Friday, September 15, 2006

Random Movie Report #11: Gojira

I've been a Godzilla fan for about as long as I can remember, though I really only became aware of and joined "Godzilla fandom" around 1995, when I discovered G-FAN magazine. I sort of drifted away from the fandom on account of being in the single percentile that enjoyed the 1998 TriStar Godzilla film, but the point is, I can remember when the bootleg market was the only way to see subtitled and uncut versions of Japanese monster movies, including the grandaddy of them all. The market didn't care about an obscure fandom who believed that a series of films about a giant dinosaur played by a man in a rubber suit possessed genuine artistic merit. Obviously, Godzilla's image in the US is still one of bad dubbing, low budgets and the late late late show, but at some point, realizing that DVD space was plentiful, Sony started putting out subtitled versions of the films they had rights to, which has spurred Classic Media and other companies to follow suit. In 2004, meanwhile (the timeline gets jumbled in my head), a restored print of the original GOJIRA made rounds in US theaters, and got just enough good press for Classic Media to try a DVD release.

So here we have something resembling the impossible ideal only dreamed of back in the halcyon days of the late 90s- GOJIRA given the prestige treatment, with a camp-free package using the original Japanese title and containing the original film, the US edit (released as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS), bonus features, and an essay booklet, all presented with the subtitle "The Original Japanese Masterpiece." (It's worth pointing out that in all this time, Japanese film critics and filmmakers have considered GOJIRA one of the finest films produced in the country, so basically we're catching up.) It's finally an art film as well as a sci-fi thriller, so let's take a closer look. About time the big G got into the club.

It begins with the sinking of a Japanese freighter, which goes down in a flash of fire. A rescue ship meets the same fate, then another. One of the survivors washes ashore on nearby Odo Island, where an old man suspects that the disasters, and a complete of lack of fish in the daily catch, are the work of Gojira (aka Godzilla), a legendary sea monster once worshipped by the islanders. When the island itself is buffeted by a storm and something else, an expedition led by Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, in SEVEN SAMURAI that same year) including his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her sailor boyfriend Ogata (Akira Takarada), heads to the wrecked village to investigate. They soon find the cause of all the destruction- Godzilla, a giant prehistoric beast awakened, mutated and irradiated by atomic bomb testing.

Depth charges fail to kill the monster, and Godzilla eventually comes ashore in Tokyo, breathing fire causing untold destruction while airplanes and tanks futilely block its path. Some hope emerges, from a difficult situation- Emiko is formally engaged to childhood friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a scientist wounded in World War II who has unintentionally stumbled upon a way of destroying the oxygen in water, killing and disintegrating anything within its range. When Godzilla attacks, Serizawa has already shown this in secret to Emiko, who must betray his trust to bring this information to light. And Serizawa himself choose between letting Godzilla continue to wreak destruction, or building the Oxygen Destroyer and risking it turning into a weapon as bad as the A-bomb.

GOJIRA was released over nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events which touched the lives of nearly everyone who made the film, particularly director Inoshiro Honda, who traveled through the ruins of Hiroshima on his way home from serving in the war. It was also made the same year as the infamous "Lucky Dragon" incident, in which a Japanese tuna trawler sailed close to an H-Bomb test, contaminating the entire crew with fallout. A major crisis at the time, the incident allegedly served as inspiration for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka as he flew home from the set of an aborted Japanese-Indonesian co-production. The connections, muted in the American release, are anything but subtle in the full version; many characters remark how life under the threat of Godzilla's attack is similar to life during wartime, a Diet member suggests a report on Godzilla's atomic origin be suppressed because revealing it might hurt "international relations", and at the end of the film, Yamane wonders if other creatures like Godzilla might be awakened by nuclear testing. Yamane also wants the creature studied to see how it survived the effects of an atomic blast, and his debates with Ogata on this point recall contemporary ambivalence on the uses and perils of nuclear energy. And of course, Serizawa's struggle to keep his discovery from being abused seems to be articulating a plea for a new ethics for the Atomic Age, one in which scientific discoveries are used humanely and responsibly. (Good luck with that.)

And of course there's Godzilla himself, whom Honda envisioned as a walking atomic bomb. The creature's rampage, photographed in stark, near-documentary style, evokes wartime atrocities and natural disasters alike. Akira Ifukube's legendary score adds a sense of gloom and majesty. Unlike the more playful sequels, GOJIRA is as deadly serious as a monster movie can be, showing victims up close, mourning over the death and destruction, and as a capper, an entire chorus of children singing a prayer for peace. It sounds maudlin, but with some experience with actual tragedy, Honda avoids going over-the-top. The results are sad and horrifying; at the time the film no doubt recalled uncomfortable memories for Japanese audiences, and for modern viewers it may bring up 9/11, Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, or other tragedies. Godzilla is the atom bomb, but he's also nature's revenge for the bomb, and the idea of nature rebelling against mankind's abuse of the planet holds plenty of resonance today. Even the American version, despite trying to be more commercial, didn't really take away from the sense of mourning that pervades this picture.

Eiji Tsubaraya's special effects hold up better than I remembered. Much is made of Godzilla being a man in a suit, and Roger Ebert harped on the crudity of the effects in his negative review of the 2004 rerelease (a rare misstep for him), but it's important to remember that for the Japanese film industry in 1954 this was pretty much bleeding edge technology, as a featurette on the disc illustrates. The only really poor shots involve not the suit, but a mechanical puppet with unfortunately stubby arms in close-ups where Godzilla had to move more than the costume would allow. A number of shots, however, are hugely effective, especially those in a sequence where Godzilla bursts through a line of electrified wires intended to slow him down. The design is a thing of beauty, Godzilla resembling alternately a dinosaur (or rather the Fifties conception of such, with upright posture and dragging tail), a dragon, and a demon, which goes with his contradictory role in the allegory. Whether Godzilla is the just punishment for our sins or the aberrant offspring of them, or both, is a question that's pervaded the character and the franchise for its fifty-plus years of existence.

In short, this is a great movie. It is both intelligent and heartfelt, coming across not as a diatribe or a lecture on the evils of the bomb, but a simple illustration of the tragedy that man can bring on himself. To see this picture finally given the treatment- and respect- it deserves is richly satisfying. The DVD itself isn't perfect; it lacks the Region 2 BFI release's image galleries and feature on the Lucky Dragon incident, and the image and sound quality could perhaps have been improved. But the film itself is essential, and Classic Media has done it justice. This is a very good time to be a Godzilla fan.

Written by Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata and Inoshiro Honda
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A+

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