Sunday, January 13, 2013

GODZILLA (Blu-Ray) - #594

Just about every kid in my generation--or quite possibly every generation since the film's release in 1954--has grown up with Godzilla. I remember waiting every year for the days when the local Los Angeles TV station would run nothing but Godzilla-related movies for 24 hours. They were always in chronological order, so they'd build to my favorite movies, the later ones with all the different monsters coming together for various combinations.

Of course, I had never seen the real original Godzilla. Not until the mid-1990s when a friend got the Japanese cut on laser disc. While I doubt that when I was a youngster seeing the actual Gojira as director Ishiro Honda intended it would have swayed me from thinking all things Monster Island were better than a lone prehistoric mutation squashing Tokyo Bay, I still might have had a better impression of the series overall. There is a misconception that Godzilla is silly, just a guy in a rubber suit causing mayhem; as evidenced on this Criterion edition (which also includes the American remix), the franchise began as so much more.

Honda's Godzilla is essentially a combination of the monster and disaster movie genres. Two fishing vessels and then a rescue boat are inexplicably blown up in the same part of the ocean. There are no survivors to relay what happened, but local legend from a nearby island is that there is a monster named Godzilla that lives under the sea. News of this filters back to Tokyo, and a noted zoologist, Professor Yamane (Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura), theorizes that Godzilla was a dormant creature awakened by underwater hydrogen bomb tests. He puts a group together to go hunting, including his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and a family friend, Ogata (Akira Takarada), who captains a salvage business.

The early part of the movie and the hunt for the monster have echoes of King Kong: a small expedition heading to a remote island in search of something that should not be, leading up to the big reveal. Then the movie shifts to Tokyo, where disbelief turns to acceptance as the mainland must prepare for the inevitability that Godzilla will come their way. It doesn't take a ton of convincing, the entire populace pretty much gets on board without batting an eye. Then again, as one weary train commuter notes, the Japanese have already been subject to plenty of inconceivable terrors, including the most significant man-made cataclysm our species has unleashed to date. After seeing cities leveled in a flash, the idea of  a big reptile rising up out of the water pales in comparison.

As the threat of the monster escalates, it's not the potential destruction that is the most compelling--for as fun as it is to watch Godzilla trample things, the age of the special effects has caused them to appear a bit toothless--but rather the question of how best to react to this menace. On one side, you have the zoologist demanding that you respect life for what it can teach us. In this case, the creature's resiliency to atomic radiation could help mankind figure out how to withstand any future nuclear warfare. The other side is basically everyone else, who would rather not die under the monster's big feet. With them, whether he likes it or not, is Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata, Samurai I and II), the scientist with the key to destroying the monster, the one who has uncovered an even more lethal process to eradicate one's enemies.

With as fresh as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been for the Japanese public in the 1950s, the shots of rubble and refugees following Godzilla's first mainland rampage must have packed a real emotional wallop. These raw memories alone give good enough reason for the debate to swing toward protecting the greater good. Serizawa's invention must be put to use. At the same time, Godzilla does not serve as some kind of justification for Truman's decision to drop the hydrogen bomb on Japan; rather, it is more like a stern lecture. "This is how you should have done it," the film says. "The honorable thing is to make sure such extraordinary measures are never used again." Thus, Serizawa dies using his discovery, the "Oxygen Destroyer," preventing it from ever being replicated. Of course, it helps that he never intended his creation to be a weapon, it was just an accident. He actually started off on the right foot. And it also doesn't hurt that Serizawa is a veteran, having lost an eye in the war, rather than just some sissy pacifist hiding in a lab. He knows what combat can do.

The battle is won by science, but the battleground is mythic. I don't think I ever really considered what all was in the monster's name: Godzilla. He is the God lizard, a supreme being in dinosaur form. To battle him is to battle all of nature. Yet, an occurrence of nature that has been altered by our irresponsibility and arrogance. Any update of Godzilla would be foolish not to expand on this. Godzilla is a symbol of pollution and for conservation from long before the Green movement becoming hip.

There is an added wrinkle to the film's philosophical conflict in that Serizawa is pushed into surrendering his Oxygen Destroyer because of what is essentially a romantic betrayal. He's truly a tragic hero. Emiko is engaged to the scientist, but she's all set to throw him over for Ogata. On the day she is finally going to tell him that it's finished, Serizawa demonstrates the Oxygen Destroyer in a fish tank. He puts his trust in Emiko, believing her when she swears she won't tell anyone what he has until he can figure out how to keep it from being weaponized. After she sees what harm Godzilla can do, she betrays Serizawa again, telling Ogata. When they come to him and coerce him to do the last thing he ever wanted to do, he also finds out that there's really no wedding in his future, either. Being the hero means also not getting the girl.

It's a pretty noble death regardless. I am sure a young Michael Bay saw the closing scenes of Godzilla and, whether he remembers it or not, scribbled down some mental note that would resurface years later when he made Armageddon. The monster's defeat is actually quite gruesome--though not permanent, given the sequels. I haven't seen the second movie in a while, so no idea if they used Professor Yamane's heavy-handed warning as explanation for where Godzilla II came from. Yet, for anyone who spent the rest of Godzilla in denial, insisting it was just B-movie fun times with no political allegory, Honda hits you over the head with it upon the exit. But then, Godzilla is an 165-foot tall monster, there is nothing subtle about how he gets things done, so it's not entirely unfitting that his biopic would do the same.

Bonus sketch by Criterion's Godzilla cover artist, Bill Sienkiewicz.

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