Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kaiju Kavalcade #1: GOJIRA (1954)/GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

TRAVIS:

Like many great horror films, Toho Company’s first monster movie was created from the societal fears of the time and the latest box office trends. Not only was Japan still reeling from the aftermath of nuclear destruction brought on by World War II, but a commercial fishing ship (ironically named Lucky Dragon 5) was unknowingly affected by radiation when the United States tested their hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. When crew members started to become sick (with one eventually dying), the country was caught in another nuclear panic, worried that any contaminated fish was now in the market. Meanwhile at the movie theaters, sci-fi monster flicks such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were drawing in the big bucks. A successful re-release of King Kong also spurred Toho to pursue a creature feature of their own. With history and box office perfectly aligned, Gojira was born.

Those used to the colorful kaiju wrestling matches of Megalon and Gigan may be surprised to find that Godzilla’s first film was a somber, cautionary tale. Opening with a recreation of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, Japan is soon faced with nuclear annihilation in the form of Gojira, a prehistoric dinosaur now re-awakened and irritated by radioactive warfare. The horrors of World War II are brought back to life as buildings and casualties are left behind in smoldering rubble. In the middle of the chaos is a weepy love triangle between Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), his girlfriend Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kochi), and her arranged husband-to-be Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). It’s from this conflict that Dr. Serizawa finally decides to use his underwater Oxygen Destoryer weapon, killing Godzilla and Serizawa in a noble sacrifice to protect the secrets of his invention.

Though it’s the most different in tone from any of the other movies, this is my all-time favorite Godzilla film. The monster destruction scenes have an almost documentary feel (perhaps benefitting from director Ishiro Honda’s army service during WWII). Was this why the big G sparked my imagination when I was little? Aside from some crummy PBS specials, this would’ve been the first time my dino-addled brain viewed a “real” dinosaur. This was also the movie that sparked my young interest in horror. I can remember researching Godzilla material in the library and uncovering the likes of Frankenstein, the Blob, and other monsters in the process. I guess the big guy started my long path into geekery, so much so that I’m now writing a whole series of reviews about his films.

Luca, it’s obvious what this movie meant to me, but what did you think of it as kaiju newcomer?

LUCA:

It certainly lived up to its somber reputation! I'd heard from plenty of people that the original was not a goofy man-in-suit wrestling match the name "Godzilla" conjures up in most people's minds, but holy crap was I ever unprepared for just how dour it would get -- especially for a fifties movie! There's a scene in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON where Decepticons are randomly blasting passers-by, specifically targeting defenseless humans, which, in the context of a Michael Bay movie, comes across as gleefully unhinged sociopathy from a director who's chained to a franchise he's long since stopped caring about. In GOJIRA, the titular creature does the exact same in one harrowing shot of some poor Tokyo residents, and the result is... well, slightly different. For the entire duration of the movie up to that point, it seems like "the people" have been the main character. "When will we get more information?", some lady asks about the faux Lucky Dragon crew (this movie taught me -maru is a popular suffix to Japanese boat names). "The people should be informed!!!" another lady shouts at the Gojira press conference. Yes, there's Professor Yamane, Emiko and Ogata, but shit, they honestly don't even get that much screen time. If you'd pull a revisionist Lucas/Spielberg-style title change on this first one for a box set, I think the most appropriate title would be "Godzilla vs. The People of Japan". The constant push-and-pull is between them and Gojira.

I did not know that about the successful re-release of KING KONG in Japan. KK vs. G is one of the series' most famous outings, I think, but if you compare the '33 KONG and this movie, they're nothing alike at all. Kong is a lovesick brute, an eminently relatable near-human who gets a few hours of rampage in when he reaches civilization before THU MAN puts him down. Gojira is this unknowable thing from the sea. It has no personality. It has no motivation. It just appears, destroys everything and fucks off back into the water because... it's bored? People talk about Carpenter's End of the World trilogy being the most successful unofficial Lovecraft adaptations of all time; I'd make a case for GOJIRA being a pretty good depiction of the awakening of a Lovecraftian Elder God. Honestly, I wish they'd just cut out all the stuff about him being a previously unknown missing link dinosaur/marine reptile from "two million years ago". It makes all the movie scientists look dumb, and it would have added to the scary factor of Gojira himself! Coulda just kept him the Oto Island legend that's mentioned by the fishermen, I say!

