Well, Godzilla has returned and overall has garnered some good reviews.
"Godzilla: why the Japanese original is no joke"
How could Japan take a man in a suit so seriously? As Gareth Edwards's Godzilla is released, Tim Martin looks at the nuclear nightmares that created the 1954 original
May 15th, 2014
Western audiences have spent more than half a century thinking of Godzilla as a joke dinosaur in a rubber suit, a Japanese trash-culture ‘King of the Monsters’ locked in endless battle with giant moths, dragons, armadillos and skyscraper-sized robots. Against this camp backdrop, then, it may seem surprising to hear Gareth Edwards, the director of this summer’s Godzilla film, declare his intention to portray the monster as “a force of nature, like the wrath of God or vengeance for the way we’ve behaved”.
But the idea of presenting Godzilla as the harbinger of man-made apocalypse isn't simply another gritty reboot for an age in which children’s franchises have become big-budget adult entertainment. It harks back 60 years to an almost forgotten chapter in the franchise’s history: the tragic story of nuclear paranoia told by the original Gojira in 1954.
Released in the same year as Seven Samurai, directed by a colleague of Kurosawa’s and starring one of Japan’s most famous actors, the film Gojira was a far cry from its B-movie successors. It was a sober allegory of a film with ambitions as large as its thrice-normal budget, designed to shock and horrify an adult audience.
Its roster of frightening images — cities in flames, overstuffed hospitals, irradiated children — would have been all too familiar to cinemagoers for whom memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still less than a decade old, while its script posed deliberately inflammatory questions about the balance of postwar power and the development of nuclear energy.
To its first viewers in 1954, Gojira also evoked a disturbingly recent catastrophe. In March that year, the crew of a boat called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) had been fishing off the Marshall Islands, the string of atolls in the Northern Pacific that had been captured from Japan by the US during the Second World War.
Just before dawn, they saw a blinding flash in the sky and heard what sounded like a thunderclap. Before long a white ash began to settle on the decks of their vessel, which the bewildered sailors shovelled into heaps and dumped over the side. By evening, several of them were vomiting and covered in strange burns. When the Lucky Dragon limped back to its home port of Yaizu a fortnight later, it was clear that the men were suffering from radiation sickness.
It was less than two years since Japan’s American occupiers had made their exit from the country, and memories of the A-bomb attacks that had ended the war were still painfully fresh. When the US acknowledged that the crew of the Lucky Dragon had been caught in the fallout from its secret hydrogen bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, the Japanese reaction was immediate and furious. Other fishing boats were soon found to have been similarly exposed, and the bottom dropped out of the lucrative tuna market. When the Lucky Dragon’s radio operator died that autumn, 400,000 people went to his funeral.
In this tense atmosphere, the opening scenes of Gojira could scarcely have been more provocative. Thudding drumbeats and unearthly howls accompany the stark opening titles, before the scene changes to the deck of a fishing boat in the Pacific, where the crew are relaxing, chatting and playing guitar. The ocean begins to boil. The men are blinded and burnt as they flee in terror. Tapping out his desperate SOS below decks, the ship’s radio operator is the first to die. Once again, Gojira suggested, the Japanese people was being attacked in its homeland by history’s greatest superweapon.
But why cast such an incendiary political statement as a monster movie? The answer lies with Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer at Toho Studios in Tokyo, who in early 1954 found himself faced with a professional catastrophe. The film he was preparing, a co-production between the cinema industries in Japan and Indonesia, had just collapsed after the Indonesian government cancelled visas for the main actors.
Tanaka was confronted with a gaping hole in his autumn release schedule, but he had been an admirer of American monster movies since King Kong in 1933 and had recently read about the latest example, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, released the year before. Could he, he wondered, use a similar conceit to explore Japanese fears about the use of nuclear weapons in the postwar age?
Tanaka hired the science-fiction writer Shigeru Kayama to produce a script. Initially, this document made no bones about its influences: its Japanese working title translates as Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea. More importantly still, Tanaka began to discuss the project with two other Toho regulars: the special effects supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya and the director Ishiro Honda.
Each came from an unusual background. Tsubaraya was a mechanical genius who claimed to have built his first film camera as a child. During the war he had also specialised in modelmaking for Japanese propaganda films. So realistic was his re-creation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, according to legend, that the American occupying forces assumed it was real and sent it home to be used in newsreel footage. Tsubaraya was as fond as Tanaka of the nascent genre of monster cinema in America. In fact, he clung on for some time to the early suggestion that the antagonist in Gojira should be a giant octopus.
