Japanese release title: Godzilla (spelled “Gojira” by the Japanese, but pronounced virtually the same)
U.S. release date: April, 1956, by American International Pictures/Transworld
Japanese audience attendance: 9,610,000
Director: Ishiro Honda (New U.S. footage--Terry Morse)
Screenplay: Takeo Murata and Ishiro Honda
Sfx: Eiji Tsuberaya
Musical score: Akira Ifukube
U.S. version available on home video from Paramount Gateway video series.
Several Japanese merchant ships in the Pacific Ocean are mysteriously destroyed by a strange radioactive energy discharge that appears from beneath the water, killing most of the crew outright and causing the few survivors to later die of radiation sickness. An investigation on the nearby Odo Island reveals the culprit, which is apparently a hibernating dinosaur awakened by atomic bomb tests and mutated by the nuclear energy into a 50 meter tall, radiation spewing creature the natives call Godzilla, after a legendary sea monster from the island’s ancient folklore. Soon arriving in Tokyo, Godzilla destroys the entire city in a destructive rampage, easily defeating the military might of the Japanese Self Defense Force. Tokyo is left as an obliterated nuclear wasteland, with thousands of people left dead, injured, homeless or afflicted with radiation sickness.
Finally, an eccentric and embittered scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa is convinced by his betrothed, Emiko, the daughter of the paleontologist Dr. Yamane, who is studying Godzilla, to use a weapon the scientist secretly created, called the Oxygen Destroyer, against the monster. Having already destroyed all of his notes, Dr. Serizawa successfully utilizes the Oxygen Destroyer to seemingly disintegrate Godzilla underwater, but not before committing suicide so as to prevent his terrible weapon from ever being used by the government in the same manner as the H-bomb.
The first G-film, with its deadly serious adult tone, horrific images of atomic devastation, and superior screenplay and direction, is often hailed as being second only to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the greatest film to ever be produced in Japan. This is in marked contrast to the popular American misconception that all G-films were campy, child-oriented exploitation movies. Intended as a serious allegory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima a mere nine years earlier, this film was atmospherically shot in black and white, and the scenes of human suffering and devastation of Tokyo are genuinely chilling and disturbing.
The character of Godzilla was the brainchild of the late Tomoyuki Tanaka, who acted as the producer or executive producer on the first 22 G-films over the course of 41 years, which encompassed not only the first G-film, but every single G-film to appear in both the Showa ("First Generation") and Heisei ("Second Generation") Era Godzilla film series (both named after the respective Japanese Emperor who presided over the nation's political affairs during the era of time in the 20th century when the two respective Godzilla film series were produced and released). Tanaka conceived of the movie's basic plot while contemplating new cinematic ideas for Toho as he relaxed during a flight home on an airplane. Upon his arrival in Japan, he quickly fleshed the character out completely during a consultation with the brilliant film director Ishiro Honda, who also ended up co-writing the screenplay to the first film.
The screenplay, co-written by Takeo Murata and Ishiro Honda, was excellent, adult in tone, and quite philosophically analytical, and the human direction by Honda was surpassingly well done, making this one of the best films of all time. The sfx by the late Eiji Tsuberaya were well executed, and most of it still holds up very well by today’s standards. Tsuberaya utilized the “suitmation” technique (i.e., a man in a monster costume amidst miniature models of a cityscape and military vehicles) in place of the fantastic stop motion animation techniques applied by the great Willis O’Brien in the original King Kong (1933), and later picked up on by O’Brien’s equally famous protégé, Ray Harryhausen, due to both budgetary restraints and a lack of expertise in this area by Tsuberaya. Although the stop motion animation technique was largely utilized in American cinema to realize gigantic creatures before CGI made this process completely obsolete by the 1990's [the last movie to use the stop motion technique to simulate dai kaiju is, to my knowledge, either Troma's campy B-fest Nymphoid Barbarian In Dinosaur Hell, or the equally campy but admittedly fun low-budget exploitation romp Dinosaur Island, both produced in the early 90's], Toho didn't start using CGI to depict their dai kaiju onscreen to any significant degree until the beginning of the Millennium Era (a.k.a., "Alternate Reality" G-series with Godzilla 2000 in 1999), and they have still largely retained the utilization of Tsuberaya's suitmation process for a large portion of their monster scenes. Although the plot was admittedly taken from Harryhausen’s 1953 dai kajiu film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the first G-film has far surpassed the considerable popularity of the latter film (much to Harryhausen's alleged consternation).
Originally, Godzilla was conceived as a giant mutated octopus by Tsuberaya, but this was soon changed to the amphibious bipedal mutated dinosaur phenotype, since the latter type of creature would be much more capable of menacing human society on land. Some of the sfx was done differently than in later movies, such as Godzilla’s trademark atomic breath, which was realized here (as well as in the second G-film) by a smoky spray, rather than by animation, which was used from the 1960's G-films onwards. Further, Akira Ifukube, the master maestro who is most identified with G-film soundtracks in the first two series, produced a unique and truly menacing score for the Big G, much different from all of his later musical numbers.
