You think you've seen Godzilla (1954), the legendary Japanese science-fiction saga, some late night on TV? Guess again, buster, for what you viewed was Godzilla: King of Monsters!, the chewed-up, sliced-down, haplessly tinkered-with 1956 US recut, in which a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr was added, through clever-but-tacky editing tricks, to made-in-Japan dramatic sequences. He's Steve Martin, an American in Asia who's a first-hand witness as the Jurrasic Age scourge (a tyrannosaurus variant) steps on Tokyo, turning the then-city-of-six-million to miso soup. Burr's omniscient voice-over provides a life-is-beautiful upbeat ending that smooths away everything the Japanese original, a solemn end-of-the-world preachment, tries to get across.
The real Godzilla, newly restored and expertly subtitled, contains forty minutes of unseen-in-America footage, and oh what a difference from the stunted, stilted, depoliticized Hollywood release. This black-and-white epic from filmmaker Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa's pal and sometimes second-unit director, is an impassioned pacifist work, which, shadowed by the A-Bombs dropped on Japan, calls for the end of nuclear tests and a retreat from the atomic age.
This is serious science-fiction. Though Godzilla's stomping on the city (as his dragon-breath turns Tokyo aflame) isn't as impressively staged as King Kong's 1933 dismantling of New York, what lingers in mind is the aftermath: gruesome scenes in a Tokyo hospital of dying children. A doctor holds a geiger counter to a little boy and then shakes his head sadly, realizing that the lad is fatally irradiated. There's one sure way to read these horrific sequences: as an elegy, just a few years after, to the civilian dead-and-maimed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even poor Godzilla is a nuclear-age victim. For generations, he's lived below the ocean in a cave, feeding on sea creatures. (Okay, okay, he does devour an occasional islander vestal virgin.) But it's the A-Bomb which has uprooted him, brought him to the surface, where, confused and alienated, he sends ships to Davey Jones's Locker, derails a commuter train, heads into the capitol city for an impromptu killing spree. The Japanese script is explicit about what motivates the pissed-off Godzilla: "H-bomb tests damaged its natural habitat."
May I mention the slight human story? A somewhat batty paleontologist (Takashi Shimura, glorious star of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and Ikiru) is in denial of Godzilla's murderous habits, because he wants the prehistoric creature kept alive for study. The scientist has a beautiful daughter (Momoko Kochi), whose ex-suitor, Dr. Seriwaza (Akihiko Hirata) is Godzilla's most arresting character: a suffering, Gothic soul whose anti-oxygen invention is the world's sole chance to stop the prehistoric behemoth. When Serizawa tosses a pellet containing his potion into a fish tank, all that's there afterward are goldfish skeletons. What if a similar pellet is thrown into the ocean, at Godzilla's swimming hole?
And Godzilla? What keeps the movie from real excellence is the undeniable ordinariness, and lack of personality, of that thing from which everyone is running. When we finally site the mighty dinosaur (he's on screen only twice in the film's first forty minutes), we can only say, yawning, "Is that all there is?" Pallid Godzilla needs a sprucing-up trip to Photoshop!
What is terrifying and transcendant: composer Akira Ifukube's stupendous musical score. Let there be a CD soundtrack!