Saturday, November 25, 2006


Poster for the re-release and DVD. Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movies Hall of Fame

Gojira Revealed, Finally

It took 50 years (and more than 25 sequels) to reach a few U.S. movie theatres, and another two years to become widely available on DVD, but now we can all see the original Japanese film, Gojira, made in 1954. Instead of just a barely coherent monster flick, this film is revealed to be a classic example of "the science fiction of consciousness," (my phrase)dealing with real world issues through story that is science fiction, symbol or allegory, and an action adventure film all at once.

Until now, all we’ve seen of this movie are the scenes that remained when some 40 minutes of the original were cut and replaced with 20 minutes of new scenes starring Raymond Burr. This amalgamation opened in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and became an international sensation.That the Japanese original was never released in the U.S. might seem to suggest it was an inferior film. Now we have the evidence that this simply isn’t true. All of the special effects sequences are the same as in the U.S. version, but what surrounds them makes the difference.

It’s understandable to some extent why a 1954 U.S. audience might not appreciate Gojira. It is really a Japanese film, and most Americans weren’t even seeing foreign language films from Europe yet. The differences of course extend beyond language, to culture and styles of storytelling, and the use of the filmmaking vocabulary. Even today, it probably helps to have seen a few Japanese films of the period, like those of the acknowledged master, Akira Kurosawa, to fully appreciate Gojira. (Anime may be relevant in other ways, but not historically.) The DVD commentary on Gojira does help a lot on cultural interpretations, though—it explains why family is so important, why one character is so ashamed to have divulged a secret, and so on.

In the mid-50s, it was probably considered still a bit risky to even adapt a Japanese film that showed Japanese on screen--not only did U.S. films have a history of depicting Japanese in subservient and racially cliched roles, but there was still substantial hangover of feeling from the virilently anti-Japanese war propaganda from World War II just 9 years before, which attacked Japanese as people (racially) and as a culture as well as an enemy nation. But the U.S. had occupied Japan until 1952, so more Americans had been there, and Hollywood had made a few films set in Japan.

As for the movie itself, pace isn’t really the problem. Although the story in Gojira is more centered on the characters, and some of the dialogue runs a little long, it actually moves faster than the tedious beginning of the U.S. film (which I suspect has been cut a lot in the TV versions most people have seen, getting it to the monster faster but making the basic story even more rudimentary, if not confusing.)

But the original Gojira is a powerful film, in its story, dialogue, acting, musical score and especially its images. Even without knowing the specific history that saturates this film, its authenticity is unmistakable just from seeing it. Perhaps it takes some small familiarity with Japanese music to fully appreciate the score (by Akira Ifkube), but I’m guessing that most viewers will feel how much more powerful it is in the original.

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The U.S. version poster. Posted by Picasa
That history, however, is important. The film history is simple: A recent internationally successful re-release of the original King Kong was an inspiration for the Japanese film industry, which had not yet done a full scale monster movie in 1954. More directly, Gojira adapts the basic plot of an American film released the year before, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which was the first movie monster to be unleashed by atomic bomb explosions, as well as the first of the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation monster flicks. (It was adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury; the script writer receiving first credit is Fred Freiberger, later a Star Trek original series producer.)

But the place of Gojira in the larger history is what distinguishes it. This movie was released only 9 years after World War II ended, and barely two years after the U.S. officially ended its occupation of Japan, though it maintained many military bases for decades (some are still there.) It was one of the first postwar Japanese films that didn’t have to pass through U.S. censors.

The war in the Pacific had been fought principally between Japan and the U.S., and it had been savage. Especially after the surprise attack on the U.S fleet in Pearl Harbor, Japan had naval superiority, highly trained warriors and master tacticians. They won most early battles. The war against Hitler in Europe had priority for the U.S., and for awhile mostly old aircraft and weaponry could be spared for the Pacific.

