When I was thinking about features to replace last year’s biweekly, fairly successful Light Bondage, I was utterly at a loss for what could possibly take the place of one of cinema’s most prolific figures. Not only is there nobody as iconic, but there’s nobody who has been in as many movies to support such a large project as James Bond. I was ready to just give it up as a one-time fluke, and go back to doing other things for 2013 in the same slot. That is, until inspiration struck. Or rampaged. Depending on how precious you want the allusion to be.
Birthed as a ridiculous idea I could never hope to do all the way back in spring of last year when I covered the Criterion release of Godzilla, I’m happy to announce that 2013 will bring you Toho Kaiju Monogatari, a new weekly series covering the entire history of Toho Studios’ giant monster output. From the apocalyptic beginnings of 1954’s Gojira to the last hurrah of 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, we’ll be talking fifty years of not just Godzilla, but Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, Japanese King Kong, kaiju-Frankenstein, space aliens, smog monsters, and the like. It’s 50 weeks of city-stomping, atomic ray breathing, violent sci-fi action allegory, and I can guarantee it’s going to not only be ridiculous, but a ton of fun.
I want to keep this as accessible as possible, so I have a full schedule of the movies I’m going to be covering HERE (well, soon, not yet). And as for how we’ll be covering these, I don’t want to rag on the movies we’re going to cover as cheese-fests with increasingly ridiculous special effects (no matter how true that is), but instead talk about how awesome it is that there’s so many crazy monster movies and just enjoy the ridiculous legacy they represent. Don’t worry, I’m sure some of them are really terrible, too, and will be dealt with in kind. But I intend to approach this project with the assumption that just because these movies are fantastical doesn’t mean they don’t have inherent value.
A final word on format: I’m going to mostly play it by ear, especially when it comes to things like English versions. After the first decade or so, most of the translations for these movies were simply straight dub jobs handled by Toho itself, so I won’t always watch/compare both if there’s no particular reason to. And unless otherwise stated, assume I’m watching these all in Japanese as the default. And with that, let’s hop right in, with a revisit to an old friend.
I already gave a fairly lengthy account of some of the history of the original Godzilla and it’s American version in the Criterion Cuts that serves as the impetus for this whole ridiculous project, and I absolutely recommend that people go ahead and read that piece first and foremost before talking about this, as I’m going to try not to repeat most of what I said in that article. In the intervening months, I’ve done much more research to gear up for this project and be able to talk at length about this series and its diverse elements, so this one is probably going to get a little more into nuances that essentially require a long set-up piece like the one I wrote.
In looking back over some of the historical context for Godzilla, it’s amazing the number of factors that went into its production. Godzilla was a film made by many crew that had been blacklisted in post-war Japan by the occupation forces, who had gone out of their way to make sure anyone who produced war propaganda spent much of the late 40s and early 50s not making any films at all. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya had even been investigated for spying for his prior work making miniature reproductions of war scenes like the attack on Pearl Harbor, so convinced American forces were that his effects were actual footage of actual military hardware. In fact, the very idea of a film that was critical of things like nuclear testing and the inadequacies of government and science to combat the horrors they invent and wreak upon the world could only have existed after censorship of Japanese film ceased with the end of allied occupation in 1951.
And it’s hard to appreciate just how big a movie Godzilla was, particularly for the Japanese film industry. Made with much of the same crew and regular actors as Akira Kurosawa’s 1950s historical productions, Godzilla represented an attempt culturally to create cinema about Japan in the here and now, a way to approach still painful cultural issues surrounding World War II with a frankness that the actual war-centered movies had not yet been able to bring themselves to do. Banking on the success of monster movies such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and a wildly successful re-release of King Kong (to put it in perspective, Time magazine named King Kong in 1952 it’s Movie of the Year, and the movie made far more money, even adjusted for inflation, than it had upon its original release), Godzilla‘s budget rocketed to an astronomical 100 million yen, more than ten times the average cost of a Japanese film at the time.
