After atomic bombs destroyed much of Japan in 1954, a giant, radioactive lizard rose from the seas to terrorize the remaining children in white shorts, sultry scientists’ daughters and withered old seamen. Fifty years later, the monster is turning its beady eyes and radioactive breath toward Miami.

The original, uncut Japanese version of the movie with newly translated subtitles is being released in America, just in time for Godzilla’s 50th anniversary. It has been well-received nationwide by critics and fans alike.

The movie that started this all in Japan is called “Gojira,” created from the word “gorilla” and the Japanese word for “whale.” When he made his way west, “Gojira” became Anglicized to “Godzilla,” and the movie title was changed to “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” The movie was heavily edited and lost much of its intended meaning.

“The Japanese and American versions are really two different films,” said Bruce Goldstein, founder of Rialto Pictures, the New York-based company that specializes in rare films and is bringing the original “Godzilla” to the United States.

The original film differs greatly from what American moviegoers first saw. Forty minutes of footage was cut from the original version, and scenes with Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin were added. Classical composer Akira Ifukube’s soundtrack was replaced with stock B-movie music, and the movie’s anti-nuclear sentiments were almost completely erased.

Goldstein went after the rights to the film 10 years ago. He met again with Toho Studios last year and succeeded. It was a happy coincidence that this year marked 50th anniversary of “Godzilla,” and there remains a keen interest in the film.

Steve Ryfle, author of “Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star (The Unauthorized Biography of Godzilla)” (ECW Press, $19.95), has always been a fan. “I remember not wanting to go to my fourth or fifth birthday party that my mother had planned because I was watching a “Godzilla” movie on TV,” he said. “It started with a boyhood love of dinosaurs, and Godzilla is a great dinosaur, and the monsters are so imaginative.”

The “Godzilla” series has long suffered a reputation for being campy in the United States; in Japan, it was made with the best actors, directors and special effects talents of the time, along with a top-notch musical score by classical composer Ifukube.

Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was originally inspired by “King Kong” and other American monster movies of the time, especially “Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.” He worked with the head of Toho Studios’ special effects department, Eiji Tsuburaya, to create a monster that would reflect Japanese fears of atomic weapons, just a short time after World War II.

Director Ishiro Honda, a former prisoner of war, joined the team. He suggested Godzilla breathe atomic radiation, reflecting Honda’s fascination with radiation’s destructive powers.

Film historian and author David Kalat points out the film’s atomic commentary in his book “A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series,” (McFarland & Company, $48.50).

“Japan has thousands of years of history of being perennially ravaged by the forces of nature – tidal waves, earthquakes, you name it. Around the time of “Godzilla”s appearance in 1954, the Japanese had been hit by both A-bombs and H-bombs, and even today they are the only people to have been the target of a nuclear attack. So for the average Japanese person, it was habit to see their tiny island nation as a victim of incomprehensible forces outside their power – and that’s the metaphor “Godzilla’ provides,” Kalat said.

Unfortunately, time and budget constraints prevented the desired magnitude of special effects in the original movie. Since stop-motion animation for “Godzilla” was out of the question, Tsuburaya designed the now-infamous method of “suitmation.”

It was decided that Godzilla would stand about 165 feet tall. The monster suit was 6.5 feet tall, or about one-twenty-fifth Godzilla’s actual height, and the miniature version of Tokyo was built to the same scale. The first rubber suit weighed more than 220 pounds, and during filming under hot studio lights, the actors fainted several times, suffered blisters and muscle cramps and one actor lost 20 pounds. When the suit was removed, a cup of sweat had to be drained.

Despite the low-budget special effects, “Gojira” delivered the highest box-office returns of any film to date in Japan. People were both terrified and thrilled, and moved by the love triangle between the human actors in the story. Along with the sequels, “kaiju eigu,” the term for Japanese monster movies, reached international superstardom.

American producers were eager to bring “Gojira” to the United States after its stunning success in Japan.

Since that 1954 movie, Godzilla has fought King Kong, a giant moth, a three-headed alien space monster, mutants that resulted from radiation exposure and creatures from outer space.

As the series became more popular with children, Godzilla was portrayed as a friend to the people, often defending Japan from creatures worse than himself. He somehow produced a son, named Minya, who communicated directly with the children. The outcome of the movies would be similar: a city would get stomped and monsters would wrestle. Despite the shoestring budget special effects and poor dubbing, American audiences have always been fascinated with Godzilla, and are now realizing some of his more metaphoric aspects.

And there certainly is more to Godzilla than fire breath and bad dubbing.

Kalat said while the sequels strayed from the message of the first film, occasionally filmmakers used Godzilla to express political and social ideas, and that’s why Godzilla has stayed relevant for half a century.

Changes in relations between the United States and Japan have also motivated the cultural renaissance that Godzilla is undergoing in the United States today.

“After the war, Japan was not a big economic power. It was seen as a cheesy country, and so were products coming out of the country. But Japan is no longer a third-rate power, and things from Japan are no longer thought as cheesy. It is a reflection of the shift in relations,” said Duke University Professor Anne Allison, who has authored a book about Japanese character merchandise and children.

“I would argue that Godzilla is a sign of the past, and a sign of the future. He has modern radiation technology in the body of a prehistoric animal. Like Godzilla, Japan staked a lot on technological rebuilding and remade itself,” Allison said.

“There’s also admiration for Godzilla, because he’s tough, and tragic. He’s also a survivor, just like Japan. Godzilla and the Japanese don’t give up.”


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