Monday, March 17, 2014
Series Report Card: Godzilla (1954)
Welcome to my latest and most ambitious Series Report Card! Like every other monster movie nerd, I'm hugely excited for the upcoming Hollywood reboot of "Godzilla," enough so that I decided to go back and rewatch the entire series up to this point. Over the course of this report card, I've reaffirmed my love of the King of the Monsters while finding myself deeper in the troupes and conventions of Japanese kaiju cinema more then ever before. Whenever available, I have watched both the original Japanese and various English versions of the films, with the focusing being primarily on the original versions. Befitting a project of this size, I'll probably wander off schedule over the following weeks. However, I have a concurrent Series Report Card I plan on running to fill the gaps whenever I fall behind. It's the Year of the Kaiju but let's start at the beginning, with the first, the undisputed king: Godzilla himself!
Gojira / Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
I can’t sum up my love of Godzilla in one paragraph. From a very young age, I’ve adored the King of the Monsters. Godzilla has an easy appeal to kids, residing at the resting point of such child-beloved ideas as dinosaurs and monsters. This is in contrast to the reaction the films usually received from mainstream critics. Those who are only use to the increasingly cheesy sequels are sometimes surprised to see that the original “Godzilla” is actually a stark horror film, a metaphor for the terror of the nuclear bomb.
The original Japanese “Gojira” establishes that tone immediately. The opening credits are, at first, without music. The credits are preceded by the massive sound of the monster’s approaching footsteps. The title is greeted by the monster’s distinct roar. Befitting that style, the titular monster is kept off-screen for the film’s first twenty minutes. Even then, the monster isn’t given a proper introduction until nearly an hour into the film. Instead, Godzilla is first introduced as a flash of light from under the ocean, a fishing ship bursting into films. Those familiar with the film’s history should know that opening scene was meant to invoke the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, an event where a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to a nuclear test. The monster’s massive power is tied directly with that of the nuclear bomb. Godzilla is first seen as only an irradiated footprint. His origin is directly tied with bomb, an ancient dinosaur awoken and mutated by nuclear testings. Godzilla reducing Tokyo to flames obviously invokes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Horror films have always been about exorcising wider cultural concerns under more easily digestible, fantastic content. Considering “Gojira” was released not quite a decade after the end of the war, viewings must have been especially visceral for Japanese audiences.
That the film successfully invokes such powerful imagery is impressive considering that, in many ways, “Godzilla” is as much of a fifties B-movie as anything Samuel Z. Arkoff was producing at the time. The film was blatantly inspired by the massive success “King Kong” and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” met in Japan. The debt to “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” was even more obvious in the original script draft which was entitled “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Godzilla’s nuclear origin isn’t much different from any other fifties B-flick. Godzilla’s first march on Tokyo features the monster wrecking a train, a moment obviously recalling “King Kong.” Godzilla wrecking a chiming clock tower is similar to the Rhedosaurus wrecking a light house in “Beast.” Japan’s first attempt to repel Godzilla is an absurd giant electrical fence the country erects seemingly in hours. Like most American sci-fi flicks, the first attempt to stop the monster is fruitless. A mad scientist’s new invention is ultimately what puts the monster down, not dissimilar to “Earth vs. the Flying Saucer.” Even the film’s human heart, a romantic triangle between Dr. Serizawa, his fiancé Emiko, and her true love Ogata; isn’t much more then overheated melodrama.
The movie is elevated by the work of director Ishiro Honda, special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, and music composer Akira Ifukube. The monster’s rampage is masterfully presented. Godzilla is kept completely off-screen during his first attack on Odo Island. Only the thunderous pounding of his feet is heard at first, establishing a tone of dread. The focus is kept on a ground level, on the suffering of the monster’s victims. A brother weeps after his family is stomped by the giant monster. Even after the monster is revealed, the film takes extra effort to ascertain his massive scale. A shot of the huge footprints and tail marks left on the beach is a favorite of mine. Honda’s direction isn’t flashy, presenting the destruction starkly and matter-of-factually. His camera pans over the devastation, presenting it honestly. The most striking visual moments is a wide shot of Tokyo aflame, Godzilla’s roaring silhouette against the burning city. My favorite visual moment is a much smaller one. Honda’s camera dissolves from the bubbling tank of Serizawa’s laboratory to Emiko’s brooding face, reflecting her conflicted emotional state.
