Godzilla King of the Monsters
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Credit: Trans-World Films

65 years ago, Godzilla: King of the Monsters did (mostly) right by the Japanese original

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Apr 27, 2021, 5:00 PM EDT

Godzilla, the monster, first attacked America in 1968's Destroy All Monsters, when he blasted the UN headquarters with his atomic breath while under alien mind-control. Godzilla, the franchise, however, came to the States just two years after the radioactive lizard debuted in Japan. Godzilla, (Gojira, in Japanese) premiered in 1954, while the U.S. version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, opened in 1956. King of the Monsters is more than just an English-dubbed version of the original. The American re-edit of the movie changes some dialogue, cuts some of the runtime, and adds an entirely new main character.

Both Godzilla and film aficionados will tell you that the original Japanese version is the superior edit, and they're right. It's a masterpiece. Yet King of the Monsters, which opened in the U.S. 65 years ago today, is still a worthwhile monster movie in its own right. The adaptation manages to entertain and make some changes that make the Japanese film more palatable to '50s American moviegoers without altering the original intent of the film — or at least not altering it too much.

The fun, goofy, and cheap entries in the Godzilla franchise outnumber the serious ones by a kaiju-sized factor, but the first movie is a gripping horror. Released less than a decade after the United States firebombed Tokyo and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, Godzilla was Japan's take on the giant monster genre that was rising in popularity in America, only Godzilla represented something much more serious and intimate.

The Japanese version, which for decades was essentially impossible to watch in the U.S. until DVD (and later Blu-ray) releases became available, is generally similar to the edit Americans would see two years later. A giant monster attacks and irradiates a fishing ship, stomps through a rural village on the fictional Odo Island, then attacks Tokyo twice, leaving it in ruins. Meanwhile, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) laments that this creature must be destroyed. His daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) is engaged in an arranged marriage to the brilliant-but-haunted Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), though her heart belongs to Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain and more straightforward leading man.

Serizawa has invented a weapon so powerful it horrifies him, but it's only when Emiko and Ogata confront him that he agrees to use it against Godzilla. The weapon works, but while deploying it underwater, Serizawa cuts the rope and oxygen to his suit, ensuring that the secret of his terrible weapon will die with him and the monster. On the surface, Yamane mourns Serizawa's sacrifice, while ominously warning that another Godzilla will likely arise if mankind continues testing nuclear weapons.

Godzilla was a hit in Japan, and American distributors correctly thought they could make it a hit in the States — with some tweaks. Trans-World Films won the auction to get distribution rights, paying Japanese studio Toho a then-hefty sum of $25,000. It was a reasonable investment, as giant monster movies such as 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which itself was a massive influence of Godzilla, were shaping up to be big business with American audiences. However, foreign films were not a box-office draw. Trans-World Films, therefore, felt it had to make some changes to get Americans interested in seeing this monstrous import.

The most notable change between Godzilla and King of the Monsters was the addition of Raymond Burr as Steve Martin, an American reporter visiting Tokyo when Godzilla attacks. He's there to provide narration at times and, crucially, to give (presumably white) American audiences a point-of-view character. It's explained that he's visiting Japan to meet up with Serizawa, who he went to college with, and it's this connection — combined with his reporters' instincts — that has him invested in the action. Burr, known for his role in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (and later as the titular character in TV's Perry Mason), never shared the screen with any of the Japanese actors. Instead, clever editing and some stand-ins for the backs of peoples' heads add him to the action.

King of the Monsters cuts some parts of the movie out and rearranges other parts. Notably, the American version starts with Burr lying injured in the rubble after Godzilla's second attack on Tokyo. The bulk of the film in this version is a flashback, while the original is told in strict chronological order. Even with the addition of Burr's new scenes, the American cut is more than 10 minutes shorter than the original. The Japanese characters are the ones who sacrifice screentime and development, which is admittedly a shame.

