The restored version of Godzilla, the Japanese monster's first appearance in 1954, makes its political origins unmistakable. Americans first met the Big G, called Gojira back home, in a soft-pedaled import version with dubbed dialogue and Raymond Burr awkwardly edited into the action as the new hero. The untouched original, featuring 40 minutes cut from the Americanized version, gets its first U.S. theatrical release as a 50th birthday present to Godzilla.
The unmuzzled Godzilla restores the marauding beast's post-war agenda. Even restored, Godzilla remains a highly uneven creature feature with special effects that have aged poorly. But Godzilla's introduction contains symbolic value matched by few monster flicks of its era. Godzilla's apocalyptic vision turned a guy in a rubber suit into an icon of world cinema.
Ishiro Honda directed Godzilla within a decade of the United States' atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in effect, a mushroom cloud hangs over the film. In the first scene, a mysterious flash blinds sailors relaxing on a freighter before their ship sinks in glowing, turbulent waters. The sequence evokes an actual incident from earlier in 1954, when the crew of a Japanese trawler suffered radiation poisoning when caught in the plume of the Bikini Atoll H-bomb test.
More ships sink and Japanese islands suffer from catastrophic yet inexplicable attacks. A paleontologist called Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) follow the investigation to a devastated island where they see the freshly awakened dinosaur with their own eyes. Godzilla hardly makes an auspicious bow: He first appears as a puppet head that pops over a tropical hill, looking like Kermit the Frog having lost an argument with a blowtorch.
Panic seizes the nation as Godzilla moves inexorably inland. Meanwhile, in a short exchange with commuters on a subway, a woman mentions that she survived Nagasaki, reminding us of Japan's previous attack.
Godzilla's nighttime assaults on urban centers have a haunting power. The prehistoric mutant may be just a weirdly proportioned rubber costume, but the dark, wrinkled hide, framed against a black, empty sky, makes Godzilla resemble a thunderhead made solid. The film's sound enhances the mood enormously, particularly the earth-shaking footsteps and the desperate strains of the suspenseful score. Godzilla's trademark bellow has an unearthly, almost mechanical quality: It begins with a noise like tearing sheet metal, then reverberates like an echo from a bottomless pit.
Godzilla shreds electric power lines, crushes clock towers and leaves entire Tokyo neighborhoods burning in his path. At times, Godzilla's slow pace and obviously miniature sets composed of model buildings work to the film's advantage. The attack on Tokyo feels far more like a genuine nightmare than the technically flawless visuals of the forgotten 1998 Godzilla remake.
Afterward, Hondo lingers on bodies lining hospital corridors and children crying for their lost mothers. One can't help but associate the imagery with the WWII fire-bombings of dozens of Japanese cities, particularly as described in Errol Morris' Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War.
Godzilla took inspiration from America's radioactive dinosaur flick The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which remains a more supple piece of storytelling. But the restored version features choppy editing and lots of superfluous blather, although audiences who look to Godzilla movies for camp value may find humor in screaming headlines like "Anti-Godzilla HQ Set Up" or the nation's reserves of toy helicopters and fire trucks.
The spookiest non-Godzilla scene concerns Professor Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Emiko's former fiance, a moody war veteran in an eye-patch. He leads Emiko into a basement laboratory full of electrodes and beakers worthy of a Frankenstein film, and demonstrates an invention called the "Oxygen Destroyer." The camera shows an aquarium start to churn, then cuts to Emiko's face for her horrified reaction, without showing what actually happens. Rarely in Godzilla does Hondo so effectively prey on our fear of the unknown.
Professor Serizawa refuses to use the Oxygen Destroyer against Godzilla in fear of escalating the Cold War arms race, and his anguished integrity makes him the film's only intriguing character. Like Serizawa, Emiko's paleontologist father mourns mankind's aggressive nature, but he's upset that the military wants to kill Godzilla. Given that both eggheads would allow an indestructible creature to destroy their homeland, Godzilla implies that science is too important to be left to the scientists. Even the Oxygen Destroyer couldn't keep Godzilla from appearing in more than 20 films over five decades. A film currently in production, titled Godzilla: Final Wars, will reportedly pit the 50-year-old reptile against every foe he's ever fought, and ultimately finish him off for good. But death -- or retirement -- won't keep such an archetypal monster (or so famous a brand) down for long. Godzilla remains everyone's favorite reptile of mass destruction.