Tuesday, January 29, 2013

All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 5 - Gojira (Godzilla)

Godzilla is easily one of the most famous monsters in all of film history.  He is an icon of B-movies, a lumbering monster stepping through the ruins of Japanese cities as crowds of panicked dubbed-over people run in all directions from the fire breathing beast.  He's been in twenty-nine films throughout a fifty year career, and with rumors of a new 2014 American film production becoming increasingly solid, it appears the Godzilla story is long from over.  He's been the bad guy, the antihero, the protagonist, and has been mankind's greatest champion to its most terrible scourge.  Godzilla has fought monsters of all kinds and all shapes, at least a dozen invading alien races, and King Kong, going from a dark specter of nuclear annihilation to a children's movie wrestling hero, and has since stepped in every direction along the moral compass.

And along the way, Godzilla has become an international icon of Japanese filmmaking, perhaps the single most famous Japanese cultural export in the entire 20th century.  For generations of filmgoers, both children and adults, Godzilla has been a long time reliable friend of giant monster battles.  There can be no denying that Godzilla is the most important giant monster ever, and every one of his movies requires a study here on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!  Godzilla more or less created the entirety of Japanese kaiju ("strange beast") giant monster genre, inventing an entire new form of special effects and turning its production company, Toho, into the leading world master of giant monster movies.  Godzilla is the true King of the Monsters, for all of these reasons and more - I'd rank him as my favorite film character of all time time, with little hesitation.  I mean, he's the ultimate badass, he rules, discussion over.

Despite being a huge Godzilla fan*, I've actually had not seen the original 1954 Japanese "Gojira".  This is a pretty deep source of embarrassment for me since I've seen crap like "Baby Geniuses" but not the first film starring my fire breathing childhood hero?  There's a somewhat complex story behind this, because the Japanese version of the first Godzilla movie is actually very different from the version I've seen and is familiar to most Westerners.  When "Gojira" was brought to the West, it was heavily edited to give an American protagonist, turning it into a very different movie.  For that reason most film scholarship treats the Japanese and American cuts as being separate movies, which is how I'll treat them personally on this series.  To distinguish them, the Japanese cut is usually called "Gojira" while the American version is referred to by its American title, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!".  Both versions are readily available today, and both are equally important as movies.  Obviously though, to tell the story of Godzilla, we need to start from the beginning.

"Godzilla" actually follows more or less the very same plotline as "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", but with a very different tone and serious understanding of the implications.  In both stories, nuclear tests unleash a monster hidden within the deep prehistoric stratums of the Earth which moves slowly towards the largest metropolitan area it can find, wrecking all manner of destruction, until finally it is destroyed by the brilliant protagonist scientist using a fantastic new weapon of science to save the world.  And this was probably not entirely a coincidence, as several of the writers were definitely aware of the previous film's existence.  Nuclear power was a pop culture fascination in the United States, but it was just as interesting to the Japanese in the Fifties, though for more or less opposite reasons.  Remember, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had only happened a decade previously.  Japan was still suffering from nuclear energy in a variety of ways, from the people dieing of leukemia from nuclear fallout, to the sailors of Japanese shipping vessels unwittingly caught by radiation from American hydrogen bomb tests in the south Pacific.  While in American, nuclear power was a wonder power that offered a glorious new future, in Japan, nuclear power was the specter of unlimited terror and cataclysms beyond calculation.  No wonder why the tones of "Gojira" and "20,000 Fathoms" are as different as light and day.

Its important to note where "Godzilla" stands within the midsts of historical trends in Japan.  In 1954, Japan's postwar economic miracle had only reached the point where Japan could be considered a functioning economic power, hardly a world leading economy such as it is today.  The American occupation of Japan had only concluded in 1952, and had been the consequence of the complete failure and destruction of Japan's prewar imperial government.  World War II had been completely devastating to Japan both economically, socially, and culturally, leaving its cities in ruins and its militaristic dreams humbled.  Still, the Japanese film industry had bounced back with surprising speed, after nearly complete annihilation during the war.  The 1950s saw a Golden Age in Japanese filmmaking, as innovative directors like Akira Kurosawa gained international recognition for film achievement.  "Godzilla" was able to get a budget of a million dollars, which was a considerable investment for the time, especially for Japanese cinema.  Obviously, this filmmaking sophistication was only made possible thanks to the stabilization of Japan following the chaos of the Forties.

Ishiro Honda, "Godzilla"'s director, wanted to create a special effects-driven monster film with the same style as Willis O'Brien's King Kong movies.  King Kong was actually extremely popular in Japan in the 1930s, and was still fondly-remembered twenty years later by "Godzilla"'s production staff.  Unfortunately, only a few people on Earth in 1954 could actually perform stop-motion animation effects, none of which were Japanese.  Since stop-motion was impossible, the "Godzilla" team had to come up with a different solution.  Their workaround was a brilliant step, that created an entirely new kind of special effects.  Some people like to mock the Godzilla movies by complaining that they star a man in a rubber suit which terribly cheap special effects, but the reality was far more complicated than that.  Nobody had ever tried anything like this before, and in the original "Godzilla" the suit design was a hellish nightmare for its operator.  It was so hot and badly ventilated that the guy inside could only work for a few minutes at a time before he collapsed from exhaustion.  I don't even want to think about what Godzilla suit must have smelled like by the time filming was completed.  Hopefully that guy was well-paid.

