Saturday, May 30, 2015

Godzilla Chronicles: Gojira (aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters)

Before 1954, there had certainly been giant monster films, though they were few and far between. There was Willis O'Brien's special effects wizardry of the silent era, the stop motion marvel of 1925's "The Lost World". And then in 1933, O'Brien struck again, with the masterpiece that inspired his successor, Ray Harryhausen, "King Kong". In fact, few people know that there were actually two Japanese attempts at a King Kong "knock off", both of them now considered lost films. One was a comical short, the other being a full blown feature film, but the important thing they both had in common, was something that would resurface in Japanese monster films many years later: the titular monsters were portrayed by men in suits. 

Meanwhile, America had a few more of it's own giant monster films over the years. The first of which, was a direct sequel to King Kong, "Son of Kong", which actually released the very same year (1933). For such a rushed production, the quality of the film, the acting, and especially the stop-motion effects, were still surprisingly high quality. Later in 1949, O'Brien enlisted the help of his young "pupil" Harryhausen, to make one final "Giant Ape" film, this time the affable "Mighty Joe Young". And of course, Ray Harryhausen himself, would go on to have a solo career as an effects man, that far surpassed his mentor. His first major solo picture, would be another giant monster flick, this one being none other than THE movie that would inspire the film that is the very topic of this article, a 1953 gem entitled "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms". 

One hell of an iconic and imposing image, to this day...

Toho studio producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, was so inspired after seeing "Beast", that he wanted Toho to also produce a new giant monster movie. Except he had a different vision. Post-WWII Japan was a different place, haunted by the very real threat and terror of nuclear bombings and radiation. Japan is (both tragically, and thankfully), the only nation to this day that has ever suffered a nuclear bomb attack. And the horrific and outright evil fact is, not only had the nation already surrendered, it's military forces utterly defeated and many of it's cities in flames, but the vast majority of people, men, women, and children, who were murdered in those attacks, were not "military targets", but innocent civilians. And even still, of those who did not die right away, many thousands more suffered and died from the radiation poisoning that would remain behind. Tanaka, having been born in 1910, and grown up living through the horror of WWII, knew all of this, and knew that the Japanese people were very much terrified and haunted by the specter of that nuclear ghost. 

As such, his vision for a giant monster film, was one in which the monster would become the physical embodiment of not only a living metaphor for the horror of one of humanities greatest atrocities, but also Nature's own revenge against man for nuclear testing and activity in the first place. So with that in mind, he worked together with writer Shigeru Kamaya, director Ishiro Honda, and special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya, to craft what would become, more or less, the single most iconic and impactful "monster movie" ever made.

A living symbol of man's unnatural destruction of others.

Those four worked together to make, on a very limited schedule and budget, what would still turn out to be a very powerful, dark, and emotional film. While much of the later subsequent series that would spawn from Godzilla would become "lighter", often even somewhat "silly" (yet still awesome) fare, the original film that started it all, was VERY somber, played deadly serious, like a true disaster/horror film. The cinematography was purposefully very dark and brooding, even for black and white film standards, and the filmmakers did not hold much back at all, even showing depictions of victims, even children, of the pure destruction the monster (nuclear war) brought to Japan, as well as a very haunting scene where a choir of Japanese children sing in mourning of the departed.

The evocative imagery, combined with composer Akira Ifukube's solemn and foreboding score, really gave what might have otherwise been dismissed as a "silly monster movie", a very real sense of weight and even horror. Eiji Tsuburaya had originally wanted to make the film using stop motion models, the same as Harryhausen's work that inspired it, but the studio simply did not give them the time or money to be able to do so. Instead, he went about crafting the art form he would later perfect, dubbed by some as "Suitmation", in which giant monsters depicted by actors in (often very well made and elaborate) suits would trample upon and destroy VERY vividly realized and detailed miniature city-scape sets, etc.

The horrors science can sometimes bring.

The film was not without it's own set of fantastic actors, either. Veteran Toho actor Takashi Shimura portrayed Dr. Kyohei Yamane, an expert in biology and prehistoric life, while his daughter Emiko was played by Momoko Kochi. Emiko's fiance, through arranged marriage, was her father's scientific colleague Daisuke Serizawa, portrayed by Akihiko Hirata, and her actual love interest, for whom she wanted to break off the arranged engagement, a young salvage ship captain named Hideto Ogata, was played by the then very young and rising star Akira Takarada. Both Takarada and Hirata would go on to each play roles in many Toho science fiction and monster films.

As for the story, in a nutshell, Japanese fishing ships were lost at sea, to strange radiation attacks that mirrored real life horrors that occurred due to the "Bikini Island" nuclear testings. This brought about attacks of an unknown nature on Odo Island, by something the natives claimed to be an ancient sea monster, "Gojira". Dr. Yamane was brought to investigate, and while on Odo Island, it was again attacked by the monster, and he was able to see it with his own eyes. He became convinced that repeated deadly nuclear tests had awakened and empowered an ancient horror, one who would turn out to seemingly act as Nature's counter-attack against mankind for poisoning her. Meanwhile, Dr. Serizawa was secretly working on what turned out to be his own horrific scientific discovery, a new potential weapon force that he called the "Oxygen Destroyer", for it destroyed the oxygen atoms in water, leaving the life forms to rapidly rot and disintegrate. At first, he holds Emiko, who witnessed the Destroyer in action, to secrecy, as he believed it to be an unsafe discovery and that no one else should know. But then after the monster Gojira began attacking Tokyo in mainland Japan, and he was forced to face the devastation, death and suffering the monster was wreaking, he allowed himself to be convinced by Emiko and her friend/love Ogata, to reveal the existence of his discovery and use it to stop the beast before it destroyed all of Japan.

