Godzilla: He's back (and this time he's serious)

The anti-war message of the original 'Godzilla' film was taken out when America remade it. Now British audiences will be able to see the real meaning behind the movie. By Louise Jury

Without the politics, the re-cut dubbed story of the dinosaur-like creature with radioactive breath, was an anodyne monster-on-the-loose picture which none the less added the name "Godzilla" to the lexicon of popular culture.

Such has been the success of the spin-offs, including more than 20 sequels from the Japanese studio that invented him, a major computer-generated Hollywood movie version seven years ago and assorted cartoons, that even fans may not know there was ever a serious point to the plot.

But now British audiences are to get their first opportunity to see the complete Japanese version of the film deemed politically unacceptable for ordinary Americans - and hence the rest of the world - half a century ago.

Next month, in the wake of the 60th anniversary commemorations of the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, the British Film Institute (BFI) is releasing this landmark in science fiction movie-making in its original form.

Margaret Deriaz, the BFI's head of film distribution, said the film had proved an important cinematic phenomenon. "Along with King Kong, Godzilla is one of the most celebrated movie monsters of all time, yet hardly anyone in this country has seen the original that sparked the phenomenon," she said.

"That's why it's fascinating to go back to the original and see how it all really started as opposed to the terrible distortion of the film that was caused by the release of the butchered American version.

"When this original version was finally shown in America last year, people flocked to see it. They said it was an expression of nuclear anxiety to rank with Dr Strangelove [Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black comedy starring Peter Sellers] and Hiroshima Mon Amour [directed by Alain Resnais in 1959]."

When Godzilla - or Gojira in Japanese - was made by the Toho studio in 1954, it was a last-minute substitute for another project that had fallen through.

Directed by Ishiro Honda, whose own experience of the bombing of Tokyo encouraged him to translate the horrors of war into film, its star was undoubtedly the monster Godzilla.

Godzilla was realised by Eiki Tsuburaya, a special effects expert who had spent the war making propaganda films including a recreation of the bombing of Pearl Harbour using miniatures that were so real the Americans were convinced it was documentary footage.

Transformed and provoked by mankind's nuclear bomb tests on the floor of the sea, Godzilla goes on the rampage, creating scenes of devastation that clearly recall wartime Japan. Only a machine invented by the scientist, Dr Daisuke Serizawa, can kill him, but the doctor worries about his invention falling into the wrong hands.

Faced with hundreds of people dying from radiation, he relents. The film concludes, however, with a warning that more monsters could be provoked unless nuclear testing is ended.

The whole project was Japan's first foray into big budget science fiction and cost 10 times the budget of the average Japanese film, and twice as much as the same studio's The Seven Samurai which was also released that year.

Only a decade after Japan surrendered to the Allies after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effects of nuclear attack and radiation were still a sensitive subject for the country's citizens. " The bombings created a deep collective fear," Ms Deriaz said.

Those concerns were compounded when America, followed by the Russians, first exploded the newly-developed hydrogen bomb in 1952. And two years later there was public outcry in Japan when American H-bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, caused radiation sickness among the crew of a Japanese tuna boat, Lucky Dragon.

Nothing was more likely to grab Japanese public attention than a story in which bomb tests awaken a long-dormant, 30-storey high, monster with white-hot radioactive breath.

"With its images of panic and mass destruction - including spectacular nightly attacks on Tokyo - and its references to nuclear contamination, black rain, bomb shelters and the incineration of Nagasaki, Godzilla struck a chord of terror with Japanese audiences traumatised by recent history and still living with the fear of radiation poisoning," Ms Deriaz said.

Having cost 60m yen (about $900,000 in the rates of the time), it took 152m yen from 9.6 million viewers at the Japanese box office and is now widely regarded as one of Japan's most important feature films.

Although it owed much to the 1933 thriller King Kong, which had been re-released in Japan after the war, and to Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 film about a pre-historic sea giant written by Ray Bradbury, Godzilla was one of a raft of Japanese films to address the atomic age.

Others include Shohei Imamura's 1988 movie, Black Rain, or Akira Kurosawa's Record of a Living Being, released the same year as Godzilla, or later Kurosawa work such as Rhapsody in August in 1991, all analysed in books such as Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film" edited by Mick Broderick.

It has been argued that the bombs have also influenced Anime (Japanese animation) and Manga (the Japanese equivalent of the American comic book), most obviously in Barefoot Gen, the multi-volume comic written by artist Keiji Nakazawa who was seven when his home city of Hiroshima was hit.

The effect of the bombs was, perhaps, particularly damaging to the Japanese psyche, says Terry Charman, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, because of the strong internal propaganda about Japanese victories in the war. " It was a terrific shock," he said. "The people of Japan were being fed a diet of mis-information. The emperor in his broadcasts doesn't say, 'We've been horrendously defeated,' he says, 'The war isn't necessarily going in Japan's favour.' There is a feeling in Japan that they were cheated out of victory, that the atomic bomb was a dirty way of warfare."

Whatever the rights or wrongs, the anger that informs the original Godzilla would have made it difficult to sell without editing in America, according to the BFI's David Sin.

