On November 3, 1954, Godzilla was released in Japan. The movie, not the monster. Or was it both? Means, “The Big G” turned 61 this week. Reason enough for four fans and writers of The Supernaughts to celebrate our favourite movie monster from Japan with an overdue homage.
Godzilla may have stomped Tokyo, but he never trampled on our feelings.
Godzilla: The anarchic kid in all of us
by Dr. Newton Geiszler
Alright, Let’s see here…..why am I still a fan of the Big G long after I should have outgrown such things? It might have to do with my still lingering fascination with primeval, gargantuan beings that lorded over our furry, scampering ancestors. Maybe it is the shame and tragedy I feel when I look at pictures of Lucky Dragon No. 5, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Real life horrors that stay in the minds of artists who transpose them on the big screen, to make sense of humanity’s unfortunate penchant for inhuman acts.
Or could it be the fact that for as wild and vicious as he is, the Big G is also a lonely outcast, condemned by the world at large, which is how some of us feel at times. Kids are clumsy, noisy, and irritable so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they would relate to Godzilla, who embodies all of those things in a bombastic manner. Maybe it’s the dedication to practical FX, set design, and pyrotechnics and the effort put into them, which is something that is criminally overlooked. And lastly, is it just the fact that a stuntman gets paid to do what we as kids used to do, putting on a costume and smashing model cities as our parents tore their hair out while they look upon the mess we made, and do it with reckless abandon and glee?
Perhaps all of those things are why I’m still a fan. Here’s to sixty more years of Godzilla.
One Godzilla to Rule All Monsters
On November 3rd 1954, a huge strange creature emerged from the bottom of the seas, and cinema was never the same again. It was called Gojira, anglicized to Godzilla for the western audiences.
I consider myself a new arrival to Godzilla. My first contact was through a rather bad animation children series that was a sort of version of Scooby-Doo but with the big lizard as the teens’ group animal/monster companion, plagued by the presence of that soul-sucking type of character known as the odious comedy relief in the form of a pink baby Godzilla-like creature.
The other way of know of Godzilla was through what’s called “Cultural Osmosis”, when one knows of a given character or film or TV series not because you watch them but because you are aware thanks to references and all other indirect exposure. Suffice to say, often times this cultural memes are based on the campier, goofier and more simplified and “Disneyfied” versions, of which in the case of Godzilla meant all those silly monster smack-down movies where people in obvious monsters suits stomped all over model buildings of Tokyo. They did not project a much edifying vision of the Big G for me. I am not and never was a fan of camp, and that was the image that the Godzilla franchise has on the public consciousness.
Then it all changed when a new chapter in the Godzilla saga started when in the mid-2000s for the first time the original version of the 1954’s Godzilla film was shown in the West. Until then, Godzilla was known to western audiences through the American re-edit of the film. To avoid confusion, this version was presented under its original Japanese title – Gojira. My interest about it would had still been marginal if not for a glowing review I read in “Do You Call Yourself A Scientist?”, a film review website hosted by Elizabeth “Liz” A. Kingsley, an Australian biochemist who moonlights as an internet reviewer of horror/science fiction films. If first it had caught my curiosity, now it caught my interest.
I’m not sure what truly made me buy the UK Special Edition- DVD that contained both versions of the film and numerous other extras like an audio commentary and making off documentaries about the movie, the filmmakers and the franchise itself, as it certainly was more expensive than the vanilla DVD. Receiving the DVD by mail, I promptly watched the original version. And I was blown away!
Liz’ review was right about everything: This was no silly monster movie, but instead a serious film with a serious theme, made by people who took their job, their film and their audiences seriously. I saw a truly great movie. As such, I didn’t even bother to watch the American version. I’m certain some people vouch for it as a proper good movie in its own right and I have no reasons to doubt that, but me I rather have that great movie I know as Gojira unspoiled.
