Film Review: Godzilla

The famed monster rises from the ocean to attack Japan in a highly influential movie, seen here in its original form and with revised subtitles.

Just in time for its 60th anniversary (and ready to compete with a new version from Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.), Godzilla arrives exactly as it first appeared in Japanese theatres. Fans will have to see the most complete and accurate edition of this groundbreaking movie. Other viewers will discover a brooding, nightmarish masterpiece far removed from kaiju stereotypes.

A breakout hit when it was released in Japan in 1954, Godzilla made it to the U.S. in 1956, cut by 40 minutes in order to add new footage shot in Hollywood featuring actor Raymond Burr. This is the only version of Godzilla many viewers know—badly dubbed, unintentionally funny, with rearranged scenes and missing material further confusing the narrative.

The original is a harder, darker film, a mystery marked by bursts of inexplicable violence, one that offers little hope or relief. A parable for the nuclear age, it is also a reflection on loss, destruction and defeat, a destiny the survivors of World War II grappled with daily.

Unlike many of its sequels and rivals, the first Godzilla was a big-budget affair, twice as expensive to shoot as The Seven Samurai that same year. Much of that money went into meticulously built models, ingenious matte work, and Godzilla himself, largely the work of stuntmen Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka.

Director Ishirô Honda was inspired in part by King Kong, but was also impressed by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ray Harryhausen's 1953 stop-motion classic. And the battles between scientists and the military in Godzilla echo earlier sci-fi films like The Thing from Another World.

But Godzilla stands apart from all these films, in part for chillingly prescient scenes that evoke today's disasters. Politicians try to cover up the danger to citizens, even as casualties mount and radioactivity contaminates food. Meanwhile, a chartered bus carries relatives to a command center to identify remains. A woman on a crowded train mentions Nagasaki, and the other commuters chime in with their memories of the atomic blasts.

Many Japanese moviegoers of the time witnessed first-hand the random, arbitrary nature of death and destruction, making Godzilla less a "What if?" story than "What next?" The movie has the feel of a documentary or newsreel at times, which must have made contemporary viewers all the more anxious.

Honda and cinematographer Masao Tamai blend sets and real locations expertly, helped by outstanding sound effects—in particular Godzilla's distinctive roars—from Ichirô Mitsunawa. Akira Ifukube's score deserves special attention, especially his driving, insistent theme, reminiscent of work Bernard Herrmann would do later for Alfred Hitchcock.

Playing the movie's chief scientist and voice of reason, Takashi Shimura brings an unexpected gravity to the story. Equally good is Momoko Kochi as his daughter Emiko, like many of her peers torn between tradition and her own desires.

But the undisputed star of the movie is Godzilla himself. A creature dragged into a world he doesn't understand, he responds the only way he knows how, lashing out at the people trying to kill him. That he ultimately wins our sympathy is just another example of Honda's skill as a filmmaker.

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