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Sunday, March 15, 2009

I've Kaiju Under My Skin: A Guide to Showa-Era Godzilla

Just eight short years ago, if someone had told me I'd one day be sitting at home on a Saturday night reviewing Godzilla movies, I'd have said they were goofier than a proverbial pet 'coon. But that's neither here nor there. I am here tonight to examine a movie series that has been near and dear to my heart ever since I was an enraptured five-year-old watching the Smog Monster slime that poor little cat on good ol' channel 9 the day after Thanksgiving.

Godzilla's filmic exploits are told in a total of 28 movies, generally divided into three distinct eras. But for those like myself, who grew up in the 1970s and early '80s discovering this bizarre world of giant monsters and erratic dubbing on syndicated TV, the original series of 15 flicks, running from 1954 to 1975, will always be the real deal.

Sure, the Heisei series of the 1980s and '90s amped up the special effects, and the recent Millennium series finally abandoned the often-dull human character storyline conceits in favor of wall-to-wall monster action. But for me, those later movies lacked the heart of Toho's so-called Showa series, unofficially named for the Showa Emperor Hirohito during whose reign it was created. They became more tied into the strange Japanese technology fetish and less about the human condition. And worst of all, they became far less fun.

So pardon me for focusing strictly on the movies that made me into a Godzilla fanatic in the first place. Partly because it's the starting point of the series and in such a category all its own, and partly because its 1:15 in the morning and this intro took far too long to write than I had imagined, I'm going to limit this first part to the original Gojira only. The next entry will deal with the first seven sequels, and the third entry will cover the latter seven sequels in the Showa series.

Gojira (1954)

The absolute high watermark of giant monster movies--and I'm including the original King Kong in that assessment. If you've only seen this film in its watered-down Americanized edit as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, you're doing yourself a major disservice. Seen in its original Japanese version, Gojira is a stark, terrifying vision, a horror film in the truest sense of the word. In fact, if you're wondering why I'm writing about Godzilla on a horror blog, than you've clearly never seen this film.

Not to take anything away from the many films that followed, but Gojira is infinitely better than any of them. This is not a fun popcorn flick, good for a laugh with your buddies. This is cinema--a viewing experience that moves, and provokes thought. From the opening titles--one of the single most powerful openings credit sequences of any movie, for my money--it grabs hold of you, and doesn't let go.

Made as it was less than a decade after the very real horrors of atomic warfare had wreaked havoc upon Japan, Gojira is a painful allegory that must've been quite difficult for native audiences of the time to get through. Scenes of decimated Tokyo, of victims bursting into flame, and hospitals overflowing with the maimed and their grieving families strike an all-too-familiar chord. No later Godzilla film would show the impact of the monster's attacks in such a personalized way.

There are no cities conveniently evacuated so the creature can safely go on a crowd-pleasing tear. The human element is never forgotten, and the scenes in which the monster emerges are filled with as much raw, grim horror as any fright film you'll ever see. There is a terrible inevitability to the creature's actions--he is a force of nature bringing death to mankind.

Director Ishiro Honda is masterful at creating this aura of fear, but massive amounts of credit must also go to score composer Akira Ifukube, whose music is inextricably tied to the power of the film. It is hard to imagine the movie without his iconic score, as much a part of Honda's work as Ennio Morricone's compositions are to the work of Sergio Leone. By turns insistently dire, broodingly nightmarish and profoundly sad, Ifukube's masterpiece of a score is among the most effective ever written.

* * * * * * * * * *

The series would never again reach such heights. But one could also argue that it would never again aspire to. The Godzilla films would go on to become enjoyable in entirely different, if not as artistically high-minded ways. Stay tuned for my next installment, in which Big G meets the eighth wonder of the world, goes to the moon, fights a giant lobster and even has a baby--all the while become more and more likable. Who knew?


Unknown said...

Haha. There must be something Godzilla-y in the water. Classic-Horror.com and The Sci-Fi Block have been putting together a crossover event devoted to Godzilla for a few months now.

Excellent post. I look forward to reading the rest!

B-Sol said...

Very interesting, Nate, tell me more. I'd be happy to link to whatever you've got going on Godzilla-wise!

Samuel Wilson said...

Let me put in a word for "Godzilla, King of the Monsters." Having now seen and appreciated Gojira, I actually came away with a new appreciation of what the Americans did with the material. Whatever its shortcomings, I can't renounce the powerful impression the US version had on me when I was small, including the feeling of being trapped like Raymond Burr in that building as unstoppable doom approached. Look at it this way: Gojira is so good that the Americans could not screw it up.

B-Sol said...

I disagree--I think the Americans did screw it up. The Raymond Burr material feels clumsily tacked on, not to mention, am I the only one who found it difficult to swallow that he was an "old college buddy" of Dr. Serizawa?? Also, the theme of man being punished for experimenting with atomic weapons is severely hamstrung. The American version is more in line with the later films in the series, in that it becomes more of a fun, monster-on-the-loose flick than the sober, serious picture Honda and Toho made.

Unknown said...

It's not until May -- Sci-Fi Block is running a whole month of Godzilla-related material, while Classic-Horror.com will be doing a week's worth of Godzilla reviews and possible a few "extras" (contemplating a Shiverin' Six on Godzilla's sparring partners and/or a biography of Ishiro Honda)

Ray Cine 42 N.Y.C. said...

Godzilla Rules! I love them all. Good review.

Anonymous said...

RayRay - Fantastic piece. While I have yet to see the entirety of the original Japanese Gojira, what I have seen was very moving. B-Sol is right - this is no fun, popcorn flick to laugh at with the boys. It is a serious film about the excesses of science and of man's suicidal tendencies in weapon development.

I look forward to the future installments.

Samuel Wilson said...

B-Sol: All I can say is that, as a kid, while I had fun watching "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," I did not take it to be a fun movie, and my later sense of the series's decline into kiddy fare was relative to the original, which I only knew in the US version at the time.

Christopher Zenga said...

I just re-watched all my Godzilla films, I love this giant lidard!

Later days,
Christopher Zenga

B-Sol said...

Glad I could inspire such fervent Godzilla worship!

Mykal Banta said...

B-Sol: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love this franchise as a rule, but this first entry in the series stands as the primary masterpiece. I came to love the special effects movies of Toho Studios, Ishiro Honda, and the great miniturization work of special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya because of Gojira. It seems serious consideration of these films is growing by leaps and bounds. Thanks for the great post. -- Mykal

B-Sol said...

You're very, very welcome, Mykal!

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