The Importance of Being Godzilla (Part 2)

My professional association with Godzilla began in 1995, when I wrote an essay called The Importance of Being Godzilla for an obscure arts journal I had a grudge against.  That essay won me a literary agent, an aborted book contract, and eventually an actual published book from a different publisher.

My book cover

It also won me enduring decades of tension and conflict with the entities that own Godzilla.

I have to emphasize the “owns” part because they care a great deal about that, and much of the perception of Toho as a company antagonistic towards their own fans and supporters is an consequence of their necessary defense of their property rights in the Godzilla brand.

In order to get that first book published, I was obliged to hire a lawyer and engage in months of negotiations.  But I made those concessions, and jettisoned a lot of what I wanted to achieve with that book, in order to show good faith with Toho.

DVD box art

In 2006 I was asked to contribute an audio commentary to the DVD edition of GHIDORAH THE THREE HEADED MONSTER, which initiated a new cycle of negotiations and compromises.  They had to approve my script before I was allowed to record it, and any deviations from the official company line had to be excised.  This was tricky, since much of what motivates me in Godzilla scholarship is to challenge existing orthodoxies, question the company line, and attempt to offer alternate theories and competing points of view.

Criterion box art

When I was asked to record audio commentaries for Criterion’s GODZILLA/GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, the situation was complicated in new ways.  This time around there were numerous competing entities, organizations, corporations, and estates that all claimed some degree of ownership and authority over the films in question.  Every step had to be approved by all parties.

I recorded my commentaries in the spring of 2011, and then on the eleventh hour, as the disc masters were being shipped to the factory for replication, renewed discomfort from the various competing entities involved in the project forced several minutes’ worth of material to be removed from the two commentary tracks.

This controversy erupted too late in the process to do anything else but cut out the offending sections and leave gaps.  Those of you who’ve heard my commentaries before know I rarely stop for air.  Many of the changes were reasonable enough requests, and had I been presented with the objections back at the start of the year I’d have more than happily rewritten the material accordingly.

But two deleted sections, addressing the European distribution of GODZILLA, meant a great deal to me, and I was sad to see them go.  With Criterion’s permission, I am reprinting those deleted passages here, this week and next.  This is actually a superior venue for this discussion, because I can now take advantage of the ability to play clips to provide support for my assertions and illustration of my points.

And so let’s jump right into it with this clip first:

[wpvideo kCGuTz9x]

That’s right!  It’s in German.

No big surprise there–the film was dubbed into a variety of languages for its journey across the continent.  But here’s the thing: the versions that were screened in Italy and Spain and so on were just the American cut GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS with Raymond Burr, dubbed into the appropriate local language.  Except in Germany–where we find a completely different cut of the film, distinct from the American cut and different from the Japanese.

GODZILLA opened in West Germany in the summer of 1956, a few short months after the Burr version had first premiered in New York.  However, the German-dubbed version has no Burr in it—it follows the linear storyline and unfolding mystery of the Japanese cut.  Yet it clocks in at a trim 82 minutes—and tracks many of the cuts made to the American version.

The raucous political debate about whether to keep Godzilla’s existence a secret?  That’s gone.  The scene on the train where the woman says she survived the Atomic bombing of Nagasaki only to now face this?  That’s gone.  And the scene where the woman gathers her children in the wake of Godzilla’s rampage and reassures them, “We’ll be with Daddy soon” is present, but her dialogue has been changed.

[wpvideo LqyzCvbK]

“Don’t worry, children–mamma will protect you from the big bad Godzilla.”

This is interesting, because these changes in the American cut  have often been interpreted by Godzilla fans and film historians as possible evidence of censorship of uncomfortable political subtexts in the Japanese cut.

In my commentaries, I argue against that reading and object to the idea that the American cut is a significantly watered down version of the Japanese original–and to my mind the German version is powerful evidence to support my contrarian view.  You can’t really insist that the cuts reflect intrinsic social attitudes or the specific motives of certain individuals if completely different people in a different culture went and did the same things too.

From where did this version emerge?  It was distributed by Atelier Film, whose documentation gives credit to TransWorld for supplying the film.  What precisely did TransWorld provide?  They can’t have given Atelier the Raymond Burr cut—not only would it have been an insane misuse of Atelier’s money to “reverse-engineer” Burr back out of the American cut and re-sequence the scenes back into their original order, but the German cut also includes some footage not in the American cut.

But it also seems unlikely that TransWorld sold Atelier the unadulterated 1954 Ishiro Honda cut—the similarities between the German cuts and the American cuts close enough to suggest a third possibility: that the print that Toho supplied TransWorld in the first place had already been significantly cut before Terry Morse ever got his hands on it.

[wpvideo SmOXkaye]

Definitive answers are hard to come by, so long after the event.  What we know is that this film was so powerful in its day that foreign audiences clamored hungrily to see it—which prompted some variant editions that tried to reconfigure the 1954 Japanese movie into forms better suited to other markets.  Yet this movie is still powerful today, such that here we are more than 50 years later still clamoring hungrily for it, and finding those local variants no longer suit our markets.  Instead of complaining about how folks like Terry Morse changed the movie—that’s in the past, man!—we should be marveling that even with his changes GODZILLA found its audience, and then did so again, and again, and again, and again. . .

