Godzilla – World Cinema and American Language Barrier [Film]


Chapter 2 – Subtitle Remake

Godzilla is the king of the monsters, but Hollywood is the king of the blockbuster. During the early 90s small screens across America gained access to TBS and TNT via basic cable packages. These two channels routinely aired themed marathons on weekends in one of four ways – the spy weekend centered around James Bond, the war movie weekend centered around Red Dawn (1984) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), the drama weekend centered around The Outsiders (1983), or the monster weekend centered around Godzilla featuring his more playful films of the 1960s and 70s with their iconic dubbing. Godzilla is definitively Japanese with his destruction left purposefully less realistic as men in suits battle and crush miniature cities. Through basic cable, Godzilla became a woven part of the American lexicon despite our current gritty visually realistic take of storytelling through Hollywood blockbusters.

The largest export of the United States is our pop-culture delivered by Hollywood to nations across the world which reciprocate billion of dollars in ticket returns. In 1954, Godzilla was introduced in Japan with great success spawning 27 squeals over a fifty year period from the Toho Company. Hollywood took notice of this Japanese hit release Godzilla, King of the Monster two years later. With access to all the international markets across the oceans the United States home market remains the most profitable for American Studios. From this notion foreign films will not always work in their original form as financial successes within the United States. This is not a question of the quality of storytelling but the audiences’ ability to relate to the work presented. World cinema’s most revered films international rights are thus acquired by American Studios for the purpose of being  remade as Hollywood blockbusters based on American sensibilities with English dialogue.

Gojira_1954_Japanese_posterHollywood and Japan’s first introduction was not Godzilla but four years prior with Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950). The film is a Japanese period drama starring Toshiro Mifune based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The film’s characters provide alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions a woman’s rape along with the murder of her samurai husband. Kurosawa intended the film to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth. Rashomon won the Golden Lion of the Venice Film Festival that year and an honorary Academy Award for most outstanding foreign language film at the 25th Academy Awards. R.K.O. acquired Rashomon for American distribution releasing the film in its original Japaneses with English subtitles. By 1952 the film had only grossed 200,000 dollars. Rashomon was a defining influence on a young Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and other future students of the 1960s USC School of Cinematic Arts but also a financial failure in the United States due to the use of subtitles.

Until the late 1920s film was a silent medium. Warner Brother’s 1927 release of The Jazz Singer  forever changed how film was received. The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man dealing with his Jewish roots and love for Jazz singing. The film features six musical numbers of synchronized singing to filmed performance. This incorporation of sound added unforeseen language barriers to world cinema. The addition of sound made it difficult for studios to export their films to foreign markets. Silent era Charlie Chaplin films were universally received because the audience was able to project their own culture and language directly onto the Chaplin’s silent Tramp character. With talking films a producing country’s cultural and language isolate the work from easy distribution to international audiences.

Across the Atlantic in 1931 Germany, Director Fritz Lang premiered his first talking picture, a thriller entitled M. The film is about criminals taking the law into their own hands in order to find a child murderer. The film did incredibly well in Germany and was sold to Foremco for international distribution in the United States, Foremco premiered M in its original German language with English subtitles. Following an initial two week run the film was pulled from theaters for poor performance attributed to the usage of those subtitles. M was later dubbed by director Eric Hakim with only actor Peter Lorre reprising his role. This dubbing incorporated partial re-shoots with American actors performing select cut away dialogue scenes. This reworking of M was done without Fritz Lang’s involvement in the hopes of gaining wider American returns.

The same year M was recut with American actors the definitive jungle picture King Kong (1933) premiered in New York City simultaneously at the 6,200 seat Radio City Music Hall and the 3,700 seat R.K.O. Roxy Theater across the street. King Kong is the story of a giant ape who lives on Skull Island and whose death is the result of his attempts to possess a beautiful young woman. The special effects spectacle was from Willis H. O’Brien who blended a claymation ape rampaging through jungle and city with live action actors. King Kong sold out the combined two theater’s 9,900 seats for four days straight with ten showing a day grossing just under 90 thousand dollars in 1933 money. Over the film’s initial run, King Kong would take in just over 2 million dollars and tens of millions over subsequent releases in 38, 42, 46, and 1952 – two years before the original Japanese Godzilla (1954). King Kong became the catalyst for the next generation of special effects film makers such as Eiji Tsuburaya of Japan and Ray Harryhausen of the United Sates (20,000 Fathoms Under the Sea – 1953).

