No matter how old I become, whenever there’s a Godzilla movie playing I will always be an eight-year-old fan rooting for Japan’s biggest movie star. So when the news came that the original, uncut Japanese version of the original 1954 “Godzilla” was finally getting a U.S. theatrical release, I was beside myself with joy.
My joy was premature. The original “Godzilla” is probably the worst film in the long-running series. No fault of the Big G himself — no one can trash Tokyo the way he can. But when he’s off the screen, “Godzilla” is a strident, stodgy, overcooked lump of celluloid.
As most Godzilla fans know, the film’s original American distributor cut out about 40 minutes of the Japanese footage and inserted 20 minutes of new sequences featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter named Steve Martin (!) who just happened to stop by Tokyo for a social call while he was on his way to Cairo (okay, the man has no sense of geography). The American version also erased subject matter which would not have played well with U.S. moviegoers at the time: ham-handed protest statements about then-current H-bomb testing in the Pacific and surprisingly jokey references to World War II and the U.S. bombings of Tokyo and Nagasaki (hey, no Manchuria or Nanking jokes?).
But while the Raymond Burr sequences and the subsequent clumsy English dubbing of the remaining Japanese footage made the U.S. version an unintentionally funny movie, the complete Japanese version is an unfunny bore. This one is stuffed with the worst romantic love triangle I’ve ever seen: a stiff troika regarding a mad doctor (complete with eye patch and underground laboratory), the pretty daughter of Japan’s leading paleontologist, and a hunky Coast Guardsman. There is also burdensome and unsuccessful comic relief involving a nosy reporter, a radio announcer who perishes when Godzilla knocks down the transmission tower where he is broadcasting from, and rude politicians who call each other names during a heated debate in the Japanese parliament. It is easy to see why this footage got the American scissors. For most of the original film, Godzilla is very much a supporting player.
The main problem, though, is the fact “Godzilla” takes itself so damn seriously that the intense behavior of the actors is poorly reflected against the spectacle of watching a man in a baggy dinosaur costume knock around toy boats, toy tanks, and balsa wood miniatures of the Tokyo skyline. It is no wonder that the rest of the Godzilla series began to play itself for laughs — the atrocious special effects (you can actually see the wire manipulating Godzilla’s tail) cannot be taken seriously and in “Godzilla” it often seems like there are two wildly different movies unreeling simultaneously.
Die-hard Godzilla fans should seek out this film, as the luxury of watching Japanese monster flicks on a big screen is quite rare. But don’t expect a classic. This “Godzilla” was just an inkling of better films that soon followed.
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