Acts of Godzilla

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Posts.


 

I WASN’T INTRODUCED to Godzilla until 1970, which was pretty bad timing when taken in the context of the film series’ 50-year history. It was around that point that the quality of the Godzilla movies began to take a serious, decade-long nosedive. I didn’t know that at the time, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I had. I was six, and as long as there giant monsters involved, and they were stomping on buildings, and I could watch it all from within the safety of my sofa fort, I was happy.

 

Prior to 1970, King Kong was my monster of choice. Then one late spring day
on the school playground, a first-grade classmate named Gary and I fell into a conversation about
monsters. King Kong was okay, he told me, but nothing compared to Godzilla. Godzilla was bigger,
meaner and had radioactive breath. In short, he was a lot cooler than some big ape.

 

I wasn’t convinced. Nothing could top Kong. Over the weeks and months
that followed, the debate grew more fierce. I’d never seen a Godzilla movie, but I still wasn’t going
to give up that easily. King Kong meant far too much to me.

 

Things came to a head when we learned that Green Bay’s Channel 2 was airing
1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla at 11:30 that upcoming Friday night. Arrangements were hastily
made for Gary to sleep over. I lobbied my parents to let us stay up extra late that night, explaining
the situation. They somehow understood.

 

Hours before the movie was set to begin, Gary and I set up camp in the basement
in front of the tv. Neither of us had seen the movie before, so we agreed beforehand that we’d let it
settle everything. Whichever monster won in the end was the better monster.

 

But the movie settled nothing. At the climax, both gargantuan combatants
rolled off a mountain into the sea. A few moments later, Kong resurfaced and began the long swim home.
There was no sign of Godzilla.

 

At the time, yes, I could loudly proclaim that Kong was the better, stronger
monster, and that I was right and that Gary owed me 50 cents. But during the film, something happened.
It would be months before I admitted it to Gary, but as I watched the movie, I was silently rooting
for Godzilla. Part of it had to do with the fact that the Japanese Kong looked more like a diseased
orangutan than the mighty gorilla from the 1933 original, but it went beyond that. Godzilla was
something more than just a monsterat least the monsters I knew.

 

Godzilla was a saurian masterpiece of destruction, a mutated, radioactive
demon three times the size of the original Kong. He had his human qualities, but not enough of them
to make you think you were looking at anything other than an indestructible hell-spawned crushing
machine.

 

I still loved King Kongthat would never changebut the
week after we watched the movie, I took an advance on my allowance, went to the toy section of the Snyders
drug store up the street and bought myself a new Aurora model kit. Their Classic Monster series offered
scale models of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and several others.
I already had their King Kong sitting on my dresser. And now I had Godzilla to go along with him.

 

In the years that followed, thanks to regular airings on local television
and the few new Godzilla pictures that actually made it to Green Bay theaters, I came to know and love
the other giant radioactive monsters from the Toho Studios’ bestiary: Mothra, King Ghidorah,
Rodan, Baragon, Hedorah, the Gargantuas, Yog and a dozen others.

 

More than 30 years later, most of the obsessions of my youth (I had more
than my share) have faded into dim memory. I don’t really care about Vikings all that much anymore,
but Godzilla is more important to me than ever. This is not necessarily a good thing.

 

If you’re an allegedly intelligent, well-educated adult and you mention
Godzilla in mixed company, people look at you like you’ve just admitted that you have syphilis.
They immediately assume that you’re one of those pathetic creeps who lives in his mom’s basement,
spends hours every day arguing Lost in Space minutiae in chat rooms and goes to conventions
in New Jersey dressed like a Wookie.

 

None of those things is true about me, but I do own copies of every Godzilla
movie made to date (along with several other kaiju eiga, or Japanese monster movies, like
The H-Man and Body Snatcher from Hell). Several books about the genre sit atop my…

^^^

bookshelf. A Godzilla postcard is pinned to the wall of my office, a couple Godzilla t-shirts are
in my dresser at home and a six-inch-tall Godzilla figurethe result of a two-week search
around New York that was both enlightening and humiliatingstands on my mantle. Along with
whatever other qualities I may harbor, I am also an undeniable geek.

 

By the time I was in my early teens I’d learned to keep my damn mouth shut
about it. Remaining a Godzilla fan at that age was somehow…unseemly, especially around
the smart kids. They played Dungeons & Dragons, watched Dr. Who and read fantasy novels,
but considered the Godzilla movies stupid and childish. My closest friends in high school and college
had no idea that I was a closet Godzilla freak. I lied about my whereabouts after sneaking out to see
Godzilla 1985 the day it opened. It was all quite shameful.

