REVIEW: Godzilla (1954)

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Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeo Murata and Ishirô Honda, Story by Shigeru Kayama
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

The Big One. Or rather, the Big G.

Godzilla, the first of many films starring the titular gargantuan reptile, ignited a tradition in the then-infant Japanese film industry, the tokusatsu, or special effects, film, and forced the island nation to come to grips with their unique and unfortunate history with humanity’s deadliest invention: the nuclear weapon. Godzilla still stands as a triumph above that final chapter of imperial shame, above much of tokusatsu that came after, and indeed, above most science fiction cinema in general.

Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk, the results of neither natural phenomenon nor foreign action. An expedition to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were lost, led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.

I’m sure most of you know the story by now: several Japanese fishing vessels are lost at sea, while a giant creature living off the coast of Odo Island is discovered to be at fault. An ancient reptile awakened by nuclear weapons testing, it is dubbed Godzilla by the inquisitive Dr. Yamane before it begins walking ashore towards Tokyo, bringing a trail of fiery destruction with it. What some of you may not know is just how topical and in tune with the events of the time this film was, or how unfortunately relevant it remains today. Conceived by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka after another project fell through, Godzilla is still the apex of tokusatsu, equaled by none.

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Tanaka’s idea was born out of two of Japan’s biggest events of 1954. That year saw the official end of the American occupation and the return of complete control to the new republican government and the newly-established Self Defense Forces. Before Godzilla, all Japanese entertainment had to be approved by the occupation, which severely limited portrayals of Japanese military might and government stability. Watching the film proves that this was no longer the reality by the time of its release, with the valiant efforts of the SDF against the monster and the scenes of the Diet locked in fierce debate.

The other major event of 1954 was the Lucky Dragon incident, from which the film’s first act takes heavy inspiration. During the American Castle Bravo H-bomb test of that year, the fishing trawler Lucky Dragon No. 5 strayed too close to the fallout, resulting in the crew suffering radiation sickness and even one death. This sparked a chill in American-Japanese relations right after the occupation, and stunned a population who still harbored fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cue the opening scene of Godzilla, aboard the fishing vessel Eiko-maru:

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In the midst of this fealty to the outside world, director Ishiro Honda presents some fairly traditional scenes of two lovers, Ogata and Emiko, trying to navigate their young relationship in the face of not only the fishing disasters, but Emiko’s father Yamane, and her fiancé Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a reclusive, scarred war vet with a terrible secret locked in his lab. Their affair quickly spirals into the background of a bitter debate when Godzilla is revealed to the world at large: Honda’s film excels at navigating the moral and ethical grey areas of the existence of such a monster, whether in the salient Diet debate over whether to publish the truth of Godzilla’s threat or conceal it to preserve order and the economy, or in Yamane’s quiet torment over being the only person to want to save the creature, seeing only its potential to unlock the secrets of radioactivity, and its resistance to it.

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In this subplot is where Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata begin to truly play with the real-world consequences of the nuclear age. While the original storywriter Shigeru Kayama made Yamane a Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque cloaked figure, engaged in sabotage against the SDF to protect Godzilla, Takashi Shimura’s Yamane is much more contemplative and down-to-earth, desperately trying to salvage something noteworthy and meaningful to mankind out of its most foolish and terrible mistakes, manifest in the monster itself. Shimura becomes the easily the best performer in a strong collection of actors on screen, preserving a countenance of regret over the futility of his efforts.

Image result for godzilla 1954 serizawaSo too Akihiko Hirata as Serizawa, whose secret lab is revealed to house a new and terrible superweapon: the Oxygen Destroyer, a substance capable of liquefying any organic material in water, a sure way to kill Godzilla. But therein lies his dilemma: the Oxygen Destroyer is an easy contender for a new weapon of mass destruction in the ever-escalating Cold War, and he fears that his discovery will become another tool of the superpowers against innocent people unless he can find a better, more humane use for his compound. Like Yamane, Serizawa seems to be trying to salvage a workable future from mankind’s violent past and present, although his character arc is much more reminiscent of the real life J. Robert Oppenheimer, the remorseful creator of the atomic age.

