Monday, May 19, 2014

Movie Review: "Gojira" (1954) by David Pretty

The Elevator Pitch

By peppering the South Pacific with H-Bombs, asshole Americans dislodge a colossal, prehistoric, pissed-off mutant dinosaur with atomic breath from its underwater habitat. How pissed off is he? Have you ever taken a cold shower? Well multiply that by about a hundred; that's how pissed off this guy is.

The monster, known in local legend as "Gojira", warms up by destroying a huge chunk of the Japanese shipping fleet and then wanders onshore where he kicks the shit out of Tokyo and lights everything on fire. When conventional means of destruction (tanks, fighter planes, electricity, sarcasm) fail to destroy the creature, the human protagonists must convince a tortured scientist to use his secret doomsday device on the creature, knowing that tragic results are inevitable.

The Wheelhouse

Anyone with a still-intact inner child will probably dig this flick. How can you go wrong with giant, fire-breathing, radioactive lizard with atomic breath? Fans of 50's era monster-on-the-loose type movies will also be predisposed to this one. 

On a deeper level, if you've only seen the crappy North American edit (a.k.a. Godzilla: King of the Monsters) which shoe-horned footage of Raymond Burr into the film and atrociously re-dubbed all of the Japanese cast, then you owe it to yourself to see this version instead. Bonus points: the original director's cut also features a strong anti-nuke message and calls out the indiscriminate testing of atomic weapons.

The Pros
  • The film's sound design is terrific. As soon as the credits roll we get Akira Ifukube's iconic score punctuated by Godzilla's trademark roar, which, interestingly enough, was achieved by rubbing a resin-covered leather glove across the strings of a double bass and then under-cranking the playback. It's a profoundly discordant and unsettling auditory experience and it really sets the tone for the entire film.
  • Shot in moody black and white by cinematographer Masao Tamai, the film feels atmospheric, oppressive and dire; kind of like a living nightmare.
  • The cast might not be perfect but they're still quite appealing. Akira Takarada is kinda wooden as Ogata, but he's still a solid generic hero type. Momoko Kōchi is sweet and earnest as Emiko and despite the fact that she quickly gets annoying (see "Cons" below), at least her character is integral to the plot. Takashi Shimura is great as Dr. Yamane. At first he's enthusiastic and amazed by the discovery of Gojira and keen to share his knowledge about the creature. But when it becomes clear that everyone wants the monster dead, Shimura takes on the disposition of someone betrayed. Finally, Akihiko Hirata is great as the twitchy and sweaty Dr. Serizawa. The script puts the character in the worst imaginable place and Hirata sells this to the hilt.
  • Gojira gets a very nice little build-up. After plenty of tantalizing references to missing links, radioactivity, giant footprints and trilobites we get a brief glimpse of him about twenty-one minutes in and then another short appearance about ten minutes later. Finally the full-out rampage happens around the forty-three minute mark. To me this structure actually kinda hints at the monster's mindset. Sure, the "Big G" sinks a few ships; but you would too if you just got explosively evicted from your Mariana Trench hidey-hole. He only goes totally Battra-shit nuts after the military tries to give him a depth-charge enema. 
  • I can't help but emphasize the surprising levels of social commentary at work here. The original director's cut of Gojira isn't the same mindless, disposable atomic-monster-on-the-loose movie which was clogging up American drive-in theaters at the time. Quite the opposite; the film actually feels like the therapeutic diary of an entire country ravaged by horrible memories. Keep in mind, Gojira was lensed just six short years after suffering a devastating twin nuclear attack. To make matters worse, in 1954 a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, was horribly irradiated by fallout from an unexpectedly-large nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll. Since the Japanese were already painfully aware of the devastating effectiveness of the H-Bomb, they probably couldn't fathom why the Americans were still chucking them around like frozen yogurt coupons. Gojira's message is abundantly clear: if we keep poking Mother Nature in the eye with a pointy stick, eventually she's gonna wake up and stomp a mud-hole in our collective asses. 
  • Just like the monster, the Oxygen Destroyer itself gets a pretty scary and effective introduction. When Dr. Serizawa inadvertently stumbles upon this "Pandora's Box" of a weapon he's so horrified by its potential destructive power that his first impulse is to destroy it. It's almost as if screenwriters Ishirō Honda and Takeo Murata were trying to show us what Robert Oppenheimer and company should have done with The Manhattan Project. And with our own modern society still wresting with big issues such as cloning, artificial intelligence, drones, genetic and technology modification, climate change, privacy issues and the emergence of new super-bugs, the real story of Gojira is just as timely today as it was in the 1950's. In other words: just because science and technology can do something, it doesn't necessarily mean that it should.
  • Even though Odo Island and Tokyo get stomped into oblivion by the equivalent of a wiry Japanese dude in a giant rubber monster suit, the destruction, damage and loss of life is depicted with the utmost respect and horror. Director Ishirō Honda's atmospheric slow pan across the destroyed city-scape of Tokyo brings to mind the still-raw images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During Gojira's devastating attack we see scads of people getting crushed under falling debris and charred alive by the creature's fiery breath. In one heart-rending scene a mom clutches her two children close and tries to re-assure them that "It'll all be over soon!" and "We'll be with your daddy!" Yeeeesh, that's some depressing shit right thur. In the aftermath we see countless shattered bodies, bloodied victims laid out on stretchers and children wailing over their injured parents. Add in a creepy and mournful choir of singing girls and you've got one of the most somber and intense giant monster movies ever made. 
  • Serizawa's quandary is pretty meaty stuff for a film that's often maligned as a cheesy creature feature. Eventually it pays off in a tragic finale that's downright Shakespearean.
  • For the most part, the model work and full-sized monster suit look pretty good. The special effects are aided somewhat by the murky black and white photography. To this day, my favorite photos of Godzilla are promotional stills from this first film:     