Honda’s direction is certainly impressive. However, Tsuburaya’s special effects are clearly the star of the show. Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo is an immediately iconic moment. In today’s age of blockbusters disaster porn, the destruction of Tokyo might come off as hokey. Indeed, some of the special effects have not aged well. The hand puppet used to represent Godzilla a few times is not horribly convincing, its eyes bulging too far. A quickly inserted stop-motion shot of Godzilla’s whipping tail stands out badly. A shot from inside a tumbling tower is awkward. While the miniatures in the film are generally fantastic, a toy fire truck is embarrassingly artificial.
However, for the most part, the effects are spectacular. Godzilla smashes through buildings with ease. The focus is just as much on the destruction as the monster. We see buildings tumble over, Godzilla’s tail crushing homes, wreckage tossed overhead. Even if the train sequence is a deliberate reference to “King Kong,” it’s fantastically used. The quick cuts between the monster’s feet and the rushing train build spectacular tension. A somber tone infects the city-wide destruction, only building as the sequence progresses. Though the monster’s English name is, in fact, a direct translation of the Japanese “Gojira,” it’s very fitting. Godzilla is God-like, unstoppable in his wrath. Godzilla’s spraying nuclear breath would be better conveyed in later films. However, its affect is notable. The breath ignites the air, the screen flashing white, annihilating all present. Audiences would eventually get use to Godzilla’s size over the years. Here, the fleeing masses are directly contrasted with the monster’s enormous size. Unlike modern blockbusters, we are never meant to enjoy the city’s destruction. Godzilla invokes terror, not amusement.
As astonishing as the effects are, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective with Akira Ifukube’s iconic music. The immediately recognizable military march theme would eventually become associated solely with the monster. What an incredible piece of music that is. The repeating pace of the music drives the audience’s energy up. The music keeps building, raising excitement with it. Instead of the triumphant fanfare heard in later entries, Godzilla’s theme is instead a somber tune. The droning horns invoke dread, pumping the monster’s approach. The most impressive piece of music actually isn’t that famous theme. Instead, it belongs to a choir of singing school student. The morning after Godzilla’s night of devastation, the children gather together to sing a song of peace. As their mournful music plays, the camera pans over the destruction of the city. In a movie full of bleak reflections of war’s affect on people, this sequence stands out as the starkest and most memorable.
The focus on humanity amidst the monster’s rampage has another purpose. “Gojira” invokes the aftermath of the nuclear bombing clearly in several moments. Early on, as news of Godzilla’s awakening is just hitting the presses, a bored train passenger bemoans heading back into the emergency shelters. A reporter watching the monster as he nears his tower comes dangerously close to overblown but the terror on the actor’s face reads as genuine. The latter half of the film is full of images of suffering, injured victims in crowded hospitals. A little girl sits in silence as a near-by Geiger counter reads her high level of radiation. A small boy cries as his father dies in front of him. Hundreds moan through bloodied bandages. Easily the most chilling moment involves a mother cradling her three children as Godzilla slowly approaches. As the monster draws nearer, she comforts them by saying they’ll soon be with their father again. “Godzilla” is a fantasy film. By rooting the horrors of war in a genre story, it makes the tale more accessible to those outside of Japan. By comparing the nuclear bomb to a leviathan-sized dragon, the filmmaker succinctly summarizes its horror. The bomb might as well be a mythic titan of destruction. The spectre of World War II haunts the entire movie.
The movie is concerned with more then just reminding the audience of WWII’s devastation. Akihiko Hirata’s Dr. Serizawa is one of two leading men in the film. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer, a device that liquefies oxygen atoms, is the plot device that saves the day and finally kills Godzilla. However, Serizawa is hesitant to use it, even after Godzilla destroys Tokyo. He realizes, should it ever fall into other hands, the Destroyer would be used as a weapon, more dangerous then even the H-bomb. Though somewhat heavy-handed, the subplot makes its point. Technology must be used responsibly and man must make sure that nuclear horror is never unleashed on the world again. The movie further comments on the dangers of the bomb during an early scene set in the Japanese government building. When news of Godzilla’s origin is revealed to them, they bicker endlessly about whether or not to reveal this to the public. The government is incompetent. It’s up the hearts and minds of the public to change the world.
