“[This film] might well trump the art films Hiroshima Mon Amour and Dr. Strangelove as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.” – The Village Voice
“[This film] can now be appreciated not just as a minor classic of tragic destruction, but also as a somber exploration of conflicted postwar emotions.” – L.A. Weekly
“There's a surprisingly powerful thrust to this film. And it's instructive to recall the political era in which the movie was made.” – The Washington Post
Just in case you've been in suspended animation for the last 53 years...
When ships start disappearing at sea around the same time villagers on nearby islands begin reporting the return of an ancient sea god, the Japanese government sends an investigative team to determine the truth. They find more than they could have imagined when up from the depths, thirty stories high, breathing fire, his head in the sky, Godzilla makes his appearance. It seems he's a little peeved from having a few hydrogen bombs dropped on him while he was sleeping and is looking for some payback. From the island, Godzilla makes his way to Tokyo, where he easily lays waste to half the city. With the government and the military helpless, Japan's last hope appears to be Dr. Serizawa, inventor of a secret weapon that could save the world...or destroy it.
In April of 2004 Godzilla (Gojira in his native tongue) celebrated his 50th anniversary with a fully restored worldwide re-release. The reviews above are a fair sampling of the critical reaction that appeared in major news outlets. That’s right, major critics the world over were heaping a bucket load of serious praise on a film featuring a guy in a rubber monster suit stomping on cardboard cities. Not all of them, of course. Roger Ebert didn't like the original Godzilla, and thought the restored Gojira was still a bad film, but he did at least admit he found it to be a much better bad film than the version available in America for all those decades. Why the big deal about the re-release though? I mean, we've all seen Godzilla haven't we? Well, as it turns out, we hadn't.
Now I've been a true fan of the big G for as long as I can remember, going so far as to copy word for word an entire book on him I found in my elementary school library. So, even as a child, the fact that the first Godzilla movie was altered for viewing outside of Japan was no big secret. Like a lot of people, though, I assumed the cuts weren't that relevant to the story. So they took out some scenes involving a Japanese reporter and inserted scenes with an American reporter; no big deal. Some scenes were dropped to shorten the movie by 15 minutes to a more acceptable drive-in runtime of 80 minutes; unfortunate, but television has done worse to make room for commercials. And even though some of the overt references to Hiroshima were left out, the no-nukes tone of the film is still there. Regardless of any changes, the Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters is still a good monster movie.
But Gojira is better. Now don't get me wrong, it's still a guy dressed as a big freaking lizard slapping at toy planes hanging from strings. So if your suspension of disbelief ends at that kind of thing, then there's probably nothing I can say to convince you to watch Godzilla again, especially in Japanese with subtitles. But if you can get past the "special" effects, then there is something of real substance here. And I think the key to it all is a brief aside made in the audio commentary on the recently released DVD regarding the beginning of the film.
The American version opens with a view of the aftermath of Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo and then proceeds to tell the story in flashback. It's effective enough, although you could make the argument that it robs any suspense as to whether or not our American reporter survives. In contrast, the Japanese version opens with a more mundane scene of a fishing boat destroyed by a bright flashing light of unknown origin. The few sailors who are recovered from the wreckage appear to be suffering from severe radiation burns. For all intents, it's a standard introductory scene, with little purpose other than to introduce a mystery and get the ball rolling... unless you happened to be Japanese.
As the commentary points out, on March 1, 1954 (the same year this movie was made) a Japanese fishing boat named the Lucky Dragon was caught in the fallout caused by a US thermonuclear weapon test on Bikini Island. All of the crew members came down with radiation sickness and one man died. Within two weeks hysteria swept through Japan as the populace feared contamination of the fish supply. Even the Emperor swore off sushi for awhile. To the Japanese, the U. S. response to the incident appeared a bit lackluster, amounting to "Hey, we told you these things would be going off every now and then." Enraged is probably not a strong enough word to describe Japan's national temperament during this period.
With that in mind, we can go back and take a second look at those two opening sequences. For Americans in the cold war era, the threat of nuclear destruction was always an open possibility, and the multitude of radioactive mutants wandering across movie screens reflected this fear. Godzilla's opening images of a smoldering ruined city must certainly have resonated with American audiences, especially the children who were going through weekly duck-and-cover drills at school.