Japan had taken island after island and was about to take Australia, when the Allies stopped their momentum. America began to send new ships, planes and weapons, until the Allies had superiority. Then fighting for those islands, like Guadacanal and Iwo Jima, became intense and bloody. Even when outnumbered, the Japanese army used caves and underground bunkers to prolong the killing. But the Allies prevailed, and were in striking distance of Japan itself. A bombing campaign decimated some 80 Japanese cities. In a single raid on Tokyo in March 1945, American bombers killed upwards of a hundred thousand people, and left the city burning. How close Japan was to its unconditional surrender (in August 1945) before the Bombs were dropped is still debated, but the atomic bombs were dropped on human beings for the first time, in Japan.

A single Bomb each destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire. Five years later, radiation effects more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. The vast majority of those who died from the Nagasaki bomb were from radiation, months and years later. Some effects of radiation were apparent within days and weeks, which included very ugly and painful immediate illnesses, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years. American officials denied these first immediate radiation effects were real, claiming the reports were Japanese propaganda.

They were still denying that radiation posed substantial threats when the first U.S. hydrogen bombs were being exploded in the Pacific. In March 1954, the U.S. tested an H-Bomb that was 750 to 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific near Japan. Although ships in the area were warned, when winds changed the test was held anyway, and 85 miles away, a Japanese fishing boat with a crew of 23—the Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon—were close enough to see the explosion, and to feel the radioactive ash falling on them. The crew became ill by the time they reached port, one crew member soon died, and there was a panic in Japan over contaminated fish from other boats.

Everyone in Japan knew of these events, of course. And many of them found their way into Gojira.

Gojira, in a train-chewing scene reminicent of King Kong. Posted by Picasa
Ishiro Honda was a young director, a friend of the great Kurosawa, who had been drafted into the Japanese military, and was a prisoner of war in China. Returning to Japan after the war, he passed through the devastated Hiroshima.

Honda admitted openly, then and years later, that he intended Gogira to raise the issue of the danger to humankind of nuclear testing and nuclear weapons themselves. The U.S. version makes but one reference to Godzilla being a prehistoric beast resurrected by H-Bomb testing--by 1956, lots of “bug-eyed monsters” were hitting U.S. drive-ins, all created by atomic bombs, so that much wasn’t unusual. But not only were the H-Bomb tests discussed several times, and Nagasaki mentioned, the whole story and whole mood of the original Gogira was integrated with these events and these issues that the Bomb and modern warfare raise, as Japanese audiences would clearly understand, and as any of us can see—and especially feel—today.

Gojira begins with a strange event at sea: the crew of a fishing boat is relaxing on deck, when they see a sudden white flash and explosion in the sea, which then sinks their boat. How this relates to the prehistoric monster is not explained (although according to the commentary it was in the script, but budget forced changes.)In fact, it is very close to how one of the crew of the Lucky Dragon #5 described the H-Bomb blast: “Suddenly the skies in the west lighted up and a great flare of whitish yellow light splashed against the clouds and illuminated the water.” The witness even remembers one of his crewmates humming a song, and in the film they are all singing as someone plays a guitar (by the looks of it, an American one.) None of this was coincidence. Honda even has the #5 displayed on a life preserver, identifying this fishing boat with the Lucky Dragon.

Is this the face that launched 28 sequels and counting? Yes, it is. Posted by Picasa
As monster movies, Gojira and Godzilla share an unusual quality: neither has a real action hero. The hero who sacrifices his life to destroy the monster is a scientist, and he has a relatively minor part in the film. The central human figure in Gogira is another scientist—the elder, Professor Yamane, played by one of Japan’s most distinguished actors, Takashi Shimura. He would play the lead in another 1954 release, one of the first Japanese film to become widely known in the U.S.—Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (known to filmmakers first, as it became the basis for the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven, and years later, one of the models for Star Trek: Insurrection.)

Professor Yamane leads an expedition to investigate other ship disappearances, and to a small island where villagers believe the “mythical” sea beast they call Gojira is responsible. Gojira comes ashore, preceded by a violent storm—again, it’s an inexplicable event that doesn’t occur when Gojira appears later, but it is clearly reminiscent of an atomic blast. But it is also like a typhoon, which (along with the ancient monster story) relates to a sub-theme of this and some other atomic monster movies: with the atomic bomb in particular but with a lot of modern technology in general, humankind was deforming nature, and playing with forces within nature that we may not be able to control.