All of that money shows on the screen, though, as Godzilla is a landmark special effects film. Not just for Japan, but for cinema worldwide. It’s easy to dismiss the kinds of optical composite effects and matte work, the miniature cities and giant suit, but these things nearly didn’t exist in 1954. There were some early forays into science fiction monster movies, but many of them were stop motion or human-scale suits. Nothing with the scope and technical difficulty of Godzilla existed, and much of the cinematic technique used was either in its infancy or didn’t exist at all.
But for all the amazing monster-stomping (covered at length in the prior piece), what I want to talk about more is the impact of the human drama in this movie, because it in many ways is the purest form of a type of storytelling that we’re going to find again and again in these movies. I was rather quick to dismiss it the first time I wrote about the movie, but honestly that’s not very fair. A few rewatches of this movie in preparation for doing this article have really increased just how much I regard those parts of the film that are less about Godzilla, and more about the themes of responsibility and scientific anguish.
Most of this comes in the dual roles of Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Yamane is Japan’s foremost archaeologist, a man who is brought in to help identify the signs of Godzilla’s passing and ends up being the main source of information that the government goes to when they need someone to explain just what it is they’re up against. He’s a pure scientist, someone who sees Godzilla as more of an unprecedented opportunity to research a mythic creature than as a threat. He’s not unsympathetic to the devastation, but he fulfills the role of ‘ends justify the means’ scientist that becomes prevalent (often in much more insidious ways) in this genre and in science fiction in general.
Serizawa, on the other hand, is a rogue scientist disparaged and disgraced by his peers after he came home injured and embittered from World War II. With an eye patch, a heavy air of secrecy, and an ecclectic lab that few see, he’s the quintessential mad scientist archetype. In fact, it’s from him that the key to destroying Godzilla comes from: the MacGuffin super-weapon the Oxygen Destroyer. But Serizawa, as much as he reeks of mad scientist tropes, is the conscience of the film. He has kept the Oxygen Destroyer secret because he never wants it to be used as a weapon. As far as he’s concerned, his invention is just a new version of the A-bombs and H-bombs that got them into this mess. If those weapons could create Godzilla, what would his more powerful creation bring down upon them?
It’s that ambiguity of purpose that really sets Godzilla apart from other movies of its era. Godzilla is a deeply anti-nuclear film, going to great lengths and to the labored destruction of Tokyo to show just what this new age might bring us in terms of unprecedented devastation. And despite the ties with US nuclear tests that provide the opening context, Godzilla‘s message isn’t levied against one person in particular. Now that nuclear power is a thing we possess, all humanity is culpable, all of us are potential victims, and all of us are past the point where we can point fingers at someone else and lay the blame for these dangers. For a statement of these kinds of intents, Godzilla embraces moral relativism in a way few films even dare to contemplate. There are no evil people, only unfortunate choices and eternal human struggles that we fight against to keep from devolving into the frightened, reactionary animals our instincts want us to be.
That might be a more sobering end to this piece than I was intending, but I assure you we’ll have more fun as time goes on. What continues to strike me each time I revisit this film, over any of the others, is just how bleak a film it is. The good guys win, sure, and there’s a sort of fantastical abandon to the destruction that speaks to an anarchic urge all of us share in some form or another, but Godzilla is a serious look at what war brings us to, not only in terms of human costs but with pivotal moral quandaries that often get neglected until it’s too late. As an invective against our own worst natures, there are few films more forthcoming, and few as evocative.
To talk about Godzilla without talking about 1956’s American Godzilla, King of the Monsters! would be to discount a large part of the legacy of Godzilla. I talked some about it in my initial piece, but upon revisiting Godzilla a few more times I went ahead and revisited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! as well, an experience that’s even more complicated than trying to encompass everything the initial movie represented. So I’m going to try to be brief, and mostly issue an apology to this version of the film, spoken of kind of harshly mostly from ignorance.