In most giant monster movies — frankly, in most Godzilla movies — whatever drama is going on with the human cast is uninteresting compared to the monsters. Godzilla's leading trio of Ogata, Emiko, and Serizawa, and their love triangle, however, is earnestly gripping. Take away the monster and you'd have the ingredients needed for an engaging, non-genre drama. King of the Monsters makes their love story feel more like a B-plot due to the new focus on Burr. Ogata probably suffers the most, and while Serizawa still feels like he gets a complete arc, his characterization is changed. He's mysterious and implied to be harboring some wartime secrets in the original Japanese version, so making him Steve's old college buddy in the Americanization certainly softens him.

That said, even as Burr steals focus from the Japanese characters, he's not a bad protagonist. At no point does Steve "save the day," and it's clear he's merely an observer to all this action and drama. He's a reporter — it's his job. Viewers in the '50s needed Steve to serve as their audience avatar. An all-Japanese cast, unfortunately, wouldn't have made the American release a hit, as audiences just weren't used to foreign films. Modern-day audiences — who it should be noted still tend to be somewhat hesitant about foreign films (Parasite's Best Picture win was a pleasant surprise for a reason) — can still appreciate his performance and character as a throwback to an older, classic Hollywood leading man; if you've seen a few monster movies from the '50s, you know the sort of stock characters that tend to appear as the protagonists. They're square-jawed, serious, and conventionally handsome. Burr is all of these things, but Steve, perhaps in part because he's a respectful visitor to another country (and another movie, really), is more memorable than most.

King of the Monsters' job was to turn Godzilla, a movie that was in many ways Japan's take on the American monster genre, back into an American monster movie. From this perspective, the changes make sense, though King of the Monsters admirably still feels Japanese. The film was dubbed in English — that was an obvious first step, though King of the Monsters is notable for preserving a decent amount of the Japanese dialogue. With some exceptions, it's clear that this movie is set in Japan, where people speak Japanese. Audiences have to suspend their disbelief when Emiko and Serizawa have a conversation in English despite being alone together and native Japanese speakers, but there are many scenes in which Steve relies on a translator to understand what's being said. In these scenes — as well as most of the background dialogue — we hear unsubtitled Japanese. (It's not perfect. Due to some re-editing and tweaking of the plot, there are parts where a mildly attentive listener might notice that Japanese speakers are saying something other than what the translator might imply. For example: In one scene, an Odo Island villager clearly says "Gojira" despite the monster having not been explicitly named yet in the American telling.)

Still, it's largely respectful in a way that most other American releases of Godzilla movies weren't. Often they would just do a wholesale language swap, which isn't inherently bad but a full, unexplained English dub can make those movies feel nationless in a way that King of the Monsters doesn't. Two other Godzilla movies got substantial re-edits with additional scenes in the way the first one did: 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla and 1984's Godzilla Returns (renamed Godzilla 1985 when it came out in the U.S. a year later). The former is a borderline travesty that adds a patronizing framing device and throws out the film's intentional comedy. The latter is largely just cheap-looking and adds some unneeded American jingoism. It also brings back Burr as Steve, though he doesn't do much but comment on what's happening from afar in between some newly added and very obvious Dr. Pepper product placement. He's also exclusively referred to as "Steve" or "Mr. Martin" because by this time the real-life comedian Steve Martin had become popular, but we digress.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is, in many ways, responsible for Godzilla becoming the long-lasting, international franchise it is today. At a time when genre movies were often treated as disposable popcorn fare and international movies did not have an audience, Trans-World Films recognized that Godzilla was worthy of a U.S. release and that it was worth taking the time to adapt it in ways that made it palatable for a new audience without fundamentally changing or degrading the source material. It is a very good and worthy re-edit, especially given the time at which it was made and when compared to the way later American releases would be treated.

It feels necessary, however, to end this remembrance by looking at how the King of the Monsters itself ends. One sentence encapsulates why this version, for all its strengths, pales in comparison to the original. In Godzilla, Dr. Yamane closes the film with a warning: "If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world... another Godzilla may appear." Steve Martin, meanwhile, ends King of the Monsters by mourning Serizawa's death but happily noting that "the whole world could wake up and live again."

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a great atomic monster movie. Godzilla is a movie that's actually about the monster that is atomic weaponry.