Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Godzilla Double Feature: Gojira (1954); Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)


Okay, maybe it would be better if you were to hear the actual music as opposed to me typing it out like an idiot:

Gotta love that theme.

As you can tell by this point, I am fan of Godzilla. When I was a kid, I used to watch many of the old movies from the 1950s onward, where he was either destroying the cities of Japan or fighting a host of other monsters that terrorized the human race. In addition to this, I would get everything that went with it: toys, books, you name it - anything that had a Godzilla theme to it. I would also go online and find out facts about him and his friends and enemies. That may not seem like a big deal, but keep in mind, this was in the dark days of dial-up; this took up a good portion of my time. (No, I did not have many friends growing up. Why do you ask?). Either way, I was probably the closest thing to a fanboy without actually going to conventions or dressing up in a costume.

As time went on, however, this childhood obsession subsided. I decided to see more sophisticated movies. For instance, last week I saw David Cronenberg's take on the respective attitudes of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung:
According to Freudian Viggo Mortensen, my obsession with Godzilla is the result of suppressed sexual desires. 
But what does he know?!

But like the big guy himself, my nostalgia is always right beneath the surface, ready to emerge. When I saw the trailer for the newest film earlier this year, it was like I was ten years old all over again. So in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the series, as well as the movie coming out this week, I have decided to come out of semi-retirement and review both the original Japanese movie that started it all, as well as the American version that came out two years later. First up: 1954's "Gojira."

Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
Director: Ishiro Honda

The movie begins when a series of boats are destroyed in the Sea of Japan, causing confusion and concern among its citizens. Not long afterward, a group of scientists head to a nearby island were they are confronted with the cause of the damage: a giant, fire-breathing monster which the natives call GODZILLA! I mean, GOJIRA (okay, I am just going to use "Godzilla" to avoid confusion)! As he makes his way to the mainland, numerous attempts are made to destroy him, but they all fail, leading to the destruction of Tokyo. Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is one of the country's leading paleontologists who is put in charge of explaining this strange phenomenon. He determines that Godzilla is a prehistoric animal from the time of the dinosaurs that has grown to enormous proportions as a result of nuclear testing. He is assisted by his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), who is in the middle of a love triangle involving herself, a naval officer named Ogata (Akira Takarada), and an eye-patch wearing scientist named  Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). This triangle takes a twist, however, when Serizawa reveals to her that he has a secret that could help bring down Godzilla…but also have destructive consequences for the rest of the world!

So why do people like myself enjoy this movie and others like it so much? While there are a number of reasons, I guess one basic explanation is that they are examples of mythology coming to life. People have spent centuries telling stories about giant creatures that always seem to be lurking in the mountains, hiding in the waters or appearing right where we live. These monsters cannot be reasoned with or taught to stand down; in our minds, they only have one objective and that is to destroy us. It goes back to that primal fear of strange and vicious-looking animals, as well as the general human fear of the unknown. Godzilla is merely an extension of these raw human emotions.

Shut up, Viggo Freud!

Then again, there might be another, more simplistic human trait that inserts itself within the film: people like to see stuff get blown up! And it does: boats get blown up, trains plans and automobiles get blown up, hell, Tokyo gets blown up!

Let it burn! LET IT ALL BURN!!!

This is all enhanced by a lot of the technical aspects of the movie.  The black-and-white picture quality it gives the movie a real gritty quality. As I mentioned, the music is awesome as well: it is very intense, foreboding, and gives the sense that something big is happening or about to happen, while also knowing when to tone it down when the time calls for it. And Godzilla himself looks cool. He is not some splashy CGI animal plastered on the screen; he is just a good-old fashioned dinosaur who wants to tear down a building! The film does an impressive job of making the most out of its relative simplicity. Yes, it is still primitive compared to nowadays and there are some obvious shortcuts and errors (i.e. using the same scene twice, switching back and forth between using a Godzilla model and a guy in a suit), but overall it holds up surprisingly well after 60 years.

But, you may say, there are a lot of movies that do that today, including many that are directly or indirectly influenced by it, so it is not exactly a novelty. Heck, it was not even the first of its kind (the original "King Kong" predates it by 21 years, and even that movie has predecessors). While all this is true, there is more to the movie than these basic elements.

Most people are aware that the whole Godzilla series is one big allegory about the dangers of nuclear warfare and the consequences violating the laws of mother nature (I will get to all this later in the post). However, the 1954 film had other themes that transcended its rather straightforward plot. First, there is the issue of whether Godzilla should be destroyed or not. Dr. Yamane is a scientist first and foremost who loves research, and wants to do more to learn about the monster. The idea of destroying such a unique specimen, no matter how destructive, is treasonous to him. However, he has to comply with the authorities, who have no interest of risking the lives of others after the creature has already killed so many. Still, you can see the conflict, between the desire to understand what cannot be yet be explained and the natural tendency to want it to just go away.

It also does not overlook the tragedy of the destruction. As awesome as it is seeing Godzilla destroy Tokyo, they do show rather a somber hospital scene afterward where his victims are being cared for, including children. There is even one part during the Tokyo rampage where a mother is seen huddled up with her children and, knowing they are about to meet their deaths, says "We'll be joining your [deceased] father in just a moment!" This is a pretty dark turn for what is suppose to be sci-fi escapism. But I am glad they have these moments because they add emotion to the scenes and gives them a sense of gravitas.

