29 July 2017

Fan Awareness of Godzilla's Dual Identity

The value of a film can be assessed from its production and reception. What makes the Godzilla films an exceptional case is that it took longer than 50 years to fully appraise the reception on a par with the original production. Such a gap was created by a travestying version of the 1954 original that gave birth to Godzilla as both a celebrated kaiju character and a film genre. This conclusion is shared by many, even the Japanese critics and historians who mercilessly dissected the Americanized edit Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) with Raymond Burr. The sensitive historical context within which Godzilla was born understandably made its export to America more or less a process where the beloved daikaiju was stripped of his originally dark and cautionary tale about nuclear horrors that his creators intended to convey. However, the charm of the 1956 recut is indisputable and a natural given among the Western fans because it was thanks to this highly edited version that Goji-san brought tremendous financial success, along with establishing his name and his one-of-a-kind genre beyond the borders of Japan. In 2004, fifty years after its debut in Japan, the original Godzilla film was screened in American cinemas for the first time, which was a revelation to his international fans who recognized that they hardly knew him.

Since these two roads crossed, little has been done to determine how significant a revelation it was for Godzilla's loyal American fans. I wish to argue here that Godzilla's dual status of international cult idol and major political-historical figure allows us to study the production and reception simultaneously. This essay presents that dual status of Godzilla through analyzing primary data sources of individuals who spent their childhood loving the American version and adulthood discovering the complexities embedded in the Japanese one. I have identified this special category of viewers by analyzing relevant discussions in online forums, news/journal articles and transcripts of interviews. It is expected that if international fans' perception of Godzilla has indeed changed, reflections by those who experienced the gap between two immensely dissimilar representations 50 years apart are a good starting point.

My use of a qualitative method to collect and analyze data helped to provide an understanding of fan awareness of authorial intention in Honda Ishiro's original version after having grown familiar with that in Terry Morse's re-cut version. Before diving into the main analysis, it is important to note the limitations in such choice of data sources. While being a fairly accessible, diverse and ample data source for a study of film reception, fan forums can be disorganized, unpredictable and inconsistent due to their very accessibility and diversity. Furthermore, to avoid compromising the validity of studying online fan forums due to inability to determine contributors' demographics, only posts that meet the following criteria are included for analysis in this research:
  1. Clearly stating that the writer has actually watched both versions and with a time gap in between.
  2. Stating personal opinions and observations from such an experience, backed up with evidence and articulated in an elaborate and persuasive manner.
  3. (optional) Responding to previous posts if contributing to an existing topic.
What these criteria mean is that the targeted audience should have: a history of following the Godzilla franchise in order to have time to develop an informed understanding of kaiju fandom; hold an original judgment based on personal viewing experience, not from reading secondary sources only; reflect a certain degree of enthusiasm and knowledge about what s/he wrote; and possess a team spirit that respects others' contribution to the discussion at hand, which may indicate willingness to utilize available resources to reach a fuller understanding.

Although having probed into a variety of sites, for the purpose of this essay I decided to select and analyze relevant writing from the following sources:
In the online fan forums, the most popular sentiments include joy from discovering the original movie and surprise in realizing how different it was from the 1956 version. Here are a few excerpts from longer pieces of writing describing the authors' viewing experience of the original version:
Up until a couple weeks ago I sadly only owned the highly edited American version Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, but I bought the Japanese version and watched it a couple nights ago so as to be well informed for this discussion. I gotta say it is one of, if not the best, Godzilla movies ever. (Godzilla3580)
Godzilla was originally released here in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, an atrociously cut, dubbed and re-edited version. (Godkilla2000)
I don't really revisit [the American version] very often. The original Godzilla is a movie I watch all the time and I'm constantly finding new things to love about it year after year. Meanwhile there is a sort of shallowness in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! that goes beyond the atomic anxiety of a nation. (Gman2887)
Gojira is the best Godzilla. I saw it in theaters twice (once in 2004 and again in 2014) and I think that first viewing in Japanese made a big impact on me... not that the American release didn't; that was one of the first movies I watched as a kid, but the Japanese version was fresh and unscathed. (Creature22)
For the academic articles, the sentiment is more or less the same although the expressions are more formal, and sometimes from a neutral third person position. For example,
Western audiences have spent more than half a century thinking of Godzilla as a joke dinosaur in a rubber suit, a Japanese trash-culture "King of the Monsters" locked in endless battle with giant moths, dragons, armadillos and skyscraper-sized robots. (Martin, 2014)
As a boy, I adored Godzilla movies. This was in the days before ubiquitous VCRs (let alone DVDs, DVRs, streaming video, etc.) and Saturday afternoons that happened to feature a Godzilla flick were like minor holidays. Every now and then, the rest of the gang would show up, too: Rodan, Mothra, Ghidorah, Anguirus--even that shameless rip-off Gamera. Best of all were the rare, eagerly anticipated broadcasts of the kaiju free-for-all Destroy All Monsters. But though I saw the "original" Godzilla countless times, it was always the 1956 Americanized edit. It was not until the last decade that I saw Honda's original 1954 cut, and when I did it was a genuine revelation. (Orr, 2014)
There are some exceptions, notably the "heartless" review by Roger Ebert, one of the most famous and widely-published US film critics. Despite bashing the idea and performance as idiotic and "bad," he still called the original version the "Fahrenheit 9/11 of its time." Many fans, however, defended Godzilla against such a humiliation by digging into every fact Ebert used to point out the "factual errors and misunderstandings." One of the things Ebert clearly ignored, or about which he was not fully informed, was the multiple subtexts that made an impact on the fans upon discovering it, not the proud man in the rubber suit, not the atomic breath coming out of a dinosaur, not the "crude" special effects, not the love triangle. The Western adult fans, though arguably unable to feel the same way Japanese filmgoers in the 1950s did when struck with the story told on screen, are fully aware of the serious messages Godzilla took on his shoulders upon his birth. "Dark," "sad," "depressing" and "clear" are the most used adjectives to describe the original version. "Clear" refers to the smooth sense of continuity only available in the original as the American version was heavily cut, edited and supplemented.

