GOJIRA! GOJIRA! GOJIRA!
More big Japanese dinosaurs with Matt Salusbury
Gojira was in town recently. You probably know this beast by its American name, Godzilla. Godzilla’s/Gojira’s original Japanese black and white first film from 1954 – which curiously never got a cinema release in the UK – was showing at – of all places – the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London’s beard-stroking intellectual home of Contemporary Art with a capital ‘F.’ Rubbing shoulders with seminars on semantics and awfully serious art installations was a black and white Japanese film featuring a man in a rubber suit who stomped over giant model train sets. I went along, the cinema was absolutely packed. The 21st century sophisticates snickered when Godzilla made its first appearance, in daylight, but everybody shut the hell up and sat in enrapt silence during Godzilla’s terrible night raid on Tokyo. While the franchise eventually degenerated into goofy cartoonish stomp-fests aimed at primary school kids, its original outing was a very serious beast indeed.Even today, Godzilla has immense cultural influence. The Black neighbourhood of Inglewood, Los Angeles recently saw off an attempt by gigantic supermarket owners Wal Mart to open a megastore, which would have quickly destroyed the neighbourhood’s local economy. The successful campaign against Wal Mart was led by a beautiful and charismatic female African American Episcopalian Church Minister. Did she use quotes from the Bible to rally her troops? No siree, she used Godzilla. “David and Goliath? This ain’t David and Goliath,” she told the press, “This is the city of Tokyo versus Godzilla!” The entire Old and New Testament apparently couldn’t come up with a suitably inspiring metaphor, but the world of Japanese monster movies could – Godzilla is, apparently, bigger than God.
The film even featured in America’s response to 9/11. There was apparently an informant held in unofficial detention by the Americans, a Syrian guy who fancied he was in Al Qu’eda, and who turned out to be a bit of a fantasist. Under “interrogation” he blabbed out the names of all the targets he could think of in New York, a city he had never visited. He named the Brooklyn Bridge as the next Al Qu’eda target, because he’d seen it being destroyed in Godzilla. The phrase ‘Godzilla targets’ discreetly crept into US intelligence analysis. That’s how big Godzilla is.
While Americans may have seen some of Toho Studios’ 30-odd Godzilla movies, probably on the drive-in circuit or on late night cable TV with the presenter taking the mick out of it, Brits have probably only ever seen Tri-Star’s 1998 American travesty that was Godzilla, in which the monster is taken out by missiles after getting caught up in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. I was working at a private English school at the time, and the many Japanese students in my class went to see it, and came back just shaking their heads in bewilderment and muttering, “But Godzilla’s just a giant iguana in this one, they don’t get Godzilla.” Seeing the original 1954 Godzilla, it’s revealing how many elements are taken from the original film and used in the remake, (except for the obvious change into ‘just a giant iguana.’) There’s a very credible opening scene in the remake in which a post war French nuclear test in French Polynesia starts to mutate the local marine iguanas, and the bloke out of Leon turns up as a French secret service agent clearing up the mess. (Blaming Godzilla on the French is interesting, given America’s subsequent attitude to France in the Iraq war, and all that ‘Freedom fries’ nonsense.) In the original 1954 Gojira, nuclear tests at sea are blamed, and we all know because of the location that it’s the Americans who’ve done the nuclear tests, although in 1954, with large parts of Japan still formally occupied by US troops, you would be censored if you said so in a film. “Don’t mention the war” was film industry policy – and the horror of Godzilla’s attacks on Tokyo – with bystanders suffering radiation poisoning in Godzilla’s wake, and refugees camped out in the corridors and stairwells of the hospitals, is an oblique reference to Hiroshima and also to the incendiary bomb raids that burned Tokyo to the ground in a fortnight at the end of the war, and which you still couldn’t allude to directly on film. The model tanks and planes in original Godzilla, intercut with live action tanks and troops, are from the then brand new Japan Self-Defence Force – the Americans had only just let them have any kind of army.
Gojira opens with its lofty, serious, classical score, written by serious Classical composer Akira Ifukube, punctuated by the signature shrieking Godzilla roar, which was also Ifukube’s creation. Then we’re in the Maritime Safety Bureau in Yokohama, and the director’s office is being besieged by wives and kids of the crew of yet another trawler that’s gone down in Japanese waters. We see scenes of more trawlers going down – or in one case being pulled under – when mysterious lights show up underwater. Fish catches locally are suddenly right down to almost nothing. Survivors who are washed up on a remote island have horrible radiation burns. The old dude from the village recalls how in the old days, when fish catches suddenly dried up, they would “sacrifice a maiden” to a mythical sea dragon named Gojira. Now we’re back in Tokyo, where a dashing guy from the Navy Office is courting the daughter of Prof. Yamane, a paleontologist, who has a very feeble grasp of his science, as he places the Mesozoic era of dinosaur dominance at “twenty million years ago”, but as well all know the Mesozoic was about 200 million to 60 million years ago. (Prof. Yamane is played by Takashi Shimura, who was the leader of the Samurai in the then brand new Akira Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s assistant director on his period art movie epics Kagemusha and Ran, was none other than Ishiro Honda, director of Gojira and eight more Godzilla films.)
