Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Is a 1956 Japanese American science fiction kaiju film. It is an American production incorporating most of the footage of the Japanese film Godzilla, which had previously been shown subtitled in the United States in Japanese community theaters only, and was not known in Europe. For the American production, the original Japanese footage was dubbed into the English language and new footage was shot with actor Raymond Burr.
Although a handful of independent, low-budget films had previously been filmed in Japan after World War II by American companies and featuring Japanese players in the cast, Godzilla represented the first to present Japanese in principal, heroic roles or as sympathetic victims of the destruction of Tokyo (albeit by a fictional giant monster) to the American public in a commercial release given A-picture status and bookings.
It was this version of the original Godzilla film that introduced most audiences outside of Japan to Godzilla and labeled the character as “King of the Monsters”.
The revised story begins at a hastily established emergency hospital in an evidently devastated Tokyo, to which is brought American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), one of the wounded. In flashback, Martin tells of his stopover in Tokyo on a routine assignment to Cairo for United World News, where he finds himself confronted by the emergence of an inexplicable menace to navigation in the Sea of Japan. Something is causing ships to be destroyed without warning and sink with no time for escape. When a dying seaman finally washes up on an inhabited island, Martin flies there for the story with Tomo Iwanaga, a representative of the Japanese security forces (Frank Iwanaga, also part of the American cast), and learns of the island inhabitants’ belief in a monster god which lives beneath the sea, which they believe is causing the disasters (a claim which appears to have been borne out by the crewman before he died). Martin phones his editor at United World News, George Lawrence (Mikel Conrad, part of the American cast) and is given permission to stay and cover the story.
Martin’s involvement in the unfolding events broadens when paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, of the original film), is consulted and, returning to the island with his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) and her young naval-officer boyfriend Ogata (Akira Takarada) to investigate, sees the monster when it attacks the island village. Returning to Tokyo with clear evidence of the monster’s existence and power, Yamane becomes a leading consultant to Japan in mounting a defense, as it becomes apparent the monster is moving towards Tokyo.
The Japanese navy is unable to faze the monster with depth charges. In the dark of night, the monster attacks Tokyo, and it proves invulnerable to conventional military weaponry no matter how concentrated. Martin is one of millions injured in the attack, and here the flashback ends: Godzilla (a giant mutant dinosaur) has returned to the sea, but it is certain this is only for the moment.
Emiko reveals she may know a solution to the monster’s apparent indestructibility. She loves the young naval officer, but had until recently been engaged to a young scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who was also Steve Martin’s friend in college. She has lost interest in him because he has become almost a recluse, to her and others. After her breaking up with him, he revealed to her the reason for his reclusiveness — over the course of his research, he had accidentally developed a formula capable of destroying all oxygen in water, in the process of which any animal coming in contact with the “Oxygen Destroyer” is stripped clean of all flesh and organs, reduced to a skeleton. His anguish over what to do with this discovery has become a constant preoccupation. She had agreed to keep her knowledge of this a secret. But with Godzilla loose, she realizes this may be the only thing capable of stopping the monster, and informs her boyfriend and father.
The scientist is only reluctantly persuaded to use his remaining sample of the oxygen destroyer to try to kill Godzilla, provided he accompanies the young officer, in a diving suit, to the sea bottom to place and release the formula more or less at the monster’s feet. After concluding this agreement, the scientist destroys all his notes and papers on the formula. Emiko, upon seeing this, breaks down in tears, as she realizes that Serizawa is sacrificing his life’s work to stop Godzilla. Once on the bottom of the sea, he sends the young officer back up to the boat, releases the destroyer, and cuts his own oxygen hose and lifeline, to ensure no one else will ever know the chemical composition of his horrid formula. The young officer joins Dr. Yamane, Emiko and Steve Martin on the ship to watch as the oxygen destroyer does its work, reducing Godzilla to a skeleton. Afterwards, Martin’s last words were, “The menace was gone, so was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.”
It was Edmund Goldman who found the original Godzilla in a California Chinatown theater. He bought the international rights for $25,000, then sold them to Jewell Enterprises Inc., a small production company owned by Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick which, with backing from Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, successfully adapted it for American audiences. Levine paid $12,000 for his share.