Undoubtedly, however, the main event of Godzilla to most viewers would be Godzilla himself. Portrayed by a combination of puppets and a large, 200-lb rubber suit, Godzilla, in this original film at least, remains a wholly-convincing special effect. While the puppet shots have most certainly aged poorly and don’t fit with the rest of the footage, the cumbersome suit, worn valiantly through fainting spells and buckets of sweat by Haruo Nakajima, portrays a confused and tortured beast, staggering around a highly-detailed miniature Tokyo as if it is constantly in searing pain (the presence of keloid scars across its hide does much to bolster this observation). Honda’s stark black-and-white photography captures all of the nuances of Nakajima’s performance and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, resulting in an image eerily reminiscent of wartime footage that would have been very hard to watch for those who had survived it. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s still-haunting score, the effect is palpable.

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Godzilla would become a smashing success in Japan and several other markets in its original release in 1954, convincing a skeptical public that Japan was a new contender in big special effects pictures, while still telling a dark and emotional story at its core. For its wide American release, Transworld Pictures commissioned a re-edited version, starring Raymond Burr in reshoots as Steve Martin, a newspaperman on whom the altered story would center. While toning down its more anti-war and nuclear age arguments (most certainly due to American Cold War attitudes of the time), Godzilla, King of theImage result for godzilla raymond burr Monsters! is still a solid Americanization of the original film, indeed, probably the best of them. Burr’s Martin, acting as a narrator to smooth the gaps in the story caused by the editing, is a fascinating character in his own right, and unlike later dubs, much of the original characters’ dialogue remain intact, creating a respectful image of the actors and their heritage. Indeed, without this version of the film, Godzilla may not be as popular as he is today, owing to the fact that King of the Monsters! was much more widely distributed across the world.

Godzilla seems to be an acquired taste, even with viewers who claim to be fans. Still thought of by the general populace as “that green dinosaur who fights aliens,” Godzilla may surprise those folks with its chilling realism and somber tone–if they manage to survive a viewing. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a film that I wish was, for in today’s world, it seems the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t taken seriously anymore. I can’t count on my hands how many times in a week I hear co-workers or passersby dismiss the Middle East or North Korea with a simple ‘nuke-em’ statement, and I can’t help but wonder if the Earth decided to regurgitate a monster born from this ignorant view to wreak havoc upon their lives, would they regret what they so often think?

This is the message of Godzilla. Heed it well.

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REVIEW: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

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Directed by Ishiro Honda
Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Starring Tadao Takashima, Kenji Sahara, Yu Fujiki, Ichiro Arishima, Jun Tazaki, Akihiko Hirata, Mie Hama

Odds are, if you and your friends had any love for giant monsters growing up, you’ve definitely had the big argument: who would win in a one-on-one fight, Kong or Godzilla? I know I did, and I always bet on the Big G. It wasn’t until I finally saw the actual fight on my newly-purchased VHS tape at age 10 that I realized it was a little more even-sided. And silly.

Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), the producer of a low rated television show called “Mysteries of the World”, decides his show needs some spicing up. So he sends two of his staff, Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (Yu Fujiki), to Faro Island to bring back proof of a giant ape named King Kong. Meanwhile, a submarine collides with an iceberg releasing Godzilla, who was trapped there seven years earlier. When Sakurai and Furue arrive at Faro, they do battle with a giant octopus, and uncover the mighty Kong. While in route to Japan aboard a giant raft, Kong breaks free and swims toward Japan, toward an inevitable collision course with Godzilla.

King Kong vs Godzilla has a long gestational history. After the financial and critical failure of Son of Kong, visual effects pioneer Willis O’Brien spent the next two decades attempting to craft a suitable followup to the original Kong. In the 1950s, he began pitching a project entitled King Kong vs Frankenstein, in which the giant ape would battle a likewise gargantuan version of Frankenstein’s monster, constructed by the mad doctor’s grandson in San Francisco from animal parts. After fleshing out the script with producer John Beck and writer George Yates into King Kong vs Prometheus, he continued trying to sell the film, to no success. Beck, however, managed to secure a buyer in Toho Studios, the owners of Godzilla. Having long wanted to produce their own official Kong film after several unauthorized shorts in the 1930s, Toho leaped at the chance, replacing Prometheus with Godzilla, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, how does the finished product hold up? Not too badly, as a matter of fact. Toho managed to take to heart some of the anti-colonialist themes of greed and avarice present in the orginal Kong and translate them well to what is essentially the third movie in the Showa-era Godzilla series. What is interesting is that director Honda, now famous for having helmed the immortal Gojira, decided to take the series in a lighter direction, radically redesigning Godzilla to appear less frightening, and toning down Kong’s personality to be less brutal and more comical. Corresponding characters of the Kong formula, such as Carl Denham’s Japanese counterpart Tako, and siblings Famiko and Sakurai, are played more for laughs.