The young Miss Yamane was recently engaged to Dr Serizawa, a bitter and twisted professor who has an eye patch after losing an eye in Hiroshima. Miss Yamane hasn’t got around to telling Serizawa she’s dumped him. Back on the island, a mysterious force stomps on houses and wrecks ships during a storm in the middle of the night. Delegates are dispatched to lobby Parliament in Tokyo. Prof. Yamana gives his appallingly inaccurate talk on the Mesozoic to a Parliamentary Commission. After various Navy survey ships sent to investigate are also mysteriously sent to the bottom, they all go out on a scientific expedition to the island. They turn up and immediately find giant footprints, which start their Geiger counters clicking.
Then Godzilla appears over the top of the hill in broad daylight. He looks rubbish, everyone runs away, and the audience laughs. Prof Yamane tells the Parliamentary Commission he thinks Gojira is an aquatic reptile left over from the Mesozoic, mutated by a seabed churned up by nuclear tests. Gojira is first glimpsed from a ferry as it nears Tokyo, and then descends on the city, the plates on its back glowing as it sends out lightning-radioactive breath. Buildings – recognizable as actual places – are destroyed, kids left behind in the street are radioactive, power cables are ripped up, and trains derailed and played with, hospitals fill up. A Buddhist hymn of salvation, sung by school children on the radio, together with a confrontation by his ex, moves Dr Serizawa to use his newly-invented Oxygen Destroyer. An eye dropper full of this horrifying compound starts a large fish tank bubbling and fizzing like an aspirin and takes out all the oxygen, reducing all the fish to skeletons in minutes. Dr Serizawa had demonstrated the Oxygen Destroyer to his ex but then begged her to keep it a secret, so terrified is he that it will be developed into a weapon of mass destruction.
Finally persuaded, Dr Serizawa destroys his notes and goes out in a ship with the handsome male lead from the Maritime Safety Board to find Gojira and activate the Oxygen Destroyer. Donning those old diving suits with the lead boots, they are lowered down to find Gojira. Dr Serizawa sets off the fizzing destroyer, his comrade is hauled up but Serizawa cuts his rope, fearful that “a foreign power” will capture him and beat his secret out of him. Gojira is skeletonised very quickly, but Prof Yamane warns that, if nuclear tests continue, more monsters like Gojira will be churned up by the sea, thus keeping open the possibility of a sequel.
And sequels there were, by the shed load. Gignatis The Fire Monster was more a remake than a sequel, and then Toho discovered by accident that the kids loved the seriously intentioned Godzilla. Goofy sequels followed, in which Godzilla:
- adopted a “cute” child monster with big round eyes that was “only” about 60 ft high
- danced a little victory jig on Saturn a bit like Nobby when England won the World Cup
- was abducted by wrap-around sunglasses wearing aliens with aerials
- fought and vanquished creatures including the following:
a rhino-like colossal horned dinosaur that picked up women with its tongue
a super-pterodactyl that flew with a sonic boom
a giant blob of toxic sludge
70-ft wingspan moths
a three-headed dragon straight out of The Book of Revelation
a badly done baggy King Kong with a papier-mache face,
a pantomime oversized Tyrannosaur
a multi-coloured lizard monster with giant hooks for hands and a gigantic knife protruding from its stomach
flying robot replicas of itself
an outer space clone of itself – the latter, ‘Space Godzilla’, was bred in the core of a comet, sprouted ice crystals from its shoulders and could levitate.
Godzilla tripled in size over the years to avoid being drawfed by the increasingly huge size of Tokyo skyscrapers, and new Godzilla releases would incorporate the latest additions to the Tokyo and Osaka skylines and crush and stomp them, in much the same way as contemporary Bond movies include the Millennium Dome and the Guggenheim Bilbao. The brand new Tokyo Inland Revenue office building was collapsed by Godzilla shortly after its real life opening, and audiences applauded when Godzilla karate-kicked his gargantuan opponent through the walls of the controversial new Shinjuku Ward Council Office, scandalized by a massive overspend, shortly before its official opening in 1983. There are even alleged to be special Godzilla tourist maps of Tokyo available, with which you can follow Godzilla’s various paths of destruction through the city from the many films.