The theme of humanity deforming nature with technology, and taking power into human hands that humans may not be capable of controlling, is at the center of what many consider the very first science fiction story---Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a theme throughout science fiction ever since. This theme is carried forward in Gojira on these two tracks: the human ability to control nature (in for instance the lingering shots of birds in cages, fish in tanks) and the consequences of nature’s power unleashed (symbolized by the monster from the deep and from the deep past), as well as the consequences of deforming nature. That’s the role of radiation in atomic films, and in this one in particular. For while investigating on this island, Professor Yamane finds Gojira’s huge footprint. And the water and soil in it are radioactive.

According to the commentary, the design of Gojira was meant to reflect a beast disfigured by radiation. Tanabe immediately wonders how it survived —and surmises that because it did, Gojira would be even more dangerous.

Photos of Bomb victims in Hiroshima disfigured by blast, burns and radiation had been widely circulated, even in the U.S., by the mid 1950s. The effect of radiation in creating mutations in the children of those exposed was also well-known, although U.S. officials continued to deny this. So the idea of disfiguring mutation was a starkly frightening part of atomic lore, expressed symbolically, mostly in these atomic monster movies.

Mutation would be an even greater source of anxiety in Japan, because that’s where some of the first evidence emerged, not only as a result of Hiroshima, but of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. The U.S. physician and writer, Dr. David Bradley, re-published his best-selling book on the 1946 postwar atom bomb tests, No Place to Hide, and included new information, such as the results of a study of 406 Pacific islanders (probably similar to those depicted in Gojira) who were exposed to H-Bomb fallout in 1954: nine children were born retarded, ten more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human."

These were recognizable buildings in the real Tokyo of 1954. Posted by Picasa

Tokyo on fire, again. Posted by Picasa
Gojira’s greatest mutation was yet to be revealed, however. This film uses the slow reveal that characterized some monster movies of this era (like the U.S. atomic “giant ants” classic, Them!, also released in 1954.) At first we see only Gojira’s foot as he comes ashore accompanied by the storm. Then above the rim of a hill outside the village, his head. While the tension builds, preliminary to Gojira’s major appearance, we’re already seeing the destruction and effects on individuals, families and communities is depicted in some detail.We’re also seeing postwar Japanese life, and the crosscurrents of western and Japanese culture, of the modern world and tradition, in the story of Yamane, his daughter Emiko, her boyfriend Ogata, and the young scientist to whom she has been betrothed since childhood, Dr. Serizawa. All of this is very important to the power of this film, and most of it is missing from the U.S. version.

The central scenes of this movie, preserved for the most part in the U.S. versions, are Gojira/Godzilla attacking Tokyo. The U.S. version cuts an implausible sequence of the attempt to secure the city by erecting high tension towers and wires overnight; it explains that the city is ringed with these towers to begin with. The U.S. version also cuts some of the scenes that deal with the victims, including one that was especially meaningful to the Japanese: a trapped mother and child huddle in a doorway, awaiting their destruction, as the mother tells the child they’ll soon be joining her father—a reference to a soldier or someone else killed in the war.

What U.S. audiences don’t know about these scenes is that the filmmakers paid a great deal of attention to meticulously creating models of the real Tokyo, so that buildings Gojira destroys were as recognizable to Japanese audiences as the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty would be to Americans. (The filmmakers actually got in trouble with authorities, the commentary says, when they were overheard in downtown Tokyo discussing how they were going to “destroy” various buildings.)

The most dramatic moment of these sequences is when Gojira/Godzilla demonstrates a power for the first time—he has a “heat ray” breath that sets buildings aflame. In the U.S. version, this is just another special effect. But after all the references to nuclear weapons and radiation in the Japanese version, it’s clear that this monster has not only been created by atomic power, he has become a walking atom bomb.

The shots of the city aflame had to be a specific reminder of the destruction of Tokyo by U.S. bombs just 9 years before, and the smoldering ruins were very similar to widely published photos of Hiroshima. So, too, the concentration on victims, on the rows of wounded, emphasized the human cost.

