Sunday, June 1, 2008

Creature Feature

From the celluloid archive:

There Goes Tokyo : On Its 50th Anniversary, A Glimpse Of The Real Godzilla

by Mark Satola

IN 1954, 23 Japanese fishing boat crewmen were accidentally exposed to nuclear fallout when prevailing winds shifted and sent radioactive ash from the Bikini Atoll H-bomb blast 80 miles away onto their vessel like so much deadly snow. Aikichi Kuboyama died from radiation burns suffered in the accident, thus becoming the first fatality from a hydrogen bomb blast.

The similarity to the Bikini incident of the opening scenes of Godzilla could hardly have been lost on Japanese audiences attending initial screenings of the film in 1954. In director Ishiro Honda's first kaiju (“giant monster”) movie, a commercial fishing trawler is struck by a mysterious energy blast that sears the crewmen and sends the vessel to the bottom of the open sea.

American audiences saw no such thing when an edited version of Godzilla opened in theaters and drive-ins across the U. S. The Stateside distributors brought the movie more in line with what they apparently believed to be American tastes by introducing the character of Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter caught up in Godzilla's destructive rampage through Tokyo, helpfully narrating the events for the presumably clueless audience. Along the way, they also removed the most obvious elements of Godzilla's anti-nuclear message.

The Cleveland Cinematheque will show a new 35mm print of the original version of Godzilla this weekend (Friday 9:20 p.m., Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m.) Where the version American audiences know best from television “Creature Feature” screenings is burdened with clumsy, poorly translated dubbing, this 50th-anniversary print features newly translated subtitles, and Raymond Burr's lumbering presence is, thankfully, nowhere in sight.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Godzilla in its original form is that it's a real movie. Toho Films spent more on Godzilla than had been spent on any Japanese movie up to that point, investing in set design and construction, first-rate photography (by Masao Tamai), notable scoring (Akira Ifukube), and a first-rate cast, headed by Takashi Shimura, best known as the leader of the Samurai in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and here cast as Professor Kyohei Yamane, Japan's leading paleontologist.

To direct Godzilla, Toho selected Ishiro Honda, a sometime collaborator with Kurosawa, who had been working as a director, assistant director, writer and occasional actor in the Japanese film industry since the early 1930s. Honda, who co-wrote the movie as well, crafted a balanced narrative arc for Godzilla, giving the audience a subtle crescendo from the initial mystery surrounding the disappearance of commercial ships and the havoc wrought, one terrifyingly stormy night, on remote Odo Island and its inhabitants, to the genuinely shocking climax of destruction and its pathos-laden aftermath.

The version deemed accessible to American viewers (and palatable to paranoid Cold War sensibilities) used only about an hour of Honda's footage, chopping it up and reordering scenes to accommodate the framing device of the American journalist waking up amid the rubble of the destroyed capital (in medias mess, as it were) and narrating the previous events through flashback. Along the way, the sharply condemnatory anti-nuclear message was either toned down or eliminated completely -- most tellingly in the final scene, after Godzilla's destruction by something called the “oxygen destroyer,” deployed underwater by its inventor, Dr. Serizawa (who sacrifices his own life in the process). In the original, Dr. Yamane, who has been torn between the impulse to study Godzilla and the recognition of the need to destroy the monster, admits that man's scientific folly has brought about the disaster: “If we continue testing H-bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear again, somewhere in the world.”

But for Western audiences, with their carefree “Kiss the Cook”-style barbecues out back by the bomb shelter, it was morning in America, as Raymond Burr's narration boldly proclaimed: “The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.” Or at least pretend to.

Photos by Mark Satola
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, August 25, 2004.

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