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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Godzilla (Gojira)

If any single movie typifies 50s sci-fi, it would be Godzilla. Unfortunately, many of the later variations and copies were of such low quality that it sullies the original. For most people, Godzilla is synonymous with a cheesy rubber-suit monster stomping on model cities. This is unfortunate. Gojira has a dark and sober quality that the copies never matched.

The original, Gojira in Japan, was inspired by the American films, King Kong and Beast from 20,000 fathoms the year before, but went much further. Gojira was not simply a monster-in-the-city flick. It was a product of troubled times with some serious messages. Gojira is all about the fear of mass destruction.

Gojira isn't the movie Americans first saw Godzilla. The American release came in 1956, but it was not simply a dubbed version. New footage was included starring Raymond Burr. Much of the original footage is still there, but edited and shuffled somewhat. The heavy anti-A-bomb tone was edited out. The result was adequate, but weaker. The original Gojira is a much more powerful movie.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Ships are being lost, mysteriously, in the waters around Ohto island. A village on Ohto is destroyed by a freak "hurricane." A team of scientists are dispatched to investigate. A surviving fisherman tells of a monster. An old fisherman tells a legendary monster which occasionally punishes them. Dr. Yamane finds huge footprints which are radioactive. In a footprint, he finds a fresh trilobite. They catch a glimpse of Godzilla too. Back in Tokyo, Yamane says that nuclear testing had wrecked Godzilla's deep sea habitat, and the radiation made him both huge and indestructible.The government plan is to evacuate the coast and build a huge electric fence to contain him. This fails, as does the army's artillery. The angry Godzilla causes much destruction in Tokyo. The only hope lies in a recluse scientist's invention -- the Oxygen Destroyer -- which removes all oxygen from the water (asphyxiating all life) and turns the oxygen into two corrosive fluids which dissolve flesh. They use the Oxygen Destroyer and it works. Godzilla dies, as does the scientist who invented it. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Gojira wasn't the first atom-awakened beast, but he was the best. This movie has many layers of allegory. It goes far beyond the stereotype of monster-stomping-models. See the Notes for particular points of interest.

Cold War Angle
Gojira is the grand poobah of the nuclear cautionary tale sub-genre. The original Japanese film is jam-packed with anti-nuclear messages, both blatant and allegorical. It's not the usual film about America worrying over communist invasion, but the cost, and danger, of nuclear weapons is the heart of the movie.

Taken from Headlines -- On March 1, 1954, the fishing boat Lucky Dragon had strayed too close to Bikini Atoll. The "Bravo" test blast was twice as powerful as scientists expected. Men aboard the Lucky Dragon were accidentally exposed to radiation from the nuclear test. All became sick. One died. There was much outrage in Japan over the "secret" tests. The Japanese avoided fish (for fear of radiation), which hurt the local fishing industry and was felt throughout the Japanese economy. This became a crisis in relations between the United States and Japan. This event is alluded to in the movie's opening scene. Japanese audiences in 1954 would not have failed to make the connection. It flavors all that follows. Even though there is no overt anti-Americanism on the screen, making nuclear testing the demon leaves no other conclusion. Japan wasn't conducting bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. America was.

Godzilla, the Symbol -- The beast is not simply a raging monster. Godzilla is the personification of atomic power -- at least it's dark side. The writer and director, Ishiro Honda, himself said that Godzilla was, "the A-bomb made flesh." It destroys cities, ravages the country, kills men women and children. It is utterly unstoppable. Scenes of Godzilla-ravaged Tokyo are intentionally very similar to images of A-bomb ravaged Hiroshima. Godzilla's fiery hot breath is the most obvious example of radiation personified. Godzillia is no mere dinosaur (as in Beast from 20,000 fathoms) or a humble animal made large, as so many of the giant bug films would later portray.

War in Review -- Another interesting sub-current is the movie as metaphor for WWII, from the Japanese point of view. It opens with peace, but trouble brewing beyond their shores. Ships are lost. Families clamor for news and demand answers from officials. Once the symbol of war arrives (Godzilla), the armed forces are mobilized to keep it (war) away. Destructive war comes anyway, unstopped by defensive forces. Scenes of over-full hospitals, children losing mothers. A whole city is reduced to a smoldering ruin. The young men suit up (diving suits) to battle (the beast) complete with the white warrior headband. All this is cast with a tone of helplessness, as a civilian might view a war. Gojira gives some expression of what WWII felt like to the Japanese.

To Nuke or Not to Nuke -- With the plot of Gojira as metaphor for WWII, it's interesting that the writers (who are Japanese) put forth the need to use the horrible super-weapon as the only hope to stop the war (Godzilla). The tragic hero, Dr. Serizawa refuses, at first, the use of his terrible Oxygen Destroyer even though Godzilla is ravaging his country. Eventually, he is persuaded that, horrible as it is, the super-weapon must be used. It works. The personification of war is stopped. Given that Japan was on the receiving end of two atom bombs, it's fascinating that a Japanese film, just 9 years later, would suggest that the bombing was actually an inevitable course. Given Japan's traditional anti-nuclear stance, this is an interesting decision.

Background Romance -- Something which gets cut out of the Americanized version is the cultural sub-plot with Emiko at the center. She represents modern post-war Japan, torn between tradition and modernism. She is founded in formality and tradition, symbolized by her arranged marriage to Serizawa, yet wants to go her own way. She found love on her own, represented by Ogata. The Emiko triangle is a commentary on the post-war Japanese psyche. This gives reason for the several extended close-ups of Emiko emoting inner conflict.

Bottom line? Gojira is well worth watching. It has much more "meat" to it than so many if its later imitators.


Anonymous said...

You may be interested to learn, if you haven't already, that both the original 1954 Japanese and 1956 Americanized versions have recently (2012) been released by The Criterion Collection as a double pack. This double DVD special edition includes several features including the true story of the Lucky Dragon. The most startling difference between the two versions is the realization that indeed, Godzilla is no mere Hollywood monster, but - as you point out - an allegory for the H-bomb. Excellent viewing.

thingmaker said...

Because Gojira is the incarnation of the H-Bomb, it is a monster of epic scale. And that is one of the great and nearly unique things about this first Kaiju film. The monster is so huge that it is not even recognized in it's first attack on the island. It is essentially one with the storm - a force of nature. Furthermore the human tragedy - death and horrid injury - is not ignored or glossed over. Truly, this may be the only really scary giant monster movie.
In the Japanese re-boot of 1984 Gojira is, apparently, larger yet seems dwarfed by the vastly larger architecture of the modern city. The use of a literal nuclear weapon against the monster in this later film simply serves to weaken the impact both of monster and nuke.
In "Gojira" (1954), the oxygen destroyer is not a literal nuclear weapon and its creator, Dr. Serizawa, makes the ethical decision to die employing the weapon and to take the secret of it with him.
Oddly, it seems to me that the only rival in the field of scary giant monster movies may be "Cloverfield" which, with its found footage style, really places the POV on the human level and conveys a lot of the fear and genuine horror of being on the receiving end of a sentient nuclear weapon.