Happy Birthday, Godzilla

Marking the fiftieth anniversary of its debut in Japan, a crisp clean print of the original uncut Japanese version of the first Godzilla movie is being released in the United States. What a long strange journey it has been for the beast.

First came monstrous box office success in the 1954 Japanese domestic market, followed by a quick sequel the next year (later released in the United States by Warner Brothers as Gigantis, the Fire Monster). Then, translation to an Americanized version starring Raymond Burr, featuring new English language footage intercut with original, much longer film sequences (especially the rampage through Tokyo), released to great success in 1956.

Then came endless cheesy Japanese derivatives, featuring rival monsters such as Rodan, Mothra, and even the robotized MechaGodzilla, some of whom engaged in martial arts combat with the original Godzilla, who somehow metamorphosed into a force for good on occasion.

Finally, the ultimate tribute, a big budget computer effects-laden American remake, which had the good grace to be so leaden as to make the original look good.

The appearance of the 1954 original Japanese version on American screens (certain to be followed by a commentary-laden DVD release, in case you don't have access to one of the urban revival houses where it will have its limited theatrical play) is a chance to reflect on how far Japan has come in the interval, as well as the unpredictable resonance of certain pop culture memes.

In 1954, Japan was still recovering from the firebombing of its cities, and grappling with its status as the first and only target of nuclear weapons. Godzilla was fashioned as a commentary on the awfulness of nuclear warfare: brought to life by nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and ravaging Japan (again). As if releasing a genie, toying with the basic structure of matter unleashed the a gigantic id, a monster from the ancient past, bent on destruction, and breathing poisonous atomic halitosis.

All of the Deep Meaning was quickly jettisoned by the film makers of Toho Studios, in the rush to crank out sequels. Besides, the ultimate charm of Godzilla lay in the special effects, created by Eiji Tsuburaya, whose wartime work recreating the attack on Pearl Harbor in miniature was so detailed that many people mistook it for actual combat footage. He built an intricate model of the Ginza district in Tokyo, which was destroyed by an actor in a rubber monster suit. Compared with the stop motion models then being used by American special effects master Ray Harryhousen, the man-in-suit approach combined fluid naturalistic movement with the delight of highly detailed miniature models.

Eiji Tusburaya, already a prolific innovator in film technique, went on to establish his own production house with his sons in 1963. In a curious recapitulation, one of the many Japanese televisions series produced by Tsuburaya Productions was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A Hollywood producer by the name of Haim Saban spotted potential in the notion of children who could morph into superheroes, and just as in 1954, determined that intercutting new English language footage, with American actors, into the Japanese action sequences, would yield a low cost television series with considerable appeal. So great was the success of Power Rangers that Saban entered the pantheon of billionaires, and was able to become one of Bill Clinton's (and the Democratic Party's) largest contributors.

The 1950s are now considered by film historians to have been a golden age of Japanese cinema. The best known and most admired works of Kurosawa come from this period, and represent landmarks of world cinema. Ordinarily, the 1954 Godzilla is not rekoned to be among the masterworks of world cinema. Nevertheless, its odd appeal continues to resonate, and its contribution to language and culture endures. The creators of South Park, for instance, satirized Barbara Streisand gone wild with a monster called MechaStreisand, which threatened the tiny Colorado town.

For all of the angst over nuclear weapons, and the deep thinking about mankind's darker impulses taken life, Godzilla has simply given us a lot of fun over the past five decades. That alone makes it a positive endeavor, one whose golden anniversary is worth celebrating.

Marking the fiftieth anniversary of its debut in Japan, a crisp clean print of the original uncut Japanese version of the first Godzilla movie is being released in the United States. What a long strange journey it has been for the beast.

First came monstrous box office success in the 1954 Japanese domestic market, followed by a quick sequel the next year (later released in the United States by Warner Brothers as Gigantis, the Fire Monster). Then, translation to an Americanized version starring Raymond Burr, featuring new English language footage intercut with original, much longer film sequences (especially the rampage through Tokyo), released to great success in 1956.

Then came endless cheesy Japanese derivatives, featuring rival monsters such as Rodan, Mothra, and even the robotized MechaGodzilla, some of whom engaged in martial arts combat with the original Godzilla, who somehow metamorphosed into a force for good on occasion.

Finally, the ultimate tribute, a big budget computer effects-laden American remake, which had the good grace to be so leaden as to make the original look good.

The appearance of the 1954 original Japanese version on American screens (certain to be followed by a commentary-laden DVD release, in case you don't have access to one of the urban revival houses where it will have its limited theatrical play) is a chance to reflect on how far Japan has come in the interval, as well as the unpredictable resonance of certain pop culture memes.

In 1954, Japan was still recovering from the firebombing of its cities, and grappling with its status as the first and only target of nuclear weapons. Godzilla was fashioned as a commentary on the awfulness of nuclear warfare: brought to life by nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and ravaging Japan (again). As if releasing a genie, toying with the basic structure of matter unleashed the a gigantic id, a monster from the ancient past, bent on destruction, and breathing poisonous atomic halitosis.

All of the Deep Meaning was quickly jettisoned by the film makers of Toho Studios, in the rush to crank out sequels. Besides, the ultimate charm of Godzilla lay in the special effects, created by Eiji Tsuburaya, whose wartime work recreating the attack on Pearl Harbor in miniature was so detailed that many people mistook it for actual combat footage. He built an intricate model of the Ginza district in Tokyo, which was destroyed by an actor in a rubber monster suit. Compared with the stop motion models then being used by American special effects master Ray Harryhousen, the man-in-suit approach combined fluid naturalistic movement with the delight of highly detailed miniature models.

Eiji Tusburaya, already a prolific innovator in film technique, went on to establish his own production house with his sons in 1963. In a curious recapitulation, one of the many Japanese televisions series produced by Tsuburaya Productions was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A Hollywood producer by the name of Haim Saban spotted potential in the notion of children who could morph into superheroes, and just as in 1954, determined that intercutting new English language footage, with American actors, into the Japanese action sequences, would yield a low cost television series with considerable appeal. So great was the success of Power Rangers that Saban entered the pantheon of billionaires, and was able to become one of Bill Clinton's (and the Democratic Party's) largest contributors.

The 1950s are now considered by film historians to have been a golden age of Japanese cinema. The best known and most admired works of Kurosawa come from this period, and represent landmarks of world cinema. Ordinarily, the 1954 Godzilla is not rekoned to be among the masterworks of world cinema. Nevertheless, its odd appeal continues to resonate, and its contribution to language and culture endures. The creators of South Park, for instance, satirized Barbara Streisand gone wild with a monster called MechaStreisand, which threatened the tiny Colorado town.

For all of the angst over nuclear weapons, and the deep thinking about mankind's darker impulses taken life, Godzilla has simply given us a lot of fun over the past five decades. That alone makes it a positive endeavor, one whose golden anniversary is worth celebrating.