Films offer a voyeuristic glimpse into the human condition but for all the fear committed to film, life’s worst unpleasantries remain off-screen. As a visual medium, cinema deals with violence and killing rather than death itself. Godzilla represents the unknown made flesh. He is at once terrifying and stunning, the eternal power of nature and the doomed destiny of man fused into the corporeal structure of a modern day dragon. Add a healthy dose of Eastern mysticism and prehistoric badassery and you have the unique creature that is Godzilla, a timeless celluloid allegory to the horror of nuclear warfare.
Radiation, a frightening phenomenon and one poorly understood by most people is an indiscriminate and invisible force. Godzilla, né Gojira, a giant beast awoken from his slumbers by the H-Bomb, rose from the sea as nature’s retort. The film allowed Japanese filmmakers, forbidden during the American occupation to create storylines relating to the bombs, to finally produce work equivalent to artistic and social catharsis. As with traditional folklore, the Gojira story uses non-human creations as the main storytelling vehicles. Gojira is a ‘kaiju’ or ‘strange creature’, classified among other similar characters of Japanese origin. For American audiences less familiar with Japanese culture, which often emphasises elements of fantasy rather than explicit realism, these monsters can come off as inappropriately dopey or simplistic.
Combining the Japanese words meaning ‘gorilla’ and ‘whale’, ‘Gojira’, the title of the initial 1954 Toho Studios production, is also the name given to the giant mutated dinosaur who encompasses the film. The story of the film sticks partially to familiar ‘monster’ tropes, but also adds a human element. There is a love story between several human characters, as well as familial drama that plays out between a scientific researcher and his daughter. While the storyline itself is primarily concerned with stopping the Gojira monster and the implications of unconscious scientific pursuits, the human elements keep it from getting too cold-blooded.
Eiji Tsuburaya provided the special effects needed to give the monster life, giving him skin inspired by the keloid scars of radiation survivors. From the outset, it’s clear this isn’t ‘just a monster movie’: numerous characters discuss surviving the bombings and describe Godzilla as a ‘child of the bomb’. If you were in any doubt, even after the title sequence (a panoramic shot of decimated Tokyo), this beast and everything he represents, isn’t fooling around. The film’s final cost of approximately 1.5 million 1954 U.S. dollars made it the most expensive Japanese film up until that time. But when it opened to audiences on 3rd November, Toho recorded one of the biggest box office successes of the year. With Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ and Kinugasa’s ‘Gate Of Hell’, ‘Gojira’ joined the ranks of Japan’s dynamic post-war film industry.
From here, understanding Gojira’s relationship to America’s appropriation of his imagery gets trickier. How did a monster so critical of human arrogance find himself popular on the shores of the nation that to a certain degree spawned his creation? Hollywood ‘Godzilla’, it would turn out, was a much different monster than he was back home. When Joseph Levine purchased the rights for his distributing company, Embassy Pictures, he sought to emulate the success the film had in its native land. When it was sold, however, advertising treated the film as cheaply produced fare with a simple plot and untrained actors. The plot itself would be altered in ways to minimise political undercurrents between the two nations, permitting American audiences to see the film guilt-free and without risk of critical self-examination.
While the unedited, Japanese version of ‘Gojira’ captured post-bombing despair, versions cut for international audiences lost that sense of dark, oppressive helplessness. Where Japanese patrons saw uninterrupted destruction and loss, Hollywood eliminated social and political commentary and renamed it ‘Godzilla: King Of The Monsters’. The film’s score, by prominent and highly respected Japanese composers was also cut or eliminated in certain cases. Instead, America’s audiences saw Raymond Burr and heard his character’s weak narrative. Ostensibly inserted as a cultural reference point by American producers, the Canadian actor’s role dulled the movie’s allegorical edge and softened Godzilla’s symbology as living proof of the bomb. The American film isn’t serious in the way that Toho Studio’s picture was, but it wasn’t any less effective in promoting Godzilla’s fame. As a pop cultural creation he was a hit and dozens of sequels following his legacy would soon follow.
Jumping ahead to 2014, American studio Legendary Pictures purchased the rights from Toho and produced another eponymously-titled ‘Godzilla’ film. Released amid much fanfare in May 2014, the most recent Godzilla incarnation is now available through streaming and on demand services like Amazon Prime and DirecTV if you didn’t catch it in theatres. The storyline bore a warning concerning the safety of nuclear power plants. In a post-Fukushima and Chernobyl era, it’s still a story worth listening to. But what else can Godzilla teach us? The first time around, many of us missed his messages. This could be partially due to bad dubbing, as a result of mistranslation, many subtle ideas present in kaiju-eiga were lost. Ideas inherent in Japanese, it can also be argued, oftentimes cannot find a worthy parallel in English. Older films also tend to perpetuate racist assumptions that English speakers will not notice sloppy editing of Asian sub-plots and character development.
Where ‘Godzilla: King Of The Monsters’ may have failed half a century ago, it nevertheless facilitated a dialogue between ‘Soft Power’ mainlines of Japanese and American culture. The work of Japanese Science Fiction and fantasy auteurs would soon become internationally acclaimed. When ‘Godzilla’ movies and kaiju-eiga faded in popularity in the 1970s, a second ‘monster’ boom occurred, this time on television. Japan paved the way for super-hero programs, with ‘Ultraman’ making his way across the Pacific to America in the same way Godzilla did before him. Today, Hayao Miyazaki’s films such as ‘Spirited Away’ have made a similar splash. In many of Miyazaki’s features, complex characters with difficult or non-traditional Western identities are featured prominently. These characters often act in ways that are hard to understand for anyone raised outside of an Asian culture, but there is beauty in those discrepancies and it is from those differences that we stand to learn the most.
Not many people understand why I love Japanese films and art or even Godzilla for that matter. In many of the films within the giant green monster canon, the characters are rarely compelling enough to truly care about and the plots are predictably threadbare. The acting is poor and the special effects are gimmicky. But that has never really phased me. I became interested in the pictures first because monsters are scary and being scared is great fun. I was drawn to them again when I learned more about the history surrounding their production. If monsters are scary, history, in all its haunting glory, is truly chilling. While Godzilla in his own right is not particularly creepy (are people still scared of really big monsters?) the ideas he represents of nuclear annihilation and mankind’s impending doom are both fun and frightening to consider. It also helps that, during Godzilla’s recent revival, I was becoming more fascinated with anime and other film works from Japanese directors. The brilliance of visual composition and subtlety of feeling present within Japanese works continues to be a source of inspiration for me.
In 2016, Toho Studios will reclaim Godzilla’s story as their own once more. Perhaps jaded by vivid special effects and more scientifically aware than the audiences of the 1950s, we can hope that today’s audiences might be ready for a monster movie of actual depth. Issues faced by citizens of most industrialised nations are fair game. With a release date coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the original allegory may finally reach American audiences. From now until 2016, watch for special events, featuring Toho’s original and uncut version of Godzilla.
© Beth Kelly 2015
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