Tuesday, May 01, 2007

GODZILLA (GOJIRA)


















TYPICAL REVIEWS

“[This film] might well trump the art films Hiroshima Mon Amour and Dr. Strangelove as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.” – The Village Voice

“[This film] can now be appreciated not just as a minor classic of tragic destruction, but also as a somber exploration of conflicted postwar emotions.” – L.A. Weekly

“There's a surprisingly powerful thrust to this film. And it's instructive to recall the political era in which the movie was made.” – The Washington Post

THE PLOT

Just in case you've been in suspended animation for the last 53 years...

When ships start disappearing at sea around the same time villagers on nearby islands begin reporting the return of an ancient sea god, the Japanese government sends an investigative team to determine the truth. They find more than they could have imagined when up from the depths, thirty stories high, breathing fire, his head in the sky, Godzilla makes his appearance. It seems he's a little peeved from having a few hydrogen bombs dropped on him while he was sleeping and is looking for some payback. From the island, Godzilla makes his way to Tokyo, where he easily lays waste to half the city. With the government and the military helpless, Japan's last hope appears to be Dr. Serizawa, inventor of a secret weapon that could save the world...or destroy it.

THE POINT

In April of 2004 Godzilla (Gojira in his native tongue) celebrated his 50th anniversary with a fully restored worldwide re-release. The reviews above are a fair sampling of the critical reaction that appeared in major news outlets. That’s right, major critics the world over were heaping a bucket load of serious praise on a film featuring a guy in a rubber monster suit stomping on cardboard cities. Not all of them, of course. Roger Ebert didn't like the original Godzilla, and thought the restored Gojira was still a bad film, but he did at least admit he found it to be a much better bad film than the version available in America for all those decades. Why the big deal about the re-release though? I mean, we've all seen Godzilla haven't we? Well, as it turns out, we hadn't.

Now I've been a true fan of the big G for as long as I can remember, going so far as to copy word for word an entire book on him I found in my elementary school library. So, even as a child, the fact that the first Godzilla movie was altered for viewing outside of Japan was no big secret. Like a lot of people, though, I assumed the cuts weren't that relevant to the story. So they took out some scenes involving a Japanese reporter and inserted scenes with an American reporter; no big deal. Some scenes were dropped to shorten the movie by 15 minutes to a more acceptable drive-in runtime of 80 minutes; unfortunate, but television has done worse to make room for commercials. And even though some of the overt references to Hiroshima were left out, the no-nukes tone of the film is still there. Regardless of any changes, the Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters is still a good monster movie.

But Gojira is better. Now don't get me wrong, it's still a guy dressed as a big freaking lizard slapping at toy planes hanging from strings. So if your suspension of disbelief ends at that kind of thing, then there's probably nothing I can say to convince you to watch Godzilla again, especially in Japanese with subtitles. But if you can get past the "special" effects, then there is something of real substance here. And I think the key to it all is a brief aside made in the audio commentary on the recently released DVD regarding the beginning of the film.

The American version opens with a view of the aftermath of Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo and then proceeds to tell the story in flashback. It's effective enough, although you could make the argument that it robs any suspense as to whether or not our American reporter survives. In contrast, the Japanese version opens with a more mundane scene of a fishing boat destroyed by a bright flashing light of unknown origin. The few sailors who are recovered from the wreckage appear to be suffering from severe radiation burns. For all intents, it's a standard introductory scene, with little purpose other than to introduce a mystery and get the ball rolling... unless you happened to be Japanese.

As the commentary points out, on March 1, 1954 (the same year this movie was made) a Japanese fishing boat named the Lucky Dragon was caught in the fallout caused by a US thermonuclear weapon test on Bikini Island. All of the crew members came down with radiation sickness and one man died. Within two weeks hysteria swept through Japan as the populace feared contamination of the fish supply. Even the Emperor swore off sushi for awhile. To the Japanese, the U. S. response to the incident appeared a bit lackluster, amounting to "Hey, we told you these things would be going off every now and then." Enraged is probably not a strong enough word to describe Japan's national temperament during this period.

With that in mind, we can go back and take a second look at those two opening sequences. For Americans in the cold war era, the threat of nuclear destruction was always an open possibility, and the multitude of radioactive mutants wandering across movie screens reflected this fear. Godzilla's opening images of a smoldering ruined city must certainly have resonated with American audiences, especially the children who were going through weekly duck-and-cover drills at school.

