Tuesday, September 2, 2008

#56: Gojira


Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Ishirô Honda and Takeo Murata (story by Shigeru Kayama)
Released November 3, 1954

When I was a kid, I had two pretty powerful memories attached to the giant radioactive lizard known as "Godzilla." The earlier memory occurred so early in my childhood that I remember it in that strange way you can only remember things from so long ago -- where it seems like it could either have been a dream or reality. It was one of my first movie experiences, and if I can trace it back correctly, it may have been 1978's The Terror of Godzilla.

The second memory is much more clear. I remember going to a friend's Godzilla-themed birthday party and watching Godzilla 1985, itself a re-edited version of 1984's The Return of Godzilla. At the party, we were given tiny stuffed Godzilla dolls, and my mind immediately turned to a thought I became obsessed with: "I must make a stop-motion Godzilla movie with this doll." Alas, I never had the chance. Video cameras were insanely expensive and hard to come by, and no one I knew owned one. They were certainly way too expensive for anyone to loan to an 8 year old kid to make a stop motion animated movie.

What's kind of ironic is the fact that the use of the old "guy in a suit" technology by Ishirô Honda and his special effects team was a compromise for their lack of ability to do the very stop motion animation that I was hoping to use for my movie. The filmmakers, inspired by the financially successful international re-release of King Kong in 1952, along with the stop motion animation in that movie and 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, wanted Japan to have its own signature creature movie. Since they could not duplicate the effects, they combined the Godzilla suit and hand puppets for close up shots.

While Godzilla would go on to appear in dozens of campy low budget films, including some aimed at children that were so ridiculously comic that he performed karate moves, the original Gojira lacks the silly dubbed dialogue, bad acting and campiness that became a signature of the series.

Frankly, it's downright serious and a little bit of a bummer. There's even a fairly brutal late night attack on Tokyo that must have been somewhat shocking to the Japanese audience so few years after the bombings that essentially ended World War II. In this attack, where the Japanese plan to electrocute the monster goes horribly awry, Godzilla reveals his atomic breath, setting fire to a fairly accurate representation of a massive portion of the city. Unlike most Godzilla movies, where these attacks are somewhat faceless in regard to individual citizens, this one gets pretty personal. I'm thinking especially of a brief shot where a woman cowers in a doorway with her children and screams, "We'll be joining your father in a moment!"

Gojira is almost more of a drama than it is a "monster movie." While the allusions to Japan's loss in the war are not obvious, there's a theme that runs through the movie about science, weaponry and war that never seems preachy. Before seeing this original version of the movie, I definitely expected more of a postwar, anti-American propaganda vibe. Instead, the movie takes the high road.

One of the most surprising bonuses of the DVD (which also comes with the re-edited American version, featuring Raymond Burr) that I discovered was the absolutely insane commentary track, hosted by Godzilla experts Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. It's one of the most informative and exhaustive DVD commentary tracks I've ever heard, and it kept me up into the middle of the night watching the movie a second time.

For more on Gojira:
- Movie information at IMDB and a Wikipedia entry that discusses the "character" in a larger sense.
- Check out this and other Godzilla movies on DVD.

The trailer for Gojira:

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