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Friday, July 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By John Hartl
Trick question: What would "Godzilla" look like without Raymond Burr?
Easy answer: A lot like the 1954 Japanese-language original, which featured an all-Japanese cast and about 40 minutes that were cut from the dubbed-in-English version released in the United States in 1956. Burr, who was hired by the U.S. distributor to star in several clumsily inserted flashbacks, was supposed to Americanize the movie and make it more palatable for Saturday-matinee monster-movie fans.
The Burr-less original, called "Gojira," did finally become available in the United States in the early 1980s. And when Roland Emmerich's disastrously expensive American remake of "Godzilla" opened in theaters in May 1998, video companies rushed in to capitalize on the phenomenon by releasing all the Japanese Godzillas they could find on tape and DVD.
That's when the original "Gojira" found its largest American audience, though Rialto Pictures is betting that a spruced-up 50th anniversary edition will draw fans to the big screen as well. The company's 98-minute restoration opens today at the Varsity.
The biggest difference between the two versions, aside from Burr, is that the original is not told in flashback. It begins with a genuinely spooky buildup to the first sightings of the big guy; all we see are the terrified reactions of his victims. When Gojira finally puts in an appearance, he pokes his reptilian head almost shyly over a mountaintop, and the peekaboo suspense continues for a while.
Alas, once he's on a rampage, he's just a guy in a lizard suit, swatting at buildings and taking down what looks like a giant Erector set. Although "Gojira" came from the same studio (Toho) as Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (also produced in 1954), and it features two "Samurai" cast members (Takashi Shimura, Kokuten Kodo), it lacks the energy and the editing expertise that drive that film.
Rialto, which restored "Nights of Cabiria" and "The Battle of Algiers," has done a commendable job of putting the picture back together, while adding fresh subtitles that occasionally mystify (a paleontologist refers to the long-gone Jurassic period as merely "2 million years ago").
The most interesting aspect of "Gojira," which was directed and co-written by one of Kurosawa's frequent collaborators, Ishiro Honda, is the anti-nuke subtext. One character refers to having survived Nagasaki, while a television image of a devastated city looks eerily similar to shots of the flattened Hiroshima. Monster or metaphor, Godzilla remains a most curious relic of postwar Japan.
John Hartl: email@example.com
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