It begins with the roar. That unmistakable sound, like an untuned violin being scraped against a rusty saw blade. Anyone with any exposure at all to global pop culture knows it; even Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin reused it in their otherwise unfaithful Hollywood remake. The credits, in Japanese, unscroll against a black screen, as that roar repeats itself, and the theme music, by Akira Ifukube, kicks in, as catchy and ominous as any John Williams composition. No cheesy "King of the Monsters" logo onscreen, and definitely no Raymond Burr narration: This is the original, Japanese Godzilla of 1954, and it's the real deal.
Well, one concession remains. The Americanized name of Godzilla is so familiar at this point that it's still the title by which the newly restored print will be marketed on these shores, despite the fact that the big radioactive dinosaur's rightful name is "Gojira," a compound term derived from the Japanese words for gorilla and whale, and allegedly the nickname of either an oafish stagehand on the original film or a slow-witted Tokyo publicist. Besides that, purists can rejoice that the bad dubbing is history, and 40 minutes of footage originally yanked from the U.S. version can now be seen by Stateside audiences.
A lot of people are likely to be surprised by what they see. The 1954 Japanese cut is shot like a classic film noir, and the buildup to Tokyo's inevitable thrashing is quite slow by today's standards. The echoes of World War II are very strong, and the devastation wrought by Gojira (played by Haruo Nakajima) is not sugar-coated -- it eerily mirrors that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the deaths and injuries are dwelt upon. The monster himself is not fully revealed for quite a while, and even when he finally shows up, he's a malevolent black predator with glistening skin who stays mostly in the shadows, many times more fearsome than the green-skinned cookie monster who showed up in the various sequels to layeth the smacketh down on the candyasses of numerous alien invaders in ugly leotards.
So anyway, you might not want to bring the kids to this one. Chances are they'll be bored by the slow pacing anyway, but if they understand what's going on, there's plenty of nightmare-inducing potential from what we see. In one close-up, a street full of pedestrians is harshly evaporated in the nuclear flash of Gojira's breath (metal pylons melt from the heat of same, much as they did in the real atomic attacks). Amid the devastation of Tokyo, a mother holds her young children close and promises them that they will shortly be reunited with their dead father. Surviving kids are later scanned with a Geiger counter and declared radioactive. This ain't your standard goofy monster rampage.
No doubt some readers may be wondering how seriously all this can be taken. After all, it's common knowledge that the big critter's just a man in a baggy costume, and that Toho Studios' special effects suck so bad we're gonna laugh, right? Indeed, there's room for cynicism, much as the modern viewer may also point out that 1933's King Kong looks like the product of stop-motion animation. But the problem with Toho's special effects is mainly that they haven't kept pace with the times; for 1954, they're not bad at all. In black and white, the compositing effects that show throngs of tiny humans running from Gojira are seamless. The sets and vehicles are mostly evident as models from a contemporary eye, but the same can also be said of The African Queen, for example, and you don't hear cinephiles carping on that all the time.
The plot of the original, in case you're totally oblivious to the phenomenon yet still interested enough to read this review, goes a little something like this: Cargo ships are disappearing off the coast of Japan at an alarming rate. Survivors report seeing a bright flash before their boats catch fire. Fishermen on some of the less advanced islands believe the cause to be a mythical beast who traditionally emerges from the ocean to eat young girls when fish become scarce.
Gojira ultimately emerges, but he has no apparent interest in feeding, just wanton destruction. Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is the first to learn that the monster is a Jurassic-era dinosaur from far beneath the sea, freed and mutated by hydrogen-bomb tests. Yamane is anxious to study the creature, figuring that if it can survive nuclear weapons, it might hold the key for other life forms to survive them too. Most others, including Yamane's likely future son-in-law Ogata (Akira Takarada), are more pragmatic -- big monster is attacking, so let's save our asses and try to stop it!
Meanwhile, there's another man (Akihiko Hirata) vying for the affections of Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), but he wears an eyepatch, so you just know he's a dubious character. He also has a terrible secret, one that involves what you might call a WHD, or "weapon of horrible destruction." Honestly, it's a shame this sort of thing is still a political issue 50 years on, but what can you do?
Releasing the original cut of the film is a good start, at any rate. Chopping and redubbing was clearly the right decision from a 1950s commercial standpoint -- if U.S. audiences couldn't handle Mel Gibson's Mad Max Australian accent in 1979, how could they possibly buy into a Japanese-language film in the mid-1950s? But it was also an aesthetic shame, and it's a bummer that the anti-nuke subtext was almost entirely removed and the morally ambiguous scientist with the secret weapon rendered a stereotypical loony. Subsequent entries in the Godzilla series made the kaiju (giant monster) genre synonymous with goofy wrestling antics, but the original retains its dark tone and deadly serious antiwar message. For today's moviegoing audiences, this may not be your daddy's Godzilla movie, but chances are your granddaddy could teach you a thing or two about the context.