Overtones of Godzilla’s nuclear menace, whilst not being completely jettisoned, are appropriately toned down, giving the film room to produce a fun atmosphere, focusing on a satirical look at consumerism and pop culture. At many places in the story, characters are seen to argue and chat over which monster is better, just like my friends and I did years later. Tako continuously schemes to use Kong in a giant advertising campaign to sell pharmaceuticals. Godzilla, despite being a nuclear terror roasting innocent people across the mainland, is said by Tako’s assistant to be getting a movie deal soon. On paper this sounds rather frustrating given the past outings of both monsters, but the film works very well with it. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t feel amused watching it.

Now these days, with the over-proliferation of CGI and modern effects techniques, it is a bit harder to fairly critique films from KKvG‘s decade, especially those from an entirely different culture. Most American audiences would find the film to be one of the silliest and most patently fake things put to celluloid, but one must put themselves into the shoes of a moviegoer of then. Japanese “tokusatsu” films were typically produced on smaller budgets than American special effects films, and with a different set of talent. Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects philosophy was built around suit acting and miniature sets, and this he excelled at greatly. Looking through this perspective, it delivers the goods as promised: hundreds of model buildings and war machines are trampled underfoot by the beasts, who proceed onward towards a climactic clash that, while taking almost the entire film to set up, is worth the wait, as it clocks in as almost the longest kaiju battle of the Showa films. The feats accomplished by the suit actors eclipse any shortcomings of the ropey effects work, once you realize how heavy they were: around 400 pounds. Just remember that when you see Shoichi Hirose in the Kong suit throw Godzilla over his head with no wires.

The third member of the Godzilla tripod after Honda and Tsuburaya was undeniably composer Akira Ifukube, and he turns in another masterclass effort with KKvG. This film’s rendition of the Godzilla theme is one of my absolute favorites, and the “battle theme” is also noteworthy, being reused in 1991’s Godzilla vs King Ghidorah. The only weak link I find with the score is Kong’s theme; it’s just too slow and bland to really stick with you. In fact, at times it feels woefully out of place with the rest of the music.

After KKvG went on to become the highest-grossing Godzilla film in Japan and internationally, John Beck set about bringing it back to the United States with a recut version, which was common practice at a time when the market for foreign films wasn’t what it is today. Unfortunately, the American version is plagued with several problems. In reshuffling many of the scenes, Beck felt it necessary to include many subpar “news show” sequences featuring English-speaking actors into the story to clear up plot points missing from his version. These scenes are truly laughable in their delivery and setup; the UN newsroom always has the same story props and the anchor is always wearing the exact same outfit, as if it was all shot in one day. His guest, a supposed paleontologist, espouses plot hole-producing contradictions and shows off children’s dinosaur books as if they were scholarly texts, while regurgitating speeches as if they were theatrical trailer taglines. Ifukube’s score is also completely removed and replaced with stock music, much of it from Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. While there are a few places where it works undeniably better than the Kong theme, it feels like sheer blasphemy that the entire end battle is scored like a ’30s film.

I would recommend that anyone interested in seeing the original clash of the towering titans, especially before WB recreates it in 2020, do so by viewing the original Japanese version first. It is simply a better paced, acted, and scored film, and doesn’t force you to set through a newscast that combines the worst parts of CNN and old-school newsreels. Sadly, KKvG suffers the indignity of being the only Showa Godzilla film whose original cut is still unavailable in the US. There is a Region A Japanese blu-ray available to import, and of course, there are always other, less legal ways to get around this problem. Whichever way you do so, just remember to go easy on it as far as effects and acting go. This is a different breed of film from a different era, one that just so happens to be one of the more entertaining Godzilla films out there, and is not a bad Kong film either.

REVIEW: Godzilla (2014)

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Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein and David Callaham
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

If you don’t already know, than you will soon find out just how much of a tokusatsu and kaiju film fanatic I am; just the fact that I refer to those films by their actual subgenre terms and not just as “Godzilla” movies should begin to account for that. With this known, hear me on this: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the redemption American filmmakers and audiences have been seeking since the first fumble Roland Emmerich’s film made with the Big G’s legacy. It’s probably even the best Godzilla film since the original 1954 classic. It certainly is the only one that feels like it belongs in the same class.

