It will probably come as a surprise to most American viewers to learn that the original Japanese version of “Godzilla” is regularly included in the top 5 on Japanese lists of their best native films. Most of us are only familiar with the sliced and diced American release with Raymond Burr acting to nothing (and usually in the wrong direction). Now, with a restored version of the original in limited release we can finally find out what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, most of what is so important about this film is not going to translate with viewers expecting a camp-tastic destruction fest.
There are two things that are immediately going to irk modern viewers: first of all the film is completely serious and actually quite dark in tone and secondly, because it is “serious” it moves at the glacial pace typical of many films of the period. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Japanese still consider it an important film, a fact reinforced by the longevity of the character, it would be very easy to dismiss the movie altogether as a lesser monster epic. However, the care that was taken in crafting the unsubtle allegory of atomic destruction elevates the film from its sensationalist premise and ends up being a very effective commentary on the fear that many Japanese still felt at the time, a mere 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is a movie about the devastation experienced in Japan during the war. It just happens to have a giant dino-monster in it.
The real problems with the film come with the inclusion of a half-baked love triangle where one of the participants happens to be a one-eyed scientist. This was obviously done to give the film broader appeal but it unfortunately leads to many of the more groan worthy moments. The special effects are quite primitive, but the crisp black and white cinematography still manages to make them compelling. Although not as atmospheric as the RKO pictures of the 30s it seemed to be emulating, the eventual appearance of the titular monster as a deformed, google-eye beast and the wonderful use of sound effects still manage to be (almost) chilling.
Despite the heavy handedness of the material most of the performances are quite good (with the possible exception of Momoko Kochi who, while she does try, seems to spend too much time smiling). It certainly isn’t the best film of the series, but it is worth seeing at least to see how far ol’ lizard breath has come.