Gojira (1954) and Godzilla (2014)

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Produced around ten years after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and introducing a monster dislodged and empowered by nuclear testing, it isn’t hard to guess at the subtext in the original Japanese film Gojira (1954). What’s surprising is that the original isn’t just about a guy in a suit stepping on models of tanks, it attempts a message, and emotional impact. As the monster destroys the city, a woman huddles in flames and rubble, trying to shelter her children, saying “Not long now, soon we’ll be reunited with father… not long now.” Surprised? I was too. And while the monster is clearly a guy in a suit, the black-and-white is fairly forgiving, and it’s also an egodzillaxample of a era of filmmaking that’s simply gone, as they clearly used models even for simple shots of ships or planes (Night Train to Munich is a great little film, and uses a lot of this kind of model work). Finally, a little-known ultimate weapon is used to defeat Godzilla, even as the inventor attempts to ensure it can never be used again, lending even more potency to the idea the film is attempting a statement.

North Americans have mostly known Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) which is the same film recut with less emphasis on a tragic scientist, inserting scenes with Raymond Burr as a reporter who always seems to be in the right place, chomping on a pipe, shot so that it appears he was at the back of the room saying things like “My Japanese is a little rusty!” so that someone translates. On occasion, he also talks to the back of a head, meant to be one of the Japanese actors. In short, the English cut of the film is far inferior. The 1950s also saw a sequel, hastily produced in Japan after the tremendous success of the first film: Godzilla Raids Again (1955). While an entertaining film, it already begins to dilute the statement about the dangers of ultimate weapons, as Godzilla proves fairly useful taking out some other prehistoric beast, and the performances are already less anxious and sincere: the characters at one point crack a few jokes standing around in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction.

I haven’t seen them, but the rest of the century produced dozens of colour monster mash-ups (around thirty films, mostly produced in Japan) as Godzilla fights everyone from King Kong to creatures from space, and I think it’s safe to say it was all done for the entertainment value. Godzilla as a tremendous, painfully obvious metaphor eventually became nothing of the sort, which is why the original film is a pleasant surprise for those who like their monster movies somewhat meaningful and artful.

It takes nearly a lifetime to get to the 2014 film, but sixty years after the original it’s another pleasant surprise. It’s too much to expect serious statements in a summer blockbuster these days, but a good cast (including Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe) lend the film some dignity, and it’s certainly tremendous fun to see impressive, modern-day effects for the monster. Miraculously, the film also takes it’s time, allowing the viewers to get to know the characters a little before putting them in danger, an apparently long-forgotten secret that adds some dramatic strength. The film jumps straight to the idea Godzilla has his uses, though I suppose if you squint and try with all the strength of an English major, the current film could at least be seen as observing our toxic and wasteful way of life. Now that the film has been successful and has apparently restarted the franchise, what’s next for the big fella, long past his youthful artistic days and now roughly the age of a senior citizen? My vote would be for some kind of Godzilla-like take on Moby Dick, with the monster only trying to swim out of sea and someone out for vengeance. Surely it’s one of the few approaches that hasn’t been taken over the decades, though doubtless it wouldn’t be exciting enough.


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