That being said, most of the fans tend to be carried away with the newly discovered sophisticated identity of Godzilla, due to which they focused too much on what was missing, instead of what was present, in the 1956 recut. Taking into account the post-WWII and Cold War context when discussions about nuclear weapons needed to be done in a veiled manner, much effort was put into reproducing the film, especially to the inserted scenes regarding matching costumes and film stock, to make it more accessible and "legal" yet still enjoyable to the US audience. This is where the online forum's feature of allowing multiple opinions contributed to a single topic does the versions justice. In fact, it is considered the most common attitude towards the films--both are valuable in their own way. Every fan defends their favorite childhood movie in a different way using interesting pieces of evidence. For instance,
Sure, [Godzilla, King of the Monsters!] can't be compared to the original. And it's far from perfect. But as "Americanized" movies go, it really wasn't that bad. Yes, Burr, as Steve Martin, looked awkward in places and its pretty obvious some of the scenes were edited in later (i.e. the lighting gives it away easily). But still, Burr gave a good performance. He treated his role seriously and didn't winked at the audience in a tongue-in-cheek manner (that would have surely destroyed the film). And despite cutting way too much of the original, the essential horror and destruction of Godzilla was retained. As was the grim mood of the original. The 1956 director, Terry O. Morse, I think actually tried to do the best he could. Maybe given a choice he might not have edited the film at all, but being as it is, I think he tried his best to mesh his scenes with the original under the circumstances. So, all in all, yes the 1956 version is inferior to the original. But I don't buy the argument it is a mere hack-job. On its own, it is a decent and watchable film. Maybe not necessarily great, but not really awful as it could have easily been. (Godzillatheking123)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a good movie, it's just an inferior piece to the 1954 film. The fact is the film in its original version wouldn't have sold well in the States. The atomic fear and cultural references to post-war anxiety simply wouldn't have resonated with western audiences. And the addition of Raymond Burr gave Westerners a recognizable face to cling to. It wouldn't have worked with Takarada and Hirata. A lot of the splicing is jarring, but not immediately bad and I thought the way Burr interacted with some of the characters was clever in a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers splicing sort of way. You could tell the footage didn't match, but Burr kept things fairly believable. Fans should remember that this is the version that made Godzilla an international star, not the Japanese version. It was Godzilla, King of the Monsters! that was used as Toho's international foray into world wide success and it even got a Japanese theatrical release for it. It may be an inferior film, but it was always more widely accessible. (Gman2887)
That, perhaps, is the fair and square point to make about the value of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!: it is the version that made Godzilla an international star. Only then could the original meaningful subtexts get through to Western audiences. The loyal attachment fans developed for Godzilla over the years ever since the 1956 release is precisely what motivates them to go the extra mile in exploring the meanings behind his existence, namely in the original version. The same thing can also be said about what really keeps the "mon-star" alive beyond just another forgettable monster film or another short-lived phenomenon in pop culture, but rather an apt symbol for the ongoing process that allows history to be preserved and vividly reminds posterity of the monstrous potential of nuclear weapons.

Within the limited scope and space of this essay, I wish to humbly draw a few conclusions. Firstly, the majority of fans today have watched both versions, specifically thanks to the 2006 release of both in one DVD set, and recognized the crucial differences between them. Secondly, instead of dismissing the original film for its dubbing and low-tech special effects, fans and fan-critics alike praised its realistic depiction of nuclear holocaust and its sentimental qualities as a major monster film production, whether or not it matches their personal tastes. Thirdly, no Western fans so far expressed grievance for being "fooled" or ripped off by the 1956 edit, although some of them did acknowledge more efforts should have been put into making Godzilla a more meaningful and sophisticated entity on a par with his original appearance. Most importantly, fans who approached the films from a more interdisciplinary perspective tend to distinguish the distinctive roles each plays in Godzilla's identity as a whole, and thus appreciate both.

Perhaps academics are either still influenced by a deeply rooted arrogance that film audiences do not go beyond the realm of entertainment and a hobby-inspired pen job, or disheartened by the diverse and unknown depths of studies of film reception. Godzilla is probably one among the best cases to challenge those notions, since most who spend time watching, researching and writing about the cult phenomenon are loyal fans who simply want to take the Japanese Big-G seriously the way they feel he deserves. Generally, they have done a fairly good job demonstrating how well aware they are and others should be of the values of Godzilla films. Studying the reception side of the films, both casually and academically written reviews, has informed us of a crucial understanding that, despite all differences, the two versions are indispensable to Godzilla the kaiju and the genre as we know them today. One makes it an open and welcoming door to a humane and soulful monster while the other presents it in a sophisticated and valuable story. In other words, Godzilla (1954) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) together have given Goji-san a life unknown to any other monsters that ever graced film theaters. They are a fascinating blend of fear and hope for the future in the nuclear age.

[This essay is by Nguyen Nhu Ngoc, who has recently completed her MA in cultural and media studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

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