Sorry, but my boy looks totally bad-ass with those beady silvery eyes and that gnarly, radiation-scarred hide.

The Cons
  • A lot of the performances can be characterized as "over-ripe" or downright stilted, occasionally resulting in some inadvertent laughs. For example, Emiko bawls at the drop of a hat. Cripes, she even freaks out when a few fish get killed. She must be real drag when you take her out for sushi.    
  • Some of the model work is so chintzy that it kinda devalues the decent script. In one shot, Gojira's fiery breath ignites an entire city block and when the explosive charges go off underneath the set the miniature buildings bounce up off the floor like little cardboard boxes with painted on windows and doors. A few seconds later two "fire engines" (I.E. a pair of Tonka trucks) crash into a wall during a laughably fake-looking scene. 
  • The stock footage used for the large-scale military operations looks decidedly out of place when spliced together with the original footage.
  • There are some really odd moments of dead silence on the soundtrack. Although the cool n' creepy effect it produces is pretty jarring the whole things smacks of a huge technical fuck-up. 
  • As intriguing as the Serizawa sub-plot is, it's pretty turgid stuff for modern audiences to slog through. And even though I appreciate that the film was made w-a-a-a-a-y before Hollywood's current obsession with homogenized story structure, there isn't really a lot of hot monster action. After Gojira's big rampage about two-thirds of the way through the film all we're left with is endless scenes of destruction and a metric shit-ton of exposition. In fact, we only get one more fleeting glimpse of the "Big G" right at the end. 
  • Depending on whether we're seeing just the head, the upper torso, the legs or the full body, Gojira alters his appearance more often then the "Real" Housewives of Miami. In some shots he looks totally bad-ass and in others he looks like Kermit the Frog on a meth bender. 

The Bottom Line

I think the concept of Gojira / Godzilla is a great one, but the idea was probably just slightly ahead of its time. As a result, Godzilla's been in more shitty movies then Adam Sandler.

But this first film is pretty decent. If you're interested in the new Godzilla movie then I highly recommend that you check this one out. Just remember to seek out the original Gojira and avoid that bastardized Perry Mason abortion like a size four-hundred foot-stomp.

Tilt: fifty meters straight up, yo.

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