If, like me, you spent more Saturday afternoons as a child than could possibly have been good for you watching attack-of-the-giant-creature movies on television, then the prospect of seeing Godzilla in its original 1954 Japanese version is sure to provoke a tingle of glee. In commemoration of its 50th anniversary, the film is being released here for the first time in its undubbed, unbutchered form. The big guy himself hasn’t changed. A 165-foot-tall T. Rex-gone-atomic, with radioactive dragon breath and furrowed skin that looks like it was made out of raggedy old carpeting, Godzilla is still the most awesome of tacky movie monsters – a Jurassic knockoff of King Kong whose ritual stomping of Tokyo never quite lets you forget that you’re watching a man in a lizard suit trash a very elaborate toy train set.
In the restored version, 40 minutes of previously chopped footage has been added back, the scenes with Raymond Burr as a stolid reporter have been excised (they were first shot to make the film accessible to U.S. audiences), and the characters no longer sound like bad American actors out to imitate even worse Japanese ones. ”Godzilla” is now more ”serious,” yet its tone just veers closer to that of solemn American B-horror cheese like ”Them!” The real difference is that the film’s famous metaphor for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looks more nuttily masochistic than ever.
Godzilla, an ancient beast roused from the ocean depths and irradiated by Japanese H-bomb tests, reduces Tokyo to a pile of ash, yet, like Kong, he grows more sympathetic as his rampage goes on. The characters talk about him not as an enemy but as a force of destiny, a ”god.” The inescapable subtext is that Japan, in some bizarre way, deserves this hell. Godzilla is pop culture’s grandest symbol of nuclear apocalypse, but he is also the primordial spirit of Japanese aggression turned, with something like fate, against itself.