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He's Godzilla, hear him roar

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The reptile turns 50 with a U.S. release of the original Japanese film.

May 14, 2004|Steve Ryfle | Special to The Times

Over the last 50 years, Godzilla has vanquished the three-headed Ghidorah, the pollution-spewing Smog Monster, the giant cockroach Megalon, and even King Kong -- none could out-duel Japan's giant radioactive reptile. But there was one enemy Godzilla could not vanquish: his reputation as the king of bad movies.

Now, with one sweep of the behemoth's scaly tail, that image could change. "Godzilla," the original, uncut 1954 Japanese film with English subtitles, a version not widely seen in U.S. theaters, begins a two-week run at the Nuart today as part of a nationwide release covering 17 cities this summer.

"When most people think of 'Godzilla,' they think of bad dubbing and a man in a rubber monster suit," says Bruce Goldstein, founder of New York-based Rialto Pictures, which is distributing the film. "They don't realize that the original version was a very serious metaphor for nuclear war."

"Godzilla" made its Japanese debut in November 1954. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. rights were purchased by Richard Kay and Harold Ross, two low-budget producers from Los Angeles, whose best-known picture until then was "Untamed Women." Rather than simply dub the film into English, Kay and Ross recut it with new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as a reporter waylaid in Tokyo during Godzilla's onslaught. To make room for Burr, nearly 30 minutes of the original Japanese footage was cut.

Although the American version, known as "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," has suffered a dubious reputation, it was a financial success and a major influence on generations of monster-movie enthusiasts.

"I've always been a big fan. I've seen all the 'Godzilla' movies, and I have just about every Godzilla toy ever made," says John Carpenter, director of "Halloween," "The Thing" and numerous other horror classics. "I always thought he was great. He had these giant fins on his back that glowed when he breathes fire. It had fantastic music, one of the greatest scores of all time. And his roar -- what a great sound!"

"Godzilla" was born just nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reflected lingering Japanese fears of nuclear holocaust. Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer at Japan's Toho Studios, was inspired by the tragedy of a tuna trawler that strayed too close to a U.S. atomic test at Bikini Atoll in early 1954. The crewmen were showered with radioactive fallout and some later died, and Tanaka wondered what might happen if the atomic tests somehow awakened a prehistoric undersea beast.

The director, Ishiro Honda, had fought in World War II and had passed through the wreckage of Hiroshima after Japan's surrender. It was Honda who saw "Godzilla" as an embodiment of the bomb, and he instilled the film with a somber tone more reminiscent of a war movie than a monster flick.

The death toll from Godzilla's Tokyo rampage, Carpenter says, is staggering. "There's an enormous sadness in this film. When you see all the people and the destruction of this creature, Japan really does seem like a country that's been attacked by nuclear weapons, and there's this grimness to it." In the end, Godzilla is killed by the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon even more powerful than the hydrogen bomb, and so horrible that its inventor destroys the formula and commits suicide. The mood is decidedly downbeat, as a scientist warns that so long as nuclear proliferation continues, more monsters may follow. And despite his wanton disregard for human life and property, Godzilla's death cry at the bottom of Tokyo Bay is downright pitiable.

"When I first saw 'Godzilla' at the studio screening, I couldn't help crying when I watched Godzilla become a skeleton," says Akira Takarada, who was just 19 when he played the film's protagonist, a sailor bent on killing the giant lizard. He later became a major Japanese star. "I thought, 'Why did mankind have to punish Godzilla like that?' If Godzilla were truly evil, people wouldn't have loved him so much. We were responsible for triggering Godzilla's violence."

"Godzilla" was a big gamble for Toho. It was the first such movie made in Japan, and it was the country's most expensive production to date, with a $900,000 budget. It was a box-office bonanza, and Godzilla returned in 1955's "Godzilla Raids Again," the first of 26 sequels, many of which were released here with poor dubbing and haphazard reediting. "Because the pictures were so slipshoddily dubbed, people just tended to dismiss them, and nobody took them seriously," says "Gremlins" director Joe Dante, a "Godzilla" buff, "not even the good ones, and a few of them were pretty good."

The 28th Japanese Godzilla movie, "Godzilla: Final Wars," due out in Japan in December, is said to be his swan song. (In 1998, TriStar Pictures produced a largely forgettable $150-million U.S. remake.)

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