Director Ishiro Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya took inspiration from King Kong for Godzilla (1954) who had captivated their imagination of wonder and mixed that spectacle with the context of Cold War nuclear annihilation. The conclusion of World War II is marked by the dropping of atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. War was turned into occupation as the United Sates forces led by General Douglas A. MacArthur implemented military, political, economic and social reforms upon the Japaneses until 1952. As the world rebuilt, lines were drawn between a capitalist west and a communist east linked through a nuclear arms race as the threat of mutually assured destruction provided the only safe guard to avoiding world annihilation. With the ending of the American occupation of Japan, previous censorship restriction were lifted allowing Japaneses post war film to address the atomic age to which no other country was better suited.

rome open city

Post war cinema became a medium for people to express and deal with their nations’ feelings about the war’s devastation. Rome, Open City is an Italian film released in 1945 from director Roberto Rossellini which deals with the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944. Joseph E. Levine, an American Film Producer involved in the production of over 500 films including the importing of foreign films into the United States, acquired the film’s international rights. Levine initially released Rome, Open City in the States in its original Italian language with English subtitles. Similar to Fritz Lang’s M, with little returns, the film was pulled from screens after two weeks. Levine recognized the fundamental fact American audiences do not like subtitles. Rome, Open City was dubbed over by English voice talent and re-released. The film went on to gross over 1 million dollars being the first foreign film in Hollywood history to do so. Levine followed Rome, Open City with the releases of Paisà (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) each grossing over 1 million dollars themselves.

Director Ishiro Honda opens Godzilla with a sequence depicting a Japaneses fishing boat being obliteration through radiation breath. A slimier real life event became a key inspiration for the film. The United States tested their first Hydrogen Bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshal Island six months after the Soviet Union had tested their own Hydrogen Bomb. The real Japanese fishing trawler (Lucky Dragon 5) was fishing for tuna in a predefined safe zone until the area was overwhelmed by the Castle Bravo nuclear test which had yielded a 15 megaton blast rather than its planned six megaton. The crew of Lucky Dragon 5 faced radiation sickness and six months after the event the radio operator succumbed to the Castle Bravo radiation asking the world in his final breaths that he be the last casualty of the Hydrogen Bomb.

Immediately following a showing of Godzilla entrepreneur Edmund Goldman purchased the international rights to the film for 25,000 dollars. At that time 3,000 dollars was considered an average price for film rights. Richard Kay and Harold Ross later became involved with Goldman helping to finance the promotion budget for the American release. The three would show the film to Levine who immediately contributed 100,000 dollars of his own money into the production. Godzilla would not just be another dubbing, Levine would remake the film for American audiences.

godzilla_1956Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) from TransWorld Releasing Corp was the adaptation of Godzilla (1954). This new recut version consisted of numerous new scene centered on the character Steve Marin portrayed by actor Raymond Burr. Director Terry O. Morse with his background in low-budget crime dramas and who was also known in Hollywood as a film doctor was brought in to direct the new scenes. Morse took the Japanese footage and created something new for American audiences. Through clever editing and set imitation Journalist Steve Marin appears to actually interact with the original Japanese cast who had been dubbed over by American voice actors with newly written dialogue.

Today dubbing is consider an insult to film. From the early 1940s through the late 1950s dubbing was considered the highest level of respect one could pay a film because having a film dubbed meant a producer and distributor believed enough in the film they were willing to invest their own money into the picture. Subtitles were cheap, but dubbing cost enormous sums of money. Hollywood took Godzilla and morphed it into an American monster attacking Tokyo. Godzilla, King of the Monsters would break Levine’s previous records of success. Toho also loved the recut version as it gave Godzilla a larger audience. Hollywood in more recent years has taken a different approach to successful foreign films.