But for Japan, the reality of nuclear destruction had already come to pass. Initially the Japanese citizenry appeared to have accepted the atomic bombings as a cost of the war. Father John A. Siemes, a Catholic priest living in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, noted that "None of us in those days heard a single outburst against the Americans on the part of the Japanese, nor was there any evidence of a vengeful spirit." But as survivors began to be subjected to regular check ups by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, fears about the lasting effects of exposure to radiation began to surface and resentment started to build. And just when you would hope that time might heal old wounds, along comes the Lucky Dragon incident. By opening with the fishing boat scene and then following with images reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira was the first film to openly address the fact that for the Japanese the nuclear issue was not a fading memory or potential threat, but a decade long continuing nightmare. The Japanese audiences recognized immediately the anger and sorrow and feeling of helplessness portrayed in the movie. It's almost as if Gojira represented some form of primal therapy for the entire nation, resonating so strongly that it actually received a Japanese Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. For those of us raised on the American cut of the movie that all sounds a little crazy, I know, but once you understand some of the cultural references in the original film, Godzilla really does take on new dimensions and becomes something deeper and more satisfying than you could have thought possible. You get emotional depth AND a big monster stomping on things, what more can a B-Movie fan ask for?
I was recently reminded how this same kind of cultural recognition can deepen our own understanding of Catholicism. My home parish was visited by a priest who had been born to a Jewish mother and he spent some time talking on Passover and the Eucharist. In June of 1985, the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released a document with the no-nonsense title of Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. (And you thought the title Snakes On A Plane was direct and to the point.) The document noted that "Jesus was and always remained a Jew" and was "fully a man of his time, and of his environment - the Jewish Palestinian one of the first century, the anxieties and hopes of which he shared." To this end "He wished to achieve the supreme act of the gift of himself in the setting of the domestic liturgy of the Passover, or at least of the paschal festivity (Mk 14:1,12; Jn. 18:28)." It would seem then, to fully understand the Eucharist, a Catholic should have some understanding of the Jewish Passover celebration.
Most of us know that, for the Jews, the Passover is a celebration of the Exodus, of God’s actions on their behalf to free them from oppression in Egypt. But the feast is more than just a simple remembrance. As part of the ritual, the Book of Exodus instructs the Jewish father to explain the meaning of Passover using these specific words “On this day you shall explain to your son, ‘This is because of what the Lord did for ME when I came out of Egypt’” With this simple wording, Passover is celebrated as though every Jew throughout history had been alive and present at the time of the Exodus. They aren't just remembering it, they're experiencing it.
Jesus incorporated this same meaning into the Last Supper, and by extension The Eucharist, when he says the words "Do this in memory of me". The celebration of Holy Communion is not just remembering Christ and his last days, but actually experiencing this event that occurred both once and for all time. This doesn't mean all of the other teachings on the meaning of the Eucharist are wrong. Such ideas as "agape feasts" and "table fellowship" are important to the Eucharist and should be discussed. But it's this simple Jewish understanding of the concept of "memorial" which points us towards what is most profound in the ritual. Father Lawrence E. Mick writes "That’s the deepest meaning of both Passover and Eucharist. Just as God acted in the past, God continues to act in the present and will act in the future to save us." You ignore or edit out that understanding of the Eucharist and you end up with a mass that's the equivalent of the Americanized Godzilla; still good, but not the best.
Dr. Frederick J. Parrella writes that "people today are bored at mass because they are celebrating a transcendence that is vague .... They are celebrating the most serious element of their human lives in forms that trivialize the mystery....Without a sense of the Holy, we cannot pray, ask forgiveness, worship, be filled with gratitude before God's grace or, most significantly, know each other as brother and sister ....The church must have the courage not to reduce the liturgy to what people think they want .... but to make of it what they really want at the deepest levels of their being.... " It sure sounds like he believes we're getting the edited version of liturgy these days, sanitized of the difficult content and reassembled to make it more entertaining. But the 50th anniversary of Vatican II is approaching. Is it possible that like Gojira, the liturgy is due for a restored re-release, if not in form, then at least in content?