The ballyhoo surrounding Rialto's release of the 1954 film that started the entire kaiju (or giant monster) film genre has been nearly as loud as Godzilla's unmistakable roar.
And why not? It's taken a half-century for Toho Studios and Ishiro Honda's official Japanese director's cut to arrive on our shores, neutered of the grating, pompous presence of Raymond Burr as Yank newsman Steve Martin that had been unceremoniously inserted into the film's initial American release in 1956 at the expense of 40 minutes of the original production's more melodramatic core. Thus this "new" Gojira is a revelation not because the Big Green One is in any way as fascinatingly friendly, ridiculous or awesome as his many reincarnations over the years, but because for once, and only once, the focus of a Godzilla film isn't all that much on Godzilla himself (or herself if you're one of the handful of heretics who go by TriStar's 1998 Americanized abomination) but on the humans who encounter him.
It's common knowledge that Honda's film, coming as it did a slight nine years after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is the director's metaphorical take on the Bomb. Later incarnations of a kinder, gentler Godzilla and his oversized combatants might as well have been subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kaiju, but this Burr-less opening salvo is a thing of grim and terrible beauty, shot by cinematographer Masao Tamai in a stark visual style that at times echoes the best of film noir in its splendid use of chiaroscuro.
The story begins with a series of Japanese fishing trawlers foundering at sea for unknown reasons. Soon enough, the villagers of remote Odo Island find their community trampled in the midst of a sweeping midnight rainstorm by ... what?
"It definitely wasn't a typhoon," stammers one village elder. Once spotted, his head rising over a hilltop like a bad dream of angry gods or possibly a toothy dirt clod, Godzilla is identified by a famed paleontologist (Seven Samurai's Takashi Shimura) as a Jurassic reptile "reawakened by H-bomb tests."
As the lumbering monstrosity makes its way to Tokyo, a rather talky love triangle develops between the professor's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), sailor Ogata (Akira Takarada) and young scientific hotshot Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), while plans for an "oxygen destroyer" weapon created to kill Godzilla are put into play by Serizawa. In one of the film's many subtle metaphorical commentaries, the J. Robert Oppenheimer-esque scientist is ultimately reluctant to employ his terrible new device for fear of the Pandora's box it might open.
Gone are Raymond Burr's strained narration and the U.S. version's laughable dubbing, replaced with dire warnings and conundrums of conscience. And while this first, prototype version of Godzilla lacks the cheesy-fun green-tinged surrealism of latter outings, it more than makes up for it via Honda and Tamai's darkly apocalyptic camera setups, which wisely leave much more to the audience's imagination than would be the case in the series' future films.
Is it classic cinema? Perhaps not. But then again, atomic weapons have never lacerated American shores and its citizens. What do we know? Grade: B
GODZILLA screens Wednesday through June 8 at UC's MainStreet Cinema