Now I will not say that all the serious moments are great and philosophical. The discussions between the characters can be unfocused or too dragged out, with a lot of it doing nothing more than pointing out the obvious. Still, given the time this was made and the fact that this is a movie about a giant fire-breathing reptile, I give them credit for adding something meaningful into the mix. And it is a lot better than when "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus" tried to do it! Like I said in my review of that little gem, with "Godzilla" you can tell there was some effort put into it with characters you can identify or sympathize with. With movies like  "Mega"  and others of its kind like "Sharknado," actors (I repeat, actors, not characters) read really pretentious lines before the plot moves on to something else (usually something stupid). To be fair, I should clarify my previous comments and say that some of the latter Godzilla movies were probably guilty of hitting the environmental theme a little too hard on the head:

The Smog Monster…subtle...

But in this film at least, there was some thought put into it.

Either way, all of this struck a cord with audiences and so it was imported to America. However, it was decided that it should be specialized for an American audience, and so they made some changes, resulting in:

Starring: Raymond Burr, a bunch of stand-ins and dubbers
Director: Ishiro Honda, Terry O. Morse

Now I should make a confession: as big of a fan of Godzilla as I was/am, I did not see the original Gojira until right before doing this review. Keep in mind that Japanese versions of movies were not that easy to get on VHS back in the day (yes, I do mean VHS). "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!," on the other hand, was the movie I grew up on and watched a million times. So what exactly are the differences between them?

The most obvious change in the American version is the addition of Raymond Burr, playing reporter Steve Martin.


Right actor, wrong movie.

There we go.

How this worked is that the producers took footage from the original film and then added in footage of the character talking and acting out in selected scenes. Now, you are probably thinking: "Wow, that sounds like an incredibly cheap and stupid thing to do." Normally, I would agree, but miraculously they make it work.

They change the order of the story a little bit and the film opens up with Martin in the rubble of Tokyo after Godzilla destroys the city. Throughout the rest of the film, he narrates over the scenes and gives the back story of the different characters. Martin himself is a news reporter for United World Press and is on his way to Cairo when he makes a stopover in Japan to see Dr. Serizawa, who is a friend of his from college. However, as the events involving Godzilla unfolds, Martin reports on the horror that grips the country.

This version of the film is interesting because it is told in the form of a news report. And in a way this makes sense: Just as Burr is walking in on someone else's movie, Steve Martin is walking in on someone else's crisis. He reports it as an outsider and, except at the end, he does not really get involved in the action taking place. He sees it all from an outsider's perspective just as an American audience sees it. I am generally very picky about movies with narrators because the actors involved tend to do terrible voice-overs. But Burr has a very esteemed, authoritative voice when he talks, and he really pulls it off the idea that he is an  Edward R. Murrow-like figure reporting on the damage that is unfolding around him, as well as the aftermath. So overall, against all odds, I think this strategy works.

Okay, I will admit there are some problems that occur. Because Burr did not actually interact with the original actors, the film uses stand-ins and dubbing to make it seem like he is. I did not notice it as a kid, but I do now, and they are really obvious and awkward. Granted, they do not do it that much, but the side-effect is that Steve Martin has only one or two conversations with the handful of people he knows in Japan even though this was the reason for him being there in the first place. This version does introduce another new character named Tomo Iwangana (Frank Iwangana), a Japanese security force representative who acts as Martin's translator and effectively as the original film's tour guide. This helps a little, but not enough to overlook the errors. I understand they may not have had subtitles back in the day, and there are plenty of Godzilla films out there that get their humor out of poor dubbing. Still, when you are trying to enact serious scenes, it can be really distracting.

These barriers also pose an issue when the original footage is playing and is dubbed over to inform the English-speaking audience of what is being said. To the filmmakers credit, not much of the dialogue from the original is changed in the translation and they even manage to cut stuff out that went on too long. However, consistency becomes an issue when people start speaking in Japanese in one scene and start "speaking" English in another even though in real life this would be uncalled for. And while some scenes deserved to be cut, there were others where I wish they had been more lenient to allow the characters to express themselves. To be fair, though, one minor but worthwhile change they made was when they tinker with the ending dialogue in a positive manner: the original gives the impression that a sequel was to follow while this version has a more climatic feel to it. I am generally not a fan of movies that try to promote their own sequels, so I am glad the producers decided to give it, in my opinion, a more fitting conclusion.

There is one scene that is left untouched from the original which I am thankful for because it is probably the best scene in both movies. This is the one near the end where a television broadcast shows  images of a destroyed Tokyo and the dead and dying people Godzilla left in his wake while a girls choir sings a song which prays for peace. It is a very powerful and moving scene and, as you can imagine, it speaks a loud volumes. Leading up to this moment, Serzawa is arguing over whether to use his secret weapon against Godzilla for fear of releasing it onto the world. The broadcast illustrates why these fears are justified: his country has only had to deal with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but has endured years of war that ruined an untold number of lives and destroyed its national identity. Godzilla is not just a monster that destroys everything in its wake: he is a reminder of the destruction that people bring upon themselves. However, as the rest of the movie shows, sometimes they are the only ones that can make things right again.

So that is Gojira and Godzilla! Now the big question: which one is better? Needless to say, I have a strong nostalgic attachment to the latter. But if I had to choose, I would have to say that, on a technical level, the original is probably better, if only because it has a smoother way of telling the story without the dubbing and stand-ins. Honestly, though, you would do fine with either one. They have their strengths and weaknesses, but both show you that there is more than one way to enjoy Godzilla. So whether you want to have a great introduction to a cultural icon, or if you just want to see a good-old fashion monster movie, I definitely recommend them!

Oh, and before I go, I shall leave you with this another great masterpiece. Enjoy:

The pictures and videos in this post are copyrighted by their original owners and are being used for entertainment purposes only. Please do not sue me.