In the end, while both Serizawa and Ogata submerged in diving suits into Tokyo Bay to find the sleeping monster at the bottom, once they found him, Serizawa cut their air hoses, forcing Ogata to return to their ship, while Serizawa himself stayed behind to detonate the Oxygen Destroyer, both to make sure Gojira was destroyed, and to take the secret of such a terrible weapon to his own grave. The film, ending on a poignant point, just as it had carried throughout really, saw Dr. Yamane stating that he believed if humans continued testing nuclear weapons, that another such monster would eventually rise. Prophetic indeed of what would later become a long-running series of popular monster films spawning from Japan.

Still a pretty bad ass poster, from an era when movies actually HAD bad ass poster art.

"Gojira" was such an immensely popular film in Japan and in certain markets abroad, that it eventually came to the attention of Hollywood. The film was shown to mostly Japanese speaking audiences at limited engagements and with subtitles in it's original form. But Hollywood also attained the rights to make their own "version" of the movie, and it is here that the monster gained it's more popular and accepted international name, "Godzilla". It's worth noting that many are under the false impression that "Gojira" is simply the bad Japanese "Engrish" way of pronouncing "Godzilla", however, that is completely untrue. The word "Gojira" was actually just a nickname that one of the production crew held, and they decided to give it to the beast itself, though other rumors have tried to claim that it is somewhat of a portmanteau of the Japanese words for "whale" and "gorilla". "Godzilla" simply sounded better, and more imposing, to the American producers, and quite frankly, thank the gods they stuck with that, because we could all be talking about something named far sillier today, like "Megasaurus" or "Gigantis the Fire Monster" (more on that one in a later article). They decided to title the film "Godzilla: King of the Monsters", which one has to admit, has a certain fairly bad ass ring to it.

Raymond Burr, in his honestly pretty solid role as reporter Steve Martin.

To help "Americanize" the film, which they would later do to several other 50s Toho films, the producers outright cut certain scenes or dialogue and overall focused less on the blatant anti-nuclear and "atrocity of war" themes that hang heavy in the original film. They replaced this with newly filmed American scenes featuring American dramatic actor Raymond Burr, who would later go on to be famous for his role as "Perry Mason" among other things, to play a reporter named Steve Martin (not THAT Steve Martin). Poor Steve was only in Japan to visit on his way to Egypt, when he got stuck there because of the Godzilla disaster, and he even himself fell victim to it, being badly injured in the monster's major attack against Tokyo proper. They also, of course, dubbed the original Japanese dialogue in the scenes that remained, into English.

And while many hardcore G-fans give the American version major shit, because of the omissions and changes, in all fairness to that version of the film, I would say that Burr's scenes actually do make decent sense in context to the story. He is pretty much portrayed as an "American along for the ride", not a major character, and he later acts as a war reporter of sorts, chronicling the attacks of Godzilla and their tragic aftermath. I would say that the film doesn't ultimately lose too much of it's overall somber and serious tone, and in all honesty, while the original Japanese cut IS superior, the American version still also holds up, and I think the character of Steve Martin and his interactions with the Japanese characters, are handled with unusual tact and taste for a 1950s era in which xenophobia and racism were at an all time high in the United States.

The cover of the VHS version I first owned, and still have.

As for my own thoughts and experiences concerning the film, I did go over that a bit in my original opening article in these Godzilla Chronicles. But I'd like to say that if I remember correctly, keeping in mind that I was only 8 or 9 years old when I started getting Godzilla movies on VHS, that "King of the Monsters" was probably the third or so G-film I got, after "Sea Monster" and "Monster Zero". It's a bit fuzzy, because somewhere around that same span I also got the tape for the first sequel, "Godzilla Raids Again". But either way, I did get it fairly early on. As I probably mentioned in that other article, my initial childhood impression of the first film, while I LOVED most sci-fi, fantasy and monster movies anyway, wasn't super favorable. The main reason, of course, being that my EARLIEST exposure to Godzilla, were 60s films in which he was portrayed as a terrible, and dangerous, but also heroic and "good" monster. A defender of the Earth, even if he wasn't best friends with humanity itself. So imagine my shock when the original film portrayed him as this awful, truly terrifying, and merciless, cold engine of destruction and human suffering. I simply did not like that at all, I wanted Godzilla to be a hero, because he had already become MY hero.

Sufficed to say, even back then, even given my disdain for the idea of him as an "evil" monster, I was able to at least somewhat rationalize and understand the point of the film, that war and especially NUCLEAR war, are nothing but evil and pure madness, and that Godzilla was an allegory for that in the original film. I eventually came to accept that, and love that movie for what it was, and is, just as I really love all of the original "Showa Era" films. I certainly do not LOVE all of them, but I do like all of them, and they all have a special place in my heart. I do also remember, as a funny aside, thinking how silly it was at the time, that Raymond Burr's character was named "Steve Martin", because by the time I got into Godzilla at age 8, I was already very familiar with the films of comedian Steve Martin.

I would say that either version is good to watch, though of course I'd more highly recommend the original Japanese "Gorija" version, for the sake of getting the full, authentic effect. It is a genuinely great and classic film, even though it is, by design, very sombre and at times even depressing. It has even been considered by some film historians, to be the second greatest Japanese film of all time, second only to Akira Kurisawa's masterpiece "Seven Samurai". And honestly, that's both ironic and fair, because not only is "Gojira" director Ishiro Honda's own masterpiece as well, but the two directors were very good friends and even worked together, and "Gojira" just narrowly missed receiving Japan's version of the "Best Film of the Year" award, losing only to "Seven Samurai".

I'll be back again in the future to continue this Godzilla sub-series over time. But for now, go make a point to see and enjoy Gojira (or King of the Monsters), especially if you've never seen it. Cheers!