King of the Monsters

Godzilla was my gateway drug to Japanese film and the likes of Akira Kurosawa. Without Professor Yamane, I would probably not have followed Takashi Shimura to his other roles in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samarai and definitely not to Ikiru, a wonderful film that I watched for no other reason than “Hey, here’s still another movie with the guy who played Yamane.”

Other 7-year-olds probably did not know that a trilobite was a three-ringed worm that was thought to be extinct. I learned that from Professor Yamane, too. And long before Steve Martin was a famous comedian and banjo player, I knew his name as the reporter played by Raymond Burr in the 1956 American version of the 1954 Japanese film Gojira.

I probably saw Godzilla, King of the Monsters at least a dozen times on TV growing up — so many times that I still remember when the commercial breaks came (the crushed helicopter blown by the wind on the beach; Emiko burying her face into Serizawa’s chest after seeing the oxygen destroyer’s power). I didn’t see the Japanese version until I was an adult, and then it was a revelation. I always adored the American film, but upon seeing Gojira at last, I saw how a great movie had been butchered and bastardized and dumbed down for the post-war U.S. audience.

Friday, it turns out, was the 69th anniversary of the premiere of Gojira on Nov. 3, 1954. The big lizard has had a long and storied career with more than three dozen films, many of them pretty silly and a handful almost as chilling as that first one. In the best ones — and the first one has never been equalled in my view — the monster is a metaphor for the nuclear holocaust that struck Japan nine years earlier, or he is a force of nature itself.

In Japan they celebrated the anniversary with the premiere of the latest Toho Pictures Godzilla movie, Godzilla Minus One, which we won’t get to see until Dec. 1. It’s said to be a reboot, set in the mid-1940s right after World War II ended, and the island nation is struck by the mysterious radioactive monster as it struggles to recover from the war’s devastation.

The trailer shows how far special effects have come in 69 years. The monster looks real compared to the guy in the rubber suit back in 1954, and the callbacks to Godzilla chewing on railroad cars and tossing battleships around are amazingly realistic. 

But there are at least two things they haven’t been able to improve upon: The heavy thud of Godzilla’s footsteps in the dark, and his ear-splitting roar. Those two sounds are the first thing you hear as the 1954 film begins, and they still raise goosebumps seven decades later.

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