there goes tokyo

godzilla gojiraWhen my mom needed to get rid of us on Saturday afternoons she’d make us a grocery bag full of popcorn and have my dad drop us off at either the Meralta or The Avenue* (they were basically across the street from each other) for whatever double feature was playing that day.  I saw all the great ones there: Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy, the Abbott and Costello movies, Disney stuff…and Japanese nuclear monster flicks.   I loved Godzilla movies.  While I can’t say that I’ve seen them all, I’ve seen a lot of them, especially the earlier good ones, before they got too silly even for me.   I’d sit in the dark, crunching popcorn, enraptured by the grainy black and white images of a giant “dinosaur” stomping various Japanese cities flat.

In the version I saw back then Raymond Burr (who grew up to be Perry Mason and Ironside) played an American reporter investigating rumors of a giant sea monster; his added parts served as a framework for events which are primarily told in flashback up to the iconic monster march through Tokyo.  The movie was badly dubbed and many of the more interesting “Japanese” aspects of it were removed to make it tolerable (and understandable) to American audiences.    I knew none of this as a kid, of course, and was just happy to watch giant monsters rampaging around.

A few years ago, the original 1954 Japanese version of the first Godzilla movie was released and last year the movie was remixed, remastered, and re-released on Blu-Ray.  Now titled “Gojira” (based on the original kanji version of the monster’s name), it is a glimpse into another world and another time.  It’s also subbed rather than dubbed, which is a vast improvement.  So I made some popcorn and gave it a go.

SPOILER ALERT!!  (but honestly, if you’ve never seen Godzilla…you are so lame.)

The movie opens on a pleasant enough scene of sailors at sea.  It’s the end of a long day, they are heading  home, and they pass the time by playing some music on the deck.  Suddenly the sea boils, there is a bright flash of light, and the last we see of the terrified sailors is a wave washing over their flaming boat.  Back home on Ohto Island worried representatives of the salvage company send another boat to find the first one; it also disappears.  In a couple of days a few half-dead survivors wash up on the shore, ranting about a giant sea monster.   The island itself is attacked at night by something later described as “not like a normal hurricane.  Everything was destroyed from the top.”  An eminent zoologist and his pretty daughter head to the island in search of this monster of legend.  In the ruins of the village they find giant radioactive footprints and as they are pondering this development the monster itself appears.

We all know what Godzilla looks like.  He’s about a million feet tall, dark green, has feet as big as buses, and a tail that can sweep a city street clean.  He breathes fire and his roar makes the earth shake.   I’m happy to say that the years haven’t diminished him.   In Gojira his arrival is announced by a distant roar, the ground trembles, and the panicked citizens race from their village to find him just cresting a hill on his way back to the sea.    He glares at them and stomps by, wrecking what’s left of the village on his way, and when the dust settles everyone heads back to the city to figure out what to do.

As usual in these movies, the military solution fails.   They try shooting him; this fails.  They try depth-charge bombing; this fails.  They install a giant electric fence; this fails badly when Godzilla melts the transformer towers with his breath.  The zoologist is saddened.  He doesn’t want Godzilla killed.  What he really wants to know is why is it alive at all, since by now they have realized that Godzilla has been exposed to massive amounts of nuclear radiation.  Although it did not create him, it definitely strengthened him, and it appears to have really pissed him off.  But more aggressive heads prevail and once Godzilla marches on Tokyo the necessity of destroying him becomes apparent.

These days there are many people who can’t get past the cheesy special effects in old movies and given the technological capabilities now available this is understandable.  After all, why watch people stamping around in rubber suits when you can watch visually sophisticated dreck like Avatar?   They can do anything with computers nowadays and the old days of monster costumes, miniature sets, and stop-action filming seem kind of quaint.  It’s an interesting thing about these primitive movies though; even the guy in the suit is an actor and at least in Gojira he takes his craft seriously.   When he attacks Tokyo, you believe it in a way you often don’t with modern movies.  After all, in this movie the monster is a real physical being stomping on and crushing real physical objects and the flames that burn Tokyo are real flames.  CGI and sound effects can mimic this (or distract you enough that you don’t notice how ephemeral it really is) but they never really quite make it seem as real.  So even though Godzilla is a guy in a suit and the city he attacks is made of cardboard, when the monster drags itself out of Tokyo Bay and smashes a train on its way to the city, and terrified people pour out of buildings as the city burns around them and Godzilla roars in triumph, it is by any measure a powerful scene.  It is such an iconic scene that most monster movies at some point have their monster crush a major city (think Cloverfield).