 

Sometime in the late 90s it began leaking out of me in strange ways. I started
writing news commentaries peppered with Godzilla references. I wrote a novel in which the protagonist
is addicted to Japanese monster movies. In a way, I guess, it was a form of coming out, if hesitantly.

 

Still, if I mention Godzilla in a bar, the name is met with snorts and snide
comments. Sitting in one Brooklyn tavern two years ago, Morgan and I fell into conversation with
a man who was wearing a long white robe and a fake beard made out of a mop. When we mentioned casually
that we’d watched a Godzilla movie the day before, even he rolled his eyes and spat, "Oh, that’s
real bright."

 

Derision aside, it’s been a good year for Godzilla fans here in New York.
To celebrate the King of the Monsters’ 50th birthday, there’ve been a number of screenings and exhibitions.
A new print of the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla played to sold-out crowds
at Film Forum. An exhibit comparing the different ways Godzilla has been presented in various countries
was on display at Columbia University. A Toho film crew was even here in April, quietly shooting
some exteriors for their latest (and threatened last) Godzilla picture, Godzilla: Final Wars.

 

Things peak this month with an exhibit of original kaiju eiga posters
from around the world at Posteritati, and Film Forum’s They Came from Toho series, in which
most of the 27 extant Godzilla filmsalong with a few other Toho classics like Battle
in Outer Space
and Rodanwill be screened. Not only will a number of them be new,
subtitled prints of the Japanese originals; most of them will be shown as double features, the way
they were meant to be seen. Film Forum’s even hosting the New York premiere of Toho’s 2003 feature,
Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS.

 

I may be a loser geek, but there are apparently enough people out there
like me to justify all the hubbub.

 

 

 

SO WHAT’S THE attraction? These things, after all, are sub-Z
kiddie crap, full of bad special effects, worse dubbing, nonexistent acting and hardly any plot.
They’re all the samejust two guys in cheap, ridiculous-looking rubber suits stomping
on balsa wood buildings and wrestling with each other. At best, they’re Mystery Science Theater
3000
fodder, right? Roger Ebert called the 1954 original "idiotic," and Michael Weldon’s
Psychotronic film guides (which I can usually count upon for fair appraisals of underappreciated
genre films) dismiss the entire series with a contemptuous chortle.

 

Well, as much as I’m tempted to say that all these people are big smelly
dumb-heads, I can understand where that perception comes from. Their opinions are still asinine
and wrong, but it’s not entirely their fault.

 

Because of decisions made by the American distributors of these films
(cutting and reediting them into incoherence, dubbing them into cartoon English, etc.), what
we’ve seen over here have been, with only rare exception, grotesque bastardizations of the Japanese
originals. And because of the decisions made by the people who programmed Saturday-afternoon
television, the Godzilla films most people are familiar with are among the worst in the series.
In fact, the single Godzilla film seen by more Americans than any other1973’s Godzilla
vs. Megalon,
in which Godzilla and an Ultraman rip-off battle a giant cockroach with drill-bits
for handsis generally accepted to be the worst Godzilla movie ever made. Even hardcore
fans hate that one. But more people saw it (and judged the entire series by it) thanks to a prime-time
airing in 1977 hosted by John Belushi, who provided snotty commentary.

 

Prior to that nadir, monster-movie fans witnessed what would later
be recognized as the Golden Age of the kaiju eiga. The films that came out of Toho Studios
between 1954 and 1968 were unique, intelligent, elegantly crafted works that blended message,
humor and widespread destruction into a seamless whole.

 

Most of the time they were, anyway.

 

Okay, maybe I’m overstating things a little. Films like Son of Godzilla weren’t exactly Touch of Evil or Battleship Potemkin, but at the same time they
were a damn sight better than American science fiction offerings like Robot Monster or
The Creeping Terror. And some of the films from that period, like Godzilla vs. the Thing and Destroy All Monsters, are classics of the genre that edge toward brilliance. Despite
the general perception, the special effects were surprisingly good.

 

After 1968, however, ticket sales began to slide. As a result, the films
faced severe budget cuts, which usually struck the special effects department first. More damaging…

^^^

still was the departure of Godzilla’s original creative team. By the early 70s, films like Megalon and Godzilla’s Revenge had come to resemble ugly cartoons that only appealed to very young
children and a dwindling number of die-hard fans.

