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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Godzilla Raids Again

Gojira no gyakushĂ» (Japanese title ) was released in Japan in 1955, this movie would not be dubbed into an english version until 1959. Then, it would be retitled Gigantis the Fire Monster The original Japanese film was more artistic. The American dubbed version didn't do the original justice, but is more known by American viewers. Gigantis is more pure monster movie than sci-fi. Toho produced a sequel to the very popular Gojira ('54), repeating some features, but adding a few new ones. Gigantis is the first of a new genre in which rubber-suit monsters battle each other and stomp on a wide variety of model cities. An entire pantheon of rubber monsters would develop in the 60s and 70s, spun up around the Godzilla model. Mothra, Rodan, Megalon, Gamera, etc. etc., would be a study unto themselves. All of that, however falls outside of this study of '50s sci-fi. This review is more of a wave goodbye to a diverting branch.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Two pilots are flying small float planes as spotters for a tuna fishing fleet. One of them has engine trouble, so sets down on a remote and desolate island. While there, he sees two prehistoric monsters fighting each other. One is clearly a snaggletoothed copy of Godzilla. The other, called Anguirus. The two monsters fall into the sea and disappear. The two pilots fly back and alert the authorities. At a meeting of leaders and scientists, Professor Yamane (from the first movie) tells how Gigantis can't be stopped with conventional weapons, but is attracted to (and enraged by) light. When Gigantis is seen approaching Osaka harbor, jets drop flares to lure him away. It was working until some escaped convicts crash their stolen truck in a refinery and start a huge fire. This attracts Gigantis. The Anguirus suddenly arrives too. The two monsters battle each other, laying waste to much of Osaka, even toppling famed Osaka Castle. Gigantis finally defeats Anguirus and starts a firestorm that destroys what's left of Osaka. After the destruction, the Japanese begin rebuilding their lives. The two tuna pilots have new tuna-spotting jobs up in snowy Hokkaido. Tsukioka spots Gigantis on a snow covered island. The military attack, but bombs do nothing. The other pilot, Kobayashi, buzzes Gigantis, who flames his plane. He crashes into a nearby snowy mountain. The ensuing avalanche comes up to Gigantis' knees. This gives everyone the idea to bury Gigantis in ice. Jets bomb the nearby mountains. Snow and ice bury him. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
It's always fun to watch a sequel, even if it doesn't live up to the original. Even the crudely dubbed American version has an artistic flare to it. This is the first of a breed, the kaiju genre of monster movies that would proliferate in the 60s. The layers of allegory are fun to ponder too.

Cold War angle?
The opening few minutes of the Americanized version feature stock footage of nuclear explosions and V2 missile launches. The narration is heavy handed nuclear angst stuff. After that, the original Japanese movie's Cold War messages are less obvious than in Gojira. But, they are still present. The movie could be taken as an allegory for "what if" the Cold War turned hot. The two monsters personify the two sides in the Cold War. While they battle, the rest of the world is laid waste as a consequence.

Homage -- To cement its role as a sequel, the character of Professor Yamane gets a cameo. He also shows a film to other dignitaries, which includes clips from the first movie. In the Japanese version, the monster's name is the Gojira too. The American version got the new "Gigantis" name.

Born Hot -- The origin of the monster is explained differently in this sequel. Yamane explains Gigantis as a remnant of a prehistoric species which lived in lava. Fire is part of their being. With this new re-telling, Godzilla moves away from being spawned by nuclear testing -- a personification of nuclear arms. Instead, he's become more of a primal force.

Fire and Ice -- Since fire is part of Gigantis' very essence, it's a poetic natural that his demise (even if temporary) should be ice. No conventional weapon could hurt him, but a mountain of ice could cool him into inactivity. In this, there is yet another metaphor for the Cold War. You can't eliminate conflict, you can only cool things off (for awhile).

Hyper Monsters -- Unlike most of the giant rubber monster movies, the fight scenes between the two monsters were shot at "normal" speed. Typically, such scenes are shot at a faster film speed to slow down the final. This makes each motion look more like that of a 100' tall multi-ton beast. In Gigantis, the normal speed action looks odd -- not in scale -- but does give the beasts a more savage quality.

Alternative Allegory -- Gigantis and Anguirus could also be seen from a WWII retrospective point of view. Gigantis is America. Anguirus is the Japanese militarist ruling faction of the 30s and 40s. As the two of them fight each other, innocent Japanese suffer. One defeats the other, then the Japanese try to rebuild their lives amid the ash and ruin. If this is the spin intended by the writers, it shows an interesting distancing of the Japanese culture from its part in the war. It was the militarist's war, not theirs.

Heroism -- The tuna pilot Kobayashi ends up being the film's tragic hero. He dives his unarmed plane at Gigantis and goes down in flames. The imagery is quite suggestive of the kamakazi. All the noble talk about brave Kobayashi gives a hint of how differently the Japanese view the WWII kamakazi. Even the Americanized version cannot hide this.

Lingering War Wounds -- After Osaka is engulfed in the firestorm, Kobayashi's fiance mourns over her city's fate. She asks, "how could this thing happen to her people? What had they done to earn such a dreadful punishment?" Since Gigantis, like his predecessor, is an allegory for war, such musing comes across as a sincere puzzlement over why Japan had to suffer as it did in the war. Victors may write the history, as the saying goes, but the losers often don't see their fate as so obviously deserved.

Bottom line? Gigantis (the Americanized version) is not as good as the Japanese original, but even then, it's worth the time. As a movie, either version is straying out of sci-fi-land, and into pure monster flick. But is the notable ancestor of a whole sub-genre of rubber-suit monster movies. Yet, despite this, it still has some war-allegory message merits.

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