Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

Japan was not a popular country for much of the western world in the decades following World War II.  In fact, I know plenty of elderly people who still harbor very ill feelings toward the people of Japan.  That said, one can imagine just how rare it was in the mid 1950s to see a Japanese film on American soil.  Or for that matter, it was rare to even see a film depicting any Japanese characters in a positive light either.  Following its 1954 release, when Ishiro Honda's Godzilla finally reached American shores, it only showed in small theaters in Japanese or heavily Asian communities, with subtitles.  It was not something that the general public was exposed to at all.  At least, not until a man named  Edmund Goldman happened upon it in a California Chinatown theater.  Movies about monsters and aliens were garnering massive popularity at that time, and realizing the title monster's star power, Goldman bought the international rights for the film for $25,000, and then sold them to Jewell Enterprises Inc., a small production company that successfully adapted the film for American audiences. 

This adaptation meant that the film underwent heavy editing.  While it would be essentially the same film as the original Godzilla, several plot points were removed or drastically reduced - mostly those involving the darker, political themes of nuclear unease - and new scenes were shot featuring actor Raymond Burr, playing a new character named Steve Martin (this was before the comedian Steve Martin, obviously).  Mr. Martin was an American reporter, providing something of a "more relatable" character for American audiences to follow, as the film opted to be mostly shown from his point of view.  Ultimately, this new version of the film would follow Mr. Martin on a trip to Japan, set during the events of the original Godzilla film - more or less telling the same story, but from a different character's point of view.  Along with the numerous new scenes featuring Raymond Burr and others being inserted into the edited version of the Japanese film - along with some other scenes with the Japanese characters, using body doubles in matching dress, shot from behind in direct interaction with Burr's character - most of the dialogue was dubbed over into English.  Subtitles were not a popular idea, and since the American producers were marketing it to kids, this technique was deemed best.

Dubbing is when the original audio track is removed, and a new one is put in its place.  Because of this, the Japanese characters' mouths, and even body language and facial expressions, rarely match with the English dialogue.  This audio-trick used to make the film more accessible later became one of the hallmark traits targeted by those who mock the Godzilla franchise, which is, in my opinion, quite ignorant.  Obviously this isn't the work of bad editing on the original film maker's part.  It's a result of the mass audience not being able to put up with subtitles.  Unfortunately, ignorance over this process has more or less forever marred the franchise in the eyes of those who are too unfamiliar with it, labeling it as "cheesy" or "cheap,"  which couldn't be further from the truth.  

Also along with the Americanization, came a relabeling of the title monster.  To make it sound less foreign, they changed "Gojira" to "Godzilla."  It was this version of the original Godzilla film that introduced most audiences outside of Japan to Godzilla and labeled the monster as the "King of the Monsters."  It became a smash hit, and was easily distributed to studios all over the world.  It even gained popularity within Japan itself, and reportedly replaced the original version in many cinemas.  As a result, Gojira is known internationally the world over, under the moniker of Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  This film is also notable for being a large part of the shift between how the western world saw Japan during the war, to the years thereafter.  Although a handful of independent, low-budget films had previously been filmed in Japan after World War II by American companies and featuring Japanese actors in the cast, Godzilla represented the first to present Japanese peoples in principal, heroic roles or as sympathetic victims of the destruction of Tokyo (albeit by a fictional giant monster) to the American public in a commercial release given A-picture status and bookings.  Though Toho, Ishiro Honda and the rest of the gang there are primarily responsible for creating Godzilla, it is undoubtedly the American crew behind King of the Monsters that are responsible for exploding this Japanese smash hit into an icon recognized all over the world.  

As for the movie itself, the story is very similar to the 1954 original.  The revised story begins at a hastily established emergency hospital in an evidently devastated Tokyo, to which is brought American reporter Steve Martin, one of the wounded.  Traumatized and injured, Martin tells of his stopover in Tokyo on a routine assignment to Cairo for United World News, where he found himself confronted by the emergence of an inexplicable menace to navigation in the Sea of Japan.  Something had been causing ships to be destroyed without warning, and sinking them with no time for escape.  When a dying seaman finally washed up on an inhabited island, Martin flew there for the story with Tomo Iwanaga, a representative of the Japanese security forces.  There, they learned of the island inhabitants' belief in a monster/god/mystical being, which lived beneath the sea, that they believe is causing the disasters.  They call this being Godzilla, and Martin realized this could be a big headline.

Phoning his editor at United World News, he had been given permission to stay and cover the story.  Martin's involvement in the unfolding events broadens when paleontologist, Dr. Yamane, is consulted and, returning to the island with his daughter Emiko and her young naval-officer/boyfriend Ogata to investigate, sees the monster when it attacks the island village.  They quickly return to Tokyo with clear evidence of the monster's existence and power, and Yamane becomes a leading consultant to Japan in mounting a defense, as it becomes apparent the monster is moving towards Tokyo.

