Monster Planet: Five Versions of the First Godzilla Movie
Hey kaiju fans, I'm Space Hunter M, and today I'll be talking about how the first Godzilla movie mutated as it spread around the world. Toho's 1954 classic was re-edited, reshot, dubbed, and subtitled dozens of times as distributors calibrated it for local audiences. This video will focus on five distinct versions of the film: the Japanese original, the American re-edit, the French amalgamation, the Filipino obscurity, and the Italian acid trip. I'll chronicle the major changes in the foreign cuts and how they affected the film's message.
Godzilla (1954, Japan)
"Godzilla" blended American monster movies with Japanese wartime trauma and nuclear fears to create something entirely new. Like the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla is awakened by nuclear testing and attacks fishing vessels, but in a way that evokes the fate of the Lucky Dragon No. 5. Like King Kong, Godzilla is a wrathful island god, though this time the younger generation doubts his existence. And like both of his predecessors, he inevitably ends up rampaging through a major city, recalling the Tokyo firebombings and nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All these historical allusions would seem to make Godzilla merely a reptilian stand-in for the United States, but here the film takes another turn. Dr. Serizawa has invented a device that can kill the monster, the Oxygen Destroyer, but he's reluctant to use it, fearing the start of another arms race if the world learns of its existence. In the end he relents, but cuts his line while setting off the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, ensuring its secret dies with him. Despite some cheering spectators, Godzilla's demise is more tragedy than triumph, the monster helpless and in agony. Dr. Yamane, effectively speaking to the audience, warns that if nuclear testing continues, another Godzilla could rise up and threaten the world.
Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka dreamed up the basic concept of "Godzilla" in something of a panic, after plans for another Toho blockbuster fell through. Ishiro Honda directed from a screenplay by Takeo Murata and himself, while Eiji Tsuburaya oversaw the ambitious special effects. They strove to make the film's impossible events seem like a documentary; accordingly, characters drop in and out of the proceedings as needed. The core cast were three newcomers and an esteemed veteran: Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Serizawa, Akira Takarada as Ogata, Momoko Kochi as Emiko, and Takashi Shimura as Dr. Yamane. Haruo Nakajima played Godzilla, with Katsumi Tezuka as his understudy. Finally, Akira Ifukube composed the score and created the monster's instantly iconic roar. "Godzilla" was a massive hit, the eighth-highest grossing Japanese film of the year. Contemporary reviews were mixed, but today it's widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of Japanese and atomic cinema. And perhaps most importantly to Toho, it started the longest-running film series in history.
"Godzilla" received an extremely limited release in the United States in 1955 and beyond, with one confirmed booking in Honolulu, Hawaii. It returned to major cities in 1982, and Rialto Pictures took it on a tour of the country in 2004 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Atrium Film-Verlieh and Lehmacher Filmverleih also brought it to West Germany in 1956, where it was trimmed from 96 minutes to 84. Deletions include the Diet debate over whether the public should be made aware of Godzilla and direct references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of the film's grimmer moments were also softened in the dubbing, but ultimately the film's central message remained unscathed, if worded differently.
Before I move on, a word about translations of this version. Unless you speak Japanese or really hate reading, you've watched "Godzilla" with subtitles—but which ones? The home video releases by the British Film Institute, Classic Media, and Criterion all used their own scripts. It's essentially the same movie, of course, but the wording of key lines can vary significantly.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956, U.S.)
Toho sold the U.S. rights to "Godzilla" for $25,000. This was simultaneously a bargain for a completed effects-heavy film and over eight times the average price for a film that wasn't in English. The buyer was Edmund Goldman, whose company Manson International specialized in exporting Hollywood films to Asia. He expected to simply release "Godzilla" with subtitles, a much cheaper option than dubbing. Harold Ross and Richard Kay of Jewell Enterprises saw the film's wider commercial potential and bought the rights from him. They partnered with Joseph E. Levine, whose Boston-based Embassy Pictures was just about the only U.S. distributor to find success with dubbed movies at the time. As it turned out, there would be only a few minutes' worth of dubbing in "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!", with the Japanese audio retained for all but the most essential of dialogue. Writer-director Terry O. Morse, whose real talent was editing, inserted an entirely new character: United World News reporter Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr. [Steve Martin:] "I'm afraid my Japanese is a little rusty." Burr's physique meant he was typecast as villains up to this point, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window." Kay was blunt about the reason it happened: "At the time, the American public wouldn't have gone for a movie with an all-Japanese cast." 11 years after World War II, it was incredible enough that a Japanese film was receiving such a wide release.
