I was a bit busy all this week, so I never got a chance to write about the centerpiece of my filmgoing experience last weekend, a screening of a print of the 1954 Japanese version of Gojira
, better known as Godzilla
. Now I’ve been wanting to see this movie for years, ever since I was a kid (I can remember repeatedly leafing through a picture book about classic movie monsters in elementary school), and the 1956 US version of the film was a poor substitute, as one can only endure so much atrocious dubbing and poorly interpolated scenes featuring Raymond Burr (I never did manage to make it through the whole thing when it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel). From all the reports I read, the US version was a shadow of the Japanese version; not only was the soundtrack dubbed and English narration added, the US distributors thought it necessary to cut 40 minutes of footage from the Japanese version, to which they added an additional 20 minutes of new footage featuring Mr. Burr. After watching the Japanese version, I can see why the felt they had to make the changes given the political climate of the time: the frequent and pointed criticism of American H-Bomb testing in the South Pacific which can lead only to disaster; the obvious metaphorical connection between the fiery destruction of Tokyo at the hands of Godzilla, and the A-Bomb devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the pacifist ideas espoused by the film; and the moral quandary surrounding the development and usage of super weapons would all be downright subversive in Eisenhower’s America.
And as usual when it comes to B-movies with famous reputations (though to be fair, Godzilla
was not a B-movie from the perspective of Toho and the Japanese film industry), the actual experience of watching the film is very different from ones preconceptions created by a bad American version, increasingly campy sequels, and a fondly remembered childhood cartoon. For one thing, it is quite grim and humorless (though the radio reporter announcing his own imminent death was kind of ghoulishly funny, along with his final "Sayonara!" Now that is dedication to one's job). Befitting its relatively low budget, the majority of Godzilla
is actually taken up by serious conversations and sober debate between the various characters: scientific expeditions sent to investigate the mysterious phenomena of the boiling seas (which I learned was actually inspired by and reminiscent of real events involving Japanese fishing boats becoming irradiated by American H-Bomb tests), disappearing ships, and growing number of sketchy reports from the outlying islands; heated parliamentary debate in the Japanese Diet about how to deal with the growing threat; military and civil defense planning to protect the home islands from attack; breathless newspaper and radio reports stoking the mystery and panic; and nervous Japanese civilians sharing rumors with one another on the streets and trains of Tokyo (with references to Nagasaki and black rain).
Similar to other films in the sci-fi disaster genre, there is also a mix of various personal subplots involving the main human characters: the scarred chemist Dr. Serizawa’s (Akihiko Hirata) moral anguish over having developed the terrible doomsday weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, which may be the key to defeating the monster, but which could also be terribly misused if it falls into the wrong hands; paleontologist Dr. Kyohei’s (Kurosawa alum Takashi Shimura, who was the only actor I was able to recognize), growing anger and depression over that fact that his ideas concerning the study of Godzilla are being disregarded by both the government and military, not to mention his own daughter and her friends, who are all desperate to kill Godzilla; and the low-key love triangle between Dr. Serizawa, Dr. Kyohei’s pretty young daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her new fiancee Hideo Ogata (Akira Takarada), a young manager at the shipping company whose fleet mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of the film.
Godzilla itself is rarely seen in the film. For the most part you see only the after effects of an attack, or oblique glimpses of some monstrous hulk disappearing into the murky ocean waters. Director Ishiro Honda wisely refrains from revealing the monster too early, which is probably a good idea since it is actually a guy in a bulky rubber suit interacting with (intricately built) models and matted live footage. Instead Honda reserves our first, full glimpse of Godzilla for the first attack on Tokyo. Now those attacks are not the monster-stomping fun of the subsequent Godzilla
films, but an act of horrific, indiscriminate devastation that reduces the city to radioactive ash, during which the filmmakers spend considerable amounts of screen time dwelling on all the soldiers and innocent civilians killed in the conflagration (they often burned alive in their homes, cars, and tanks). The Godzilla attacks are meant to clearly evoke WWII, not even a decade old at the time the film was made, as they are heralded by the droning wail of air raid sirens which drives the citizens of Tokyo into bomb shelters or into the surrounding countryside. One of the scenes I remember most clearly involves the camera surveying the morning after devastation. Honda pans his camera across a burned-out, flattened landscape which could easily be substituted for real pictures of Hiroshima, before transitioning to a crowded hospital where Emiko works as a volunteer nurse. There the camera dwells upon the burned survivors, which include a scores of shocked women and sobbing, orphaned children. It’s a chilling scene, aided immeasurably by Akira Ifukube’s awesome orchestral score.
Fifty years later the central metaphor of Godzilla
comes through loud and clear, especially since we live, thanks to both the terrorists and the Bush Administration, under the constant fear and anxiety of a WMD attack. It is interesting that Rialto Pictures, the US distributor of the Japanese version of Godzilla
, was also responsible for the recent US rerelease of Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful 1965 film The Battle of Algiers
, which despite its age, was widely hailed as the most relevant film of 2003-04. You can probably add the more outlandish Godzilla
to that list as well. According to J. Hoberman in his Village Voice review
"As crass as it is visionary, Godzilla
belongs with and might trump the art films Hiroshima Mon Amour
and Dr. Strangelove
as a daring attempt to fashion poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.” An embodiment of atomic anxiety that can only be defeated by an even greater evil, well its eerily prescient.