For those who are interested in the origin of Godzilla’s name, the following was reported by Ed Godziszewski in his article that appeared in G-FAN #12:
Several versions of the origin for the name ‘Gojira’ (pronounced GO-dzee-la) have been told, but according to [Tomoyuki] Tanaka himself, the name was brought to his attention by his friend Ichiro Sato. In the course of their conversation, Sato mentioned a burly man on the Toho lot whose physical presence was so imposing that he was likened to a gorilla and whale. The staff had given the man the nickname ‘Gojira’--a combination of the words ‘gorilla’ and ‘kujira’ (whale). Tanaka took a liking to the name and decided to use it for his monster.
Of course, upon being released in America, AIP transliterated 'Gojira' into “Godzilla.” When the first G-film was released in America by Transworld/AIP two years later, extensive footage featuring the late, great actor Raymond Burr (of Perry Mason and Ironside fame) as the American journalist Steve Martin, was filmed and spliced into the U.S. version. Thus, all the Japanese protagonists, such as Dr. Yamane and Dr. Serizawa, were retained but relegated to background characters, while the events in the film were told from Martin’s point of view. Nevertheless, although Godzilla’s personification of the H-bomb was toned down somewhat in the U.S. version (for obvious reasons), most of the plot and Tanaka’s intentions were retained, and an excellent performance by Burr, coupled with a minimum of dubbing, and careful handling by AIP, made the U.S. version almost as memorable as its Japanese counterpart, and this particular version, specifically entitled “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” rather than simply “Godzilla,” was actually released in Japan in 1957.
Thus, AIP did the first of several respectful releases of G-films (which, unfortunately, was not emulated by other companies who released other G-films over the years) and serious G-fans will want both the Japanese and the American version of the first G-film in their video library, as this can be perceived as the same story seen through two different national perspectives. However, certain errors in the translations of the dubbing did occur, such as the popular misconception that Godzilla was 400 feet tall during the first film and the subsequent Showa Series; in actuality, he was about 160 feet (50 meters) in height.
The American version is available on home video, and a quality sub-titled Japanese version can be obtained very affordably from Video Daikaiju.
For those who wish to read an extremely detailed description of every aspect of the original film’s production, including unused portions of the screenplay, acquire a copy of the aforementioned G-FAN #12.
It should be noted here that the first film is part of the continuity of all three film series, rather than the Showa Era film series alone. Thus, it's the only Godzilla movie whose events are considered canonical to the timeline of all three Japanese G-film continuities (including all of the films in the third series, most of which encompasses a different alternate reality version of Godzilla, but all of which will evidently incorporate the first groundbreaking G-film into their respective canon).
Thus, any new G-fan should be familiar with this particular movie before moving on to any of the three subsequent Godzilla film series.
This classic inaugural G-film finally got the respect due to it in America in 2004, in celebration of Godzilla's 50th anniversary. Rialto Pictures released the uncut Japanese version of the first G-film, complete with English sub-titles added, to many theaters across the U.S. from May-October, 2004 as "Godzilla: The Uncut Japanese Original." Not only did the film draw large crowds where it was released, the Japanese original, officially released in America for the first time ever, also garnered many positive critical reviews in the American media, something truly unusual for a kaiju-film, which are usually dismissed around these parts as mindless and poorly produced juvenile escapist fare.
As two examples:
J. Hoberman's review in THE VILLAGE VOICE had this to say about the 2004 American theatrical release of the first G-film's Japanese version: "MAGNIFICENT! VISONARY! THE GREAT MOVIE MONSTER OF THE POST WORLD WAR II ERA. GODZILLA belongs with - and might well trump - Hiroshima Mon Amour and Dr. Strangeglove as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare."
Critic Owen Glieberman, who reviews films for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, awarded the American release of this film with an amazing "A-" rating, along with these words: "The original 1954 Japanese version is being released here for the first time in its undubbed, unbutchered form. Godzilla, the most awesome of tacky movie monsters, is pop culture's grandest symbol of nuclear apocalypse---a metaphor that looks more nuttily masochistic than ever."
In the above review, you can actually detect Mr. Glieberman's general disdain for the genre shrugged aside to acquiesce to this film's quality and message, which was largely retained in its American version (to be fair), but praise was heaped upon the fact that we finally got to see this seminal film sans any American tampering.
The American release of the Japanese version 50 years after its production amply displays the high level of quality and newfound respect held by the first entry in the lengthy film history of the King of the Monsters.
Showa Era series of G-films (1955-1975)
Heisei Era series of G-films (1984-1995)
Millennium Era series of G-films (1999-2004)