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Godzilla vs. the Giant Scissors: Cutting the Antiwar Heart Out of a Classic
By BRENT STAPLES
Published: May 1, 2005
Film directors who once stood helpless while studios recut their movies can
now console themselves with "directors' cuts" put out on DVD. This option
was not available to the influential Japanese director Ishiro Honda, whose
1954 classic "Godzilla" - known in Japan as "Gojira" - made a household name
of the towering reptile who stomped a miniature Tokyo into the ground while
raking the landscape with his fiery thermonuclear breath.
A fire-breathing reptile is pretty much the same in any language. But the
butchered version of the film that swept the world after release in the United
States was stripped of the political subtext - and the anti-American, antinuclear
messages - that had saturated the original. The uncut version of the film
is due out on home video early next year, and should push serious Godzilla
fans to rethink the 50-year evolution of the series. It should also show
them that they were hoodwinked by the denatured Americanized version that
dominated many of their childhoods in the late 20th century. At the same
time, Godzilla fans are on the edge of their seats about a new film that
should be released in the United States soon.
The original "Gojira" was never intended as a conventional monster-on-the-loose
movie. Nor did it resemble the farcical rubber-suit wrestling matches or
the domesticated movies (with Godzilla cast as a mammoth household pet) that
the series degenerated into during the 1960's and 70's.
As the historian William Tsutsui reminded us in last year's cult classic,
"Godzilla on My Mind," the 1954 movie was a dark, poetic production that
dealt openly with Japanese misgivings about the nuclear menace, environmental
degradation and the traumatic experience associated with World War II.
The nuclear annihilations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in mind
when the famous Toho Company embarked on the "Gojira" project in 1954. But
Japanese fear of nuclear catastrophe was given fresh impetus in the spring
of that year, when the United States detonated a huge hydrogen bomb at Bikini
Atoll in the central Pacific. Japanese fishermen aboard a trawler were exposed
to nuclear fallout. Japanese consumers panicked and declined to eat fish
after irradiated tuna was found to have slipped into the nation's food supply.
In the film, the H-bomb blast awakens and irradiates a dinosaur that has
somehow escaped extinction. The reptile strides ashore and begins his trademark
devastation of the Tokyo landscape. The nuclear antecedents were not at all
lost on Honda, a World War II veteran who passed through the bombed-out city
of Hiroshima and witnessed the damage firsthand. Honda later said that he
envisioned the fiery breath of Godzilla as a way of "making radiation visible,"
and of showing the world that nuclear power could never be tamed.
He also told an interviewer: "Believe it or not, we naïvely hoped that
the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing."
That was clearly a tall order for a monster movie. But Honda's message never
had a chance because most of the world never received it. The American company
that bought the rights to distribute the film in this country cut a large
chunk from Honda's original film and rearranged the plot. The biggest change
involved splicing in Raymond Burr, who played an American reporter chronicling
the devastation for the press. Dialogue that dealt heavily with human suffering,
the morality of all-out war - and the temptation to play God with weapons
of mass destruction - was left on the American cutting room floor.
The exclusion of the antinuclear theme in the American version is hardly
surprising. Hollywood had little stomach for anti-American rhetoric during
the McCarthyite 1950's. But the American production of "Godzilla" that starred
Matthew Broderick a half-century later showed that Hollywood did not understand
the monster, either.
The sleek, animated "American" Godzilla somehow managed to be less scary
than the Japanese actor in the latex suit. Part of the problem is that the
American Godzilla relied on stealth and cunning instead of the brute force
displayed by the original. Some fans felt like walking out when the American
Godzilla, confronted by a military threat, turned and ran. The essence of
Godzilla is that he keeps stomping relentlessly forward, no matter what you
throw his way.
It is fitting, then, that the American Godzilla is K.O.'ed by the real thing
in the 28th and perhaps final installment, "Godzilla Final Wars," which should
make it into general release in America sometime soon. It's also fitting
that the original Godzilla movie, which was dismembered a half-century ago
in America, is finally being shown in its full and uncut form.