handful of reviews saying Gojira is a much different and better offering, including one written by my boy, Roger Ebert. But it’s also dangerous to judge the aesthetic of a classic, special effects-driven film through a modern lens, especially when the plotline has been tinkered with in a distracting, unkindly way. It’s like comparing a Civil War musket to remote-controlled drones – both have a certain beauty, and both are from wildly different times. But it was a fun film, with some unexpectedly dark and dreary moments – pretty cool to see the forgotten elements that gave birth to an icon. I’m giving it a 2.

Chris: I can’t go that high at all. I give it a 1 – don’t avoid it because it is the American introduction to the great monster, but absolutely don’t go looking for it unless you have some influence (heh) and want a laugh or two, maybe three. Good monster, bad movie.

Phil: 2 – Likeable for its own sake
Chris: 1 – Watchable with a few beers

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