Reports from the United States tell us that some Americans are having their faith restored in a popular postwar Japanese export. The subject of their revived affection is not a car or a motorcycle, not a camera or an audiovisual device, not a laptop personal computer or other advanced information-technology gadget. It is the authentic version of that fearsome old friend from Japanese movies of a more innocent age, Godzilla.
These Americans are renewing their acquaintance — many are making it for the first time — through a hit Japanese film of last winter, “Godzilla 2000.” Once again, five years after the supposed demise of the series, the monster returns to his familiar pattern of creating havoc. Godzilla has been stomping on, swinging his massive tail at and breathing fire onto famous cities since Toho Co., Ltd. unleashed him in 1954 in a modestly budgeted, black-and-white movie in which the “special effects” involved little more than trick photography using miniature sets of Tokyo’s most recognizable landmarks and a man in a rubber suit.
“Gojira” as the character is known here, his name being an amalgamation of the Japanese words for gorilla (“gorira”) and whale (“kujira”), made his debut when the country’s movie industry was enjoying a postwar renaissance. Almost everyone connected with the business, however, was astonished when the films now considered world classics, but that had been largely disdained by local audiences, suddenly began collecting top prizes at international film festivals. While American monster movies had become known here, there was little reason to expect Godzilla’s first movie appearance to be a hit overseas.
It doubtless would not have been if certain adjustments had not been made. It is now well-known that in addition to retitling the picture “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” dubbing the soundtrack into English and doing some re-editing to tighten the pace, some scenes featuring American actor Raymond Burr as a reporter commenting on the action were inserted.
The genuine contribution made to Japanese cinema by “Godzilla” was recognized here, belatedly as usual, in 1989. In a poll to select the best Japanese motion pictures of all time, conducted among 86 critics and other specialists by the film magazine Kinema Jumpo, “Godzilla” scored in the top 20. As people inside and outside the movie business know well, of course, art and commerce are two very different things. Foreign film historians recount that “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” prompted domestic film producers to regard overseas markets as an easy target for such pictures and to keep churning them out with high hopes.
In the end, alas, most of those hopes were dashed. In the two decades following Godzilla’s first screen appearance, other monster films made by Toho, as well as by competing studios, sought to duplicate its box-office appeal. Only a few managed to do so domestically, usually by the addition of name stars, color and improved special effects. The plots were often ludicrous, however, and most of the pictures never managed to achieve overseas distribution. Those that did usually featured Godzilla lumbering across the screen in a way that audiences took to their hearts.
Yet over the years the beloved monster has suffered considerable ups and downs. As time went by, he no longer seemed quite the same as the Godzilla first mysteriously brought to life by radiation from a hydrogen bomb test deep in the Pacific Ocean. Still expected to terrify viewers, the radioactive hybrid has not always fared well during the course of a long series of sequels, imitations, “guest” appearances, near-parodies and two animated cartoons–one produced in the U.S. and the other originating here but never shown abroad. Over four decades, Godzilla even joined the good guys to fight pollution and sometimes seemed on the verge of becoming “kawaii” (cute).
But high on the list of reasons for American audiences’ readiness to welcome back the old familiar Godzilla must be the costly, overblown version of his story attempted two years by a U.S. studio under a special agreement. Despite using the name, the American film featured a leading character created by digital computer graphics that was totally unfamiliar to Godzilla fans and looked to many like an escapee from “Jurassic Park.” Part of Godzilla’s lasting appeal is this: People know that most of the time he is really a man wearing a special rubber suit. That is why the return of the original monster proved good news for moviegoers here, and now appears to be appealing equally strongly to those in the U.S.
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