Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Series Report Card: Godzilla (1955)
Godzilla Raids Again
Gojira no gyakushu / Gigantis, the Fire Monster
Godzilla was, more or less, the first of his kind. He certainly wasn’t the first giant monster on screen. However, aside from a possibly apocryphal unofficial King Kong sequel, Godzilla was the first Japanese Daikaiju, a giant monster brought to life through the magic of rubber suits and miniature city sets. The first ‘Gojira” was the most expensive film Toho had made at the time and also one of its biggest hits. Expectantly, a sequel was immediately rushed into production, released within six months of the original. It’s unlikely that anyone involved realized that “Godzilla Raids Again” would be the start of a sixty year, on-going legacy. It was the first Godzilla sequel and the first in which the monster battled another giant beast. It is also, unfortunately, nowhere near as good as the first one.
While the original “Godzilla” easily elevated itself above its B-movie roots with powerful subtext and sheer visceral intensity, “Godzilla Raids Again” is a far more typical fifties sci-fi flick. In the original, the monster didn’t appear until the twenty minute mark, the audience not getting a clear look at him until even later. In the sequel, Godzilla and his rival appear at the six minute mark, wrestling each other in full view. Instead of ransacking Tokyo, Godzilla burns Osaka to the ground. When Godzilla comes ashore, the military faces him with missile launchers and canons. Once again, the monster shrugs off the attacks, kicking the tanks around. Aside from blatantly emulating the original’s formula, the only concrete connection “Godzilla Raids Again” has to the first film is a brief appearance by Dr. Yamane. Yamane, played once again by Takashi Shimura, is meant to play as weary, his prophecy of another Godzilla appearing coming true. However, Shimura seems more bored then exhausted. He explains that Godzilla is unstoppable, the Oxygen Destroyer gets a mention, and some rather effectively silent stock footage from the first flick is shown. Aside from that, this Godzilla flick is stand-alone.
The main attraction of the film, as it would be with so many of the sequels, is the battle between the two monsters. Anguirus would later become the Robin to Godzilla’s Batman, his plucky but wildly under-prepared sidekick. Here, the two kaiju are at each other’s throat, fighting brutally. Anguirus is nearly as good of a design as Godzilla. Inspired by the ankylosaurus, and blatantly referred to such in the Japanese version, the monster has a distinctive crown of horns on his head. The spiked-lined shell on his back makes for a truly memorable image, topped off with a long, spiny tail. Another first is that Anguirus, unlike the bipedal Godzilla, walks on all fours. It’s not surprising that Anguirus would go on to become a fan favorite, as he’s a truly impressive character.
Godzilla’s snaggle toothed mouth. Godzilla’s finishing move, smashing Anguirus through Osaka Castle, is deeply satisfying. His death blow, snapping Anguirus’ spine with his jaws, is the King of the Monsters at his most brutal. The battle is easily the highlight of the flick and a blast for any kaiju fan.
Bafflingly, it’s also placed in the middle of the movie. Godzilla vanquishes his foe and slinks off into the ocean, Osaka left in ruins. Any pacing the movie had set up grinds to a halt as the focus shifts back to the dull human characters. The love triangle of the original “Gojira” was somewhat cumbersome but at least featured powerful performances and was organically woven into the monster action. Here, the human drama distracts substantially. Bland hero-type Tsukioka and his portly friend Kobayashi are pilots for a fish cannery. Tsukioka flirts over two-way radio with his radio operator girlfriend Yamaji. After the exciting city destruction, the movie bizarrely focuses on what the fish cannery business is going to do in the wake of the disaster. A long scene in the middle of the film focuses on Kobayashi’s possibly unrequited love of the company’s daughter. The daughter is a character kept completely off-screen, devaluing any investment the viewer might have in the subplot. A later scene, where Kobayashi asks Yamaji about what gifts girls like, works slightly better. The characters are quite thinly sketched but Minoru Chiaki and Setusko Wakayama give decent performances. However, by then, the damage has been done. The human subplots void much of the excitement the monster scenes generate.
Even more bizarrely, the film throws in another distracting subplot. As Godzilla is marching towards the city, we cut to a police transport truck full of criminals. They very easily, unconvincingly, turn the tables on the cops before escaping. This escape plan winds up servicing the plot, resulting in a fire that attracts the monsters back to the island. However, the tonal shift is truly inexplicable. Even after the monsters start wrasslin’, the movie returns to the escaped criminals. In his first quasi-heroic action, Godzilla winds up inadvertently killing the crooks. The monsters crash a building, causing a river to flood the subway tunnel, drowning the baddies. The flooding tunnel is an exciting special effect but the mating effect of the rushing waves is awkward.
“Godzilla Raids Again” lacks much of the visceral punch of the original. The film is mostly concerned with kaiju fightin’ and makes no attempt to invoke the horrors of World War II. Save for one scene. Before Godzilla marches on the city, we see the romantic couple dancing in a nightclub. The scene is scored to a rather lovely romantic ballad, the camera sweeping over the dancing lovers. The music is interrupted by a sudden warning that the monster has been spotted outside the city. The sense of panic that overcomes the crowd is keenly felt. All the lights in the city turn off, bathing Osaka in darkness. The scene is silent, save for the drone of airplanes overhead. It’s an effective moment and the only one that compares to the intensity of the first feature.
The excellent monster action of “Godzilla Raids Again” winds up not being enough to save the film from its sluggish pacing and pedestrian drama. Even the score is less exciting, Masaru Sato stepping in for Akira Ifukube. The music isn’t bad, especially a driving military theme. However, it lacks the personality of Ifukube’s iconic work. Similarly, Motoyoshi Oda’s direction isn’t as strong as Ishiro Honda’s work on the predecessor. Oda’s direction is more concerned with moody scenes of characters talking in dark rooms. He shows little interest in building tension.
Gigantis, the Fire Monster.” The film was hampered by constant unending narration, some provided by the main characters, other by an omniscient narrator. Stock music crowds over many of the scenes, replacing the effective silence of the original with thudding noise. A film with existing pacing problems is further ruined by the random insertion of stock-footage, some of it from military newsreels, some of it from educational documentaries, some of it even from other movies. The dubbing is embarrassing, Kobayashi saddled with an obnoxious doofus voice. The dialogue, which features such gems as “Banana oil!” and “What a guy!,” is equally tin-eared. Strangest of all, a monster that is obviously Godzilla is renamed “Gigantis,” considered a brand new monster. Some time, Anguiles and the Big G even switch roars. “Gigantis the Fire Monster” makes the intrusive and sometimes awkward “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” seem elegant in comparison.
“Godzilla Raids Again” is a ho-hum sequel, despite introducing the kaiju battle concept. While profitable, its Japanese box office receipts didn’t meet the first film’s success. The American “Gigantis,” meanwhile, was ignored and derided. Godzilla wasn’t quite the multimedia superstar he would be in time, stumbling a bit on his sophomore rampage. It would take a royal rumble with an established monster superstar to turn Godzilla into the true King of the Monsters. [Godzilla Raids Again: C+] [Gigantis the Fire Monster: D+]