24 Responses The Importance of Being Godzilla (Part 2)
Posted By dukeroberts : November 12, 2011 8:31 am

The term “Godzilla scholarship” made me laugh a little. It’s funny, thinking over the whole series to think of “Godzilla” and “scholarship” together. You make avery interesting point about the changes made to the German version however. I think the Axis powers may have actually reunited in editing down the monster classic.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 12, 2011 8:31 am

The term “Godzilla scholarship” made me laugh a little. It’s funny, thinking over the whole series to think of “Godzilla” and “scholarship” together. You make avery interesting point about the changes made to the German version however. I think the Axis powers may have actually reunited in editing down the monster classic.

Posted By Tom S : November 12, 2011 4:55 pm

Is the second edition of the Godzilla book significantly less censored, or did you run into the same problems when rewriting it?

Also, I’m not 100% sure I understand the argument here- is the idea that, since the cuts to the German and American versions are so similar, they likely reflect cuts made by the Japanese for foreign distribution rather than cuts made to reflect the specific political contexts in each of those countries? Were the Americans still in a position to censor and alter German films when Godzilla was released there?

Posted By Tom S : November 12, 2011 4:55 pm

Is the second edition of the Godzilla book significantly less censored, or did you run into the same problems when rewriting it?

Also, I’m not 100% sure I understand the argument here- is the idea that, since the cuts to the German and American versions are so similar, they likely reflect cuts made by the Japanese for foreign distribution rather than cuts made to reflect the specific political contexts in each of those countries? Were the Americans still in a position to censor and alter German films when Godzilla was released there?

Posted By Nate Yapp : November 12, 2011 6:52 pm

Tom S — I think that’s exactly what Kalat is suggesting, that the version of Gojira provided for international distribution was already cut down. Those cut versions were then cut down further. The three scenes that Kalat noted reflected a significance particular to Japan and they may have been cut for that reason.

Posted By Nate Yapp : November 12, 2011 6:52 pm

Tom S — I think that’s exactly what Kalat is suggesting, that the version of Gojira provided for international distribution was already cut down. Those cut versions were then cut down further. The three scenes that Kalat noted reflected a significance particular to Japan and they may have been cut for that reason.

Posted By David Kalat : November 13, 2011 7:55 pm

Well, I guess that’s the danger of taking things out of context.

When this passage was part of the commentary track, it was surrounded by what amounted to 180 minutes’ worth of additional framing context, and when I excerpted it here I didn’t provide enough of that frame to have it fully make sense.

My overall argument is that while Godzilla fans have been telling the story that the various cuts to GODZILLA had a political or censorial edge, and that the resulting edited version(s) thereby reflect a deracinated take, I don’t actually agree. I think the cuts principally reflect an effort to tighten the story and reduce the running time–the deleted passages are digressions that don’t involve the main cast.

To my mind, the fact that similar cuts were made to the German version, in a wholly different cultural context, supports that thesis–but I understand that everyone is free to draw their own conclusions.

Posted By David Kalat : November 13, 2011 7:55 pm

Well, I guess that’s the danger of taking things out of context.

When this passage was part of the commentary track, it was surrounded by what amounted to 180 minutes’ worth of additional framing context, and when I excerpted it here I didn’t provide enough of that frame to have it fully make sense.

My overall argument is that while Godzilla fans have been telling the story that the various cuts to GODZILLA had a political or censorial edge, and that the resulting edited version(s) thereby reflect a deracinated take, I don’t actually agree. I think the cuts principally reflect an effort to tighten the story and reduce the running time–the deleted passages are digressions that don’t involve the main cast.

To my mind, the fact that similar cuts were made to the German version, in a wholly different cultural context, supports that thesis–but I understand that everyone is free to draw their own conclusions.

Posted By Dan Day, Jr. : November 13, 2011 8:40 pm

I have listened to a number of David’s commentaries and he is one of the best in this field. I’m looking forward to Criterion’s release of “Godzilla” (even though I already own the Classics Media special edition DVD).

Posted By Dan Day, Jr. : November 13, 2011 8:40 pm

I have listened to a number of David’s commentaries and he is one of the best in this field. I’m looking forward to Criterion’s release of “Godzilla” (even though I already own the Classics Media special edition DVD).

Posted By Brad Thompson : November 13, 2011 11:24 pm

David, have you seen the French version of GODZILLA? It is a variation of the Burr cut with additional Japanese footage not found in the US version clocking in about 89 minutes. The three scenes you mention being absent or altered from the German version are not present… In fact, the scene of the mother with her children is omitted completely.

Posted By Brad Thompson : November 13, 2011 11:24 pm

David, have you seen the French version of GODZILLA? It is a variation of the Burr cut with additional Japanese footage not found in the US version clocking in about 89 minutes. The three scenes you mention being absent or altered from the German version are not present… In fact, the scene of the mother with her children is omitted completely.