Like the Bond films, Godzilla seemed to go through a sort of late Roger Moore era – Godzilla films became increasingly childish and ropey and fizzled out in the early 1980s, only to be revived in Godzilla 1985. Godzilla finally went down fighting a giant creature called The Destroyer (not to be confused with the Oxygen Destroyer) in preparation for the transfer of rights to Hollywood for the Brooklyn Bridge giant iguana travesty. But Japanese Godzilla fan outrage at Hollywood Godzilla meant Toho Studios took the rights back, and Godzilla was soon stomping over model Tokyo again in Godzilla 2000. 21st century Godzilla films have begun to incorporate CGI effects, while man in increasingly sophisticated silicon rubber animatronics-enhanced suits remain the default special effects technique. Just as the Dead Kennedys announced in 1987 “we stopped before we started to suck”, so Toho Studios recently announced they were finishing with Godzilla for the moment until the technology improved or until they had found ideas for better scripts. This announcement came with the release of the recent Godzilla Final War, in which proper man-in-suit Gojira flings rubbish Hollywood iguana Godzilla to its death by judo throwing it into the Sydney Opera House. At least that’s what the man at the ICA told me, I’ve never actually seen Godzilla Final War myself, so I’m taking his word for it, although the scene sound like the sort of thing that could happen in a Godzilla movie. Final War may be a premature title, as Godzilla is not conclusively dead at the end of the film, only missing in action. But how you could lose a 150-ft radioactive dinosaur with spines on its back is not clear to me.
The bits in the Godzilla films where there’s no Godzilla on screen, which you would expect to be the dullest, are often deeply weird and convoluted, with stirring performances and the full range of human (and alien) character development. Godzilla’s only on screen for about six minutes in Monster Zero, but there’s a lot of intricate strangeness in the bits in between, centering on the X-ians from Saturn. The look like PVC-clad skinny art punk industrial band surrealists, with their wraparound sunglasses and aerials coming out of their hats. Their women are all identical. One is executed for the capital crime of displaying emotion, and they speak in a series of translated budgerigar chirps, whistles and squeaks. The exotically beautiful but evil Klaaxians, who succumb to one of Godzilla’s many efforts at international cooperation – on this occasion a UN-flagged space mission to bomb the crap out of Mars – melt to death at room temperature and go out with all the dignity of Shakespearian tragic heroes.
One of Godzilla’s worst received films, Space Godzilla, has the most Byzantine sub-plots of all. A departments store office salarywoman has painful telepathic contact with Godzilla, which normally takes the form of agonizing migraine attacks. Meanwhile, there’s a Renaissance revenge tragedy being playing out in the mind of one of the other human characters, a soldier in the elite heavily tooled-up anti-giant monster special unit G-Force, who runs amok and attacks Godzilla with all the special hardware he’s got, because Godzilla’s foot demolished his house in a previous film, while his comrades in arms have to physically pull him away because they’re trying to let Godzilla lure bad Space Godzilla with the crystalline shoulders into a trap. Godzilla versus the Sea Monster (aka Godzilla versus Crustacea) has human interaction that’s weird even by the standards of a Japanese monster movie, involving and Elvis-movie style dance marathon, the prize of which is a motorboat won by a gang of wacky teenage geeks.
Godzilla was played in the 1956 film – and in all subsequent films up to 1972 – by Haruo Nikajima, who – surprise, surprise, also starred in The Seven Samurai, as a bandit. Nikajima was a Classical method actor who went to the zoo at opening time at least once a week, to watch how the large animals moved. He is perhaps the most famous Japanese actor of all time, although none of his fans had any idea what he looked like. His approach is reminiscent of the actors who played Draconians, Sontarans, Ice Warriors, Cybermen and other monsters wearing a huge mask with just holes for their eyes in Doctor Who, one of them said it was like playing Classical Greek tragedy in a mask, you had to summon up all your powers as an actor to convey emotion without the audience being able to see much (or in Godzilla’s case any) of your face.
Now acting has gone forever from giant monsters, as they are CGI-rendered, although its revealing that Steve Jackson, whose special effects movies Lord of the Rings and King Kong were so good, used an actor to ‘do’ Gollum and King Kong. Tri-Star’s American Godzilla leaps and bounds gracefully through New York in the manner of Jurassic Park. But as we go to press, new information on dinosaur skeletons is emerging – their skeletons were actually very stiff, they could not have bounced and jumped like the ones in Jurassic Park, and the studied stiff lumbering of original 1954 Gojira is actually more accurate after all.