Monday, January 27, 2014

GodzillaMania #1: Godzilla/Gojira

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 95/A

In 1954, Japan’s Toho Co., Ltd. released a pair of landmark films: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. The former film was received as an instant-classic, while the latter was met with more criticism (if incredible box office success), as Japanese critics knocked the film for following in the footsteps of American monster movies, and for using nuclear terror in a nation still recovering from the use of the atomic bombs. As time has gone on, Godzilla has become a cultural phenomenon not only in Japan, but across the world.

But while Honda’s original film spawned a long-running series (28 films in Japan, an American remake with another on the way, and lord knows how much merchandise), it’s far different than its wildly entertaining successors. Where the later films in the series become known for their monster brawls and view of Godzilla as a human protector, the original film (titled Gojira in Japan, renamed Godzilla by Toho’s international sales division) sees the monster as an unstoppable force, the embodiment of an atomic nightmare, and it takes a much more somber tone than its sequels. Godzilla is a rare masterpiece: a monster movie that’s as enthralling as it is horrifying, as mournful and moving as it is entertaining. 60 years later, it’s still towers above the rest.

Something is happening in the Japanese sea: a number of fishing boats are attacked, and the boats sent to rescue them are destroyed as well. Villagers refer to an ancient sea monster known as “Godzilla”, and any skepticism is thrown out the window when the village is destroyed. Soon, archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) arrives and finds that the giant lizard is likely a prehistoric creature unleashed and mutated by a nuclear explosion. Officials debate what to do: should the public be informed and risk mass panic? And should Godzilla be destroyed, or, as Yamane suggests, studied for the fantastic scientific discovery he is?

Meanwhile, Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) has fallen for ship salvage captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), and must break off her engagement with Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), her childhood friend and her father’s colleague. Serizawa has invented a device known as the Oxygen Destroyer, which disintegrates oxygen atoms, killing any organisms near it. Emiko and Ogata come to believe that this is the only thing that can stop Godzilla from destroying all of Japan, but Serizawa worries about whether or not the device could be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

Right from the beginning, Godzilla establishes a much more carefully measured tone than one might come to expect from decades of imitators. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking as well: Honda begins with sound, with deafening SLAMS and ROARS over the opening credits as Akira Ifukube’s frantic, Bernard Herrmann-esque score begins.  It’s nerve jangling stuff, establishing a mood of terror right from the beginning. It’s complimented by Honda’s decision to not show Godzilla right away, instead giving us hints of what’s to come as we instead see flashes of light, the sound of something gigantic bearing down on all of humanity.

That said, Honda’s gift for composition is even greater. Many might cite the clear influence of King Kong and the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms on Godzilla, but more immediate influence on the actual filmmaker comes from Akira Kurosawa, Honda’s contemporary and best friend. Like Kurosawa, Honda was a painter before he was a filmmaker, and the images he produces are nearly as stunning: a shot of a guitar on a boat falling over as men run in mass panic; a moment of men trapped in destruction as dust rains over them; a shot of Yamane, crestfallen that a one-of-a-kind creature must be destroyed, sitting alone in the dark, his back to the camera; and the gorgeous noir-chiaroscuro on Serizawa as he reveals that he’s working on what’s essentially death in a capsule.

And this is all taking into account the stuff we see before the creature is finally revealed. Many have noted the fakery of the man-in-a-suit method (which special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya created after Kong-like stop motion was deemed too expensive and impractical), but in the original Godzilla, it’s remarkably effective stuff. Tsuburaya created one hell of a design (a cross between a T-Rex, a Stegosaurus, a dragon, and an Iguanodon), while stunt actor Haruo Nakajima brings Godzilla to life with his hulking movements. Almost as impressive: Tsuburaya used wax to build the towers that Godzilla’s radioactive breath melts, but the use of a spotlight on the effect makes it seem all the more real, like steel heating up and melting rather than an effect. 