"It would have been fairly unpalatable in America. You can't miss the message. It's not a sub-text, it's very much the subject of the film," he said. "But the other reason they cut it was to insert an American presence in the film and make it work better for an American audience. Foreign language films were very much art films in Fifties America."

So the nuclear message was removed and the actor Raymond Burr was introduced as a news-wire reporter commenting on the action. Although this version received none of the critical acclaim now poured upon the original, it did nothing to stop the franchise.

Toho made more than 20 sequels, although few have the sophistication of the original's plot, often descending into fights between Godzilla and rival terrors. The studio said that Final Wars was the last in the series when it was released in Japan and America last year but has now produced another.

Besides, Godzilla has taken breaks before and returned. In the mid-Seventies he lay dormant when cinema audiences fell, leaving the Godzilla story in the hands of Hanna-Barbera productions who produced an animated Saturday morning cartoon in 1978 which had repeated airings throughout the 1980s and is still periodically broadcast on satellite.

Margaret Deriaz said the British Film Institute began thinking of releasing the original version in the UK, in cinemas followed by DVD next February, partly because of the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

"Godzilla is a film that is popularly known in its American released version but the Japanese original version isn't known in this country at all, " she said.

"BFI distribution activity is a lot to do with celebrating classic cinema and rediscovering unjustly forgotten or neglected or misrepresented films in their original, uncut versions, often with restored prints. We give people a chance to understand what these titles were about and appreciate them in their proper cultural context.

"Seen in context, Godzilla is not really a futuristic sci-fi fantasy, it's a very real reflection of contemporary terror drawn from contemporary events."

Asked whether the film's special effects stand up to scrutiny after half a century, Ms Deriaz paused. The working methods of the time were, after all, less than ideal.

Godzilla sequences had to be shot at a higher frame rate than the normal 24 frames per second so that he lumbered realistically when played at normal speed. This required extra bright lighting that frequently made the two actors who took it in turns to don the Godzilla suit faint.

But Ms Deriaz said the results were "much less cheesy" than could be expected. "You might be tempted to laugh at what, by today's standards, are primitive special effects, but very soon this haunting, elegiac mood takes hold of it and you can't just laugh. It is ultimately quite sobering.

"The message is driven home that it's man's own insatiable lusts that have brought this about. It's on a par with the way we're all being warned about global warming and looming environmental disaster today."

Godzilla opens at the Curzon Soho and the ICA, London, on 14 October and then at venues nationwide

The many lives of a giant lizard

'Godzilla' - the Hollywood version

Roland Emmerich's post-Jurassic Park remake of 1998 had special effects far better than any that had gone before, but fans were deeply disappointed by its conventional approach. But the Hiroshima allegory has vanished; this Godzilla has been created by (get this) French nuclear testing, and he runs amok in New York, not Tokyo. Without atomic plasma breath (though he does apparently have one of the worst cases of dog-breath ever encountered), this was really a remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. On the plus side, Jean Reno - replacing Gerard Depardieu as the acceptable face of Frenchness - is very funny as an enigmatic giant-lizard expert.

Godzilla - the kids' cartoon

The Hanna-Barbera cartoon series started in 1978, at a time when HB were insisting on saddling every character with a "cute" juvenile sidekick (Scrappy-Doo, Scooby's murderable nephew came the following year), hence Godzookie, Godzilla's annoying little lizard pal. In this version, too, Godzilla was not simply benevolent, but positively biddable, thanks to a special radio communicator. The standard of animation was not high, with Godzilla shifting size radically at the drop of a hat. Even among devotees of kitsch, the series is remembered with little affection.

'Bambi Meets Godzilla'

A timeless comedy classic, which should be used as a teaching aid in every film school in the world, to inculcate the virtues of brevity and simplicity. The plot is easy to recount: after the opening credits, Bambi skips about, grazing on grass. A giant lizard's foot appears above him, and descends, squashing him flat. Cue closing credits. The Canadian animator Marv Newland made it in 1968, the year before Terry Gilliam created the giant foot for the opening credit sequence of Monty Python's Flying Circus. A 1999 sequel, Son of Bambi Meets Godzilla, was produced independently.

Godzilla meets Barney

Starting in 1991, the children's cartoon series Rugrats, created by Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky, detailed the rich inner life of a group of pre-school infants: a leitmotiv was the children's shared obsession with Reptar, a giant cartoon lizard who seemed to combine characteristics of Godzilla and Barney, the purple singing dinosaur. Many of their adventures revolved around Reptar merchandising opportunities: toys, ice-shows and, in the big-screen spin-off Rugrats in Paris (2000), a theme park, Reptarworld, a kind of radioactive lizard-orientated Euro Disney, populated by insufferable Parisians: yet another instance of an American impulse to link Godzilla with the French.

Godzilla meets confectionery

One of the most effective appropriations of the Godzilla mythos came in a witty 1980s TV advertising campaign for Chewits. To cries of "The muncher is coming," a giant lizard is seen rampaging through a city, devouring buildings. A scientist comes up with a solution. "It's a long shot, but it just might work." Next thing, the monster is presented with a giant packet of Chewits: as it tucks in, a beatific expression spreads across its face. An American news-reader style voice announces: "Chewits: even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats." To date, this statement has not been verified.

Robert Hanks

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003