Here are some things that didn't work for me. After a really effective 15-20 minutes of build-up (the lost fishing ships, the "hurricane" that hits Oto Island), Honda kind of screws the whole thing up by having Godzilla look into the camera like O HAI. I'm talking about the first reveal of his head, where, after the alarm bell tolls, the villagers rush into the hills and see these reptilian plates stirring behind a ridge. Shock and terror abounds, of course. Next shot, Godzilla stupidly staring them all in the face all herpaderp. Tragically, the villagers rush up the hill to find Godzilla gone. They look at a great matte painting of gigantic footprints going into the water, with the imprint of a tail dragged between them. If they'd just gone from Godzilla's plates to everyone being shocked (I mean, just seeing those would mean the thing's as big as a mountain), going to check it out and seeing the footprints leading into the sea. First full Godzilla reveal would be postponed to his nightly raid on Tokyo Bay, accompanied by his awesome theme music. Just one trim, Honda! The movie also isn't too interested in the love triangle between Emiko, Ogata and Serizawa. Serizawa in particular gets such a haphazard introduction, I felt like they could have just combined his character with Yamane, since the love triangle is pretty useless to the proceedings anyway. Hagiwara the reporter just casually drops that Serizawa and Emiko are betrothed long after the audience meets the three of them, which is pretty weird! The movie had totally established Ogata and Emiko as boyfriend and girlfriend with no mention of Emiko being spoken for whatsoever. When Serizawa is mentioned, he's just "that loner" who's been "working on his research in solitude for years". You'd think they'd want to have the audience know that hey, Emiko's promised to someone else, namely this guy Emiko and her boyfriend are talking about right the fuck now. The Yamanes are pretty loose with family affiliations anyhow, since they appear to adopt newly-made Oto Island orphan Shinkichi off-screen, without any familial bonds to him whatsoever. Travis, am I being a terrible nitpicker?

TRAVIS:

I don’t think you’re being nitpicky at all! I like that you noticed how strong the human element was in this movie. Ishiro Honda always had an interest in human drama and how large events affect the everyman. This is why many of his Godzilla films have the most developed character plots aside from all the monster smashing. I will admit that the love triangle unfolds a little haphazardly, and its inclusion is only there to add dramatic weight to Serizawa’s decision to use the Oxygen Destroyer. However, the scene where he burns his research while Emiko weeps over her betrayal is strong. Ahihiko Hirata gives him such anguish and pain as he wrestles with his choice, and his solemn look as his work is incinerated is truly sad.

I can understand your issue with Gojira’s reveal on Oto Island, but I think it’s still effective. His attacks on Oto and Tokyo occur at night, so having his first true appearance during the daylight is a nice contrast and shock. I will say that the puppet used in that scene is rather DERP face (all blank eyed and vampiric teeth). Maybe it would’ve worked for you better if the full body suit was used since it has an expressionless look. Also, I never ever thought of the Lovecraft connection! That’s pretty neat! I’ll disagree and say that I do like Godzilla’s connections to dinosaur/marine origins. The more mysterious mythology would’ve been tantalizing, but this movie is firmly rooted in Japan’s history. Not only are the monster’s roots created by the warfare of the time, but the tales of the past concerning dragons and whimsical stories of the sea make Gojira a creature created by years of culture.

