So this is where it all started!
Of course, as Godzilla is my all-time favorite character, I admit to being raised on the heavily edited US version starring Raymond Burr. But when viewing this film in its original form, it not only looks more like a Golden Age Toho fantasy as we all know it, but it's a very powerful masterpiece, as it stands in the history of world cinema. Here in 2004, 50 years ago today after its release, American audiences finally get to see the film in its entirety, thanks to its long-awaited subtitled theatrical release by Rialto Pictures.
Technically, Japanese monster movies began with the now-lost 1934 period fantasy, KING KONG HAS ARRIVED IN EDO (EDO NI ARAWARETA KINGU KONGU), which was obviously produced upon the success of the 1933 American classic, KING KONG. But it was GODZILLA (or GOJIRA as the Japanese call him) that truly made it over. Clearly inspired by the success of the 1953 hit, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (released to Japan by Daiei early the same year), with a bit of KONG thrown in, Toho set out to make their own monster movie, not knowing that they would create a phenomenon that would last to this day!
What more can I say? This movie pretty much set the standard for Japanese monster movies as we all know! Watching the Japanese version is an amazing experience, and a hauntingly epic one!
The special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, as low-tech as they were, had minor flaws (notably visible wires and missiles shooting against a background), but even for a first try in the monster genre, they still looked spectacular, as is the photography! Even though the effects work improved in future films, this is still the landmark of things to come.
The music by Akira Ifukube is memorable. From his stirring main title music, to Godzilla's destructive, ponderous theme music, to the poignant ending. Again, Ifukube's work for this film sets the standard for his work in the fantasy film genre.
The main cast is top-notch, as you'd expect. Akira Takarada (20 at the time) stars as salvage officer Hideto Ogata, the main character. Veteran actor Takashi Shimura plays Dr. Kyouhei Yamane, the eccentric paleontologist, who serves as the Godzilla-expert. Momoko Kouchi plays Yamane's daughter Emiko, who's in love with Ogata. But the best character by far (and my all-time favorite human character in a Godzilla film) is the tormented, eyepatch-clad scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, played by Akihiko Hirata. When watching the Japanese version, other supporting characters share the spotlight, especially the newspaper reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai), radiologist Tanabe (Fuyuki Murakami), the Ooto Island fisherman Masaji (Ren Yamamoto) and his younger brother Shinkichi (Toyoaki Suzuki). They just come off as mere background characters in the US version, but if you watch the Japanese original, you'll be totally surprised. Their performances were really dazzling, just like you'd expect from actors in a Toho fantasy film. Some of these actors would appear in future Godzilla films, as well as other SPFX fantasies from Toho.
Compared to other incarnations, this film (as well as GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN) had the creepiest Godzilla ever, and that was just the way he was supposed to be! Almost like a black silhouette with bright, white staring eyes. Godzilla was not just a mere animal, he was basically a modern god! A raging, destructive demon with the power of the hydrogen bomb that affected him. Although Godzilla is inspired by the Rhedosaurus from BEAST, he was a completely different entity. He was virtually indestructible, and had an awesome power - a white-hot atomic breath! Godzilla became the archetype for many Japanese giant monsters to follow.
But exactly what is Godzilla? As explained in this film (it's explained better in the Japanese version), he's a huge amphibious bipedal dinosaur that lives in caverns under the sea, feeding off of smaller sea animals. He was feared as a "god" on Ooto Island, and many young virgin women were sacrificed to him to appease his hunger. Hydrogen bomb tests affected his habitat, giving him unbelievable radioactive power & strength (and a towering size of 50 meters, 164 feet). And a sleeping giant was awakened . . .
Makes you think more about those nuclear tests, doesn't it?
Lastly, while the Japanese original played out more smoothly, the American version starring Raymond Burr (of PERRY MASON fame) as the visiting American reporter Steve Martin (not to be confused with the famous comedian!) is still very effective. The epic scale of the original still manages to shine through what the US producers could allow, and Burr (who was hired for a whole day for filming the added scenes) still did a serviceable job. American fans of the original version can at least be thankful for this US version, without which America could not accept Godzilla.
As for the movie's story, I'd rather not go into it in detail. If you haven't seen it, please do so! Be it the original Japanese version (which I recommend the most, especially subtitled), or the edited US version!
Here's to 50 years of a classic movie, and a classic character I will love forever!