In 1999, the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan is mysteriously destroyed with most hands lost including supervisor Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, Sandra. Years later, Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy ordnance disposal officer, must go to Japan to help his estranged father who obsessively searches for the truth of the incident. In doing so, father and son discover the disaster’s secret cause on the wreck’s very grounds. This enables them to witness the reawakening of a terrible threat to all of Humanity, which is made all the worse with a second secret revival elsewhere of an even greater threat. And yet, this new enemy of civilization may be its only hope. And its name is Godzilla.

Edwards probably had the toughest job imaginable ahead of him when he accepted the job directing this film. Having only directed one film beforehand, even if it was the critically acclaimed Monsters, this must not have instilled a lot of confidence in the fanbase. Boy, were they wrong. Everything about his gargantuan vision is perfectly suited to the King of the Monsters, and in many ways improves upon what Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka envisioned for their God of Destruction over 60 years ago.

However, to talk to the average moviegoer who claims to have “watched Godzirra movies back in the day,” you’d think this movie was a sin against God. “There’s not enough Godzilla!” “It’s boring and pretentious!” “Not enough monster fighting!” These are the usual complaints I heard from behind the concession counter when this film was still in theaters.And sorry, but all of these arguments betray a lack of true love for the titular creature and what he represents. Godzilla is best understood not through the prism of the seemingly-countless Vs. series of films from 1956 on (and don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had there), but through the dark iris of 1954’s Gojira.

As expanded upon in The Long Take’s excellent comparison video, Edwards’ Godzilla opens the story with a disaster related to the headlines of the time: the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown becomes the Janjira tragedy. And then the new film branches off: while Tanaka’s Godzilla was always a response to unchecked nuclear testing and aggression, the title monster having been awakened and severely scarred by a nuclear bomb, Edwards’ Godzilla is impervious to the bomb, indeed, to all human attempts to destroy him. The new Godzilla represents the entirety of nature’s response to mankind’s stupidity and arrogance, effortlessly swatting away the best of our weapons and soldiers in his single-minded quest to destroy this film version’s nuclear allegory, the MUTOs.

With this, the writers achieved a distancing from the old anti-nuke allegory in a perfect way that doesn’t negate those fears; it expands upon them, bringing every human action against Mother Earth into sharp, uncompromising focus. From there, all the nitty-gritty narrative plot points become borrowed from the best of the unmade Godzilla films. The MUTOs are discovered within the carcass of another Godzilla-like creature, just like in Jan de Bont’s 1994 script. The MUTOs themselves are constantly evolving; another lifting from Godzilla vs the Gryphon. The final battle takes place in San Francisco–hello, Godzilla 3D. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to reward us for waiting through the deaths of all of those promising projects by giving them a chance to shine through this one.

And then Edwards takes over, drawing out the suspense of the main set pieces Spielberg-style, keeping the camera fixed on a human-eye vantage point. Whether watching Godzilla stomp his enemy from an hovering helicopter shot or the male MUTO swooping over from a 40th-story window, not a single shot aimed at the monster is not in documentary style. There were a few moments where I felt like I was watching a Jurassic Park sequel.

And now comes one of the bigger complaints, and one that is hard to ignore: the human characters. Everyone gives a great performance, from Strathairn’s by-the-book command to Cranston’s tortured, obsessive search for the truth. The problem is that they all don’t do much. All of their actions contribute to the greater calamities that propel the plot along to the final confrontation. Ford is the only one who accomplishes anything worthwhile, but in the end, still fails in his mission. But I say this isn’t a failing of the screenplay, but a main feature. Looking back to the original film, the exact same problems exist: too many people who do nothing but watch, slack-jawed, in terror of the monster. Only one, Dr. Serizawa, is the man of action, defeating the beast in the end. Ford is now that character, but is infinitely more relatable as a soldier and a father–another aspect of American cinema.

I could go on and on, but I trust my point is made, or at least begun. Godzilla is more than the majority of its predecessors. It is the first successful reboot, from any country or filmmaker, of the original film. There are a handful in the Japanese series that are worthy followups, but none captures both the fear and wonder of the unknown, and the sheer power of Allmother Nature like this one. Like the incredible, bone-rattling roar of the Big G himself, Godzilla makes a mighty impression.