 

Then, after a decade-long hiatus, the series was reborn in 1984, and
believe it or not, things actually got pretty darn good again. The films became much darker and more
serious, the storylines grew more complex (especially when traced from film to film) and the special
effects, while still centered around a guy in a rubber suit, were top notch. While at once recognizing
and honoring the established traditions of the Godzilla series (all the films still ended with
a giant monster showdown), movies like Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah were also willing to
rewrite those traditions and take sly jabs at Godzilla’s iconic stature.

 

Most Americans don’t know this, though, because over the past 15 years,
only one film of the 10 that have been produced in that timeGodzilla 2000has
hit US theaters. You can find some of them on DVD, but you have to look, which is something, I’m guessing,
people who are only familiar with the likes of Godzilla vs. Megalon aren’t in any hurry to
do.

 

Yet for all the jokes and all the contempt heaped upon him, Godzilla remains
a towering figure in the public consciousness. He’s not just a Japanese icon; he’s an international
icona symbol of power, unstoppable destructive force and sheer wackiness.

 

 

 

BACK IN THE early 50s, inspired initially by King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka decided
to make a monster picturebut a monster picture with a difference. Instead of just being
a movie about a giant monster who smashes some things then gets killed by intrepid scientists, he
wanted a monster who would symbolize Japan’s painful recent history.

 

Together with director Ishiro Honda, special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya
and famed composer Akira Ifukube, Tanaka created a picture that is still considered one of the greatest
Japanese films ever made (at least by people who aren’t Roger Ebert). There was nothing campy or
childish about the original Gojira; it was a grim, somber fable about the dangers of nuclear
testing, loaded with veiled references to recent events. Not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but
also the American H-bomb tests in the Pacific, which left the crew of a Japanese fishing boat with
radiation poisoning. That the monster was a stand-in for the Bomb was fairly obvious.

 

Yet before it was distributed in the States, 40 minutes’ worth of subplots
and (subtly anti-American) political commentary were hacked out, replaced with incongruous
shots of Raymond Burr standing in corners, sucking on a pipe and looking concerned. The word "H-bomb"
is only uttered once in the U.S. version, and then only in passing. For more palatable American consumption,
it had been transformed from a somber allegory into a monster movie.

 

The same was true for most of the subsequent films. They weren’t as dark
or serious as that first one, but in Japan they continued to be morality plays that, in giant monster
terms, confronted not only the nuclear threat, but corporate greed, land development, pollution
and genetic engineering. In America, they devolved into increasingly silly Saturday-matinee
wrestling matches aimed at 10-year-olds.

 

When I was 10, of course, I wasn’t always aware of these things. The message
of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster remained pretty clear, but only after seeing it again a
few weeks ago did I recognize how bizarre and savage a film it really was. There’s a hamfisted anti-pollution
message, sure, but it’s also a psychedelic film that hates hippies, and was one of the first films
since the original to show the human casualties left in the monster’s wake. And seeing it that first
time, I was too stuck on the theme song, "Save the Earth," to bother noticing that the film ends with
Godzilla performing a brutal, almost gleeful abortion on the Smog Monster.

 

In those early years, I rarely noticed any of the larger, more complex
issues at play amid the ruins of Tokyo. I accepted what I saw and was happy with it. (When you’re a scrawny
kid with bully problems, cinematic displays of widespread Technicolor destruction do the heart
a lot of good.)

 

Nor did I ever stop to consider that I was looking at a man in a 200-lb. rubber
suit. Godzilla was Godzillaa radioactive 165-foot-tall mutated lizard with a bad attitude.
I absolutely believed that, and refused to consider any other possibility. In later years, even
as I recognized the sociopolitical commentary and read about the history of Toho and the serieseven…
^^^

learning the names of the men in the suitsI still refused to believe that Godzilla
was a special effect. He remains as real to me now as he did 30 years ago.

 

The suspension of disbeliefor rather, the inability to suspend
disbeliefis another cultural difference that may help explain why these films get such
a bad rap in the States. To American audiences, if something looks fake, the critics and moviegoers
alike are going to call attention to it. These films are suddenly declared "bad" or "cheesy" because
you can see the wires or because the monsters don’t look real (think about that one for a second).
They forget that these movies are fables above all, intricate fairy tales about nature lashing
back at human arrogance. If Tanaka and Honda wanted, they could’ve shown the realistic effects
of radiation poisoning on the population of a city. Instead, they embodied that fear in a giant lizardone
who, paradoxically enough, would be presented as an heroic protector of Japan as the series progressed.

 

Watching with adult eyes, the philosophical complexity of these films,
despite American efforts to de-Japanify them, becomes apparent. Throughout the series, Toho
created an alternate universe much like our own, but complete with aliens and lost civilizations,
one in which giant monsters were simply an accepted fact of life. And ruling over it all is a monster
who is both savior and destroyer, both a god and a demon. Even when he’s trying to protect Japan from
other giant monsters, he ends up causing a hell of a lot of damage. (It may well have been that aspect
of his personality that subconsciously appealed to me as a child.)