But for Japan, the reality of nuclear destruction had already come to pass. Initially the Japanese citizenry appeared to have accepted the atomic bombings as a cost of the war. Father John A. Siemes, a Catholic priest living in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, noted that "None of us in those days heard a single outburst against the Americans on the part of the Japanese, nor was there any evidence of a vengeful spirit." But as survivors began to be subjected to regular check ups by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, fears about the lasting effects of exposure to radiation began to surface and resentment started to build. And just when you would hope that time might heal old wounds, along comes the Lucky Dragon incident. By opening with the fishing boat scene and then following with images reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira was the first film to openly address the fact that for the Japanese the nuclear issue was not a fading memory or potential threat, but a decade long continuing nightmare. The Japanese audiences recognized immediately the anger and sorrow and feeling of helplessness portrayed in the movie. It's almost as if Gojira represented some form of primal therapy for the entire nation, resonating so strongly that it actually received a Japanese Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. For those of us raised on the American cut of the movie that all sounds a little crazy, I know, but once you understand some of the cultural references in the original film, Godzilla really does take on new dimensions and becomes something deeper and more satisfying than you could have thought possible. You get emotional depth AND a big monster stomping on things, what more can a B-Movie fan ask for?

I was recently reminded how this same kind of cultural recognition can deepen our own understanding of Catholicism. My home parish was visited by a priest who had been born to a Jewish mother and he spent some time talking on Passover and the Eucharist. In June of 1985, the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released a document with the no-nonsense title of Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. (And you thought the title Snakes On A Plane was direct and to the point.) The document noted that "Jesus was and always remained a Jew" and was "fully a man of his time, and of his environment - the Jewish Palestinian one of the first century, the anxieties and hopes of which he shared." To this end "He wished to achieve the supreme act of the gift of himself in the setting of the domestic liturgy of the Passover, or at least of the paschal festivity (Mk 14:1,12; Jn. 18:28)." It would seem then, to fully understand the Eucharist, a Catholic should have some understanding of the Jewish Passover celebration.

Most of us know that, for the Jews, the Passover is a celebration of the Exodus, of God’s actions on their behalf to free them from oppression in Egypt. But the feast is more than just a simple remembrance. As part of the ritual, the Book of Exodus instructs the Jewish father to explain the meaning of Passover using these specific words “On this day you shall explain to your son, ‘This is because of what the Lord did for ME when I came out of Egypt’” With this simple wording, Passover is celebrated as though every Jew throughout history had been alive and present at the time of the Exodus. They aren't just remembering it, they're experiencing it.

Jesus incorporated this same meaning into the Last Supper, and by extension The Eucharist, when he says the words "Do this in memory of me". The celebration of Holy Communion is not just remembering Christ and his last days, but actually experiencing this event that occurred both once and for all time. This doesn't mean all of the other teachings on the meaning of the Eucharist are wrong. Such ideas as "agape feasts" and "table fellowship" are important to the Eucharist and should be discussed. But it's this simple Jewish understanding of the concept of "memorial" which points us towards what is most profound in the ritual. Father Lawrence E. Mick writes "That’s the deepest meaning of both Passover and Eucharist. Just as God acted in the past, God continues to act in the present and will act in the future to save us." You ignore or edit out that understanding of the Eucharist and you end up with a mass that's the equivalent of the Americanized Godzilla; still good, but not the best.

THE STINGER

Dr. Frederick J. Parrella writes that "people today are bored at mass because they are celebrating a transcendence that is vague .... They are celebrating the most serious element of their human lives in forms that trivialize the mystery....Without a sense of the Holy, we cannot pray, ask forgiveness, worship, be filled with gratitude before God's grace or, most significantly, know each other as brother and sister ....The church must have the courage not to reduce the liturgy to what people think they want .... but to make of it what they really want at the deepest levels of their being.... " It sure sounds like he believes we're getting the edited version of liturgy these days, sanitized of the difficult content and reassembled to make it more entertaining. But the 50th anniversary of Vatican II is approaching. Is it possible that like Gojira, the liturgy is due for a restored re-release, if not in form, then at least in content?

8 comments:

Histor the Wise said...

Awesome review, Eegahinc!

I'll have to watch this sooner or later.

"emotional depth AND a big monster stomping on things..."

Indeed, who could ask for more?

WindWhisperer said...

Hi Eeg, I like the perspective of the review. I saw Godzilla when I was a kid, and even as a kid, I distinctly remember feeling that the Japanese should try to "befriend" the grump instead of firing at him. Much in the same way the Americans attempted to capture and tame King Kong. Godzilla somehow seemed a more tragic and violent figure, and more anti-social let's say.

Mr. Doob said...