What I also enjoy is how this is a film about World War II from the other side of the ocean. I’m not a scholar of foreign cinema, but it seems there aren’t many well-known Japanese movies that deal with the effects of the war. Of course the starkness of nuclear fallout permeates this movie, yet the fighting spirit of the nation comes through sometimes. Scenes of tanks and battleships rolling out to combat the menace are accompanied by a rousing orchestral march for instance. In addition, for a country that originated terms such as seppuku and kamikaze, Serizawa’s noble sacrifice might not be a surprise as it’s a brave choice (maybe even punishment?) for not allowing the Oxygen Destroyer to be used in warfare. The culture and times that influence Gojira make it fascinating to me. I know you had your issues, Luca, but was there anything you particularly enjoyed? Also, even though you’re new to this franchise, do you think this film is a good introduction for kaiju novices?

LUCA:

If there's one thing I can say I unequivocally like, it's Akira Ifukube's score. Holy moly, that Godzilla march! I've been humming it randomly for the past week! The opening credits with these DOOOM DOOOMMM drums, accompanied by Gojira's roar over a black screen. It absolutely demands your attention, and it's fantastic. As I said earlier, the build-up with the lost ships and the public's reaction (besides the derp puppet) was very strong to me also. Maybe it would have worked completely for me HAD they used the suit, cuz I didn't even realize they hadn't until you pointed it out. Despite my misgivings about the sketching of the human characters, I like very much that it's a humanist movie. I remember the complaints of TRANSFORMERS fans (sorry to keep bringing these up) regarding the overly large presence of humans in those movies, and wouldn't it be lovely to just have a film focused on the robots. I also vaguely seem to recall people calling for a "documentary style" monster movie without any focus on humans whatsoever. Now, I can understand that you don't want to spend time with Bay's horrible, sickening approximations of human beings, but GOJIRA firmly dispels the no-humans-needed theory. If the Big Daddeh of all monster movies basically has two, two-and-a-half monster rampages, with the rest of the movie being taken up by the country's reactions to them, what the hell are you complaining about that there are humans? Shit, one of my favorite moments of the movie was the airplanes being called in to bomb the shit out of Gojira and force him back into the water. I thought that was a real cheer moment! Fuck yeah Japan ain't taking this mass destruction shit anymore! I loved that Serizawa's final sacrifice wasn't mined for tension but rather drama. The reprise of the children's choir that spurred him to action makes it a great set piece. It also has one of my favorite Gojira shots in the movie -- the revelation that that underwater mountain is actually Gojira as he slowly turns around. Gojira is always fakey looking cuz, well, he's a guy in a suit, but the movie sells his threat so well that he's never lame looking. That's a real "we've stirred an angry god(zilla)" moment right there.

Unless there are obvious jumping-on points for newbies (and the volume of the thing is just too immense), or the quality before a certain point is just abominable, I'm the kind of guy who'd always tell people to jump in at the start if they're interested, so they can witness the evolution of it. For instance, if someone tells me "I want to have seen a Bond movie", I'll tell 'em to watch GOLDFINGER. If they tell me "I wanna get into Bond", I'd just say to start with DR. NO. Not as archetypal a Bond movie as GOLDFINGER, but certainly a decent movie, and it's interesting to me how these things evolve. Is GOJIRA an archetypal kaiju movie? I can't tell yet, but from what I've heard, it isn't. Anyone asking me to get into kaiju movies, however, I would definitely point them towards this movie, since it's such a wellspring of an entire movement. It's like someone asking to get into superhero movies and not give 'em Donner's SUPERMAN. Heck, even if someone asked me, what's a good entry point to straight-up Japanese cinema, I'd say there's something so quintessentially Japanese about this movie, I'd recommend it in a heartbeat. I will say though, that if I was asked for non-kaiju specific giant monster movies, I'd definitely go KING KONG first. GOJIRA is much more of a big bummer of a movie. Sure, KONG ends in tragedy while GOJIRA ends in victory, but there's no moment as terrible in KK as the mother in GOJIRA clutching her children as Tokyo burns, telling them "[they]'ll be with daddy soon".