The adaptation process consisted of filming numerous new scenes featuring Raymond Burr and others, and inserting them into an edited version of the Japanese original to create a new film. The new scenes, written by Al C. Ward and directed by Terry O. Morse, were photographed by Guy Roe with careful attention to matching the visual tone of the Japanese film. Burr’s character Steve Martin appeared to interact with the original Japanese cast through intricate cutting and the use of doubles for the Japanese principals, in matching dress, shot from behind in direct interaction with Burr’s character.
A documentary style was imposed on the original dramatic material through Burr’s dialogue and stentorian narration; he plays a reporter, replacing a comical reporter character in the Japanese original. More importantly, his presence as the lead character, along with trimming (though not outright deletion) of protracted dialogue regarding the arranged marriage between the Japanese heroine and a scientist (a concept unfamiliar to Westerners[clarification needed]), scenes evincing an active affair between her and the young naval officer–hero (a concept unlikely to be accepted by many parents of the film’s youthful target audience), and a raging debate in Japan’s Diet over the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and continued nuclear testing (a concept not likely to be approved of by American veterans of the recent war), served to ease American audiences into comfortable relationships with characters, whose mere nationality might otherwise have made them pariahs. The theme of devastation of Japan by nuclear holocaust became sublimated in the editing, but was not eliminated, giving the film a subversiveness on the nuclear question that would later be consciously recognized by the youngsters at whom the film was aimed as they entered adulthood.
There is sometimes confusion about who distributed the film to the U.S. The poster for the film states only that it is “A Transworld Release”, while the poster itself bears a copyright notice for “Godzilla Releasing Corporation”. Trade reviews from its New York showing indicate that it was released by Embassy Pictures. Classic Media indicates that it was released by Jewell Enterprises, but in fact the credits only show this company as presenting the film. In fact, the film was adapted from the Japanese original by Jewell Enterprises, which took “presentation” credits on the screen and in some advertising copy, copyright by Godzilla Releasing Corporation in its adapted form, and nationally released under control of Transworld, Inc., all of which were companies owned by Rybnick and Kay. It was actually distributed in the western U.S. by Godzilla Releasing Corp. and in the eastern half by Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures Corporation, then just a Boston-based states’ rights exchange. Embassy was most frequently noted as sole distributor in reviews and trade annuals published in New York: the movie was given “A-film” promotion, and opened at Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway and 45th Street in New York City on April 27, 1956.
New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther gave the film a bad review the following day. He dismissed it with, “‘Godzilla’ produced in a Japanese studio, is an incredibly awful film.” After complaining about the dubbing, the special effects (“a miniature of a dinosaur”), and an alleged similarity to King Kong, he concluded, “The whole thing is in the category of cheap cinematic horror-stuff, and it is too bad that a respectable theater has to lure children and gullible grown-ups with such fare.”
Crowther notwithstanding, the film was a notable success with the American public. It easily exported to Europe and South America, where the original was unknown and where it also had a major impact, and even made its way full circle back to Japan, where it was exhibited with Japanese subtitles for the American dialogue. The door was thus opened in the Americas and Europe for the import of unexpurgated Japanese science-fiction, horror, and other commercial film products; it also garnered western awareness of Toho Studios, which had retained producer credit. After its theatrical run, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Became a television staple for decades, even into the cable years, and opened the international market for dozens of Godzilla sequels
In theatrical form and on original TV syndication, the main title is followed by a minimal credit screen reading “Starring Raymond Burr, directed by Terry Morse and I. Honda” in white lettering over a background; and following the fadeout of the final shot, the scene of the hymn being sung by the schoolchildren was reprised with fuller cast and credits, following the fadeout of which the “The End” title appeared, again white lettering on a black background, with Godzilla’s echoing footsteps eerily replacing the soulful music. However, when Viacom acquired the film for TV re-syndication and first publication on videotape around 1980, Viacom removed all cast and credit material from both the opening and the closing of the film, and re-publications made thereafter were taken from the Viacom-revised master (even the so-called “uncut” version released on DVD in 1998 by Simitar). This missing material was partially restored in 2006 on the Sony Corp.; however, the opening star-director credits remained missing, and the end cast and credits were mis-edited after the THE END credit instead of before. They were also presented in a widescreen letterbox format on what was otherwise a standard anamorphic-format film image.