Ahh...The King of Monsters. I too was transfixed by the wonder that was Man in Suit. Oddly, the first Americanized version (featuring a misplaced Raymond Burr) is my least favorite. Give me the hokiness of Godzilla vs Megalon!! Even before I knew there was a Japanese version, I noted how haphazard and sometimes outright odd Burr's scenes were in the series opus. It is the same mystery surrounding atomic energy and it's aftermath that created movies like this and Them! as well as most of the Marvel Comic Book Universe. I'm surprized there weren't more break-ins at nuclear plants circa 1961 with countless children trying to either transform themselves into 50 story lizards or Orange Rock monsters in blue undies.

As for the latter part of the discussion, as someone who experienced a minor crisis of faith earlier in life, I can certainly appreciate your comments on understanding other religions. I explored and experimented with religion. I always came back to the catholic faith partly because it gave me comfort but also because it's teachings helped me appreciate the other religious paths and the world around me. In my experience, the catholic faith doesn't see itself as the end all...be all. It acknowledges and, at times, celebrates other paths. Unfortunately, also in my experience, that seems to be the exception & not the rule. I still know of people who see catholics as cult-like and strange. A rather odd assessment for one of the oldest religions. But I've experienced it none the less. That's simple lack of education but also a fundimental lack of understanding. And isn't that an important element of what Jesus was trying to teach us?

EegahInc said...

Hi Histor, I'm glad you're still enjoying the blog. I'm with you, there's just something so fun in watching this kind of movie, even the mid-70s ones that are more fake looking than Power Rangers. I can't help it, must be some guy thing.

Hi Windwhisperer, you make an interesting point. When the investigators first go to the island, there is the sense from the villagers that Godzilla has been around for generations and is something they've learned to co-exist with. It's only after the bombs that he becomes a "monster". From there you could easily spin off into a discussion on the entire relationship between mankind and nature. Again, I know this is a guy in a rubber suit, but the subtext is all there. I'll sure I'll revisit this kind of movie somewhere down the line and touch on these things.

EegahInc said...

Doob, do you remember back in the late 70s there was a prime-time showing of Godzilla vs Megalon hosted by a guy in a Godzilla suit? He would come out during commercials, tell a bad joke, and someone would drop a boulder on him. Please tell me there's a copy of that somewhere out there!

You know it's kind of funny talking about religion after all these years. (MrDoob and I have known each other for a looooong time.) Even though most of the gang was obviously on parallel spiritual wanderings, we never seemed to bring it up that often. I may not have mentioned to you that when I first went back to the Catholic Church my own brother ran down to his church and came back with some anti-Catholic pamphlets to save me from Hell. He's calmed down now. Life in the bible belt; you can't say it's boring.

Archistrategos said...

Eegahinc,

That was a very perceptive and all around well-written review. Godzilla was something like a hero to me whwn I was younger, and he still is, in many ways. I still have the Trendmasters 10 inch toys I got 13 years ago as well as some priceless Bandai ones. I can still differentiate the Mosu-Goji suit from the Bio-Goji suit without so much as batting an eyelash, and I suspect I will forever have this ability. It is interesting to note, too, that Eiji Tsuburaya, the man behind the lovable suitmation technique, was a devout Christian, and it was through his influence that no church or any religious structure ever gets demolished in the films.

BTW, you might want to check out this artist called Basil Gogos. He's not a filmmaker but he has painted some of the most memorable posters for the most memorable bad movies ever. As always, I am amazed by the depth of this blog. Keep up the good work!

EegahInc said...

Hi archistrategos, glad to see you stopped by again. One of the things I most wanted as a kid, but couldn't afford, was the Shogun Warrior's Godzilla which is just under 20 inches tall. You can find them on ebay for around $75-$100, but I just haven't been able to convince myself (yet) to spend that on a toy.

I'm a devoted reader of Filmfax magazine which has covers by Basil Gogos. I'll definitely have to track down some of his posters.

I didn't know that about Mr. Tsuburaya. Does that hold true for the later films as well? I'll have to pay attention for that when I rewatch them.

Archistrategos said...

I know what you mean, those things were dang expensive. The most valuable thing in my collection is the Marui R/C Biogoji, given to me by my uncle who lived in Japan. Nowadays those things cost thousands of bucks-- he got it from an old and rundown store for a mere $50!!! Unbelievable.

Mr. Gogos has a website btw, it's http://www.basilgogos.com I saw some copies of his book being sold on a local bookstore the other day; I would have bought it, but it was too expensive. The art was incredible, though. I didn't know he painted Inframan as well.

Regarding Mr. Tsuburaya, I don't really recall where I read that; I think it was in Steve Ryfle's book if I'm not mistaken. What I do know however was that some people involved with Toho were actually Christians. I'll have to do some more research on that one :)