What I learned (thanks to some incredibly informative commentaries and research) is that while to modern sensibilities the idea of a dub job seems insulting, in the 1950s it was considered the proper thing to do for foreign films that producers had faith in when brought to the American market. Not only did it require a vastly bigger investment to do the re-recording, but it then involved pushing the film out into a wide release (this being before the advent of art house cinema and distribution as we understand it today). In fact, before Godzilla, King of the Monsters, only 3 foreign films had ever cracked $1 million domestically, all Italian neo-realist films released, as you can expect, with dub jobs. The biggest Japanese cinematic success so far was Rashomon, which had managed to make a paltry $100,000 domestically.
So when the producers acquired the rights to Godzilla and decided to not only make it into a dub job, but actually re-edit the film with the insertion of an American actor (Raymond Burr, in a turn that helped make him a star), it’s easy to look at that and decry a sort of artistic ethnocentrism, but at the same time it speaks to the tremendous faith that the producers had that they had a great movie that they could spend money making work for the market. And boy did they ever. Godzilla, King of the Monsters not only managed to gross an astronomical $2 million, but then went on to become as indelible a part of the American psyche as it did that of Japan. No matter what your opinion of the cultural points raised by this kind of re-edit, there’s no denying its incredible success.
And rewatching the movie, there’s plenty to dig into there. Most of the themes survive intact, and Burr brings a surprising solemnity to the role that most 50s American sci-fi never bothers to actually reach. In fact, Burr was instrumental in torpedoing plans to turn the American version of Godzilla 1985 into a send-up of the original Godzilla (don’t worry, we’ll get to that eventually). In fact, despite a lot of the temporal shifting and change in style to a more documentary feel, Godzilla never really changes its key themes. It’s still a story about the dangers of technology and weaponry, and the high human cost associated with them. In fact, in some ways Burr’s noir-inspired narration manages to make it all that much worse, the impotent voice over evocative of a dozen famous American radio and TV news broadcasters but with no possible way for him to save the day.
In fact, some of the cultural pieces of the film end up playing as incredibly progressive when you realize they had full cut to excise whatever they wanted. This was only a decade after the end of World War II, and yet here was a film littered with actual Japanese characters in lead roles that weren’t stereotypes and didn’t need the American to come in and save them. In fact, the film never shies away from showing the Japanese military mobilizing as the obvious good guys against Godzilla’s menace. There’s no blinking from this being very much about a Japan that’s sympathetic and modern, and that honestly is a little surprising given some of the attitudes that were no doubt rampant at that time.
I’m not saying it’s the preferred version, and I’m not saying I approve of the dubbing. I am of my era just like those people were of theirs, and dubbing to me (and many of my peers, I know) is often a sign of pandering to audiences too lazy to ‘read’ a movie. But it’s not as if the movie is bad because of it, and the American version was so popular that it was re-imported back into Japan with Japanese subtitles. How they dealt with some of the weirder results of the cutting, I have no idea. The movie was re-assembled without any care to what the Japanese actors were saying, as all translation is given in-film by Burr’s Japanese interpreter. To a Japanese audience, the native Japanese characters would be saying chopped up nonsense, with subtitles explaining what they were ‘actually’ talking about. I can’t think of any movie that would replicate that experience, but I’d love to see it some day and be baffled in a similar fashion.
Either way, if you watch one you most certainly should watch the other. They’re interesting companion films, and both represent a strange period of film history where the pulp and art sensibilities crossed over and created a landmark film both technically and in the array of issues and ideas it confronts. I don’t hesitate to call Godzilla not only one of my favorite movies, but one of the best sci-fi films ever made. And that’s not even counting the incredible array of genre fare it inspired.
- incredible strength and endurance
- seeming invincibility to conventional weaponry
- ambient radiation
- atomic breath
- okay well the Oxygen Destroyer, but it eradicates ALL biological life, so that doesn’t count