Tsubaraya agreed to undertake the vast task of recreating and destroying a model Tokyo in return for equal billing with the film’s director. This was Ishiro Honda, a former colleague of Akira Kurosawa’s who had assisted him on films such as Stray Dog (1949) and directed several features of his own.
Honda was an ex-soldier who had survived the firebombing of Tokyo, had been captured and imprisoned in China and, on his return to Japan, had passed through the devastation that the A-bomb had wrought in Hiroshima. “There was,” he later said of the experience, “a feeling that the world was already coming to an end. Ever since I felt that this atomic fear would hang around our necks for ever.”
Honda recruited another screenwriter, Takeo Murata, to develop these ideas in the script. At some point, too, the men changed the title to one less baldly revealing of its American origins. The word Gojira is a portmanteau of two Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) but it is not clear who decided to apply it to a radioactive dinosaur the size of a mountain. One legend runs that it was the nickname for a burly member of the film’s technical crew, but no one has ever explained exactly who; and, as Honda’s wife later observed, the filmmaking team “loved to joke around with tall stories”.
Planning the destruction of the capital was not without its problems. Two members of the team were detained by security guards as they stood on the roof of a department store, discussing the trail of devastation that Gojira would cut across the city. Back in the studio, Tsubaraya was working on the problem of his lifelike monster.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had already demonstrated the stop-motion animation that would make Ray Harryhausen a legend among 20th-century animators, but Tsubaraya chose to employ a different approach. He built a latex dinosaur suit, fortified with bamboo spars, with jaws that could be snapped at will by the technician inside. He would, he decided, shoot the monster scenes at double speed, then slow them down to give an impression of stomping inertia.
This technique came to be known as "suitmation", and became an integral part of the camp allure of subsequent Godzilla films. The actors playing Godzilla based their lumbering performance on the bears at Tokyo Zoo, but the thick rubber monster suit, combined with the fierce set lighting required to shoot at double speed, placed drastic limits on their performance. Neither could spend more than two minutes inside it, and both fainted frequently from the stress. One of them lost 20lb on the shoot, and found himself pouring a cupful of sweat out of the suit at the end of each take.
With the film well under way, the producers turned their attention to the music. Akira Ifukube, a university professor and one of Japan’s top composers of classical music, was recruited to develop a score that complemented the doom-laden, apocalyptic tone of the film, as well as to provide the noise of the monster’s footfalls and the sound of its roar. He did so by covering a leather glove in rosin and rubbing it across the strings of a double bass, producing an unearthly dissonant howl. Applying an electronic echo to the instrument’s deep sounds created a noise like thundering footsteps.
For Honda and Tanaka, the allegorical aspect of Gojira was paramount: “Mankind had created the Bomb,” as Tanaka later commented, “and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind”. Contemporary references abounded (“First contaminated tuna,” complains one woman to her neighbour on the train, “and now Godzilla”) and the film’s protagonists carried on a running debate about the validity of using violence against violence.
The final lines abandoned indirectness for a cliffhanger warning: “If we keep conducting nuclear tests,” intoned a wise old palaeontologist over the monster’s remains, “another Godzilla may appear somewhere in the world.”
The sternness of this message made the film a divisive proposition in Japan. Audiences turned out in droves, attracted by a sinister radio drama that was broadcast on national radio for weeks before the film’s release, but many critics felt that its grim scene-setting and overt references to the Lucky Dragon catastrophe were simply too close to the bone.
Its thematic preoccupation with nuclear energy proved even less acceptable to the American distributors who, after buying the film, began an extensive reshoot and recut for Western markets. Scenes were inserted featuring the actor Raymond Burr (later famous for his roles in Perry Mason and Ironside) as an American reporter covering the destruction of Tokyo, while references to American testing and the dangers of radioactivity were assiduously hacked out.
But this radical intervention would prove strangely influential on the franchise's development. Released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956, it was panned by critics (one of whom complained of “a dinosaur made of gumshoes and about $20 worth of toy trains”) but a hit with the public, who flocked to see what the posters called its “psychotic cavalcade of electrifying horror”. Bizarrely, this recut version was even exported again to Japan, where audiences turned out once more to watch it with subtitles.
