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Not Exactly Art: Gojira

“History shows us again and again

How nature points out the folly of men”

— Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla”

There has been much talk recently about the concept of “post-9/11 cinema.” Films that attempt, either by directly referencing the event or by obliquely including it, to address the reality of living in a world forever altered by the terrorist attacks that took down the World Trade Center are not uncommon to the general cinema world. But, of course, you didn’t see these films (such as Children of Men or Southland Tales or Lions for Lambs) immediately after the terrible event happened. We were still raw then, far too shaken up to accept this particular aspect of reality into the safe havens of our multiplexes. We had no idea where to go, who to trust, and what in god’s name any of us should do. We needed to feel comfortable, safe, and in control. Understanding this helps explain how George W. Bush had a 99% approval rating for a short time.

At that time, instead of making and watching movies about the attacks, the film community went the opposite route: editing out images of the towers in film that were already shot, overdubbing the word “bomb,” shelving the Tim Allen vehicle Big Trouble because the climax takes place on an airplane, etc. It wasn’t until at least five years after the event that Hollywood, and all other places where films are made, could really tackle the subject head-on. There are parallels to this phenomenon in postwar Japanese cinema.

On Monday, August 6th, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. local time, a nuclear weapon was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Approximately 70,000 people were killed immediately. On Thursday, August 9th, 1945, at 11:01 a.m. local time, another nuclear weapon was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Estimates for the total death toll there go as high as 80,000. In 1954 the Japanese film distributor TOHO released Gojira, a film that would become much better known globally by its American title: Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

By this point in time, early 2009, Godzilla has become more of a pop culture punchline than any sort of actual film. In the 55 years since he first burst onto the scene to rampage Tokyo and provide those talented in bad dubbing with a career, Godzilla has fought the Smog Monster, Mothra, King Kong, MechaGodzilla, and Matthew Broderick, among others. He won almost all those fights (although Ferris Bueller hit him where it hurt the most — his career). He has been an animated series, an action figure line, and a lunchbox. He has been made, quite simply, into a cute and cuddly Disney version of what he once was. Some people have forgotten, though most people simply just don’t know, how deep and troubling the wound in the Japanese psyche was that Godzilla reflected.

The particular film in question, Gojira, is the very first Godzilla movie. It was made by director and co-writer Inoshiro Honda in 1954, nine years after the end of World War II. There has been much confusion over the years about the difference between Gojira and the American version released in 1956, which was known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Here’s a history lesson, courtesy of Wikipedia:

It was Edmund Goldman who found the original Godzilla in a California Chinatown theater. He bought the international rights for $25,000, then sold them to Jewell Enterprises Inc., a small production company owned by Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick which, with backing from Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, successfully adapted it for American audiences. The adaptation process consisted of filming numerous new scenes featuring Raymond Burr and others, and inserting them into an edited version of the Japanese original to create a new film. The new scenes, written by Al C. Ward and directed by Terry Morse, were photographed by Guy Roe with careful attention to matching the visual tone of the Japanese film. Burr’s character Steve Martin appeared to interact with the original Japanese cast through intricate cutting and the use of doubles for the Japanese principals, in matching dress, shot from behind in direct interaction with Burr’s character.

Inoshiro Honda (no relation to the car manufacturer) is a very important figure in Japanese cinema history. Outside of simply being the creator of Godzilla, he was also Akira Kurosawa’s assistant director for many films, including Stray Dog. Even after directing several features of his own, Honda continued to work with Kurosawa late in his career, helping him with such late period masterpieces as Kagemusha and Ran. It is even rumored that Honda directed large chunks of Kurosawa’s film Dreams. This is not entirely implausible, as at the time Kurosawa was going blind and had to hold storyboards about an inch away from his face just to see them.