 

For a while after the World Trade Center attacks, Godzilla films took
on a strange, unsettling quality for me. There was just something wrong, it suddenly seemed, with
reveling in the violent destruction of a major metropolitan area, of watching buildings shatter
and debris crash down on the panicked mobs in the streets below.

 

With the passage of time, however, and while keeping the fantasy/reality
distinction as clear as I could, I may have discovered another way to view these films, another allegory
to slide up alongside the others.

 

Godzilla represented the Bomb, sure, but he represented many other
things as well, depending on who you talk to. He was the war itself. He was radiation personified.
He was the collective spirit of all the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific. He was the collective
spirit of all the innocent people killed by Japanese soldiers in the Pacific. He represented
natural forces unleashed by arrogant American scientists

 

And that’s just in the early films.

 

The original Gojira (in part at least) was reacting to an unprecedented
foreign attack on Japan and its citizens that was still fresh in everyone’s memory. Fifty years
later, the scars of the second world war and the deep-seated fears over imminent nuclear annihilation
have faded from public consciousness. So maybe there’s just no use for Godzilla anymore.

 

I don’t buy that. I think he’s so open to interpretation that there will
always be a place for him. After all, we have plenty of massive new fears confronting us these days.

 

Although the terrorist attacks we witnessed were on a much smaller scale
than the horrors Japan experienced, they nevertheless left plenty of scars of their own. Maybe
now Americans have a way of appreciating Godzilla movies from a perspective similar to that of the
original Japanese audience. Not only, say, could you see King Ghidorah, the malevolent multiheaded
dragon, as a kind of symbolic terrorist; you could compare the steps taken here to insure our security
against al Qaeda with the fictional efforts of the Japanese government to protect Tokyo, Osaka
and other major cities from giant monster attacks. Despite their best efforts and powerful hi-tech
weaponry, in the end the monsters still wreak havoc. What’s more, sometimes the protector causes
as much damage as the attacker.

 

It’s an analogy that could be pushed much further, and interpreted from
most any point on the political spectrum. Believe you me, I’ve played around with it quite a bit as
I’ve watched these films time and again. But perhaps that’s crass and wrong. I’m just speculating,
is all. To me, it’s simply more evidence that these films are much richer than most people care to
believe. They can be understood in different ways in different times and by different generations;
their meanings can change over the years. They’ve certainly changed for me.

 

So here I am in the end, almost 40 years old, quietly living the life of
a Godzilla geek, finding that I infuse perhaps way too much significance into a collection of silly
monster pictures. But what else am I supposed to use to understand the world? Religion? Politics?
Economics? It makes just as much, even more, sense to me to use a guy in a rubber suit stomping on a toy
city. o

 

 

 

THE COMPLETE GODZILLA FILMOGRAPHY

 

(Note: Although these films were often released under several titles,
for simplicity’s sake we’re citing only the titles by which they are generally recognized in the
U.S.)

 

 

1954 Godzilla

 

1955 Gigantis, the Fire Monster

 

aka Godzilla Raids Again

 

1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla

 

1964 Godzilla vs. the Thing

 

aka Godzilla vs. Mothra

 

1964 Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster

 

1965 Godzilla vs. Monster Zero

 

1966 Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

 

1967 Son of Godzilla

 

1968 Destroy All Monsters

 

1969 Godzilla’s Revenge

 

1971 Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster

 

1972 Godzilla vs. Gigan

 

aka Godzilla on Monster Island

 

1973 Godzilla vs. Megalon

 

1974 Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster

 

1975 The Terror of Mechagodzilla

 

1984 Godzilla 1985

 

1989 Godzilla vs. Biollante

 

1991 Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

 

1992 Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth

 

1993 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

 

1994 Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla

 

1995 Godzilla vs. Destoroyer

 

1999 Godzilla 2000

 

2000 Godzilla vs. Megaguirus

 

2001 Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

 

2002 Godzilla Against. Mechagodzilla

 

2003 Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS

 

2004 Godzilla: Final Wars

 

 

They Came From Toho: Godzilla and the Kaiju Eiga: Aug. 27
– Sept. 9 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 212-627-2035, call
for times, $10.

 

 

Japanese Monsters!: Aug. 10-Sept. 7 at Posteritati, 239 Centre
St. (betw. Grand & Broome Sts.), 212-226-2207, 11-7, free.

 

 

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