Now that's all very tragic and terrible and stuff, but I think the one thing that really was missing for me to connect emotionally was a concerned-looking besuited white man with a pipe. Let's spare a few words for the baka gai-jin GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!, released stateside in 1956, two years after GOJIRA hit Tokyo Bay. Despite adding Raymond Burr as the new protagonist, it manages to be about 15 minutes shorter (!) than the original movie. For US audiences, the Lucky Dragon Seven probably wasn't as dramatic a thing (if they even knew about it) as to Japanese audiences, so there's a framing story where Burr's character Steve Martin (haha) wakes up after Godzilla's second rampage and informs the DEAR READER that he is about to hear the most incredible, horrifying tale of all time! It's a tragic thing that people felt the addition of a white protagonist would be of the utmost importance to sell the movie overseas, since, well, it's such a quitessentially Japanese story, and Steve Martin doesn't even really DO much. He's there to provide a running commentary for audiences, but everything that's achieved against Godzilla is still done by the army and Serizawa. Ironically, the Steve Martin cut does mention Serizawa and his betrothal to Emiko far sooner than GOJIRA does, even before Emiko and Ogata are revealed to be a couple. If only the original had done this too! Travis, does the GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS offend/annoy you? Would YOU recommend this one to anyone seeking to get into kaiju movies as anything more than a funny aside, a sign of the times?

TRAVIS:

The American version is certainly a different type of monster (a hurr hurr). Unlike some fans though, I don’t think King of the Monsters is a bastardization of Gojira. Yes, the anti-nuclear message is diluted, but it doesn’t strike me as a result of jingoistic fears. What is a slow meditation of war is simply re-formatted into the atomic monster flicks of the hey day. There’s no denying that the dubbing and splicing of new scenes adds a bit of cheese to the film, but the US producers did a fine job of keeping the serious tone. This is largely successful due to Raymond Burr. He’s a spectator with an indulgence for melodramatic passages, yet his performance grounds everything in reality. You don’t get a sense of paycheck boredom or winking at the camera from him.

I’ll give kudos to the US producers also for leaving in grimmer aspects I would’ve expected to be cut. The hospital scenes of the injured and children suffering from radiation poisoning remain, as is the moment with the mother and her children cowering during Godzilla’s rampage (though her dialogue about meeting their father soon is excised). What maybe makes these parts less powerful is Burr’s constant narration. With that and opening the movie with him waking up from Godzilla’s attack (essentially making most of the movie a flashback), the film has the pace of a disaster flick countdown, making the destruction scenes play as more sensational. Again, for the action sci-fi spectacle they’re making, it works. Comparing it to the original Gojira….. cheeseburgers and sushi.

Perhaps I’m too kind to King of the Monsters since this version was the very first Godzilla movie I saw years ago with my Dad on that faithful cable viewing night. I’ll even argue that if it wasn’t for the US cut, we’d never have the big G as the worldwide icon he’d eventually become. Gojira’s a great film, but it’s a somber affair, and it would’ve remained a respected piece of Japanese cinema on its own. Whether fans like it or not, King of the Monsters made the monster palatable to Americans’ taste, at the right time when audiences were lining up for creature features. Luca, my heart has a place for both versions. What does your heart say?

LUCA:

It's telling me to eat less red meat and also that you're right! Raymond Burr actually IS pretty good in the lead role. He can't help it that his character has no effect on the story whatsoever. It actually uses so much of the main plot (and doesn't skimp on the gruesome details, miraculously) that you could interpet this not so much as a remake as an alternative telling. This American dude also witnessed the events of GOJIRA and here's his version. It's an interesting curiosity, but certainly not an offense -- or at least, not as offensive as it easily could have been. All the heroes remain Japanese characters. And hey, if this cut is the one that made all the goofy stuff happen, huzzah to KING OF THE MONSTERS!

Dear reader, I hope you had as much fun as we did, and perhaps learned as much as I! Join us again next time for GOJIRA RAIDS AGAIN and its American counterpart GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER!

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