Gojira supposedly came to Honda as the result of reading about a real life incident: the fishing ship “Lucky Dragon”, which had strayed too close to a nuclear testing site and had several members of its crew die in terrible pain from severe radiation burns all over their bodies. This inspiration is most apparent in the opening scene of the film. Set aboard a boat known as the “Eiko-Maru”, we are first put at ease with tranquil scenes of the men on the ship. The ocean batters rhythmically, one man plays a ukulele, and we are at peace. But then there’s a sudden, intense flash of light, and everyone dies.

No one is sure what killed these men, and two other boats sent out to investigate meet the same fate. Many ideas are thrown about, but we as the audience are blessed with both 50 years of hindsight and the advantage of knowing it’s all a movie. We know that Godzilla is to blame.

From there, the film continues with a plot that is, quite frankly, not that revelatory. Here are the bullet points: Godzilla attacks a small community on a small island outside the mainland. Godzilla is getting closer. So a team of scientists is sent out, including Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi). In a rather standard pulp cliché, she is involved in a love triangle between Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), to whom she is engaged to be married, and the more handsome, more rugged steamship captain Hideto (Akira Takarada). By any means, the scientists use Geiger counters to first measure the radiation put out by Godzilla, and they determine that he must be the result of a hideous mutation brought about by nuclear testing. But the scientists are quickly chased off the island when Godzilla comes back. From there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump until Godzilla is in Tokyo proper. He goes on a rampage, the likes of which have been widely parodied.

Eventually, a way to kill Godzilla is found in the form of a device invented by Dr. Serizawa which removes oxygen from the water, killing everything in the ocean. Dr. Serizawa himself has to operate the device underwater, sacrificing himself for the good of humanity. Emiko runs off into the sunset with the dreamy steamboat captain, and Dr. Yamane delivers a short lecture on the danger of nuclear weapons and how Godzilla cannot be the only one of his species.

As you might have surmised, Godzilla is far from a perfect film. The production values are often laughably bad, especially in terms of the miniature work, which is bad enough to be distracting. The film has, in many ways, earned its reputation as a cheesy camp classic. But the crude nature of the thing adds to its power in certain scenes, as does the general mis en scene. Honda uses weird influences, especially in the big rampage scenes. The lighting, especially the high contrasts, and also the grainy black and white film stock harkens back to American film noir of the same period. But the shaky camera work and amateur feel to the set design remind us of war documentaries of the time.

And Honda is not very subtle with his allusions to the effects of nuclear war on the Japanese psyche. At one point he has Hideto tell Dr. Yamane during an argument about whether to kill or study Godzilla: “Isn’t Godzilla a product of the atomic bomb that still haunts us many Japanese?” It doesn’t get much more obvious than that. Many other scenes reinforce this thesis, such as a lengthy passage set right before Godzilla come to Tokyo. People are seen evacuating, being told to hide by sirens that blare loud messages. The relation to the constant warnings the Japanese received of American fire bombs was undoubtedly not lost on the Japanese viewing public. Another scene, set after the rampage, is set in a hospital. We see rows upon rows of men, women, and children suffering from terrible burns, hurt and scared. These images seem primal in a way, a stark counterpoint to the silly shots of a man in a big lizard suit tearing down electrical wires.

In the past year, we saw a film called Cloverfield released in the U.S. The film’s producer and originator, J.J. Abrams, explained that the idea for the film, about a giant monster destroying New York City, came to him after he visited Tokyo and began to think about how America doesn’t have its own giant monster. Once the film was released, there was hardly one review that did not mention 9/11. The film’s choice of locale had a lot to do with it, but so did the film’s central gimmick: the entire thing was shot on a handheld camera, and purported to be an eyewitness account of the attack. Comparing that to Honda’s newsreel-like approach to large sections of Gojira is quite apt.

When most people think of Godzilla, they probably imagine cheesy Saturday afternoon movies where a giant lizard fights other giant monsters. But, like much of what we take for granted in popular culture, the roots run much deeper, into warfare and death and events that forever changed the course of mankind. Gojira is far from a great film, but it is an important film, and its place in the pantheon of Japanese cinema is assured for quite some time to come.


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