What the public wanted, it seemed, was not grim nuclear allegory but more monster movies, and Toho Studios was there to oblige. In the years that followed, Tanaka found himself presiding over the development of the most famous creature in a new genre of so-called kaiju (monster) movies, battling a cast of bizarre foes in films that soon became a cultish pleasure for children of all ages. In the adventures of Mechagodzilla, Mothra, Son of Godzilla and a host of city-stomping animal freaks, the political philosophising and existential terror of the first film soon became little more than a black-and-white footnote.
William M. Tsutsui, an American historian and Japan expert who has written extensively on Godzilla, explains that the series was at its wackiest and most humorous “in the decades when Japan’s economy was booming. In the Sixties and Seventies, when Japan was growing at 10 per cent a year, the monster became a sort of happy monster, a protective monster, a goofy monster, not a threatening one.”
Despite the giant lizard’s growing international fame, the Godzilla films in the intervening years have appealed more to dedicated fans of monster combat than to mainstream cinemagoers. Toho has insisted on using physical effects rather than CGI, and while Godzilla aficionados may treasure the way in which this limits the films to puppetry and so-called ‘suitmation’, they look fascinatingly low-tech in an age of CGI.
The human cast, meanwhile, seem wearily conscious that their cheesy lines and daft situations are only there as placeholders before the biff-pow gigantomachy resumes, and low receipts have twice forced Toho to call a halt to its flagship series. Godzilla took a nine-year holiday from 1975-1984, and after the disappointing 50th-anniversary special Final Wars in 2004 Toho demolished its main water stage and refused to license or make any more films for a decade.
Recent events, however, suggest that the moment may be right for Godzilla to return. “In the days immediately after the Fukushima disaster in 2011,” Tsutsui observes, “Google hits on Godzilla spiked. People went back to look at the movies, and look at the lessons filmmakers had been bringing forward about the fears of untrammelled nuclear energy and weapons testing.”
Gulliermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, released the next year and dedicated to Ishiro Honda and to Ray Harryhausen, suggested a renewal of the fitful interest in the giant-monster movie that had been stirring in America since the millennium with films such as Peter Jackson’s King Kong and JJ Abrams’s Cloverfield. (Even Godzilla fans prefer to forget Roland Emmerich’s disastrous attempt to reboot the franchise in 1998 with a giant iguana.)
Ultimately, though, Pacific Rim was more of a eulogy to the tradition than an exercise in political comment. “I want the joy I used to get seeing Godzilla toss a tank without having to think there are guys in the tank,” del Toro commented. “There’s global anxiety about how fragile the world is, and the safety of citizens, but the film is in another realm.”
This year’s effort, set in the aftermath of a Fukushima-like nuclear meltdown and evoking the panic and disaster of a decade of natural disasters, looks a more serious proposition. As Tsutsui points out, though, the franchise “allows filmmakers to reflect on the tensions and problems with society, and how those can be brought to the surface through a gigantic irradiated lizard walking through a city,” and has, even in its darkest moments, trod a certain line between absurdity and acuity.
It remains to be seen where on this scale Gareth Edwards’s contribution to Godzillan history will fall. But if there’s one thing the franchise has delighted in proving over the past 60 years, it’s that Japan’s most famous monster is always capable of rising again.
"Godzilla is the latest blockbuster to punish the sins of mankind"
Gareth Edwards' take on the classic joins Noah and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as another of summer's anti-humanist fables
May 15th, 2014
My favorite quote from the trades last week was, "Warner Bros has avoided making Godzilla out to be a monster movie." What else are they going to make it out to be? A coming-of-age picture about the Summer that Changed Everything? A Merchant Ivory flick? Actually, the new film arrives in cinemas boasting the highest pedigree of any creature feature hitherto, with an Alexandre Desplat score, and roles for David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, thus making it the first and surely only time “Juliette Binoche” and “300-foot lizard” will ever be uttered in the same sentence. It’s a good movie – maybe too good, with its visual sophistication leaving its B-movie roots poking through. Was Godzilla ever meant to have $200m spent on him? Wasn’t the original a warning against American technological know-how?
We are a long way from the man-in-a-rubber-suit who wobbled through a model Tokyo in the 1954 original. Newly scaled up to keep pace with the latest skyscrapers, Godzilla is glimpsed teasingly, through Cloverfield POV shots for the first hour, before finally taking centre stage to defend mankind from MUTOs – giant nuclear mutants that look like the queen alien in Aliens and snack on nuclear missiles like Twinkie bars. The scenes of cataclysm, most of them at night, have a sulphurous power, as if director Gareth Edwards had prepared by boning up on Gustave Doré's engravings for Paradise Lost. At one point we see a mountain – or a silhouette our eye had taken to be a mountain – move, in one of the best such sleights of hand since Spielberg’s headlights-in-the-rearview-mirror gag in Close Encounters. If only Edwards had held it longer.
