In celebration of the 50th birthday of the mean, green monster that spawned one of the biggest and best-known franchises in film history, the original Japanese “Director’s Cut” of Godzilla waded onto American shores for the first time. I recently caught a screening at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C., wedged between a bunch of George Washington University hipsters who squealed and guffawed in ironic glee throughout the entire 90-minute film.
The laughter was misplaced. The first Godzilla has little in common with the later hokey films in the series, and the Japanese version even less so. It doesn’t take Ph.D. to decipher the symbolism of the film: Less than 10 years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a large monster is awoken by H-bomb tests and proceeds to lay waste to Tokyo. The first scene of a Japanese fishing crew blown up in a blast of white light is in fact a direct reference to the irradiated fishermen who strayed too close to Bikini Atoll during an atomic test.
The American distributor that bought the film for stateside release two years later subsequently eliminated nearly all of the references to atomic weapons, eviscerating 20 minutes of the Japanese plot and shoehorning American reporter, the future Perry Mason himself, Raymond Burr, clumsily into the storyline. Burr’s parts were filmed on a Hollywood soundstage, and it shows, especially after seeing the original.
In the Japanese version, the atomic bomb is front and center. The characters refer to it constantly, and make it clear that Godzilla is just a continuation of suffering for them. “First the black rain, then contaminated tuna, and now Godzilla,” one woman laments. Others complain that the orders to evacuate are too reminiscent of the recent past. On a subway train, moments before being eaten, another woman looks hopefully toward the future and shrugs off the threat of Godzilla. “Not after I survived Nagasaki,” she says. “I treasure life.”
This clearly has tickled entertainment writers across the country to no end, giving them a chance to sniff and tsk at both American foreign policy and bad American filmmaking in one sitting. Godzilla according to the Washington Post, offers images of destruction, “far more powerful than in American films, where the cities are trashed for the pure pleasure of destruction without any real sense of human loss.”
Pondering a reporter’s question in the film — “Has the world been set back 2 million years?” — the San Francisco Chronicle‘s G. Allen Johnson posits, “We’re asking the same question today,” before adding, “As Dr. Yamane warns, in an invective trimmed from the U.S. version, ‘Another Godzilla will appear, somewhere in the world.’ He was so right.”
ACTUALLY, THE NEW-OLD version of Godzilla does tell us a thing or two about Japanese society, but it might not be what the critics would like us to see. The savior of both versions is the scientist Serizawa, who has come up with a secret invention that he hopes will one day “benefit mankind” but can now only be misused as a weapon. The name of this invention? “The Oxygen Destroyer.” It doesn’t really have the ring of something that could one day “benefit mankind.” It actually sounds like something that might have come in handy at Iwo Jima or Midway. It’s hard to see how an oxygen destroyer could ever help grow crops or power electric grids.
Anyway, Serizawa finally decides to use the weapon against Godzilla after half his country is destroyed, and chooses to deliver it himself. He makes it plain he wants to die with his invention so he can never be coerced into divulging its secrets. (“Humans are weak animals,” he says, shortly before his self-immolation. “I wish I had never created this.”) So nine years after the end of World War Two, we’ve got a Japanese film glorifying a kamikaze mission against Godzilla, which today’s critics all seem to agree is a stand in for bad ole Uncle Sam. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it.
More remarkable is the film’s insinuation that the peaceable Japanese people would be more responsible with a “weapon of mass destruction,” than we were. After all, the U.S. Navy captured a Nazi submarine bound for Tokyo in May 1945 filled to the brim with German blueprints for fuses, antiaircraft shells, jets and advanced rockets. Oh yeah, and 1,200 pounds of uranium oxide, the essential element of an atomic weapon.
Do we have any reason to doubt the Japanese — who had subjugated the greater part of Asia, committed various acts of genocide everywhere they went, and used Chinese villagers as live guinea pigs in the world’s first biological weapons program — would have hesitated to take down an American city?
I’m not detracting from the suffering inflicted by the nuclear blasts, but we should attempt to keep things in perspective. There was a war on before Little Boy fell from the sky on August 6, 1945. It wasn’t a surprise attack on a non-combatant nation, which is more than we can say for the country we bombed.
It’s also worth noting that the government of Japan now takes a public stand on the war less antagonistic than American film critics. Celebrating 150 years of U.S.-Japanese diplomatic relations, Japan took out a full page ad in the Washington Post with a timeline of the relationship. The entry for 1941 reads: WWII briefly casts a dark shadow on relations between Japan and the U.S. Understatement of the century.
If America is Godzilla, then later films in the series follow our relationship more accurately: Godzilla becomes a hero to the Japanese, protecting them against the foreign monsters that would otherwise destroy them. The American Godzilla doesn’t look so bad when you’ve got a North Korean Mothra shooting missiles over your country and threatening to turn your homeland into a “sea of fire.”