“This is it, George. Steve Martin signing out from Tokyo, Japan.”
The Scoop: 1986, directed by Ishiro Honda (Japanese version) and Terry O. Morse (American edit), and starring Raymond Burr, Momoko Kochi, and Akira Takarada
Tagline: Makes King Kong look like a Midget!
Summary Capsule: American reporter Steve Martin is in Tokyo as a giant monster is discovered and as it descends upon the city.
Joel’s rating: 4 out of 5 Oxygen Destroyers
Joel’s review: Now folks, I am a Kaiju fan. Ok, no, I am a KAIJU FAN!!! I have been since I was a little kid and it has never left me. I’m going to try not to let my bias show in this review, but it is here, lurking in the background like that creepy kid sitting up in the stands by himself watching the cheerleaders practice. Also, I am focusing this review on Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the American version of the film. While I will mention the Japanese version from time to time, it is the US version I’m talking most about.
The story isn’t too complicated. Reporter Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr, years before comedian Steve Martin made a name for himself) has a stop in Japan while flying abroad for a story and stumbles into an unrelated report of a fishing ship disappearing after a strange radio message. Steve ends up staying in Tokyo as this new story develops, with more ships sinking and unusual things taking place on a nearby island. On Odo island, he and a group of scientists and researchers see a gigantic reptilian monster, larger than anything known to be alive. Before the authorities have a real chance to think, the monster called Godzilla comes ashore and attacks Tokyo with Steve describing the destruction to American radio in what may be his last broadcast.
Everyone recognizes Godzilla, that is for certain. He is a pop culture icon, he has saved our planet numerous times in his movies, TV appearances, and cartoons. He has been commercialized and parodied. Yet many people forget that this first movie, the original, is a serious film that stands above most of the ‘big monster’ films of the 1950’s.
For America, the atomic bomb and radiation were simple plot devices to create their big bugs, lizards, or whatever the critter of the day was. For the Japanese, it was an allegory for WWII and the dawn of the atomic age. In American monster movies, a square jawed hero finishes the creatures off with military might. In Japan, the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage imitates the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as well as the conventional bombings of other Japanese cities. Tokyo itself was nearly decimated by non-atomic bombing runs. And even after the war, the Japanese had the first casualties of the nuclear age when one of their fishing ships found itself too close to an early nuclear weapon test in the Pacific and the crew suffered radiation sickness and death. So Godzilla ends up being much darker than literally every other film in the franchise and darker than most American monster movies from the same decade. The American producer and editor keeps much of this darker material intact (although they did eliminate any scene or dialogue that mentioned the bad part of nuclear power or that painted America badly).
One of the best things in this movie is the simple editing of the material. Most people are aware of the badly dubbed American voiceovers in many foreign films, and many Godzilla movies are literally butchered by horrible dub jobs in the US versions. This first movie, however, was treated with great care. There isn’t really much dubbing there. Instead, in many scenes, the words are spoken in Japanese and then someone translates for the American reporter, completely avoiding dubbing. In other scenes, the English speaking is matched to a moment when the speaker’s mouth isn’t visible, so no bad matching of words to lips. It is a pretty nice touch, since the bad dubbing really can ruin a movie.
I also appreciate how serious it is all taken. In American ‘big bug’ movies of the time, usually the situation was very small in scale, with only a few people affected and little after effects would have been felt. Godzilla shows us head on. The crew of the first fishing vessel screams before their ship explodes. The military turn and try to flee before the monster kills them. A mother holds her two small children and comforts them just before their building collapses (in the subtitled version, she tell her children they will be joining their father in heaven soon). And reporter Martin stands by his post, reporting the devastation, and watches as Godzilla turns toward his own position. That is heady stuff, but makes a better film. Some of the scenes of the city after the attacks, inspired directly by memories of WWII for the film makers, are fairly graphic for a film of the era. The final sacrifice at the end, which has been overused so often it is a bona fide TV trope, seems meaningful and significant here since there was so much more done during the movie to build toward it.
Finally, I love the subplot of the movie. Through Steve, we see a love triangle between a young man named Ogata, a woman named Emiko Yamane (whose father is a scientist also important in the movie) and Dr. Serizawa, who is betrothed to Emiko from childhood but whom Emiko does not want to marry. The acting from those involved (and Emiko’s father as well, since they are the major characters from the Japanese versions as well) is very good, better than many later giant monster movies, that is for sure. Dr. Serizawa himself, played by veteran Japanese actor Akihiko Hirata in an early role, does some excellent facial expressions as he both wrestles with his growing knowledge of Emiko’s love for another man and also the fact that he may have a method of defeating Godzilla but with a weapon that would be even worse than the nuclear bombs. It is similar to the movie Alien, which is essentially a 50’s B-movie but with A-list directing, acting, and special effects to make a great film. The American version loses some of this subplot, but enough is still there to bolster the film and make it interesting even when the monster isn’t stomping across the screen.
