Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Year of Monsters: Godzilla 1954

I suspect Godzilla has more than a hundred reviews around the net, not including Certainly it's the best known kaiju film, having demonstrated the genre could generate a lot of money. And though it is credited with starting the kaiju genre, the genre's roots go further back than 1954. King Kong (1933) is one of the first giant monster films. Kong doesn't destroy New York, but he presents us with that frission of the monster in a city. The work of Ray Harryhausen is another influence. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Giant Behemoth gave a great deal of inspiration to Godzilla, making the Big Lizard not so much the originator of the genre, but it's mega-break-out star.

Godzilla did, however, establish the Japanese suitimation monster movie, and the dozens of films (Godzilla himself stars in some twenty-nine) that follow the formula of giant monsters emerge and devastate a city.

Often imitated, never equaled.  Godzilla!

Giant monsters work best, for me, in film. Film has an immediacy, and an ability to leave questions unaswered where books can be blunt. The way that a giant minster moves is so important to its character, especially as the creature has no words, and thus is very difficult to portray in a static medium, such as in a comic or a book.

Only Japan could have birthed Godzilla. While it is well-known that Godzilla is the the son of nuclear testing and attack (it was released in the wake of not only the atomic bombing of Japan, but also the fallout poisoning of Lucky Dragon 5, which happened early in 1954, the year Godzilla was being made. The immediacy of that connection is often lost on modern audiences. But Godzilla can also be seen as the son of tsunami, typhoon, and earthquake, all natural disasters with which Japan is intimately familiar. Godzilla comes from the sea like a tsunami, or typhoon.

A blinding flash...

Until 1984's Return of Godzilla, this is the only film in which Godzilla does not fight another giant monster. Here, Godzilla is faced with only the military, which is completely ineffectual. This is a recurring theme in the franchise, the inability of the military to stop the creature. Science destroys Godzilla, not force. This pacifistic paradox stands in many of the earlier Godzilla films. While the military is called in, they merely mark the gigantic creature's invulnerability and frightening powers, such as radioactive breath. In subsequent films, there is a feeling of pro forma military action. Everyone knows tanks and missiles are useless, but something has to be done. In this first film there is some hope that tanks and artillery will work, but it is extinguished when Godzilla responds with a more terrible weapon, his radioactive heat ray. So in addition to everything else, Godzilla can also be seen as a version of American aggression, which responded with nuclear hostility when attacked.

Barriers were meant to be broken... by Godzilla.!

Unlike subsequent films in the series, Godzilla draws its emotional power by focusing on the suffering caused by Godzilla. Scenes include the relatives of the Emiko-Maru's crew waiting to find out their fate, Shinkichi screaming for his brother to run as his house collapses, children being checked with a scintillation counter, (cut from Godzilla, King of the Monsters), and a mother holding her children in abject terror as the city collapses around them (also cut from the Amnerican release). This aspect, which includes showing us Godzilla 23 minutes into the film, tells us that the monster is not frightening for what it is, but rather what it can do. In later films, we see the stock image of people running from the giant monster, but we seldom see them in pain or weeping as the titan destroys their lives.

Families of Emiko-Maru's crew wait for word on their loved ones.

Shinkichi screaming for his brother to run

A war widow comforts her children in their last moments.

Radioactive kids?  Aw shit.

In addition, the various protagonists, all sympathetic, are at odds as to what to do about the gigantic menace. Dr. Serizawa has the power to destroy it, but doesn't want to expose the world to his terrible creation. Dr. Yamane wants to study the creature, given its uniqueness. Emiko, Yamane's daughter, promised to Serizawa and in love with Hideto Ogata, it torn between duty and love. Only when she sees the distress around her does she break her promise and sacrifice her personal honor in order to try to destroy Godzilla. Ogata himself, working class and handsome, is the only person convinced (until Emiko walks the corridors of the hospital choked with the wounded and dying in the wake of Godzilla's attack) that Godzilla must be destroyed.

Wait, destroyed cities look depressing?

Initially Godzilla is attacked with machine guns. It is only during his second trip to Tokyo that he is attacked with tanks, artillery, and a large electrical fence. During this attack, Godzilla first unleashes its terrible nuclear breath, which melts steel, destroys tanks, and turns Tokyo on a sea of fire. This may be a call back to the horrific firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, and possibly the 1923 Kanto earthquake, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama. Following the earthquake, enormous fires broke out, consuming more than half a million homes.

Tokyo burns.

As a soundtrack afficionato, I feel that the contribution of composer Akira Ifukube is often overlooked. Some of his atmospherics uninspiring, but the Godzilla theme remains a classic. The heart of the film is in the beautiful "Prayer for Peace" which, accompanied by the scenes of devastation and long panned shots of bloodied hospital patients, punches the audience in the gut. "May we live without destruction/May we look on tomorrow with hope," sings the choir, guiding the audience to the same conclusion Dr. Serizawa does--that peace and hope are worth sacrifice.

Godzilla's death is not a triumph. It is a sad moment, both for Serizawa and for Godzilla. As Godzilla surfaces for one agonized scream, we feel little triumph, despite the reporter calling it such. Instead, we feel relief that the disaster has ended. This identification with the tragedy of the monster is another emotional thread that sets this flm apart from most other monster films. Godzilla is not a villain. He simply is too large, too destructive, to co-exist with humans.

Monsters are tragic beings; they are born too tall, too strong, too heavy, they are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy. -- Ishiro Honda.

The film ends with an on-the-nose plea for nuclear testing to cease, lest it bring up another Godzilla-like disaster. Ultimately, the world did not grant this wish.

Godzilla is a great film, and practically unique. Few other films take a gigantic monster so seriously. The human action is pretty good, pitting the characters against themselves as the Giant Disaster Lizard pushes everyone. This may not be where the kaiju got started, but for me, it's where they got interesting.

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