Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Glory of Godzilla

Nihon no daikaiju eiga. The Japanese giant monster movie. A genre that has spawned hundreds of films over a period of almost sixty years, thanks in part to great success found in the West. In the next two years, Hollywood will be trying to replicate the appeal of these movies with two big budget releases. Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is first, a movie of epic giant robot on giant monster combat powered by imagination and adrenaline. Also on the table is a remake of Godzilla, the premiere giant movie monster, from Monsters director Gareth Edwards, promising to be a serious and sober take on the behemoth nuclear therapod, in line with the dark and gritty sensibilities of today's audiences. But movie critics have questioned this approach – Godzilla, serious? Impossible!
In the West, the fun we get from these movies is laughing at them. We laugh at the hokey special effects, the ludicrous plots, and most of all, that awful dubbing! But of course, that is merely a reality of adaptation for the West, a process that has often involved some degree of revision from the Japanese originals. As kids, we grew up with a Japanese television series originally called Dinosaur Squadron Beast-Rangers, the American release of which reshot everything but the action and special effects series, transforming it into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. When this genre is altered and adapted for their release here, often with not much respect, the result can be laughable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 spent years mocking the Gamera series, about a giant city-stomping flying turtle, a low-budget competitor to the King of the Monsters, Godzilla.
Godzilla, of course, is where it all started. With 28 instalments over fifty years, the monster is as much as symbol of Japan in the West as the Rising Sun. And while he's often a source of camp and amusement to us, it can be quite an eye-opening experience to actually go back and watch the films, especially in their original Japanese forms. The best of them, like Mothra vs Godzilla or Invasion of Astro-Monster, exude a sense of imagination, of fun and spectacle that is truly unique and very entertaining on its own. The creativity is unbridled and exciting, like a Jack Kirby comic. And the effects work, while outdated, is clearly executed with much attention to detail and craftsmanship, to create sequences that are totally convincing in their own way. There is great, liberating fun to be had enjoying these movies on their own terms, rather than just as subjects of mockery.
Thematic depth is also often overlooked in Western appraisals of these movies. Depth? What depth? Yet Gareth Edwards' conception of a “serious, sober” Godzilla film is in fact less of a reinvention than it is a return to form. The original 1954
Godzilla by director Ishiro Honda is a dark and brooding meditation on the dangers of nuclear power, and while a modern audience could try to mock it, by the time you reach the scene of schoolgirls singing a prayer for the dead as ambulances transport radiation burn victims in the wake of the monster's devastating assault, no one is laughing.
Japan knew full well the horrors of atomic assault, being the only nation to ever be so attacked. Godzilla was the first Japanese film to reference the attacks, even obliquely, as the subject matter was verboten during the American Occupation, which had only just ended. The direct inspiration for the film was the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident of 1 March, 1954. The small Japanese fishing boat was hit with fallout from the United States hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll, the crew struck with fatal levels of radiation sickness. Godzilla opens with images that would've been familiar to the public: a small fishing boat at sea, a flash of bright light, nuclear fire, and the wreck drifting ashore, the survivors soon dying from radiation. The film's finale chillingly evokes the wrath and the fury that was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka's primary intent. “The theme of the film from the beginning,” Tanaka said, “was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now Nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
As the series became more popular the tone lightened and gradually Godzilla, implacable destroyer of civilization, became a heroic defender of the Earth and mankind. And even this seemingly inexplicable transformation speaks volumes of subtext. The monster changed as Japan's view of itself changed, as the nation overcame the guilt over its wartime actions and ascended into a great positive economic power, so too did the monster ascend to heroics, and campy silliness it must be said. As more and more monsters and imitators arose to destroy Tokyo, so too arose manmade giant robots to combat them, creating an entire subgenre that led to Gundam, Evangelion, and now Pacific Rim. 
And while Edwards' new Godzilla film may be heralded as a return to form, Hollywood is not the first to reboot Godzilla into a dark and monstrous character again – the original Japanese series rebooted in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla, which restored the series to its former grandeur and whose success led to some of its greatest entries, such as 1989's del Toro-esque Godzilla vs. Biollante, a personal favourite. This creative renewal, accompanied by improved and sometimes even awesome special effects, led to a renaissance for the whole genre. Even Gamera returned bigger and better than ever in 1995's Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.
Over time the genre has evolved from serious allegory to escapist entertainment and back again, growing in popularity and influence. So before indulging in Pacific Rim or Edwards' Godzilla, take some time out to discover or rediscover the joys and the glory of the Japanese originals that started it all, and perhaps you will find a deeper and purer entertainment, the kind of childlike awe that can perhaps only come from seeing a giant dinosaur engulf an urban centre in nuclear flame.