At this time in history when the nuclear power monster is anachronically being reawakened in the developed world, the DVD release of the original, uncut version of Gojira (Godzilla) seems rather timely. Even though it is probably the most famous Japanese film ever, it is likely that Western audiences so far have had access to the mauled American version that played down the explicit condemnation of nuclear testing which Ishiro Honda’s film made in the original version. In fact, Godzilla is an allegoric manifesto against the atom bomb and an ode to conscientious science. Although it contains the blueprint of the kaiju eiga(monster movie) that became popular throughout the 1960s and 1970s, its symbolic power and contemplative mood transcends a genre interpretation of it.
Godzilla is a product of the trauma produced by the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in 1945. However, the United States’s H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll in March 1954 was the catalyst event that prompted Honda to make Godzilla. The test produced a fallout across a seven-thousand-square-mile area. A Japanese tuna boat was found out to have been hit by the fallout. The entire crew developed radiation sickness and one member soon died. The DVD includes a short called The Japanese Fishermen (1954), evidencing even more the link between the incident and the idea for the film. The occurrence is used as the opening sequence as well, which shows fishermen relaxing on their ship before it is destroyed by a flash of light. Although America is never explicitly mentioned, the references to actual historic facts are explicit. In one scene, a woman on a train says she is a Nagasaki survivor and at the end of the film the scientists who manage to destroy Godzilla say the monster was resurrected by H-Bomb tests in the Pacific.
The narrative flow is very straightforward and the special effects are stunning, especially the moments when Godzilla gets entangled with electricity wiring, an image that encapsulates in one fell swoop modernity’s destructive power. The images of a destroyed Tokyo also make explicit references to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a giant graveyard of burnt-out, mangled civilisation.
Those familiar with the American version should watch out for the parliament scene, which was re-edited in America to eliminate the connection between the monster and the test. In the American version, when Dr Yamane (Takashi Shimura) explains the link between both facts, members of the parliament get angry and yell at him whereas in the original the discussion does lead to some yelling when it is suggested that it would not be wise to publicise the fact due to diplomatic relations. A female member of parliament argues that since it is a fact, the public has the right to know the truth and some confusion ensues. Never is the explanation for the monster’s appearance doubted.
The closing sequence was also significantly changed by the Americans. After the monster is destroyed, Dr Yamane says that he can’t believe Godzilla is the only survivor of its species. If we continue to test H-bombs, another Godzilla will appear again somewhere in the world." That is followed by the crew of scientists on the ship removing their hats to pay a silent respect to the scientist who sacrificed himself underwater to destroy the monster, also gloomy at the prospect of the re-emergence of future monsters. That is, Honda created an open end as a word of caution aimed squarely at the Americans, whereas their version ends with the sun flickering on the surface of the water. In other words, a Hollywood, definitive and optimistic end, which in this case has the double role of transferring responsibility away from the United States.
Plus: The Mysterians (Japan, 1957. Dir: Ishiro Honda. With Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata) – The DVD release of Godzilla is accompanied by the simultaneous release of another Ishiro Honda’s film that deals with the Japanese nuclear trauma. The first colour Japanese science fiction film to be shot in widescreen (it was filmed in Tohoscope), The Mysterians (1957) carries a strong anti-nuclear message Godzilla , although it is more stylised and less austere than Godzilla. Honda here transfers the atomic metaphor to outer space. The Mysterians are unfriendly survivors of a planet destroyed by nuclear war, who have landed on earth in order to rebuild their dwindling population. The colourful lycra costumes and helmets which have become synonyms of Japanese cult sci-fi are all here as well as a gigantic robot called Mogera, which shoots deadly rays from its eyes. The Mysterians hail from the period when aliens were evil and special effects were accompanied by synthesised vibrating sounds – in short, a treat for retro-futurism aficionados.
Godzilla and The Mysterians are out now