Saturday Afternoon Kaiju: Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Some of you might be thinking, incredulously, “Why is she watching that version and not the original version?!” Well, mainly because this is the version I’d see on the Saturday monster matinée. Growing up in Los Angeles, when we couldn’t afford cable, independent channels were your go-to place to watch movies like this: KTLA Channel 5, KHJ-TV Channel 9, and KCOP Channel 13. Those of you who grew up in LA in the early 80s know what I’m talking about. Those channels were a lifeline; a direct conduit to all kinds of science fiction and horror films. Seriously, I cannot tell you how many times I saw Joe Dante’s Piranha on Channel 9.
So, yes, you’re right. This version of Godzilla totally sanitizes the original. It takes the original Japanese film and inserts a bunch of footage that totally skewers it to American audiences. They did it to make it more palatable to the U.S. market. I get that. Gojira (1954) is an important film, to be sure. That film deserves a serious discussion about its themes.
My column is not that forum.
The film opens on a devastated portion of a city. Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter, happens to be in Tokyo on a “social call”. We meet him on his way to hospital. He’s been injured in a building collapse. Scores of other people are hurt, as well. In a voice over, Martin informs us of the horror he has witnessed. While lying on the floor of a hospital corridor, he randomly shouts out the name “Emiko!” and a woman appears. His “social call”, perhaps? He proceeds to tell us the whole original Gojira, in a flashback. The movie doesn’t even bother to translate or subtitle the people speaking in Japanese, they just have Martin ask things like “What are they saying?” or “Ha Ha, I’m afraid my Japanese is a little rusty.” This, of course, is the lazy way of telling us what has happened.
Still in flashback, Martin “goes among the natives” and witnesses a ceremony the people perform in order to ward off a sea monster. It’s during this ritual we first hear the name “Godzilla”. Martin decides to stay overnight on the island. During the night, Godzilla decides to pay the poor island a visit. Haven’t these poor folks been through enough? We only get a glimpse of the Big G’s leg, but we sure do get to hear that familiar roar.
Martin and his research crew find some big-ass radioactive footprints. Martin heads for the hills as the Kaiju alarm goes off. Bad choice because, hello! Up pops Godzilla’s head. Run away! And, just like that, he’s gone again.
Back to Tokyo for more official discussions, including a slide show with an awesome photo of G-Man. We’re told the reason Godzilla was resurrected was because of repeated H-bomb experiments. Steve calls in a report, telling his editor “Well, it’s big and terrible.”
Speaking of big and terrible, there's some weird sexual tension between Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and a scientist friend, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Martin was originally supposed to meet. At one point, Emiko (who is in love with some other dude) and Serizawa are alone together and he tells her he has something he wants to show her. Now, if an eye-patch wearing scientist wearing black rubber gloves tells me he wants to show me something very special in his dark basement, uhm, that’s going to be a hard pass. Whatever it was he showed her, she was shook.
Authorities drop some depth charges, so out everyone goes, on boats, while the nation watches on television. After dropping the charges, the feeling throughout the city is that Godzilla has been destroyed, so life goes back to normal. People are even taking dinner cruises. Of course, Godzilla pops up to let the world know he’s alive, and Godzilla does what Godzilla does. The authorities believe they can take him out with electricity.
Danger! High Voltage, indeed! They tell everyone to get the fuck out of town.
Now, at this point of the film, we still have 45 minutes left.
Our trusty reporter is up in a news office with a view of the bay where they think Godzilla will appear. He gets the bright idea of making a recording of the entire thing so he hauls out a reel-to-reel and starts talking. Godzilla bats that electricity shit away and breathes on the towers, melting them. He got a little hot foot, but none the worse for wear.
He is pretty pissed at this point, and he decides to take a stroll through Tokyo. He breathes on some stuff, knocks some stuff with his tail, you know, the usual.
One of my favorite bits is when a bunch of photogs decide it’s a great idea to climb a tower to take pictures of Godzilla. Their flashes draw his attention and he moseys on over and bites the deck where those morons were standing. I mean, don’t we all wish we could do that to anyone taking selfies?
Our intrepid reporter is so enrapt with watching Godzilla, he forgets to get the hell out of the building, which crumbles around him. They send in fighter jets to attack Godzilla. He just keeps knocking them out of the sky, “One hundred...two hundred...Am I buggin’ ya? Sorry. I don’t mean to bug ya. Okay, Edge. Play the blues.” Then just as quick as his rampage started, ‘Zilla decides he needs to cool off a bit and goes back into the water.
End of flashback.
Back at the hospital, Martin is being patched up. Emiko tells him about the terrible something in Dr. Serizawa’s basement. He has come up with some sort of oxygen depletion bomb that could wipe out all of Tokyo Bay and turn it “into a graveyard.”
Martin does not say, “Well, what the hell have you been waiting for?!" Instead, he just tells her to convince Serizawa to use the bomb on Godzilla. Emiko’s boyfriend (remember him?) and the doctor dive down to place the bomb (awkward!). The doctor already realizes that Emiko is in love with this other guy. They place the bomb near Godzilla and set it off.
But Godzilla’s not quite finished yet. He manages to surface one last time before going down for the count. We see his skeleton and then, BANG! That is the end.
We know, of course, that isn’t the end because there are many, many, many more Godzilla films to come.
Truth be told, this isn’t my favorite of the series. That one comes much later and we’ll get to it in good time. For now though, if you can, pop this on some time and enjoy what this film has to offer: a good first outing for our big, green guy.
This film is available for streaming on ShoutFactoryTV and on the Criterion release of Gojira. Please, by all means, make sure to watch the original Gojira, as well. Honda’s film is extraordinary and important for everyone to see.