'Godzilla': Not Your Daddy's Dinosaur
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page C01
Where does a 50-year-old, 150-foot dinosaur who breathes atomic fire sit? Anyplace he wants. This week he wants to sit at the Kennedy Center, and next week he's lurching up 15th Street (don't step on me, Mr. Monster!) to 16th to Georgia to Colesville to the AFI Silver.
That's because the AFI is premiering in those venues a rerelease of the 1954 film "Godzilla."
So the boy is back in town.
And he's still annoyed.
The big news, and the justification for the rerelease, is that this "Godzilla" is the original, the subtitled Japanese version that was never exhibited on these shores. A U.S. releasing company purchased the rights to the film, then proceeded to "Americanize" it by, among other things, adding a subplot to provide an American point of view on the action. Raymond Burr, who never left Burbank, played international correspondent Steve Martin, who witnesses and comments upon the events for Yank audiences and appears in a few crudely made insert shots but never interacts with the Japanese cast. Even as a 10-year-old, I think I saw through that one.
De-Burred, and with the restoration of about 40 minutes of material that had been cut to make room for Burr, the film plays much better -- it negates the absurdity brought by Perry-Mason-to-be -- and feels more tragic. It certainly must have been tragic to the Japanese audiences: In its burning city mega-violence, it conjured up black and bitter memories of B-29 bombers pounding Japanese cities during the last two years of World War II, including the visits of Fat Man and Little Boy to that island nation in August 1945.
But that's not really what commends "Godzilla" to our attention, and it's a shame. Instead, this film will be looked upon as the acorn from which grew a tiny oak, namely the campy series of monster pix that seem much better when you're high or drunk: "Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla," "Godzilla vs. Mothra" and "Godzilla vs. Ann-Margret." It's best to banish any memories of those extravaganzas from your mind and simply contemplate a culture contemplating its own deconstruction by external forces, which is what this film affords.
By today's standard, of course, the effects are primitive, though by keeping the cinematography dark, the shots long and the takes short, the director Ishiro Honda managed to disguise the fact that he was photographing a man in a rubber suit mashed-potatoing a toy Tokyo. As a movie illusion, it works, though perhaps not as well as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" (1953), the clear inspiration for this film.
For "Beast," Ray Harryhausen, the special-effects pioneer, stop-motion-animated (i.e., photographed a tiny model beast in close-up, frame by frame, with infinite patience) his big bad boy; the Japanese merely zipped the zipper on theirs. And it shows: Your eye picks up the human range of motion in this creature, and even if you tell yourself to ignore it, you can't, because at some deep ancient hunter's level, your instincts force you to discriminate between animal and human motion.
But the film is painfully earnest, even to its anti-nuclear testing message, and its images of the destruction of the cities is far more powerful than in American films, where the cities are trashed for the pure pleasure of destruction, without any real sense of human loss.
A scene in "Godzilla" that you'd never see in an American monster film focuses on a mother and child quietly awaiting their approaching doom, and the mother says to the child, "We'll be with daddy soon" -- daddy, of course, having been consumed a few years earlier in the war. That makes death real and disturbing, not just an abstraction. There are also scenes in hospitals jammed with the dying and wounded that are powerfully disturbing and could come from any civic catastrophe, from earthquake to firebombing to monster invasion.
And it's also a weird kick in the pants to see the great Takashi Shimura, who starred in so many of Akira Kurosawa's films, as the scientist in this one. He lends a quiet dignity to the center of the film, much in the way that Cecil Kellaway did to "Beast."
Godzilla (98 minutes, in Japanese with subtitles) is not rated. It is playing at the American Film Institute theater in the Kennedy Center; it moves next Friday to the AFI Silver.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Momoki Kochi, left, and Akihiko Hirata co-star in the original "Godzilla," playing at the Kennedy Center.
(Toho Co. Ltd. -- Courtesy Rialto Pictures)