Posted By Jim Vecchio : November 14, 2011 8:39 am

Enjoyed your Blog, being a huge fan of Godzilla (or is it a fan of the Huge Godzilla?) I was pleased mainly with the commentaries that did exist on the DVDs, except for GODZILLA vs MOTHRA (THE THING)which promised a commentary, but if it was there my DVD would not pick it up. If the promised new GODZILLA materializes, I can’t wait to hear your true feelings on it. Remembering what happened with Roland Emmerich, I almost dread the movie.

Posted By Jim Vecchio : November 14, 2011 8:39 am

Enjoyed your Blog, being a huge fan of Godzilla (or is it a fan of the Huge Godzilla?) I was pleased mainly with the commentaries that did exist on the DVDs, except for GODZILLA vs MOTHRA (THE THING)which promised a commentary, but if it was there my DVD would not pick it up. If the promised new GODZILLA materializes, I can’t wait to hear your true feelings on it. Remembering what happened with Roland Emmerich, I almost dread the movie.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 14, 2011 11:34 am

Oh gosh, you had to remind us of that Roland Emmerich garbage. My hear sank when I first saw the iguana-inspired design for that movie. And then the movie was terrible to boot.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 14, 2011 11:34 am

Oh gosh, you had to remind us of that Roland Emmerich garbage. My hear sank when I first saw the iguana-inspired design for that movie. And then the movie was terrible to boot.

Posted By Jon Paul : November 15, 2011 12:52 pm

“Scholarship” simply denotes a method: careful investigations; relevant comparisons; close readings of texts. Thus, “Godzilla” and “scholarship” can (of course) suit easily with one another in a single sentence. The question about whether the object on which the method is used is really a separate one, and one which has traditionally been bedevilled by all sorts of ideological / cultural preconceptions. From my own point of view, to say that “scholarship” should not be applied to pop culture items seems, at a minimum, misguided.

Posted By Jon Paul : November 15, 2011 12:52 pm

“Scholarship” simply denotes a method: careful investigations; relevant comparisons; close readings of texts. Thus, “Godzilla” and “scholarship” can (of course) suit easily with one another in a single sentence. The question about whether the object on which the method is used is really a separate one, and one which has traditionally been bedevilled by all sorts of ideological / cultural preconceptions. From my own point of view, to say that “scholarship” should not be applied to pop culture items seems, at a minimum, misguided.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 16, 2011 8:33 pm

That is a great analysis, Jon Paul. Still, upon initially reading it aloud, it sounds funny.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 16, 2011 8:33 pm

That is a great analysis, Jon Paul. Still, upon initially reading it aloud, it sounds funny.

Posted By cgeye : November 19, 2011 4:51 pm

I note that when you say “German” you don’t unpack what that mainly meant, back then: West Germany.

I know, I know, Godzilla premiered before the Berlin Wall, but under American occupation, who’s to say that the political pressure during the witchhunt era didn’t require respecting Allied sensibilities about the rightness of Nagasaki/Hiroshima, but also reinforcing that POV in post-Nazi Germany?

Posted By cgeye : November 19, 2011 4:51 pm

I note that when you say “German” you don’t unpack what that mainly meant, back then: West Germany.

I know, I know, Godzilla premiered before the Berlin Wall, but under American occupation, who’s to say that the political pressure during the witchhunt era didn’t require respecting Allied sensibilities about the rightness of Nagasaki/Hiroshima, but also reinforcing that POV in post-Nazi Germany?

Posted By The Cinémasochist : January 8, 2012 6:08 am

The french-language version “Godzilla, Le Monstre du Pacifique” (Godzilla, Monster of the Pacific) seems like that version but with Burr IN. It too differs from the US and Japanese versions. It too follows the narrative structure of the japanese version but trims some scenes. But it integrates Burr in the scenes where he is substituted for a japanese character. In the final scene his french voice informs us he is watching on TV from his hospital bed, so those obvious inserts are gone.

I suspect the Burr version released in Japan was that version as well and, with time, it just got accepted that that release was just a subtitled version of the US cut. This version allows for more of the original dialogue (then dubbed in german) through- which also would make more sense to the japanese. Imagine a subtitle of the translation of the muffled dialogue.

Posted By The Cinémasochist : January 8, 2012 6:08 am

The french-language version “Godzilla, Le Monstre du Pacifique” (Godzilla, Monster of the Pacific) seems like that version but with Burr IN. It too differs from the US and Japanese versions. It too follows the narrative structure of the japanese version but trims some scenes. But it integrates Burr in the scenes where he is substituted for a japanese character. In the final scene his french voice informs us he is watching on TV from his hospital bed, so those obvious inserts are gone.

I suspect the Burr version released in Japan was that version as well and, with time, it just got accepted that that release was just a subtitled version of the US cut. This version allows for more of the original dialogue (then dubbed in german) through- which also would make more sense to the japanese. Imagine a subtitle of the translation of the muffled dialogue.

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