Godzilla Deconstructed

October 1, 2004

 

Fifty years after the release of Gojira in Japan, Rialto Pictures is re-releasing the original version of the movie Godzilla. While Americans may remember it as a cheesy monster movie that spawned dozens of equally cheesy sequels, Gojira was, for its intended Japanese audiences, something of a cinematic explosion. For a population devastated by war, it signaled and symbolized the rebirth of a nation, says Anne Allison, chair of Duke's cultural anthropology department.

"It was really an icon of the postwar," says Allison, who writes about Godzilla in her forthcoming book Millennial Monsters, which is about the globalization of Japanese children's entertainment.

"In part, Godzilla is a symbol of the atomic bomb and the tragedy that befell Japan in the final days of the war. But, in part, Godzilla is a symbol of Japan's future, and its reconstruction into a newly technologized power following the war," she says.

The movie does not have the scenes featuring actor Raymond Burr that were added to the American release ("Gojira" was a combination of "gorilla" and "kujira," the Japanese word for "whale," but was changed to "Godzilla" in the American version.) In addition, about a half-hour cut from the original has been restored.

Many of the deleted scenes contained references to atomic energy and nuclear bombs, Allison says. "For Japanese, it was very clear that the movie was a commentary on the atomic bomb. For Americans, this message was muted because these references were taken out." Godzilla was also a powerful symbol of a changed Japan: devastated and victimized by war, yet also beginning to rebuild. Godzilla, sleeping peacefully on the ocean floor, is awakened and mutated by atomic testing on the Bikini Atoll.

"It's a sign of the future, too, because Godzilla has changed--it has the body of an ancient lizard, but is a nuclear weapon at the same time," she says.

The film represented the rebirth of the previously vibrant Japanese film industry. Toho Studios made the movie with the nation's top names, spent more money on it than any other Japanese movie to date, and planned from the start to export it to the United States.

"Godzilla was supposed to be the first postwar blockbuster," she says. "Ironically, most people in the Western world think of it as a cheesy monster film. In Japan, that was not the case. It was considered to be a high-quality film. There are people who are still proud of Godzilla."