However, in the end we still have a giant monster stomping across a city, so if you can’t get by that, you will not like this movie. The movie is a classic, but it isn’t perfect. There are times when Raymond Burr’s narration becomes tedious or unnecessary, being that he is telling us what our eyes are seeing on the screen. He also has that classic monotone that made his television shows so successful, but doesn’t really translate well here. The voice seems almost devoid of emotion, and while I could see that during a broadcast, there are times when he is thinking to himself or talking to someone and there should be more emotion behind the words; the scene with him recovering from his injuries and surrounded by others hurt in the attack is a good example. In the face of the tragic events and even the emotion the other actors in the film show, Burr is almost too stoic.
And fair warning, if you are looking for the fun ‘Godzilla versus Random Insane Monster’ wrestling match, this isn’t one of those films. There really is no other Godzilla or monster film that takes such a somber tone or executes its goal so well with the exception of King Kong (most of the later movies likely didn’t have a goal, really, other than ‘let’s make some more money’). Kong and Godzilla share that the original films have a story above and beyond the monster’s rampage, and that makes them both bigger films than their brethren.
To wrap up, for those who want to own or rent this movie, I suggest finding the fairly recent Criterion Collection version. It includes both Godzilla, King of the Monsters! as well as the Japanese version Gojira with subtitles and both are taken from the best video sources known to exist (the American version was copied from a film in a private collection not known about or available to previous releases, and it shows).
- The original Godzilla suit weighed around 200 lbs and was very stiff and hard to move. The actor within the suit could only film a few minutes at a time and faced dehydration during filming.
- The Godzilla franchise has spawned 28 films in Japan as well as numerous other monster films including two of the most well known, Mothra and Rodan. There is also the 1998 American film ‘Godzilla’ as well as a new movie slated for 2014.
- The ship destroyed in the beginning of the movie is a direct reference to the tragedy of the ‘Lucky Dragon #5’, the fishing vessel that found itself too close to an American bomb test in the Pacific. They were not affected by the explosion itself but fallout fell on the ship and the crew suffered from serious radiation poisoning, many of them dying soon after.
- The director originally wanted stop-motion animation like the original King Kong for his film, but the film did not have a budget to afford it. Japanese ‘suitmation’ became an often-used and popular method of giant monster effects for decades after.
- Ray Harryhausen’s film ‘Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ was viewed by director Ishiro Honda and greatly influenced the production of Godzilla.
- All oxygen in water can be destroyed, disintegrating all living matter (7th grade science books cover this)
- A good way to help a wounded man just pulled from the ocean is to scream directly into his ear.
- 400 ft tall organisms can evade sonar easily, no matter how much water they displace.
Steve Martin to his editor in America: “It’s big and terrible, more frightening than anything I ever thought possible.”
Steve Martin: “This is Tokyo. Once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which up until a few days ago was entirely beyond the scope of Man’s imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown, an unknown which at this very moment still prevails and could at any time lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could’ve told of what they saw… now there are only a few.”
Steve Martin, speaking live to American radio as Godzilla approaches his broadcast position: “This is it, George. This is Steve Martin signing out from Tokyo, Japan.”
Dr. Serizawa: “The Oxygen destroyer must not be used!”
Ogata: “If we do not defend ourselves from Godzilla now, what will become of us?”
Dr. Serizawa: “And what will become of us if a weapon, such as I now have, falls into the wrong hands?”
Ogata: “Then you have a responsibility no man has ever faced. You have your fear which might become reality. And you have Godzilla, which *is* reality.”
If you liked this movie, try these:
- King Kong
Your date is wrong. “Gojira” came out in 1954 and there was no Godzilla film released in 1986. The closest Godzilla ever came to a 1986 release was “The Return of Godzilla” which was released in 1984 in Japan and 1985 in America (as “Godzilla 1985”).
Typo, it should say 1956, which was when Godzilla, King of the Monsters was released in America. I apologize for not catching it.
Excellent review, Joel. I look forward to reading more from your sharpened quill.
I’ve only seen the American version of this film a couple of times, and it’s been many years. I saw later Godzilla movies before seeing this one, and this one struck me as far superior. I was impressed with its seriousness and dark tone.
Thanks for the note about the Criterion Collection version. I’ve always wanted to see the Japanese version. Now I know where to find it!
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