Gojira, a postwar expression of nature deformed and unleashed by technology. Also a guy in a rubber suit, and a hand puppet. Posted by Picasa
But these evocative scenes (their power not limited to Japanese audiences) also contributed to the central dilemma of the story. Earlier, Dr. Serizawa (a haunted figure, wearing an eyepatch because of war wounds) showed Emiko the accidental results of his research on oxygen: an “oxygen destroyer” weapon, which, released in water, would destroy all the oxygen and kill everything. He swore her to secrecy, because he didn’t want others to take his research and use it to make weapons that would be (he said at some point) as powerful as atomic bombs.

It was the central problem of science in the technological era, especially in the development of the atomic bomb. Many of the scientists who worked on it were absorbed in the thrill of discovery, and even many of those who realized they were in a race to make this weapon before Nazi Germany did, believed that the Bomb should never be used in war. They especially felt this after Germany surrendered, and many signed a letter pleading with the President not to use the Bomb against Japan, not only because of moral issues, but because they feared it would start an international arms race that would become catastrophic for the entire world.

By 1954, much of this was public knowledge, as was the case of Robert Oppenheimer, who managed the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, then made his horror of what they had created public, after which he was accused of being a security risk, and his scientific career was ruined.After Gojira’s attack, Emiko betrays the confidence of her betrothed, Dr. Serizawa, because of her compassion for the victims. She and Ogata try to persuade Serizawa to use the oxygen destroyer against Gojira, but he resists, believing that as long as he is alive he could be forced to yield its secrets to those who would use it for warfare.

Then they see on television a broadcast of schoolgirls singing a song pleading for peace—much as schoolchildren have done every year since 1945 on the anniversary of Hiroshima. This causes Serizawa to relent. We see him burning his notes, but we know (even if Emiko and Ogata haven’t figured it out) that he believes this won’t be enough.In diving suits, Serizawa and Ogata release the oxygen destroyer weapon, and after Ogata returns to the ship, Dr. Serizawa cuts his line and sacrifices himself—not because it is necessary to kill Gojira, but because it is necessary to keep the world free of a weapon “as powerful as the atom bomb.”

That’s the message that isn’t at all clear in the U.S. version. We also saw earlier how upset Professor Yamane was about the plans to kill Gojira, before it could be scientifically studied. But this wasn’t the usual na├»ve scientist riff—he wanted to know how Gojira survived all that radiation, and how it changed him. The movie ends with his warning, that other Gojiras were possible, and they still did not know how and why this beast survived the H-Bomb, so if nuclear tests continued, the world was in even greater danger.

Gojira became such an icon in Japan that he was used in advertising, in this case to sell tires. Posted by Picasa
There are other differences in the original—especially the evocative sound of Gojira's footsteps and more use of the Ifkube’s great theme, which has since become the signature Godzilla music. But these are the major ones: the human stories that reveal much about Japanese culture and the postwar period, and especially the theme of the Bomb and the role of science. These are what makes this science fiction of consciousness. It responded to current issues of great importance, of life and death for civilizations and for the future. It did so both in a science fiction adventure and with metaphor and symbolism. It represented the thinking and feeling of its own time. In this case, the complex feelings of postwar Japan, which had depended on military conquest and technology, seen millions of its people killed and its cities destroyed, become the only country so far to suffer nuclear devastation and its long-term effects, only to be victimized by continued nuclear weapons testing.

And after the war, in the years of U.S. occupation, the Japanese saw its governmental institutions, its economy and its relationship to the world all change, largely beyond its control. A recent article I chanced to come across as I wrote this maintains that the Japanese have still not fully come to terms with the transformations of the occupation period.In a piece in the American Prospect called “Goodbye Godzilla, Hello Kitty,” Norihiro Kato writes about the sorrow and the guilt of World War II destruction unleashed by the images in Gojira. He speculates then on why Godzilla became such a popular figure, leading to so many sequels, and a transformation from destructive monster to defender to a kind of cute superpet. He concludes that it was part of a long process of “sanitizing” the war dead. For him, it seems, the “cutifying” of Japanese popular culture as it creates worldwide symbols such as Hello Kitty, is part of a process of displacement and denial by means of consumer culture rather than really confronting the meanings of the war or the Occupation.

But that is not true of the original Gojira film—it does express the feelings and confronts the issues, using the distancing and symbolisms of science fiction, the mythology of the technological age.