The original King of the Monsters

GodzillaI finally saw Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of “King Kong,” and I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. It was corny, and overly long and not engaging, even when the excitement factor revved up for the final third of the film. It reminded me that although Hollywood has been making monster movies since the original 1933 “King Kong,” the monster with the most staying power and screen incarnations — over two dozen movies — didn’t come out of California, but from Tokyo.

Godzilla, or the Japanese pronunciation, “Gojira” (a combination of the words for gorilla, “gorira” and whale, “kujira”) made its first appearance in 1954, but the film was edited and scenes inserted starring Raymond Burr as an American journalist before it was first released in the U.S. as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” I always thought this was to make the movie more palatable to American audiences, but now I realize there was a more political reason for the reworking of the first film.

In the decades since then, Godzilla/Gojira has battled a bevy of baddies equally monstrous, such as Mothra, Gaigan, Hedora, Mechagojira and yes, even King Kong. Alll of the movies in the franchise were produced by Toho, the Japanese studio, except for the 1998 Hollywood take, which forsook the traditional Japanese approach of a guy wearing a rubber lizard suit for computer-generated special effects. Toho co-produced that one. There was a millennium edition Godzilla that destroyed Nemuro, my mom’s hometown (read my colum here). And in 2004, Toho allegedly put the monster to rest for good in “Godzilla Final Wars.”

Yeah, right, sure.

I have the 1956 version with Burr, and like it because it’s more of a serious movie than the campy approach most of the movies have taken over the years (I’ve written about it here). It’s an unabashed statement, created early in the post-war atomic age, that reflects Japan’s terror at the U.S. and other countries’ testing of atomic bombs in the Pacific. The original film’s clear message is that if you mess with Mother Nature, Mother Nature will mess with you right back.

That original 1956 version of “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” has just been re-released, in a two-DVD set that includes the original, longer Japanese version (the New York Times wrote about the DVD package, free registration required). I’m loloking forward to seeing the Japanese original, because according to the NYT, it’s even more upfront about its anti-nuclear message:

“Generations of critics who have congratulated themselves on decoding the pacifist, antinuclear message of ‘King of Monsters’ will be startled by the explicitness of the Japanese version, in which Gojira (as the Japanese transliterate his name) is repeatedly identified as a result of testing in the Pacific and the embodiment of the nation’s nuclear trauma.

“Images of a devastated miniature Tokyo (quite effective in black and white) have clearly been modeled on the newsreels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the film concludes with the kindly scientist (Fuyuki Murakami) solemnly declaring, ‘If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear, somewhere in the world, again.'”

This was one of the lines cut from the movie for American audiences, which was being primed in the mid-1950s by the U.S. government to accept nuclear power as the future, and a necessity in the growing paranoid fight against the Russkies and their atomic arsenal. Maybe the movie was recut and Burr’s parts inserted for mere entertainment reasons.

But maybe it was done to keep Americans complacent and in the dark. In a way, that makes Godzilla even scarier, doesn’t it? Makes King Kong seem like a monkey’s tale.

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