In the sixty years since he first lumbered onto the big screen, Godzilla has become less of a monster and more of a fact of life. His rubbery visage is one of the first pop cultural touchstones many children learn to parody, shrieking and crashing through their sisters’ dollhouses. Over the course of 28 films, 4 TV series, and countless comic books and graphic novels, the big G has been a cosmic superhero, a pretty sweet dancer, and father to two adorable children (Minya in the movies, Godzookie in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon). He’s been a TV pitchman, a punchline in everything from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT to PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, and a muse to ‘70s hard-rockers Blue Öyster Cult. In 1998, he faced three of his most formidable foes in Matthew Broderick, the Hollywood machine, and Gidget the chihuahua. In many ways, he is the original Japanese pop star.
It’s a bit of a shock, then, when contemporary viewers first encounter the original, uncut version of Godzilla’s first outing from 1954. There are no aliens, no spy subplots, no sing-along ending. The pop-art palette of later films is replaced with stark black and white. Godzilla doesn’t dance, fly, or talk to other monsters; Godzilla kills people. Rather than an adorable child with upsetting shorts who has a special bond with the monster, we’re given a tour of a radiation ward full of Godzilla’s victims. Watch the unexpurgated Japanese cut, and there isn’t even any goofy dubbing to take the edge off. In his original form, Godzilla isn’t funny; he is fucking terrifying.
This is wholly unsurprising when you consider the time and place that it was made. Japan knows more about nuclear destruction than any country ever has (or hopefully ever will), and in 1954 the physical, emotional, and cultural wounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh. The film’s inciting incident, in which a fishing boat is mysteriously destroyed by the monster’s radiation, was inspired by the true story of the Lucky Dragon 5, a Japanese boat which was lost when it drifted into the Bikini Atoll blast zone that very year. The symbolism of the monster is unambiguous, and the scenes documenting his wake of destruction still pack a hell of a punch. When the film’s protagonists wrestle with the ethics of using an experimental weapon against the monster, it’s safe to say Japanese audiences knew exactly what they were talking about.
Of course, so did the film’s American distributors, which led to the version you probably remember from your childhood. Understandably wary about whether Eisenhower’s America was ready for a film that directly questioned the US’ actions in World War II, Jewell Enterprises recut the film to dial down the subtext. Godzilla was still an atomic beast, but gone were the specific references to Bikini Atoll and strontium 90. Most notoriously, the American producers shot scenes with PERRY MASON’s Raymond Burr in lookalike sets, to give US audiences an occidental hero to relate to. Burr’s character, the hilariously named Steve Martin, mostly just stands around, narrating and receiving translations which only sometimes match what the original characters are saying. The resulting film, retitled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, delivers the monster, but loses a lot of the message. (It wouldn’t be the last G-film to suffer a political re-edit; in addition to bringing back Burr’s character, the American version of GODZILLA 1985 strategically repositions the Russian government to be the true villains!)
At press time, we are about a week and a half away from Godzilla’s latest outing. Directed by MONSTERS’ Gareth Edwards and starring Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston, 2014’s GODZILLA is being touted as a return to the brutal gravitas of the original. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen, but in the meantime kaiju fans can head to the Somerville Theatre, where the 1954 model will be screening through Thursday – restored, subtitled, uncut, and Burrless. Godzookie fans will be in for a shock, but there remains no better argument for Rubber Suit As Cultural Commentary.
GODZILLA (1954) Directed by Ishiro Honda [96 min.]
Screens through Thursday, 5/8
Somerville Theatre (55 Davis Square, Somerville, MA 02144)
Click here for tickets and showtimes