 Honda, for his part, does a remarkable job shooting Godzilla from low angles to show just how massive he is – it’s pretty clear that he’s using model trains, towers, and tanks for Tokyo, but they’re marvelously detailed models, and the way Godzilla tears through everything is still a practical effects marvel. The way Honda and editor Kazuji Taira put everything together is just as exhilarating: the scenes are cut together with relentless forward momentum, with wipes (reminiscent of Kurosawa) and with the tanks and rescue vehicles moving from left-to-right as Godzilla moves right-to-left, implying just how outmatched these people are.

And outmatched they are, by what’s essentially a living embodiment of nuclear terror. By 1954, Japan was still recovering not only from the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by the memory of Lucky Dragon 5, a fishing ship that came too close to a hydrogen bomb test site and suffered radiation poisoning. The whole film is suffused by the fear of a new weapon, one that could easily destroy all of mankind. The fear begins with the fishermen who unable to catch even the smallest of fish, hinting at a supply that’s possibly destroyed by an overarching nuclear force. Then there’s the scientists discovery of an ancient beast made more powerful by this newfound power, as if Godzilla is not only nuclear terror, but the perversion of the natural world and order, a punishment for man’s inhumanity to man.

Soon, it’s not just a horrifying force of nature and rage coming towards Japan, but wide-spread panic and fear. Honda assembles a terrific cast of characters: Shimura, bringing his innate gravity and affability to play a man of science who goes from being curious about the beast to being saddened that it must be destroyed. Shimura brings a great touch in one scene where he arrives home, saddened by the knowledge that Godzilla will likely be destroyed. His head hits the blinds – he doesn’t react, as he's too distraught. Equally strong: Kōchi as Emiko, one of the many women who have seen Japan and the Japanese people devastated by the horrors of war, and especially Hirata’s Serizawa, a man who’s damaged both physically and emotionally by the World War II.

Serizawa was engaged to Emiko, but it’s clear that war has had a horrible effect on him. Beyond losing an eye, he’s clearly haunted by what’s happened, and now horrified that his research has led to what might be an even more devastating weapon (why does he work on something potentially destructive? It’s a monster movie, just go with it). While other characters fear how diplomatic relations with the U.S. might crumble if they claim H-bomb tests brought Godzilla upon them, Serizawa fears what his new weapon might do if it falls into the hands of politicians, generals, and anyone else seeking dominance over the rest of the world.

A mood of fatalism hangs over Godzilla, one that’s more in keeping with the American post-WWII noirs than most monster movies of the time. There’s a sense of dread not only of what’s happened in the past, but what could easily happen again. Godzilla articulates the horror at man’s inhumanity to man and its fallout long before most of the rest of the world got to it. Honda and company shoot post-rampage Tokyo like something out of Hiroshima or Nagasaki: barren, to the point where it’s hard to believe a city could have existed there.

What keeps it from being exploitative is how much Honda and company stress the importance of humanity’s survival: there’s a great effort made to save the children, to keep any of the survivors alive. Honda views every death as a tragedy. One scene that puts a lump in the throat: a dolly up to a woman and children trapped in a burning building, the mother assuring her children that they’re going to join their father. There’s a deeply moving moment of a gathering of a choir, singing a prayer for peace, for preservation. When it’s revealed what Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer is really capable of (dissolving creatures down to the bone), the man really tortures himself over whether or not he can bring this thing to the public without risking it falling into the wrong hands.

The finale, then, is especially moving, as Serizawa not only takes the Oxygen Destroyer to Godzilla by diving into the ocean, but sacrifices himself to make sure his research dies with him. Humanity’s salvation comes, along with a blessing from Serizawa for Emiko and Ogata, but it’s still a deeply melancholy moment. A stunning creature has been lost (never mind the sequels for now), as well as a great man. And as Yamane muses, nuclear testing continues, and another Godzilla could come from it. It’s perhaps a preachy moment, but the earnestness in the film’s plea for sanity, for humanity, remains the film’s touching coup de gras, a moment of elegance that makes the film’s release in the era of Kurosawa seem less like counterprogramming and more like an equally thoughtful cousin.

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