Needless to say, all human scale is obliterated. Cranston, as the nuclear engineer reduced to conspiratorial babbling, may be the smartest casting choice of the summer: when even Walter White throws a hissy fit, you know things are bad. He and Binoche hold the screen for as long as they are allowed, but soon have to make way for the demographically-approved chosen ones, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Taylor-Johnson is a physical actor who likes to storm into a room and pace its four corners like a lion, but when faced with the sight of two giant nuclear mutants treating masonry like meringue, he wears an expression of mild consternation, as if remembering he’d left the oven on. He spends most of the movie trying to catch a train to get back to Olsen, but we couldn’t care less. Unlike King Kong, this was never a story scaled with a human adversary in mind. “What are we supposed to do?” asks Navy Commander David Straithairn. “Sit back and watch?”
Well, actually yes. What makes Godzilla such a curious summer blockbuster is it rootedness in failure – specifically the feeling of stunned national impotence that gripped Japan in the aftermath of the second world war. Cultural studies professors like to peel back the keloid-scarred skin of the series to reveal the lurking atomic bomb subtext lurking underneath, but there’s no “subtext” about it. That’s what Godzilla was about. It’s the text.
“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb,” said producer and Godzilla creator Tanaka Tomoyuki. Passing through the ruins of Hiroshima upon his repatriation to Japan, the 1954 film’s director Honda Ishuro noted “a fear the earth was already coming to an end”. He filled his movie with visions that directly summoned the spectres of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: families pulling cart-loads of possessions, children being relocated in army trucks, hordes of injured refugees, churches of widows and orphans, hospitals overflown with the dead and the dying, the camera lingering on a little girl her eyes glazed in shock whose irradiated body sends the geiger counter off the scale.
“Godzilla functioned not simply as a figure of war incarnate or a metaphorical admonition of nuclear annihilation, but also became a reproachful symbol embodying the spirit of Japan’s war dead,” writes William Tsutsui in his book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of the Monsters. Very little of this, needless to say, made it through into the bowdlerized, American edit, which smoothed over the moral crisis of radiation with the calming tones of Raymond Burr recasting Godzilla as just another monster on the loose, recalled to the screen again and again for what amounted to prolonged bouts of monster-on-monster pro-wrestling. Mankind was relegated to the status of stupefied observer, like those cavemen that cowered in the corner of Ray Harryhausen epics while the dinosaurs duked it out above.
Edwards has more than honored the spirit of the original. Those hospitals are now filled with Americans and tended to by Elizabeth Olsen, while refugees collect in giant sports stadiums that recall the aftermath of Katrina. The American psyche wold appear to be in roughly the same state of disrepair as that of Japan in 1954. We’re ready for Godzilla in a way we weren’t in 1998, when Roland Emmerich rolled out his remake. If the cycle of disaster movies that gripped audiences in the 1990s were notable for their jocular oops-apocalypse tone – “Ha ha! It's the wonder of nature, baby!” boomed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as tornadoes ripped up the south in Jan De Bont’s Twister – our contemporary variants are joke-free zones in which mankind isn’t just threatened with extinction. We're told we deserve it.
Not only do we bring our own nuclear doom upon our heads in Godzilla, but in a few weeks' time, we stand in the dock once again, indicted for crimes against the primate in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And this just a few Sundays after God annihilated the Earth on account of our wickedness in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. “The wickedness is not just in them, it’s in all of us,” insisted Russell Crowe’s prophet. “It had to be what He wanted – a world without men. You see that, don’t you?”
The right went into its usual tizzy over Aronofsky’s film, with Glenn Beck saying, “it’s just so pro-animal and anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human,” but for once, the nut fringe was basically right. The blockbuster has finally gone post-human. The Godzilla movies always tilted audience sympathy towards the monster, of course, but as Edwards' lizard takes a bow and slips into the ocean once more at the end of the film, I felt something else: a nip of the old Avatar blues. The first true hero of summer and he doesn’t even say goodbye.
Daigo Fukuryu- Maru [Wikipedia]
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