That subplot is still problematic and probably the film’s biggest flaw. See, Serizawa and Emiko were arranged to be married at birth. However, Emiko sees Serizawa as an older brother, not a lover. Her heart instead belongs to Hideto Ogata, Akira Takarada as the film’s other leading man. Momoko Kochi gives a fine performance as Emiko, her internal conflict playing nicely on her face. The problem is she has no romantic chemistry with either man. Akira Takarada gets a good moment or two but Ogata is surprisingly inactive throughout most of the story. Akihiko Hirata overdoes it several times as Serizawa. His anguished cries when he decides to destroy his research are especially overblown. The best performance in the film is from Takashi Shimura. In an American sci-fi film, the scientist who wishes to study the monster instead of killing it would be painted as a broad villain. Shimura instead plays the part subtly. He is conflicted too, realizing the threat Godzilla means to the world but reluctant to simply kill the beast. A scene of him sitting quietly in a dark study speaks volume. Quiet moments like these prove more effective then any of the movie’s big romantic drama.
While Godzilla is widely a symbol of nuclear terror, he represents something else too. On Odo Island, the natives perform a dancing ceremony, designed to drive off the beast. That night, a typhoon blows in, Godzilla arriving right behind it. The storm is seemingly in response to the ritual, the god-like dragon rejecting the villagers’ offering. Godzilla is connected with nature in that moment, representing Mother Earth’s wrath. The Japanese military, sending tanks and cannons to fight Godzilla, get a big introduction. One that couldn’t help but remind me of Michael Bay’s rah-rah military attitude. Honda winds up subverting this early presentation. The military is helpless to stop Godzilla, the missiles and canon rounds harmlessly bouncing off his hide. Despite our advanced technology, man is ultimately at nature’s whims. Godzilla is identified with an angry Earth, striking back at impetuous humanity.
Godzilla is a big threat and the film treats him as such. Even then, Honda, Tsuburaya, and suit performer Haruo Nakajima can’t help but have some fondness for the beast. Despite sweltering inside a 200-pound rubber suit, Nakajima still gives a legitimate performance as the monster. His movements are never stiff. Instead, Godzilla’s lumbering movement seems realistic, considering his size. My favorite small bit is when the kaiju flips a bridge, seemingly out of frustration. Godzilla might be terrifying but he’s still just an animal. And not beyond sympathy. This is obvious during the monster’s death. As the Oxygen Destroyer pulls the air from his lungs and rips the flesh from his bones, Godzilla releases a final cry over the waves. Ifukube’s music is elegiac, ostensibly because of Serizawa’s sacrifice. The music plays for the monster too. Like all monsters, Godzilla is an outcast, literally too big for this world. You feel bad for the creature as he dies. Maybe it’s just my build-in fondness for the big guy speaking but I believe the filmmaker fully intended this.
You can’t talk about the original “Gojira” without mentioning the American-made recutting known as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” I’ve never held the adaptation in high regard. Raymond Burr’s Steve Martin (Yes, that’s really his name.) is sometimes awkwardly inserted into the original film. It’s very obvious that he never truly interacts with any of the Japanese cast, instead speaking with stand-ins who are conveniently only seen from behind. Burr’s Martin affects the plot in no way. He provides melodramatic voice over that play over many of the untranslated scenes of Japanese dialogue. This is frequently an ungainly way to convey information to the audience. For what it’s worth, Burr doesn’t give a bad performance. Another issue I have with the American edit is some of its sound design decision. The ridiculous, high-pitch screams thrown in during Godzilla’s rampage are unintentionally comical and highly distract from the film’s intensity. On this re-viewing, I found myself liking the American cut a little more. It maintains far more of the original’s bleakness then you’d expect, Godzilla portrayed as just as powerful and frightening. The anti-nuclear message is trimmed but only to a degree. The presentation is far from ideal but “King of the Monsters!” is fairly faithful, keeping most of what made the original special.