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No. 16: “Gojira” (1954)

“If the oxygen destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course they’ll want to use it as a weapon. Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist — no, as a human being — I can’t allow that to happen!”
~~Dr. Serizawa

Time has not been kind to “Gojira,” the foreboding, chilling original black-and-white Japanese film released in 1954. There was the abominable 1956 American version starring Raymond Burr (saddled with the moronic title “Godzilla, King of Monsters!”) that polluted Ishirô Honda’s dark themes of nuclear testing fallout and human responsibility. Then came a slew of remakes — no need to keep a tally; the number changes with the tides — so nutty and crazily different in tone that none work in tandem. So Honda’s original creation, with its lack of technicolor, comical destruction scenes and English overdubbing, has faded into the background.

Fifty-five years later, it’s time to move “Gojira” back into its rightful position as the quintessential Godzilla film, and the only one that works as both an eerie monster movie and a thought-provoking drama. That hardly means, however, that “Gojira” is a faultless masterpiece; the film has its flaws, chief among them the acting (which is, with few exceptions, mediocre at best), a contrived, largely uninteresting love triangle and some heavy-handed dialogue (in fairness, translation is an inexact science) at the ending. But getting tangled up in these flaws means missing the point entirely. What Honda has done is create a haunting snapshot of post-World War II Japan, still paralyzed by fears of nuclear warfare. Moreover, he raises some important questions about the human price of scientific discovery that still feel as relevant today as they did 55 years ago.

Honda takes his time leading up to these issues. He spends many (a few too many, to be frank) of the film’s opening scenes introducting the human players in this epic-sized drama: Emiko (Momoko Kochi), her father Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), a respected paleontologist; Emiko’s fiancee Ogata (Akira Takarada); and accomplished scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Emiko’s reserved childhood companion who can barely hide his romantic feelings for her. Ogata wants Emiko to break news of their engagement to Serizawa, but before that happens a much more intriguing and meaty plot thread loops through: A 150-foot monster, resembling a giant lizard but believed to be a surviving relic of the Jurassic period, is spotted off Tokyo’s coast. Efforts to roust the beast, dubbed “Gojira,” from his watery hideout are horrifically successful, and Gojira lays waste to Tokyo in a series of brutal raids. Bullets, electricity, even missiles are useless. Emiko, however, stumbles on a possible solution: Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. The scientist’s dilemma — use the Destroyer to stop Gojira and risk it becoming a nuclear weapon, or hide his invention and watch Tokyo burn — marks the film’s turning point and its central, most powerful question. 

Where “Gojira” succeeds most obviously is the cinematography (provided by Masao Tamai), since it’s the look that creates the ominous, bleak tone viewers can’t quite shake. In black-and-white, with so many scenes filmed in the dark, Gojira looks every inch the unstoppable force of nature that he is. There’s not the faintest whiff of humor or self-conscious camp to be sniffed out anywhere, particularly in Gojira’s rampage through Tokyo. These sequences are sobering, even elegaic in their simplicity. Akira Ifukube’s score, with its dramatic crescendos, drives home the tragic feel of these attacks, and later hauntingly underscores the ramifications of Serizawa’s decision.

It is this crucial moment, perhaps, that excuses the movie’s few shortcomings — Serizawa’s personal and professional crisis. The scene, stunningly filmed, is complex and emotional. He has created something with the power to change the world, and Honda captures every gut-wrenching angle of Serizawa’s reality. He is torn between his scientific principles and his humanity; he understands the Oxygen Destroyer is not simply a means to an end, that using it means punishing a dangerous but innocent creature born out of man’s experiments on nature. Somehow, in these final moments Honda shows us, really shows us, something more terrifying than Gojira itself: The more control we believe we have, the less we ultimately do.

TTC: “Kingu Kongu tai Gojira” (1962)

KKTGb“King Kong can’t make a monkey out of us!” ~~Mr. Tako

“King Kong Vs. Godzilla” is the kind of thought-provoking motion picture that entices one to ponder life’s deepest and most meaningful Big Issues: the eternal struggle between good and evil; the devastating repercussions of nuclear testing; humankind’s foolish belief that nature is ours for the using and that the natural world remains firmly under our control.

<Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ow! My unformed stomach muscles!>

Forgive the untidy interjection, but typing that first sentence with a straight face is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted to do. So why the guffaw? Well, it’s possible that all the aforementioned elements exist in “Kingu Kongu tai Gojira,” my very favorite entry in the neverending and gloriously scattered Godzilla canon. Trying to unearth them from the heaping piles of amazingly awful costuming, comic special effects and horrendously fantastic dialogue is a fruitless endeavor. “Kingu Kongu tai Gojira” does not want or encourage the formation of brain wrinkles; this is camp for camp’s own sake, pure kitsch served straight-up with nothing to dilute the flavor.

Hold it, hold it — Why are we talking about chasers? This is a movie about GODZILLA, lizardly tyrant of the Far East, fighting KING KONG, the biggest, baddest, coolest damn dirty ape in history. Just put those two costumed dudes on a fake mountain, let them rip into each other for 90 minutes — smashing untold amounts of Tonka cars in the process — and that’s some mighty fine entertainment.

But director Ishirô Honda, plot pusher that he is, tries to work in some business about a backstory (or three) before he unleashes Kong and Godzilla, so the usual summary song-and-dance might be helpful. Lamenting his low ratings, TV producer Mr. Tako (Ichirô Arishima) hears about Pharoh Island, home to non-addictive narcotic berries and a mythical giant ape called King Kong, and decides it’s the perfect way to boost ratings for his show “Mysteries of the World.” His assistants Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (Yû Fujiki) get the unenviable job of charming the natives, harvesting the berries and hauling back Kong. During the voyage, their ship nicks Godzilla’s iceberg and frees Japan’s meanest, scaliest scourge. (He’s fightin’ mad, see, so in “King Kongu tai Gojira” he’s the villain. It changes in every movie, and sometimes a few times in the same movie; don’t bother to keep up.) When Kong wakes up on a raft in the ocean, he’s a might irked himself, so he breaks free and swims away, heading straight for Japan.

Cue blaring chorus of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” And here the real fun begins. At this point, blessed be, Honda’s movie kicks into action overdrive, with Godzilla letting his tail and his fiery breath wreak havoc on Japan’s unsuspecting citizens. (The fact that after so many attacks these people are still unprepared? My, my how that warms my heart cockles considerably.) There’s a thrillingly bad battle involving a train full of innocent bystanders. Kong gets airlifted to a mountaintop. Giant bolders are thrown, power lines are toppled and used as electroshock paddles and Japan, once again, gets smashed to itty-bitty pieces the size of malformed McNuggets. The destruction is magnificent in its spendid lack of choreography and anything resembling special effects.

Though the action sequences are great cheesy fun, they are only part of why “Kingu Kongu tai Gojira” is so terrifically terrible. The script and the characters are so over-the-top that overdubbing is unnecessary. Fujiki, who neatly fills the Loose Cannon role, gets to have all the fun as Furue, who interrupts Takashima’s serious moments (wonderfully few and far between) with lines like “My corns always hurt when they’re near a monster.” It is Arishima, however, who runs away with the movie. He’s the quintessential mad genius, or he would be if his diabolical intentions were backed by actual brain power.

Truth be known, that’s not a bad way to describe “Kingu Kongu tai Gojira”: all brawn and no brain. Hey, if you want brains, look elsewhere — this ain’t “Casablanca.” But maybe, just maybe, it’s the “Casablanca” of Godzilla films.