"King of the Monsters!" starts with Martin rescued from the ruins of Tokyo after Godzilla's second attack on the city. Recovering in a hospital, he recounts the events that led him there, a common device in the noir films Morse specialized in. Martin is present for nearly every scene, and interacts with Ogata, Emiko, his "old college friend" Serizawa, and Yamane through the magic of body doubles. However, he's mostly a bystander, reporting on events he's powerless to stop. "I'm saying a prayer, George. A prayer for the whole world." His sole contribution to the fight against Godzilla comes when he helps Ogata convince Emiko to divulge Serizawa's secret. The Japanese cast was dubbed by just three actors: James Hong as Ogata, Serizawa, and the other younger male characters, Sammee Tong as Yamane and the other older male characters, and an unidentified actress as Emiko. Hong has become one of the most prolific English-speaking actors in film history, appearing in everything from "Big Trouble in Little China" to "Kung Fu Panda," and he's still working at the age of 91. He recalled a primitive dubbing setup for "King of the Monsters!," reading his lines without even seeing the footage of the characters. He also had the challenging task of arguing with himself at the end of the film. Tong struggled with Yamane's polysyllabic dialogue. ["phenomenon"] ["Brontosaurus"]
Morse shot about 20 minutes of new footage, but his new cut ran 16 minutes shorter than the original. To accomplish this, he had to remove significant chunks of Honda's film, narrowing the focus to Martin and the four Japanese leads. Many of the side characters, as it happened, were the ones making the most overt references to nuclear weapons. He left a debate over whether Godzilla's existence should be revealed to the public abbreviated and untranslated, and deleted a conversation between passengers on a train which mentioned "atomic tuna" and Nagasaki. Perhaps the most blatant contrast is the ending, which replaces Yamane's warning with Martin's all-clear. "The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again."
While the message of the film was diminished, Godzilla was not. Morse left in nearly every frame of the kaiju, though he shuffled some scenes around, and didn't shy away from showing the aftermath of his attacks either. Godzilla was still radioactive, and Yamane still linked his emergence to nuclear testing. Though most critics who viewed this version focused on the special effects, a few grasped the significance of an atomic monster in a Japanese film.
The freshly-formed TransWorld Releasing Corporation distributed "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" in the Western United States, while Embassy handled the East. All told, the film made about $2 million. To put that number in perspective, the highest-grossing Japanese film in the U.S. up to that point was "Rashomon," with $200,000. "King of the Monsters!" paved the way not just for further kaiju films, but an avalanche of Japanese pop culture exports that continues to this day.
Toho even made the strange decision to release "King of the Monsters!" in Japanese theaters with subtitles in 1957, cropped to capitalize on the emerging widescreen format. Morse's editing must have left audiences baffled, as he moved around shots without any regard for the Japanese dialogue, aware that most American viewers wouldn't be able to understand it. One egregious example: a "Gojira" from Yamane before the film has introduced the monster's name.
Godzilla (1957, France)
"Godzilla" would eventually play in theaters on six continents. Many Latin American and European distributors based their versions of the film on "King of the Monsters!", although Burr's name is notably absent from the cast lists on the Polish and Czechoslovakian posters. Further down in Spain, Toho's version played uncut, but this release has been lost to time. Les Films du Verseau took a different path. Bruno Guillaume and Michel Gast's creation, which played in France and Belgium in 1957, runs 92 minutes and includes footage exclusive to both the Japanese and American cuts. It is dubbed entirely in French, with the exception of a French reporter, who now speaks English. That means the security official Iwanaga no longer acts as Steve's translator, although he does repeat information to him in one scene, as though he thinks he's too stupid to understand it the first time. In a departure from the vast majority of English kaiju dubs, the credits actually name the voice actors! Mind you, they also manage to flip Gojira and turn it upside down, and truly butcher the names of the Japanese cast and crew.
The French "Godzilla" dispenses with "King of the Monsters!"'s extended-flashback structure, starting with the sinking of the Eiko Maru, then Steve's arrival in Tokyo. It cuts the body doubles of Yamane and Serizawa; as a result, we don't see the latter until the 35-minute mark. Numerous scenes Morse removed are back in the picture, like Ogata and Emiko's introductory scene, the generational clash on Odo Island, Hagiwara trying to interview Serizawa, and Yamane's argument with Ogata over whether Godzilla should be destroyed or studied. Finally, Steve is absent from the final scene, allowing Yamane to get the last word, this time warning of nuclear testing awakening "another monster," not necessarily another Godzilla. It ends with an odd change to the music, replacing "Prayer for Peace" with the bombastic "Frigate March." As you can probably tell from the video quality in this segment, this version has only been released on VHS. Despite its unique hybrid status, the English-speaking Godzilla fandom remains largely unaware of it.
