- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

“Godzilla,” directed by Ishiro Honda (an occasional assistant to Akira Kurosawa) and originally released in Japan in 1954, did not survive intact its crossing to America. The film, produced by the Toho Co., lost both its dialogue track and half an hour of its original footage when imported and dubbed in 1956.

Aimed straight at the science-fiction B-movie public, the transplanted movie also acquired a subtitle, “King of the Monsters,” and about 20 minutes of substitute footage. Raymond Burr, susceptible the year before he stepped up in class as TV’s Perry Mason, was inserted into some episodes as an intrepid reporter named Steve Martin who provides hindsight narration. He also pretends to interact with some of the original cast members through the grace of transparently defective intercutting.

The art-house distributor Rialto has acquired the uncut and un-subtitled version of “Godzilla,” originally titled “Gojira” (the nickname, according to one legend, of a Toho employee whose physique impressed co-workers as a cross between a gorilla and a whale, or “Gorilla-kujira” in full). The restored black-and-white antique is being showcased in a golden-anniversary revival at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre for two weeks.

This edition is augmented on the front end by a restored trailer, which uses the Godzilla growl, arguably his most ferocious attribute, and on the back end by a short epilogue that illustrates the differences between the Japanese and American versions.

From the accompanying press material’s chorus of welcome-back adulation, you would think a greater movie than “Godzilla” never had been threaded through a projection machine. It’s even touted as the costliest Japanese production of its time, a distinction that has belonged to “Seven Samurai” for decades. And plausibly: While the Kurosawa production involved elaborate period re-enactment and took more than a year to shoot, “Godzilla” was made and released within a matter of months. Today it endears itself, if at all, as a classic monster quickie.

The pace is always flagging, the acting is always stilted, and it seems unlikely that any dramatic scene was considered deserving of more than a single take.

Takashi Shimura, who played the samurai leader Kambei in “Seven Samurai,” also has a principal role in “Godzilla.” He plays the gloomy egghead Dr. Yamane, who wants the impossible — to capture a prehistoric, reptilian behemoth alive and unharmed. He also advances the hypothesis that enabled opportunistic science-fiction to masquerade as grave global allegory during the ban-the-bomb decades: H-bomb testing may have roused Godzilla from his underwater Jurassic slumber.

There were legitimate reasons for the Japanese public to be responsive to nuclear nightmares, and the Bikini Island H-bomb test was a fresh source of alarm. The filmmakers borrowed the authentic incident of a Japanese trawler accidentally sailing into range of the test blast. In this case, a salvage vessel sinks mysteriously when approaching the neighborhood of a still unseen Godzilla. Then a rescue vessel is lost, using the same tank-shot miniature ship. We’re told that 17 ships disappear before the monster finally materializes, as a puppet head over a hillside horizon.

The miniature work eventually comes into its own when a towering Godzilla terrorizes various districts of Tokyo, rendered by the esteemed supervisor of the Toho effects department, Eiji Tsuburaya, who made his reputation simulating combat spectacle in movies of World War II that glorified the Japanese military. Stomping Tokyo became Godzilla’s specialty act, revived in a score of sequels.

The silliest element is the 1954-vintage ingenue, Emiko, portrayed by Momoko Kochi. She is rivaled by one of her suitors, Akihiko Hirata as the brooding oceanographer Dr. Serizawa, who sports an eye patch and supposedly invents a doomsday device that neutralizes Godzilla: the Oxygen Destroyer, which seems to act like a flesh-eating virus rather than a plague on watery environments.

The system of illusion affordable at Toho in 1954 is rudimentary and shoestring to a degree that defies sincere freakouts but does earn nostalgic credit for resourcefulness. Even making allowances for a half-century gap in film technology, however, “Godzilla” is a ramshackle kick at best.

TITLE: “Godzilla” (“Gojira” in Japanese)

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1954, decades before the advent of a ratings system)

CREDITS: Directed by Ishiro Honda. Screenplay by Takeo Murata and Mr. Honda. Special-effects supervisor: Eiji Tsuburaya. Cinematography by Masao Tamai. Art direction by Satoshi Chuko. Sound and musical effects by Ichiro Mitsunawa. Musical score by Akira Ifukube. In Japanese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WHERE: American Film Institute National Theater at the Kennedy Center through Thursday; the American Film Institute Silver Theatre Friday through June 3.

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public, $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and older).

PHONE: At the Kennedy Center, 202/785-4600; at the Silver, 301/ 495-6700.

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