The distance of time might make us overlook just how revolutionary it was at the time it was first released. Hard to believe as it might be, but Gojira was the first Japanese movie that directly addressed the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, until then treated as a taboo subject, and not just as the obvious metaphor or in the imagery of the damaged Tokyo or the images of the wounded but as a direct mention in a line of dialogue said in a matter of fact. The atomic bombings and two other nuclear related accidents – the accidental irradiation of the crew of the fishing vessel “Daigo Fukuryū Maru” during the “Castle Bravo” atoll nuclear test and irradiation of fishing from other nuclear tests – caused dozens of deaths through radiation poisoning and sickness and made Japan a country particularly conscious regarding to the dangers of nuclear technology.
In Gojira the focus is, funny enough, not on the monster itself, but something the film treats as perhaps an even greater danger: the misuse of weapons of mass destruction, represented by the creation of the film’s true protagonist: the tormented scientist Dr. Serizawa. The monster itself exists to create the moral dilemma that the film presents and which never shies to present all sides as equally valid. So it is less a monster-smashing-things-up-movie but a sophisticated movie about the possible dangers of nature and human agency equally.
I’m a fan of Gojira. I have no doubts this is a great movie. As a film and a SF fan, I can’t hide that I have some curiosity for the development of the Godzilla- franchise. But the thing is, I’m aware that the original movie sits alone in the serious treatment it gave the subject and the monster itself. Godzilla evolved from an impersonal force of nature to a villain to an anti-villain to an anti-hero to finally a hero that could play lead to movies and TV shows made for children. The latter is what’s mostly on the public consciousness.
Yet, it’s important to point out that in recent years there has been a reversal trajectory to Godzilla, baby steps being made to push it away from the hero of silly monster movies and back to the more ambiguous earlier versions of the Big G. This culminated in the 2014 film Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards. I have reviewed this movie before, and in it I couldn’t disguise my enjoyment and respect I have for it. As far as I know, this is of all the Godzilla movies made that is closest to the original Gojira. Gojira and Godzilla (2014) are the type of monster films I enjoy the most, the ones that take themselves seriously. They know they are movies about impossible creatures wrecking destruction, but that doesn’t mean they have to cheapen themselves with self-irony or basking on an audience’s appetite for entertainment cheesiness. They are films that are films. I like that type of dedication; I connect and identify with that attitude.
I don’t presume to be a big fan of Godzilla, but I know what I like and in this franchise I found two very good movies I enjoyed a lot and who I enjoy revisiting as much as when I watched them for the first time. For that I’m glad Godzilla exists. Cinema would be so much poorer if the Big G had not emerged from the bottom of the sea to stomp viewers to submission.
As always, thank you for reading.
Godzilla: When we were young
by Tarmac 492
Godzilla reminds me of the simple joys of being young. Godzilla is a hot open turkey sandwich on a cool November Day. Growing up in New York, WWOR (Channel 9 from the very hip and cosmopolitan Secaucus, New Jersey) would play three Godzilla– flicks back to back on the day after Thanksgiving. Those were always wondrous fucking days.
My mother would prop me up in front of the television and feed me leftovers from Thanksgiving Dinner. For the next six hours, I would marvel at the sights of Godzilla throwing down with the psychedelic Smog Monster, some giant bug from beneath the sea, or his robotic Doppelgänger—the frightening Mecha-Godzilla.
Fuck all the critics that said the special effects were cheesy. Look again motherfuckers. I will put that man in a rubber suit chomping down on model trains over the CGI effects in many of today’s blockbusters. I just wrote it, so you better believe I mean it.
Godzilla’s roar is cooler than anything in Bay’s Transformers flicks. It’s easy to bash on Bay, but every parent should deny their child access to the hideous Transformers flicks until they have seen Monster Zero or Godzilla vs. The Thing. I am not a parent, but it is just my sticky two cents that I just pried off the bar.
Listening to Akira Ifukube’s music as Godzilla stared down the barrels of a thousand tanks made me feel like I could take on any schoolyard bully, or smack a ringing double off that pitcher in little league that already had a moustache at age ten. There has yet to be a Marvel film that has approximated that feeling for me. Maybe that is because of my age. Perhaps many of the films today—constructed by marketing majors who pray to buzz words and trends—lack the soul necessary to inspire us?