Tokyo 1960 (1957, Philippines)
"Tokyo 1960," the Filipino version of Godzilla, might be the most dramatically altered of them all. (I say "might" because the film is completely lost.) Its poster doesn't list a single Japanese or American name, so People's Pictures could have replaced most of the non-tokusatsu scenes with new footage of Tessie Quintana, Eddie del Mar, and Zaldy Zshornack's characters, akin to "Varan the Unbelievable" or "Power Rangers." Elements of the posters, at least, are distinctly American. There's a maddening lack of English-language Filipino newspaper archives online which cover 1957, so it's impossible to say much more at this time.
Cozzilla (1977, Italy)
Paramount and Documento Film brought "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" to Italy in 1957. A boy named Luigi Cozzi saw it, grew up to become a director, and decided to put his own spin on it 20 years later. He had found some success re-releasing old American sci-fi movies, and wanted to cash in on the Dino De Laurentiis "King Kong" remake. Though released as "Godzilla," his version is almost universally called "Cozzilla," a pen name he repurposed as a production company name. He asked for the Japanese version, but Toho, opaque as usual, said they could only provide the American cut. This actually saved him a lot of money, since he could just reuse the Italian dub of "King of the Monsters!" from 1957. It took a different approach than the French version, only dubbing the English dialogue.
"Cozzilla" is commonly held up as the work of a madman, but outside forces led Cozzi down his increasingly strange path. First, regional distributors balked at the idea of showing a black-and-white movie. Undaunted, he embarked on the first colorization of a feature-length film. Armando Valcauda applied color gels to each frame, a far more laborious process than later digital efforts. The results were more impressionistic, and struggled to adjust to camera movement. Fire showed them at their best. Speaking of length, "King of the Monsters!"'s 80-minute runtime posed another problem. Films had to be at least 90 minutes to play in Italian cinemas, so editor Alberto Moro turned to stock footage, most of it from wartime newsreels. You can also spot a few clips from "Godzilla Raids Again" and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," among others. These additions brought the runtime all the way to 96 minutes, the same as the Japanese original. Cozzi's directive was to "give an ‘up-to-date' and more violent look to the old 1954 movie." With the kind of horror flicks he and his ilk were making in Italy at the time, that was a tall order, and "Cozzilla"'s greatest excesses won't be shown in this video.
"Cozzilla" starts with the bombing of Hiroshima and a flyover of the city's ruins, throwing subtlety to the wind. After the credits, it adds a date to the morning after Godzilla's second Tokyo rampage: exactly nine years later. Some of the new footage alters the story a bit: Godzilla sinks the pleasure boat instead of just terrifying its passengers, downs a few fighter jets as he leaves Tokyo, and is bombarded by the Japanese navy as the Oxygen Destroyer does its work. Steve's final lines are undercut by a "Humanity is saved…?" super, followed by a series of nuclear explosions.
As an added draw, Cozzi crafted an eight-track magnetic soundtrack band for the film, an expensive process typically reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. According to him, Godzilla's roar shook the seats in properly-equipped theaters. The progressive rock tunes at the beginning and the end of the film were by the group Magnetic System: Franco Bixio, Fabio Frizzi, and Vince Tempera. Frizzi ended up using them as the basis for his main theme in "Zombi 2."
"Cozzilla" has never been released on home video. For a long time, the only widely available version was a haunting VHS recording of an Italian TV broadcast, but a scan of a 35mm print has started circulating in recent years. Unfortunately, there's yet to be a true English translation; the fansubs are mostly just transcriptions of "King of the Monsters!"
Watching this version brings to mind a remark Ishiro Honda made years after directing "Godzilla": "[A]s strange as it may sound, I think the film probably succeeded because I didn't completely succeed as a director. The film represents only about 65% of what I wanted to achieve; maybe if we had a little more time, money, freedom, we could have gotten 100%. Since we fell short, however, audiences could see that it wasn't a real story, that it wasn't like the war." In "Cozzilla," 1945 and 1954 seem to be happening simultaneously: a shot of Godzilla emitting atomic breath is followed by actual footage of burnt corpses. The phrase "Honda's original vision" is thrown around a lot when discussing the themes of the latest Godzilla movies, but perhaps Luigi Cozzi nailed it decades ago without even meaning to. Whether that juxtaposition works, or is just exploitation filmmaking at its most shameless, is up to the viewer. But that it exists at all is a testament to "Godzilla"'s incredible impact on world cinema. "Cozzilla" is an alteration of an alteration, crediting three teams of filmmakers from three different countries who had no contact with each other. It's not some edgy fan edit, people paid to see it in theaters. How many movies can say they spawned something like that?
- Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo by Stuart Galbraith IV
- Japan's Favorite Mon-Star by Steve Ryfle
- A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series (2nd edition) by David Kalat
- David Kalat's audio commentary for the Criterion Godzilla DVD/Blu-ray
- Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski