Sunday, October 10, 2010

Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda)

The original Godzilla is one of the unsung examples of what a difference black and white can make to a movie. Color can't help turning a giant monster attack into something fun and unlike the pop culture phenomenon known as Godzilla, the original film is very concerned with dramatizing the human impact of a huge lizard walking through town. There are hospitals forced to fill the hallways with the injured, and a poignant scene of a mother telling her kids as the debris rains down around them that they'll be seeing daddy soon - Godzilla was conceived as a horrifying image with the dramatic weight of human loss left in his wake and the black and white is integral to that effect. The proximity to World War II gives a newsreel quality to the editing of the Japanese army's defense efforts and the destruction of Tokyo. This was a new kind of science fiction-horror hybrid movie, focusing on the human powerlessness in the face of an incomprehensible behemoth to evoke a kind of Lovecraftian dread which even contemporary American monster movies of the time could gloss over in the spectacle of special effects. The closest preceding story was in fact a direct influence: Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953, Eugene Lourie), a Ray Bradbury penned script about an ancient dinosaur unfrozen from the Arctic by atomic blasts. However, that beast was essentially a quadruped iguana and giant bugs (or a giant ape) are after all still giant versions of recognizable creatures and not alien anomalies from the ocean deep, like Cthulu. Godzilla evokes a feeling of helplessness before the unknown that is a hallmark of great paranoid science fiction.

The difference between Godzilla and America's own wave of atomic monster movies in the 1950s is obvious and has been well documented: August 6th and 9th, 1945. The influence of these events is most overt in the depiction of human loss and is only once directly mentioned out loud, otherwise the components of the film are actually interchangeable from the American product: the main characters are an old scientist, a strapping young man scientist and his love interest, the old scientist's beautiful young daughter. We spend a lot of time with military and government men trying to figure the situation out and come up with a plan. The fact Japan has a personal connection to destruction on such a wide scale is highly understated and must be gleaned out from the level of composure all these talking heads seem to have, even in the face of a giant lizard monster. No one at a high level of authority ever really freaks out, just the island farmers who first spot Godzilla and later some excitable newsmen who narrate the climactic destruction of Tokyo a la the Hindenburg. This could also be due to the culture's regard for personal reserve and composure, or the general faith Cold War monster films had in elected officials to handle any crisis. Either way, the allegory must have spoken for itself to Japanese audiences at the time. There's clever reference early in the film to a real incident involving a fisherman contaminated by atomic testing, replicated with Godzilla instead. While categorizing the entire film as one long nuclear holocaust allegory is oversimplifying the aims of the filmmakers, every scene benefits from the consideration that while American giant monster flicks were projecting certain fears, this film was made in the aftermath of those realities.

Godzilla was one of the first major special effects films made in Japan and they're a mixed bag. With no institutionalized talents in the field to choose from, the film establishes two major facets for Japanese special effects in the future: miniature cities and monster suits. Both look better in black and white. The strange thing about the city models is that they range from looking incredibly realistic to completely phony from one shot to the next, alternately rewarding your suspension of disbelief and forcing your imagination to smooth over the discord when you realize you're basically looking at a train set toy town. Godzilla himself is close enough in resemblance to be recognizable as the international icon who came later. The differences are very particular to the tone of his debut as an object of fear and not protector of the Earth from other, even less friendly monsters. His head is more demonic and vicious looking and his famed fire breathing resembles nothing less than a dragon from Hades, especially when lit up against pitch black night sky. In the color movies that came later, he was green. Here, he's black as sin, a blot wiping out the city lights. The performance of the guy in the suit is what is is. While "G-Fans" could probably define the degrees between the various stuntmen who've worn all the different suits over the years the way Friday the 13th fans can distinguish the Jasons, all I could see was the prototypical movements that have lasted for decades. The reason for the suit was lack of budget for the kind of stop-motion animation seen in King Kong, and the results have the opposite effect compared to Willis O'Brien's visceral characterization of Kong as a flinty predator. Godzilla is more a slow, unstoppable force of nature whose movements take on a kind of ballet. Fortunately there's real life in the theatricality of the fakery. Most of the close-ups are of a puppet head with rod arms, not the suit, and while they don't even look as good as the suit's head they do emphasize the monstrousness.

The sound design deserves special mention. While the melodies of Akira Ifukube aren't much more than Japanese pentatonic tones layered into bombastic cues of American horror except when Godzilla himself is involved. Ifukube strikes huge drums and horns in a footstep rhythm which helps tremendously in establishing the presence of a giant. Godzilla's bellow of rage is almost as iconic as anything else about him, and has probably only ever been matched by the T-Rex from Jurassic Park in terms of effectiveness.

The biggest problem with Godzilla is one which I imagine plagued the rest of the series: the lead actors are stiffs. Only Akihiko Hirata as a pacifist patch-eyed scientist who doesn't want his recent discovery used as a weapon, even to kill Godzilla, has a dramatic arc wrapped up in the broader themes of the film. Takashi Shimura as Professor Yamane, the old scientist with a beautiful young daughter, isn't bad when unloading all the pseudoscientific exposition about who Godzilla is and where he came from. The fates of he and his daughter and his colleague/daughter's boyfriend are never as compelling as the film's many vignettes of the nameless little people Godzilla squashes on his way to the top. Besides the aforementioned scenes of human suffering in the wake of a national crisis, there are crusty old island fishermen who apparently knew about Godzilla and give perspective on the rapidly yawning gulf between the superstitious Japan of old and the exponentially modernizing post-War years of American occupation. There could be no American monster movie equivalent thereof; the only souls who know about ancient dormant beasts are the foreigners of Skull Island and Transylvania. The version of this film which became famous in America was recut as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and starred Raymond Burr. This might have helped the film in more ways than one, as one of the more curious aspects of the story is how this giant monster doesn't receive international attention outside Japan. Burr's old fashioned melodramatic style might be preferable to the stuffy politeness at hand.

The residual grimness of Godzilla's conception is a pleasant surprise in light of the monster's decades of gentrification.

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