Whether or not you’ve actually seen a Godzilla movie, you are probably aware of who and what he is. The character of Godzilla was created in 1954 as a distinctly Japanese metaphor for the evils of nuclear war and has over the years become a worldwide pop culture icon. What else could explain a monster that has starred in nearly 30 movies and has been featured in books, comic books, music, television shows, video games and more? What has the influence of the United States been on the phenomenon of Godzilla? And how has our country tried to put its own special touch on this larger than life legend?
Gojira (1954)/Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
First of all, does everyone realize that Godzilla first appeared in the Japanese movie, Gojira, in 1954? The movie you probably remember is an edited version of Gojira called, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, starring Raymond Burr. (As far as I know, it has been only in recent years that the original, unedited version of Gojira has been widely-viewed in the United States.) It was Godzilla, King of the Monsters that was released internationally two years later and became such a sensation. However, in comparing the two movies, I believe Gojira is superior, not only because it was the original (and the original of anything is usually the best).
Gojira is a surprisingly dark movie, considering the road the franchise would soon travel. Scenes of destruction, particularly bloodied Tokyo survivors, are not the images of a movie made for kids. Described as the 165′ tall result of underwater H-bomb testing, the “damned beast” is responsible for true terror in Tokyo. “We’re going to join Daddy,” states a child convinced she’s about to die. Geiger counters go crazy as a young boy is scanned. A little girl stares at her dead mother and is then carried away screaming. When news of Godzilla arrives, a train passenger sighs, “We barely escaped Nagasaki, now we have to evacuate again.”
It’s not surprising that the American version of the very same movie eliminates many of these grim reminders of the realities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of the imagery remains; however, there is no mention of specific details. And, in typical American fashion, Godzilla has been super-sized to be over 200′ tall. He’s definitely the villain in Godzilla, King of the Monsters, not history. As if the visuals are not obvious enough, the script calls for repeated descriptions of how awful Godzilla is: “terrible monster”, “big and terrible”, “more frightening than…”, “time has been turned back 2 million years”, to list only a few.
In fact, the framing device for Godzilla, King of the Monsters is an ongoing narration from American reporter Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr. Scenes of him interacting with characters from Gojira are spliced into the original movie, making it appear he was there to witness its events. I appreciate the concept; however, it’s often cheesy. We sometimes see only the backs of leading characters’ heads so that it appears they’re actually in the same scene. And voice dubbing is all over the place; sometimes Japanese characters speak English while at other times, Burr asks his co-stars to translate because his Japanese is “a little rusty”.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters also takes liberty with the order of events from Gojira. The movie begins as Burr awakens beneath the rubble of a destroyed Tokyo building. He’s taken to the hospital for scenes that occurred an hour into Gojira and the movie flashes back to events from its beginning. Even though the American version is nearly 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese, the monster first appears seven minutes later. The showcase attack occurs at about the same point in both movies; however, the American version divides the original’s single arrival of Godzilla at Tokyo into two separate attacks.
There are other attempts to Americanize the story in Godzilla, King of the Monsters. For example, instead of spinning newspapers and subtitled headlines, we see a roomful of international reporters phoning their bureaus with the most recent news. Burr is also inexplicably recognized by the Japanese characters as if they were all old friends. This comfort level allows him access to important briefings and a front-row seat to the destruction, which gives the impression that the United States had more influence than it really did in the eventual plan to rid the world of Godzilla.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters is not a terrible movie. In fact, it lays perfect groundwork for the lighter tone of the Showa era movies of the next 30 years. It’s the version I’d show my children. However, I much prefer the original Gojira. It’s closer to the Godzilla of the Heisei and Millennium eras from 1985 to 2005. It’s the version I wish every adult could see at least once so they realize Godzilla is a true monster, not just a goofy creature that plays “ball” with a boulder on Monster Island and would be better suited for a WWE match against a giant caterpillar or three-headed dragon.
Godzilla 1985 (1984)
In 1984, Godzilla experienced his first reboot in The Return of Godzilla, a direct sequel to the original Gojira that ignored the 14 movies in between. It also returned the franchise to a darker style more reminiscent of Gojira’s grim tone. I haven’t been able to locate the original, uncut version, but the United States translation of it, Godzilla 1985 seems to take the same approach that Godzilla, King of the Monsters took with Gojira. Raymond Burr returns as reporter Steve Martin, summoned by the Pentagon to share his experience with the behemoth from thirty years ago when he again rises from the waters of Tokyo Bay.
This is a more American movie than even Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Washington D.C. appears to be command central rather than Tokyo, even though that’s where Godzilla is headed. Godzilla 1985 is also very much an 80’s movie that looks more dated than either of the original 1954 versions. Product placement rears its ugly head as military officials pause to sip cans of Dr. Pepper. And silly catchphrases are littered throughout: “sayonara sucker”, “quite an urban renewal program they’ve got going on over there”, “I love Tokyo in August” and “don’t act like a big shot, you just got to town” strive for smiles, but elicit frowns.
As a prelude to the tone of the Heisei era, Godzilla is portrayed more as a force of nature than as a result of nuclear testing. His power is mentioned in the same sentence as that of a tornado and earthquake. And the plan to destroy him involves luring him to a volcano and then causing it to erupt. He also continues to grow bigger than previous movies, described now as 80 meters tall (about 262 feet). But the weight seems to have settled at his hips; he’s more pear shaped in this incarnation. Lest we forget Godzilla visited as a reminder for humanity, the final words of the movie are, “Whether he returns or not, the things he has taught us remain.” Sniff… sniff…
Fourteen years later, it was not enough to simply Americanize an existing movie. We had to Americanize Godzilla himself. What a mistake that was! Director Roland Emmerich dropped him into a disaster movie on the scale of his previous effort, Independence Day, and altered the very essence of the creature. Godzilla was no longer an upright, lumbering creature but instead a lizard mutation that sped through the streets of Manhattan horizontally and climbed its buildings as if they were rocks in the desert. Most of the destruction in this version of Godzilla was caused by the humans trying to destroy him, not by the monster himself.
When I first saw Godzilla (1998) in theaters, I remember liking it for what it was (a giant monster movie, but not a Godzilla movie) up to the point that it turned into Jurassic Park when lots of little Godzillas hatched inside Madison Square Garden. But there must have been a reason I never watched it again until now. It is in no way, shape or form a good movie! It’s hard to tell if the movie is trying to be humorous or not. Stick the normally funny Will Smith in Independence Day and he’s great, but stick Matthew Broderick in Godzilla and he’s not. The dialogue is absolutely horrendous.
That’s enough said of this abomination. I have half a mind to remove it from this feature. However, it makes my point. Increasingly over the years, the United States has tried to mold Godzilla into its own creation. But I’m not sure that’s possible. How about creating one of our own giant monsters? We did it pretty well with Cloverfield where the menace was from outer space and in Pacific Rim when monsters crawled from a hole in another dimension. But Godzilla is the product of a specific time in history… that didn’t happen in the United States. The meaning and purpose for his existence simply may not translate.