What's surprising is how effective Godzilla is.
Half a century has passed since the movie was released in Japan and began spawning remakes and sequels. In those five decades, Godzilla has made its way into common knowledge to such a point that even people who have never seen the movie believe they know what it's all about: a monster that destroys Tokyo.
It is that and much more.
Ishiro Honda's grim parable about the hydrogen bomb, the devastation it brought to Japan, and man's inability to learn from the past has been restored and is being presented in limited runs around the United States. There are screenings at 3 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and on Aug. 20 it moves a block away to the State Theater, where it will run daily for at least a week.
This is the original version, not the Americanized one with Raymond Burr clumsily patched in as narrator and a lot of the anti-American sentiment cut out. (Remember, the movie was made less than a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the country was still dealing with the physical and mental devastation.) Godzilla is a vicious creature, not a cute action figure.
And although some of the special effects, notably Godzilla itself, are downright cheesy (a man in a monster costume is kind of obvious), the camera work and the emotions are not. The overall result is chilling and, indeed, thought-provoking.
It all starts when a merchant ship is lost at sea in a fiery explosion. A second ship is sent on a rescue and investigation mission, and it, too, explodes. Then a third ship goes up in flames.
A few survivors tell of seeing a monster, but their accounts are dismissed as hysteria. Only an old-timer on the fishing island of Odo recalls the tales of a monster who leaves the ocean's depths when there isn't enough food in the abysses.
He, too, is scorned until the night Odo is devastated. The Japanese Diet (parliament) wants to believe a typhoon hit, but the survivors insist that their buildings and vehicles weren't flattened by wind and water.
Then a respected paleontologist, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), is called to speak.
He theorizes that ocean tremors generated by the H-bombs released a prehistoric creature from its underwater prison. Further, the creature absorbed massive doses of radiation that, instead of killing it, mutated it into a monster.
Dr. Yamane and his team, including his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her would-be fianc, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), an officer in the shipping firm whose ships were targeted, are sent to Odo to study the destruction. They have their first encounter with Godzilla, but everyone gets away safely. The scientist argues that the creature should be left alone, perhaps to be studied at a distance. The terrified public, however, wants it destroyed.
But the efforts to kill Godzilla only succeed in angering the creature, until at last it becomes what Dr. Yamane has feared all along: a rampaging weapon that exhales radiation and turns Tokyo into the third city devastated by a nuclear nightmare.
Hope is in scant supply until Emiko discovers a weapon that another scientist, Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), has developed. Dr. Serizawa, however, is reluctant to use it, because he believes it to be even more terrible than the H-bomb. And if the information should fall into the wrong hands, he does not even want to think about the results.
It's rather amazing how moving Godzilla is, given the primitive special effects and naivete of the main characters, at least by today's standards. One would expect to be jaded by the Armageddon-like explosions and Alien/Predator monsters of modern film.
But perhaps Godzilla still works because it is more about people than effects. Despite the language barrier (the movie is in Japanese with English subtitles), the fear and confusion are palpable as the Japanese try to deal with this new terror. The raw emotion is riveting.
And the message is still very, very relevant: If man is not careful, he will unleash more monsters, be they mutated dinosaurs, nuclear holocaust, mudslides from razed rainforests, AIDS, or even avian flu.
Or perhaps the message is that the monsters are here, and they are us.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6130.