We more or less know the story from here on out.  Godzilla eventually shows up and wreaks havoc on Tokyo, with Martin being among the millions injured in the attack.  Here, his flashback ends, and we are returned to him in the hospital, recovering from the attack.  Emiko reveals she may know a solution to the monster's apparent indestructibility. She loves the young naval officer, but had until recently been engaged to a young scientist named Dr. Serizawa, who was also, apparently, Steve Martin's friend in college. She lost interest in him because he has become a recluse, delving into an exhaustive study of Oxygen.  After breaking up with him, he revealed to her the reason for his reclusiveness - over the course of his research, he had accidentally developed a formula capable of destroying all oxygen in water, in the process of which any animal coming in contact with the "Oxygen Destroyer" is stripped clean of all flesh and organs, reduced to a skeleton.  His anguish over what to do with this discovery has become a constant preoccupation.  She had agreed to keep her knowledge of this a secret, but with Godzilla on the loose, she realizes this may be the only thing capable of stopping the monster, and informs her boyfriend and father.

The scientist is only reluctantly persuaded to use his remaining sample of the oxygen destroyer to try to kill Godzilla, provided he accompanies the young officer, in a diving suit, to the sea bottom to place and release the formula more or less at the monster's feet. After concluding this agreement, the scientist destroys all his notes and papers on the formula. Once at the bottom of the sea, he sends the young officer back up to the boat, releases the destroyer himself, and cuts his own oxygen hose and lifeline, to ensure no one else will ever know the chemical composition of his horrid formula. The young officer joins Dr. Yamane, Emiko and Steve Martin on the ship to watch as the Oxygen Destroyer does its work, reducing Godzilla to a skeleton. Afterwards, Martin's last words were, "The menace was gone.  So was a great man.  But the whole world could wake up and live again."

To this film's credit, it is one of the only Godzilla films that has an Americanized version which doesn't completely cannibalize the integrity of the original cut - even though this is probably one of the most heavy edits out of the entire series.  The plot is kept mostly in tact, and even - at least for me - somewhat enhanced by some of Steve Martin's monologuing.  Particularly the various things he says as he watches Godzilla's romp through Tokyo. In the original, it is visually obvious what a disaster Godzilla really is, but when added to Steve's commentary on the scene, it becomes strikingly apparent just what a worldwide problem this could be if Godzilla were left unchecked.  And I like that.  Having a World News Reporter on hand definitely makes this feel like a much bigger and more profound disaster.  Keep in mind, I still prefer the original Japanese version.  There are so many tiny details in that cut that makes it the clear superior.  But I somehow wish there was an official cut that still kept a majority of Steve's journey in tact, along with the original Japanese cut in its entirety.

Still, Godzilla King of the Monsters! cannot be underestimated for its influence.  As mentioned earlier, numerous other countries picked up the Americanized edit of the film for distribution.  Still, some countries opted to further edit the film to be better suited for their own markets.  One of the most notable versions of the film is the Italian cut that has come to be known by fans as "Cozilla," though officially is simply titled Godzilla.  In 1977, Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi released a modified and colorized version to magnetic band and sensurround theaters in Italy. Originally, Cozzi planned to re-release the original 1954 version without the Raymond Burr scenes, but was unable to secure the rights from Toho, and instead was sold the Americanized version of the film.  Since the film was in black and white, regional distributors in Italy refused to release it, so, in order to release the film, Cozzi hired Armando Valcauda to colorize the whole film frame by frame, using gels attached to the negative. 

The film's content was also re-edited, removing several scenes and adding lots of stock footage of graphic death and destruction from actual Wartime footage reels, which has made it 105 minutes long.  These added scenes - including some new and somewhat psychedelic soundtrack pieces - add a gruesome tone to the movie that instantly pushes it out of the normal array of 1950s sci fi mayhem, and into the realm of the exploitation film (something that Italian Cinema became something of a breeding ground for in the 70s).  These additions also put Godzilla's originally intended atomic and nuclear subtext back into the spotlight, really hoping to show the carnage and reprocussions of the beast's movements through Tokyo, rather than simply the empty spectacle.  When the film was released in the cinemas, a special effect was added that shook the seats each time that Godzilla took a step.

In the end, all of this culminates to just another interesting addition to Godzilla's history as a character that has proven more versatile than his origins intended.  Both horror figure and heroic figure, Godzilla had now transcended its own subtext, its own country, and even its secondary country.  He had become something of an entity unto himself, and while he was still nowhere near the popularity that he would reach in the 1960s, it was hard to argue that he had cemented himself as the King of the Monsters.

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