Warner Brother’s release of Godzilla in the summer of 2014 is an American remake of the Japanese idea. The original 1954 and the 2014 remake share some similarities to the  monster genre. Both film take recent tragedies fresh in the audiences’ mind and incorporated them into their films but changed just enough to retain the entertainment aspect and not become to documentary. The 2014 film uses the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in addition to the 2004 Indonesia Tsunamis as disasters fresh in the audience’s mind to elicits stronger emotional reactions to Godzilla’s devastation while the 1954 film parallels the dropping of atomic bombs on Japaneses cities and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident.

The two films although differ in the context of the genre. It is obvious what Godzilla (1954) is about – nuclear annihilation. Godzilla is the embodiment of that fear, a radioactive behemoth destroying all human society in his path. The people of Japan can do nothing to stop him with the exception of developing a weapon even greater then atomic weapons but at the cost of throwing the world into an even worse arms race. Godzilla (2014) is not really about anything other then being an American summer blockbuster that places Godzilla into the world in the most realistic way CGI can.

In 1954, the special effects pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya were state of the art and amazed audience in the same way the Lumiere Brothers Train Arriving at Station (1896) caused people to faint. People attend films to see something they have never seen before. People saw Godzilla (1954) to see something they had also never seen before. Film requires elements of the fantastic and wonder. Cinema is the projection of that spectacle. I attend theaters in the pursuit of this awe inspiring wonder and to suspend by disbelief in the never before seen. Godzilla (2014) is a great American blockbuster in this regard. I cheered for the king of the monsters multiple times at my screening and witnessed some amazing visuals. The American blockbuster has in some ways developed into its own genre with specific rules of genres have such as one example – the destruction of a major city. On this new genre Godzilla succeeds. I had a great time watching the film but the fantastic elements or the character moments are not mutually exclusive as new blockbuster would try and claim they are.

Original Nation Title United States Title
Sweden Let The Right One In (2008) Let Me In (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Insomnia (1997 Insomnia (2002)
Japan The 47 Ronin (1942) 47 Ronin (2013)
Ring (1998) The Ring (2002)
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) The Grudge (2004)
Seven Samurai (1954) The Magnificent Seven (1960)
South Korea Oldboy (2003) Oldboy (2013)
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) The Uninvited (2009)
Hong Kong Internal Affairs (2002) The Departed (2006)
Germany Wings of Desire (1987) City of Angles  (1998)

With languages barrier in world cinema from synchronized sound with movement remakes became the logical solution for American Studios. Over 9.6 million tickets were sold in Japan marking Godzilla (1954) the eighth highest attended film in Japan that year earning over 2.25 million dollars (152 million Yen) for Toho Company. The recut version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) was later premiered in Japan. Raymond Burr’s character was subtitled back into Japanese but the original Japanese dialogue was left untouched. The film was recut based on how visual elements came together and not how dialogue worked as the original Japanese lines had been rewritten to fit the new story. I can only image what sitting in a Japanese theater during the summer of 57 watching  Godzilla, King of the Monster and listening to the complete nonsense of non sequitur after non sequitur dialogue must have been like.

About Christopher
I know some things. I wish I knew more things. There are a lot of things in the world. Pop culture is fun too. I live in the Northwest. I've had the opportunity to work with great people. Radiohead and Motorhead are two of my favorite bands. Good works are good works regardless of their genre. Good works are good works regardless of how popular or unpopular they may be. Dr. Strangelove is my favorite film. I find it hard to list after a number one spot. Be well.

One Response to Godzilla – World Cinema and American Language Barrier [Film]

  1. A most excellent article and retrospective. Ishiro Honda’s original version of radiation run amok has been reduced to mere entertainment and an excuse to exercise enormous special effects. It’s all polish and no spit and technique over texture. The world has changed and so has the monster, but for many of us, Godzilla is more than a monster just as the first film was more than just a mere monster movie . . . much more.
    -Peter H. Brothers, author of “Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda.”

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