One unintended consequence for the suit being so terribly uncomfortable was that the Godzilla operator was barely able to move, making his movements appear like the iconic slow, determined, monstrous motion that Godzilla is known for.  Because it wasn't stop-motion, the effect on "Godzilla" actually still look decent today, because the live-action movement had a natural flow that old stop-motion could not replicate.  The miniature work is masterful in "Godzilla", giving Godzilla all of Tokyo to turn into a sea of flames.  Better yet, the filming of the Tokyo attack sequence is filmed in terse black and white, as Godzilla's fire breath alight the dark night.  This is movie-making beauty, showing the full horror that would be the destruction of a major city by a giant creature.  The original Godzilla actually is something of a scary movie, which is unusual for this genre.  "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is something of a joke, even during its attack on New York, "Godzilla" is a true nightmare, even fifty years later.

The human sides of Godzilla stories are never all that important, and this is still true even back to the original.  Most of the time the humans are just there to observe or maybe tussle a bit with the invading aliens, but they're never why you actually watch these films.  In this film, it takes about forty minutes for Godzilla to actually show up, and until the human scientists are struggling to figure out just what this monster is that's attacking Japanese shipping.  The idea was to create a sense of increasing tension by not showing the monster straight up, sorta like how the 1998 "Godzilla" was designed.  However, this just means that a good deal of the movie until then is kinda dull, since you know what Godzilla looks like, what he's going to do, and probably by now, how the movie is going to end.  Still, its more substantial then "20,000 Fathoms" endless discussion of whether or not the protagonist is crazy.

Ultimately the human plotline comes down to three Japanese people, an officer in the Coast Guard, his girlfriend, and the girlfriend's ex-boyfriend, a brilliant reclusive scientist with a pirate eyepatch.  This love triangle never really amounts to much, but still, the acting here is considerably better than in the American Fifties films.  Most of the actors are young new faces who would never rise above starring in SciFi B-movies, but the movie also stars Takashi Shimura, the lead actor of "Seven Samurai" and a Kurosawa regular.  Even in Japan, starring in SciFi schlock was never exactly a respectable job in the film industry.  Anyway, the pirate scientist, Serizawa, has secretly built in his lab a dangerous new superweapon called the "Oxygen Destroyer", which can turn any bit of water in a bubbling cauldron as every oxygen atom within vaporizes suddenly**.  Serizawa remembers the horror of the atomic bomb well, and refuses to reveal his invention to anybody until he feels that it can have a productive use instead of just adding to the superpower arms race that Japan is sitting in the middle of.  Ultimately, he decides to use the weapon to kill Godzilla, but only after destroying his research and killing himself at the end.  "Godzilla" is a movie clearly against further nuclear proliferation, going so far as to suggest that mankind should hide scientific discoveries if they offer nothing but further destruction.

I wonder if Robert Oppenheimer ever thought about riding Big Boy on its way down to Nagasaki a la Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove"?

The most emotional moments of "Godzilla" actually occur outside of the main cast.  During Godzilla's rampage, a mother hugs her children promising them that it will all be over soon once the monster gets them too.  Intrepid reporters continue to televise Godzilla's destruction even as the monster lunges for them and kills them all.  I particularly like a broadcasted scene of hundreds of Japanese schoolgirls mournfully singing for the dead - eerily similar to Congress singing God Bless America on 9/11.  "Godzilla" is more than simple giant monster schlock, its a true horror movie, with elements that are still scary even today.  Maybe not scary so much in the irrational fear that a giant creature will eat you, but disturbing in how it shows a country suffering from a terrible attack from an unstoppable force of nature.

"Godzilla" may be the most emulated Japanese film of all time, inspiring dozens of sequels, but also countless rip-offs, homages, parodies, and inspired works.  From Reptar on "Rugrats" to Mecha-Streisand, he's an immortal film icon.  Even his roar has become an immediately recognizable sound clip, instantly reminding anybody of Japanese cities on flames and people fleeing in the streets.  How many Japanese products were so beloved in America before the 1980s?  Can you name a foreign film series as beloved as Godzilla in the US?  This is huge.  This is history.

Next on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!, the Americanized version my Grandma watched:  "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!"

* You can easily define a Godzilla fan from a non-Godzilla fan with a very simple question.  Have you seen a Godzilla movie that isn't the 1998 Matthew Broderick film?  If not, go home, poser.

** I'm not really sure how the "Oxygen Destroyer" is supposed to work.  Is it burning away the oxygen atoms that are making up the water molecules?  Or is it destroying the gaseous oxygen dissolved within the water?  Is sea water really all that oxygenated?  Then again, why am I trying to make any kind of Chemistry sense out of this?  This is Godzilla!  The series with tiny women in jewelry boxes and robots that "reprogram" themselves to grow Kaiju-sized.  If there is a real scientific explanation behind this, Dr. Serizawa took it with him.