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Sun May 1 08:58:13 MDT 2005
NY Times,.May 1, 2005
Godzilla vs. the Giant Scissors: Cutting the Antiwar Heart Out of a Classic
By BRENT STAPLES
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
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.
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