By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs. Godzilla
Ah, Godzilla! One of the biggest hits in the history of Japanese cinemas, and certainly one of the most fecund of all Japanese movies and movie franchises, Godzilla was the brainchild of several highly gifted people who all hit their career peaks while bringing this beast to life, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, original story writer Shigero Kayama, co-screenwriter Takeo Murata, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, and, perhaps most important e show’s vastly underrated director-co-writer Ishiro Honda — a master of cinematic action, who was one of Akira Kurosawa’s lifelong best friends, and who was also his old buddy’s action director on the period masterpieces Kagemusha and Ran.
Kurosawa has said that the secret (or sometimes not so secret) subtext of all his movies is the paranoia of the nuclear age, and Honda could say the same thing — especially of Godzilla. The movie’s inspiration came from a real-life nuclear accident: the irradiation of a huge area around the American H-Bomb test site at Bikini Atoll, and the poisonings and deaths of Japanese fishermen on the trawler Lucky Dragon Number 5, which had strayed into the danger zone. Godzilla begins with a virtual recreation of that incident, with monster instead of radiation. And the clear implication is that we can take the monster attack as a metaphor for nuclear poisoning — even though the movie’s Godzilla has apparently been around for a while. Soon the humungous lizard-being is invading islands, attacking more sea craft, and edging closer and closer to his Grand March on Tokyo — a metropolis that he can, impressively, find without the aid of maps or compass.
Arrayed against Godzilla, demonstrating almost constant displays of futility, are the Japanese Army, Police, and all the country’s top scientific brains, plus the media. Think this country can easily wipe out one (admittedly rather large) lizard? Think again, sucker. But there is hope. Chief among the dauntless humans on the job are the classically paternal Takashi Shimura (who led Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai into battle that same year) as the maverick professor Kyohei Yamane, along with a triangle comprising Kyohei’s beautiful daughter Emiko (Momoki Kochi), her handsome newsman admirer Hideto Agata (played by the soon-to-be big star Akira Tarada) and her other admirer, the brilliant but tormented scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hurata).
Somehow we sense that this quartet will be able to carry the day against Godzilla, who is actually a couple of guys in a lizard suit, cut into special effects or miniature shots of villages and cities in flames. But if that’s a cliché, it’s not one we mind very much. (As Roman Polanski once said: “I adore clichés. All the great artists use them.”) Godzilla is one of those movies that seems to be a perfect realization of its material, and this is the perfect Godzilla movie. Even the fact that Godzilla is created by guys in Godzilla suits doesn’t hurt; it even humanizes the old monster a little.
For Japanese audiences, who stormed into the theaters for their first glimpse of what would become their favorite monster (and one of the world’s) this movie certainly fulfilled all their expectations — raising up some of the country’s worst fears and inflating them to wild, gigantic proportions, and then laying those fears to rest, with the help of the clichéd ending almost everybody actually wants.
3. King of the Monsters!
Honda’s unlikely classic — which had the unfortunate effect of type-casting him as the Japanese film industry’s main monster man — remains the best of all the Godzilla movies (and all the other Gojira spawn as well) and also one of the best of all monster movies, period. Certainly it’s better than the Godzilla show that most Americans saw first: an English language version (included in this Criterion set) which was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Listed as “directed by Terry Morse and Ishiro Honda,” it is Honda’s version, dubbed into English, shorn of 20 minutes of footage, and with new scenes shot and added by Morse. It features that classic film noir heavy Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin, an amazing (though not especially wild and crazy) chap who’s always on the site of every fresh attack and catastrophe, though never in the same frame with Shimura or the others, and who keeps offering dolorous commentary and urbane synopsis.
It’s easy to knock Godzilla, King of the Monsters! But it was a hit too, and it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Morse respected the original film enough to try his damnedest to make his additions seamless and his dubbed dialogue flow — and it does. I like Morse’s version better than the 1998 giganto-budget American remake directed by Roland Emmerich. Emmerich, as it happened, was kinder to Godzilla than he was to William Shakespeare, the subject of his disgraceful recent Shakespeare bi-opic/would-be expose (or Comedy of Errors) Anonymous — in which the director of The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow advances the the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by the (suitably aristocratic) Earl Of Oxford — and that indeed Shakespeare was barely literate, a bloody boor and probably a murderer to boot. Emmerich’s Godzilla could have used the real Steve Martin for cut-ins. So could Anonymous.
Anyway, Criterion made the right decision by including the remake in their package, though it would have been a mistake to add any more Honda Gojira or monster films, along with it (A later Eclipse set maybe?) (No, scratch that.)
I’ve never visited Japan, and probably I never will. But if I get there, I know I’ll dream of seeing several things, all of which, to me, signify “Japanese cinema“ and “Japan.” A furious Kurosawa swordfight caught by three cameras. Two Ozu characters sitting on tatami mats, musing on the sadness of life. A geisha or wife suffering while Mizoguchi’s camera tracks slowly and beautifully around her. Something tragic or transgressive caught lucidly by Ichikawa or Imamura. And, rising up from the ocean, while the sun sets, Honda’s Godzilla (excuse me, Gojira), staring toward Tokyo and licking his chops.
Disc One: Godzilla (Gojira) (Japan: Ishiro Honda, 1954) Four Stars. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Disc Two: Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Japan/U.S.: Terry Morse & Ishiro Honda, 1955) Two and a Half Stars
Extras: Excellent Commentaries by Godzilla expert David Kalat; Interviews with actor Akira Tarada and Haruo Nakajima, special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, and stellar composer Akira Ifukube; Featurette on Godzilla’s photographic effects; Interview with film critic Tadao Sato; The Unluckiest Dragon, an illustrated audio essay by Greg Pflugfelder about the Bikini Atoll nuclear incident that inspired Godzilla; Trailers for both films; and booklet with very good essay by J. Hobernan..