Aren’t these the things that Superheroes are supposed to do?
Ch-ch-changes: Godzilla never stops mutating
My first encounter with Godzilla took place many years ago when Godzilla 1985 was aired on afternoon TV. I instantly became a fan of the big lizard. One could say Godzilla, Chinese Ghost Story and Jackie Chan were the trifecta responsible for igniting my interest for Asian movies.
Godzilla 1985 was kind of a (comparatively) hard-edged reboot of the whole Godzilla-series, a callback to the dark beginnings of the monster saga, before the franchise had become more and more kid-friendly in the late 60s, which led to a decade-long hiatus in the mid 70s, due to creative exhaustion.
It’s funny how many baffling parallels a comparison of the history of the Godzi-franchise with that of the James Bond-movies reveals: Both started out as a rather serious, dramatic film series, became more fantastic and outlandish over the time however and finally entered the realm of total camp in the 1970s. You could say that the aggressive, animalistic version of the early Inoshiro Honda films is the Sean Connery among the Kaijus, while the cutesy, clowning variety of the later films by Jun Fukuda is their Roger Moore. And the analogy to 007 still works for the later movies: Godzilla 1985’s gritty return to the roots was akin to the Timothy Dalton outings of the late 80s and the Godzilla movies of the 90s showed the same mix of drama and escapism as Pierce Brosnan’s run.
This development is also displayed in the visual appearance of our favourite Japanese monster: A vaguely authentic dinosaur- design gradually morphed into a more anthropomorphic yet cartoony look, including big pop eyes and a silly long rubber neck. But with the rewon grit of the reboot, Godzilla’s original, sinister look also made a return, remodeled and revamped for the tastes of the 80s audience of course. The circle was complete.
One theory says the changes reflect how Japan gradually embraced the past, incorporated the atom bomb trauma into its pop culture as a way to overcome it. It’s surely also just a sign of the always fluctuating pop culture to which even a staunch individualist like Godzi had to adapt to to survive.
Not only the movies’ tone and look was constantly changing though, like any horror movie icon, the Big G went from foe to victim to friend, only to go back again, an ambiguous role endlessly mutating like its nuclear-powered protagonist. An easy -and more likely- explanation for this would be that the film makers had to shake up the formula once in awhile to keep things interesting, but I like to tell myself that it’s a proof for Godzilla’s steadfast moral codex that does not bow to any pressure from society. He, only he decides if he wants to help or destroy. It’s Godzilla’s way or the highway- unless he already trampled on it.
If you asked me which version of G I like the most, I could not decide. The bringer of death, the campy jokester or the overwhelmed father (or mother?)- I love them all. Even the low points of the franchise still had their entertainment value. Like when Godzilla fought something that basically looked like a giant cleaning rag with eyes (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1972). Or Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) with the subterranean country of “Seatopia” and the infamous “Jet Jaguar” song. How can one not impressed and enamoured by such a variety?
There are only two entries that are truly hard to enjoy, one being the universally loathed Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), a lousy effort with a shamelessly misleading title, featuring a plot that has Minya, Godzi’s controversially received son, shrunk to human size and suddenly equipped with the ability to speak, befriending a schoolboy so they can together learn to face their bullies. Some stock material of monster fights from preceding movies are shoved in to justify the title. Ugh, good intentions gone all wrong.
Unsurprisingly, Emmerich’s interpretation from 1998 is the second one I cannot recommend to anyone, a movie that is not able to give its titular creature any identity. Although I will always defend the unfairly maligned 2014- version by Gareth Edwards, who understood how to simultaneously pay homage to the original and to use new FX to present us majestic imagery that was impossible to realize before due to the technical limitations of the time.
Godzilla will star in a Japanese production next year and in a sequel to Edwards’ film in 2018. Like Cher and David Bowie, Godzilla will be constantly changing, but he will never stop returning.
*Note: I referred to Godzilla as “He” throughout my whole contribution. I know there is some debate about his gender, I personally always interpreted him as a male character.