Having made his point, Godzilla heads back to the sea and the push to destroy him becomes more pressing.   The pretty daughter of the zoologist has a fiance who has been developing a super-weapon, called the Oxygen Disruptor (I’d say “here comes the science” but there isn’t any; just accept that it works and it’s awesome).  She goes to see him.  He is terrified of the destructive power he has developed and although he demonstrates it for her he makes her promise not to tell anyone.   However, after seeing the despair caused by the destruction of Tokyo, she breaks her promise and she and her boyfriend (don’t ask) go see him to ask for his help.  At first he refuses but when he sees the devastation in the city he agrees to use the device once only.  He sets off the device under the ocean near where the monster is sleeping, the water bubbles and boils, and the last we see of Godzilla is his skeleton settling to the ocean floor.   In order to prevent his device from ever being used to harm humans the scientist then kills himself.  The movie ends on a tentatively hopeful note.  Godzilla is dead but humanity’s fascination with nuclear weaponry means that the world will never be safe from another monster.

It’s a simple monster movie, but not so simple.   Fifty percent of Tokyo was destroyed by fire bombs during World War II; the worst firebombing in history occurred there in 1945, only nine years before Godzilla stomped his way into Tokyo.  Nearly everyone watching this movie in Japan would have had immediate and personal experience with large scale destruction and fiery death and it must have resonated with them in way we cannot possibly understand today.  I usually shy away from cheap metaphor but it is not hard to see Godzilla as the embodiment of war itself, angry, implacable, unstoppable.

The nuclear angle is inescapable.   Gojira was released less than 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.   Japan was then and remains today the only nation on earth that has felt nuclear fury (and we remain the only nation that has ever used nuclear weapons).   The speculation throughout the film is that Godzilla is an ancient creature who was awoken from deep hibernation by nearby nuclear testing.  It is unclear whether exposure to radiation increased his powers but it is obvious that the careless use of nuclear weapons has created a beast too powerful for humans to kill without creating an even more dangerous weapon.  It is the arms race in a nutshell.  (Most of the polite snarking about the rash use of nuclear power was removed from the American version of the movie.)

The movie is very dark; many scenes rely solely on the light from flames.  Night scenes are murky and claustrophobic.  When Godzilla attacks a village during a storm it is hard to separate his destruction from that of the wind and it is only the sound of his roaring that signals to the terrified villagers that something other than nature is attacking them.   When he attacks Tokyo the unusual effect of normal sized flames burning down knee-high buildings is arresting and terrifying.  Godzilla is never seen in his entirety, only in part, so that he seems massive, too big for the camera to capture.   His immensity is captured succinctly when they find one of his footprints.  It is so large they don’t recognize it as a footprint at first and so deep that when they jump down into it they are in a waist-high depression.  The humans in the movie are often shot from slightly above so that they seem smaller.  Next to Godzilla everything the humans have –weapons, electrical towers, trains, helicopters, cities– seem like toys.

The symbolism in the noble self-sacrifice of the scientist was not lost on this child of the Cold War and it probably wasn’t lost on the movie’s 1954 Japanese audience either.  Rather than unleash his terrible weapon on humanity, he destroys all his research notes and prototypes and takes his only working version with him to fight the monster.  Once Godzilla is destroyed he cuts his own oxygen line, thus ensuring that even his memories can’t serve as the basis for recreating such a devastating device and starting humanity down another path from which it cannot turn back.

Score:  w00t!

* Sadly, the Meralta is no more.   They tore it down and put up a parking lot.  The Avenue is about to go the same way.  Sigh.

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~ by gun street girl on January 28, 2010.

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