From The New Yorker by Richard Brody
My artistic career was ended by Godzilla—as a child monster-movie maniac, I stopped attending painting classes when the long-awaited film (the American version, of course, starring Raymond Burr) showed up on Saturday-morning television. So I take the weeklong run of the Burr-free 1954 Japanese-language original, which begins today at Film Forum, personally. I missed the 2004 screenings of the restoration, so this revival is a welcome chance to catch up with it, and the experience is surprising.
The first surprise is that the original version, directed by Ishiro Honda, is not a kids’ movie, not a hectic teen goof, not a grindhouse shocker but a serious drama of politics, romance, and conscience (both civic and intimate). The two versions are offered together in Criterion’s DVD double set, and it’s a commonplace that, in the Hollywood version, from 1956, the movie’s cautionary doings—regarding undersea nuclear testing, the nerve-jangling threat of atomic weapons, and Japan’s enduring trauma at being their victim—are drastically toned down, and its bitterness toward the United States for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is elided. In the Japanese version, a parliamentary discussion of the monster’s attacks devolves into fury when an official suggests suppressing the nuclear origins of Godzilla’s return—in order not to damage “diplomatic relations”—and the families of victims react with outrage.
Secrecy—one of the major themes in the Japanese cinema, via the depiction of rigid social codes that impede the uninhibited expression of emotion in private life—plays a major role in “Godzilla,” too (in both versions). The one weapon that might prove effective against the colossus is the work of a reclusive scientist, who discloses his invention to the woman he loves—the daughter of a paleontologist who’s part of the official response team—but she, for her part, is in love with another man, a young shipping-line official who is also involved in the battle.
There are two greater secrets at work in the original, and they’re absent from the American version: the scientist’s crisis of conscience over the prospect that he has created a weapon of mass destruction that will, like nuclear arms, inevitably proliferate, and the paleontologist’s desire to preserve the monster not just (as in the American version) for disinterested scientific study but to extract the secret of its resistance to radiation. In short, the rational hero of the original, a principled technocrat, rues the combat against a monster that’s laying waste to the country because he thinks that it may hold the key to Japan’s surviving a greater threat, nuclear war. (In response, the young shipping executive disagrees, deeming Godzilla “no different from the H-bomb hanging over our heads.”)
The second surprise is that—despite the many scenes, themes, and touches that are missing—the hacked-up and adulterated American version is better. It starts with an American journalist named Steve Martin (played by Burr), who is injured in Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo and turns the story into his extended flashback and first-person account. The additional footage featuring Martin and a few other added characters (notably, Martin’s friend, a Japanese officer, played by Frank Iwanaga) was directed by Terry Morse, flatly and unimaginatively, but the splicing is sufficiently deft, and Burr’s crackling voice-over covers the gaps—and, even more important, his voice creates a point of view and reveals a means of transmission. Martin mediates the movie and, in the process, gives it a kick of modernity. The story of Godzilla is the story of the attack’s reporting, of how a series of events coalesces into a narrative—and the single best moment in both versions takes place during Godzilla’s assault on Tokyo, when Martin expects to be killed and, in the hope of leaving a record of the events, brings out a suitcase-size reel-to-reel deck and records, in real time, a testamentary narration on tape. (The second-best thing is the surprisingly mournful, non-stirring music in the climactic hunt, which is the same in both versions.)
The flashback structure thwarts the incremental experience of Godzilla’s menace, the element of surprise within the suspense. What it especially sacrifices is shock, the sheer terror at the scope of destruction, which, in the English-language version, is apparent at the outset, as in a report of an actual disaster: the news has broken in a headline, the full story fills in the details, and it arrives by way of an intrepid and heroic reporter, the extra variable in the Godzilla event who’s subject to it yet remains outside it even as he defines it.
The third surprise is that I don’t think that either “Godzilla” is near the top of the genre, or is especially classical for anything other than iconic value—I think that the creature is famous for signifying the great movie monster without actually being one. The main problem is that Godzilla itself isn’t very interesting. The monster is a principle of pure destruction: it’s not feeding on human flesh or farm animals or asphalt or electricity; it’s just laying waste to whatever’s in its path, stomping and swatting and smashing and exhaling a fiery dragon breath for the sheer hell of it. In theory, the idea of a nihilistic monster is as good as the idea of a reflective one, a tormented one, or a hungry one—provided that it’s developed. Godzilla, the lord of the land and sea, has no objective, no goal, no guiding principle; it has been jolted from its somnolence, its habitat has been despoiled, and now it despoils ours. Godzilla is a premise, a device, and a look, but not a being; for all its violence, it’s essentially static.
Monsters are the realm of the child’s psyche, the projection of inchoate fears in concrete, quasi-personified forms, and even the ones that are meant for adults resonate with the unconscious. Incomprehension battles with comprehension, the unexpressed conflicts with the desire to see, the near-ridiculous and the audaciously comical arise from the gravest horrors and the deepest fears. That’s why the tabloid hysteria of drive-in sci-fi and the inspired regressiveness of Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin make for fifties monsters of unabated fecundity and enduring power. Where monster matters turn sternly adult, it takes backroom gameswomanship in the vein of Howard Hawks’s “The Thing from Another World” to play up the genre’s exotic overtones.
The earnest sobriety of “Godzilla” gets in the way—it thwarts both the histrionically but authentically puerile and the dangerously, irreparably adult. It is, for the worse, a serious movie. The morning I dropped art school for the broadcast of “Godzilla” left me feeling foolish for falling for the hype; the movie was a disappointment then and, nearly half a century later, it disappoints still.