Thursday, May 15, 2014

Classics Revisited: Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla (1954)
Directed by:  Ishirô Honda.
Written by: Ishirô Honda & Shigeru Kayama & Takeo Murata.
Starring: Akira Takarada (Hideto Ogata), Momoko Kôchi (Emiko Yamane), Akihiko Hirata (Daisuke Serizawa-hakase), Takashi Shimura (Kyohei Yamane-hakase), Fuyuki Murakami (Professor Tanabe),

It’s easy to forget that the original Japanese film Godzilla (or Gojira as it was called there) was not just a cheesy monster movie, but a film born out of fear and paranoia of the nuclear age made in country that had experienced the terror of a nuclear bomb being dropped on them first hand. The Godzilla franchise quickly morphed into the cheesy (and poorly dubbed in North America) monster movies everyone remembers – and the monster was so popular itself, that Godzilla was often the good guy, protecting Japan from some other giant monsters that wanted to destroy it. That’s the Godzilla that most people remember. The original film however is quite disturbing and scary – even when viewed today.

Godzilla opens with two Japanese boats going missing – being destroyed and catching on fire while out at sea (this was inspired by true events, when a Japanese boat got too close to an American hydrogen bomb test). No one knows what happened – but some elders blame an ancient creature known as Godzilla – but are dismissed as believing in a myth. Soon though they cannot be dismissed. Godzilla is real – a giant, spiky backed, fire breathing dinosaur who lays waste to Japan, before returning to the sea – but he returns again and again.

The monster is an obvious metaphor for the nuclear bomb. He lays waste to Japanese cities the same way a bomb would lay waste to them – and he’s just as unstoppable. A normal creature could be killed – but Godzilla seems invulnerable. He’s able to absorb radiation so what kills most only fuels Godzilla. It isn’t just in the destruction that Godzilla can kill – as we see in a disturbing sequence in a Japanese hospital, where many of the victims are there with radiation poisoning. Godzilla can kill you any number of ways – even if you do come into direct contact with him.

It is in sequences like that hospital scene – and another later sequence that involves a children’s choir singing – that Godzilla retains its power to shock and sadden. This is a nation dealing with the consequences of nuclear explosions – man created the bomb that created Godzilla – now Godzilla is going to make them pay for that. It’s here that the film becomes more than just a monster movie, but something deeper and more resonant – sadder and more shocking. All too often in movies today, whole cities are destroyed, building collapse and in reality if those things happened thousands would die, but the movies gloss over their own implications. The original Godzilla doesn’t – it looks at the consequences of what happens in the film.

There are human characters in the film as well – mainly scientists, including one played by Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, who doesn’t want to kill Godzilla – but wants to capture and study him. He has a daughter (Momoko Kochi) who breaks off her engagement with another scientist (Akihiko Hirata) because she loves someone else (Akira Takarada). It is the ex-fiancé who thinks he has discovered a way that could kill Godzilla – although it requires them to unleash an even more powerful weapon that he tries to keep secret. The implication is simple – that the greater the weapons humanity makes, the even greater the next one has to be in order to destroy it – creating a cycle in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

I don’t think the original Godzilla is a quite a masterpiece – it’s excellent, but not flawless. For one thing, the human story is rather ham-fisted at times – the love triangle at little obvious. I liked that the movie took the time to have its human characters debate the implications of everything they are doing – and what Godzilla means – but the emotional connection between the characters doesn’t really work. I loved most of the sequences with Godzilla himself as he destroys one thing after another – although they do start to blend together somewhat. The monster itself though is stunning – with a sound that cannot be improved on (I believe the sound he makes in the trailer to the latest remake is the exact same one as in this movie – and that’s good because they couldn’t improve on it). In many ways, Godzilla is a victim as well – he didn’t ask for any of this to happen, and he’s only doing what comes naturally to him. If humanity didn’t want something like Godzilla, they shouldn’t have created him.

Yet my few misgivings aside, I think that mainly Godzilla still works. There is a handmade quality to the film – and to the monster, who is just a man in a suit, which makes his movements oddly human-like – that is in many ways more appealing that non-stop CGI ever will be. I hope the new Godzilla is a good movie – but I highly doubt it will be better than the original.

No comments:

Post a Comment