Much of my childhood was spent watching Godzilla movies on channel 9 here in New York. We’re talking the early films from the 1960s and 1970s, including that goofy one where Godzilla has a son. I loved those movies. This weekend I sat down to watch the film that started it all, Gojira, the unedited Japanese film that launched that giant lizard upon the masses.
I have seen the Americanized version called Godzilla, King of the Monsters, but the original Japanese film was something I’d never experienced. But Toho released that original film on DVD today, on a two-disc set that also includes the re-edited American version. The film looks beautiful, and is really far more a parable about nuclear proliferation than a monster film.
There are important things to note about Gojira to really understand it. First is that it was made only nine years after the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country was forever changed as a result of this, and the film was a response and warning about the continued nuclear bomb testing and growing arms race. Part of the film was also inspired by The Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fishing boat whose crew died as a result of straying too close to nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands in 1954. As a result, Gojira is far more than just a monster movie. It was a commentary on nuclear weapons and the obsession with their production. Much of this was lost over the years, not just in the follow-up films, but most especially in the re-edited American version.
In this original film, an attack on several fishing boats signals the arrival of “Gojira”, named for a legend from the local Odo Island, where the creature is believed to have come ashore. When scientists visit the island to discover if the rumors are true, they not only discover footprints, they see the creature itself. Soon, Gojira strikes Tokyo, stomping on people and destroying the city, leaving radiation in its wake to kill hundreds more. The government searches desperately for a way to destroy the beast. The answer comes in an unlikely place — a lone, independent scientist doing research has discovered a weapon that destroys all oxygen around it. But the scientist who created it believes it to be even more deadly than a nuclear bomb and refuses to allow it to be used, then replicated, generating another arms race.
The commentary against nuclear weapons is not subtle. This film is a direct attack on the creation and use of the bombs. In fact, Godzilla himself is basically a nuclear weapon in Gojira. He lays waste to cities and poisons everyone with radiation. The visuals during the attack clearly harken back to the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after World War II. Although the story moves at a slow pace and its pretty heavy handed, it’s impossible to ignore the emotion. This film was made only a few years after the devastation post-World War II, and understanding that brings a rawness to Gojira.
Much of this commentary is all but gone in Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Re-edited dramatically by its American distributors, Raymond Burr was added in as the American voice talking about his experience witnessing Godzilla’s attack on Japan. Many of the main story points are the same, such as the oxygen weapon, but the smaller character moments and the anti-nuclear weapons messages are basically gone. This is still an entertaining, and nearly 20-minutes shorter version, but the heart that made Gojira so powerful is absent.
The image quality on both films is beautiful. Sharp contrast and clean images. The two behind-the-scenes featurettes are a little dry, making them hard to enjoy, but include some nice nuggets of information about Gojira. The audio commentaries are very interesting and include a surprising about of details which were both insightful and entertaining. A 12-page booklet is also included with some nice information about the films that help put them in their proper historical perspectives.