May 2, 2004
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
|Godzilla takes a shortcut...|
For Godzilla was, even in its bowdlerized "King of the Monsters" incarnation, an obvious gigantic, unsubtle, grimly purposeful metaphor for the atomic bomb. The Americanized "Godzilla,' which removed about 40 minutes from the Japanese original and inserted 20 minutes or so of new scenes featuring a sympathetic Yank journalist (played, with burly gravitas, by Raymond Burr), did its darnedest to minimize the nuclear theme. A lot of the Japanese characters' explicit references to the bomb were jettisoned. But Godzilla's back story was left basically intact: the beast, we're told, had lived more or less peacefully in the ocean for a few hundred thousand years (only very occasionally requiring the sacrifice of a virgin or two by nearby islanders), until H-bomb testing killed off its food supply and, as its fiery exhalations indicate, irradiated the creature itself. And since the stateside distributors were understandably reluctant to tamper with the meat-and-potatoes scenes of the monster's rampages, the most memorable images, even in the American version, are those of a Japanese city burned and crushed to dust by a lethal, apparently ungovernable force. You'd have to be pretty thick-- thicker than Raymond Burr--to miss the point.
The most significant difference, really, between the Japanese "Godzilla," directed by Ishiro Honda, and "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," which credits one Terry Morse as co-director, is that of tone. Honda's "Godzilla," while far from a great movie, has a distinctively haunted, elegiac quality, which surfaces only sporadically (and, in its new context, puzzlingly) in the choppy "King of the Monsters." Bad dubbing, of course, imparts at least a whiff of ridiculousness to any movie, and in the case of "Godzilla" it works like a toxic cloud. If audiences remember the Japanese monster movies of the 50's as campy, cheesy spectacles, it's partly the soundtracks that are to blame: no matter what horrors are unfolding on the screen, the sound of dialogue that appears to have been learned phonetically, emanating from actors whose lips move with the surreal irrelevance of ventriloquists' dummies, does sort of undercut the solemnity of the proceedings.
And Honda's "Godzilla" is extraordinarily solemn, full of earnest discussions about how to respond to the apocalyptic threat one thoughtful scientist, played by the perennially wise-seeming Takashi Shimura, argues that the monster should not be killed but studied for clues to surviving the effects of radiation and long, mournful pans across the rubble of post-Godzilla Tokyo. (Some of these shots are eerily reminiscent of scenes from Akira Kurosawa's 1949 thriller "Stray Dog," on which Honda had worked as an assistant.) In "Godzilla," the comic-book premise is never allowed to overwhelm the director's clear intention to measure the aftershocks of the nuclear obliteration, nine years earlier, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The outlandish metaphors of the science-fiction and horror genres are useful vehicles for imagining the unimaginable, speaking the unspeakable. In pop creations like "Godzilla," the blunt metaphors, like the monsters themselves, tend to develop minds of their own: they run rampant, flattening even the sturdiest intentions. The most peculiar thing about Godzilla as a metaphor for the bomb is the creature's simultaneous status as a legendary beast of Japanese islanders' mythology: surely a more precise representation of the disaster that befell the country at the end of the Second World War would be an agent of destruction from far away, unheard of even in legend, not this native, almost familiar monster. Is Godzilla, then, also on some subterranean level a metaphor for Japan's former imperial ambitions, which finally unleashed the retaliatory fury that leveled its cities?
Maybe. But the the runaway metaphor of Honda's Godzilla isn't nearly so easy to pin down. It's more ambiguous, more generalized and perhaps more potent than that. And its significance can be glimpsed only in the Japanese version of the movie, because what Honda's "Godzilla" is most fundamentally about, I think, is a society's desire to claim its deepest tragedies for itself, to assimilate them as elements of its historical identity. The world of the uncut, un-Americanized original "Godzilla" is literally insular. There's no occupying army, no heavy-set Caucasian reporters, no United Nations representatives, nothing but Japanese people, screaming at, worrying about and ultimately vanquishing their Japanese monster. By the end of the picture, Godzilla himself seems already on his way to becoming a beloved figure. Dying, the beast sinks into the sea with one last plaintive roar, and Honda gives him the sort of send-off our westerns used to reserve for those stubborn old gunfighters that history kept leaving behind. All that's missing is "Shall We Gather at the River."
Having claimed this monster as its own, Japan or at least, the Toho film studio was then free to export it. Toho cranked out dozens of prehistoric-creature features in the next couple of decades (many of them directed by an increasingly unengaged Honda), and the anguished resonances of the original "Godzilla" were never heard again. The metaphor had slipped its moorings and headed far out to sea, refitted as a tacky cruise ship. It's no wonder the jocular, mega-budget American remake landed with such a spectacular thud in 1998: even the Japanese hadn't believed in their metaphor for ages, and had long since turned their home-grown monsters into lovable entertainers.
In Honda's berserk "Destroy All Monsters" (1968), for example, we find Toho's repertory company of scary creatures warehoused on an island called, none too imaginatively, Monsterland, where they live in slightly crotchety coexistence with each other, like retirees in a managed-care facility. For part of the movie, they're permitted to revert to their old, bad, global-destruction-threatening selves, but it's not their fault; they're being controlled by space aliens. And in the end, the Toho monsters, like tag-team wrestlers, get together to administer an old-fashioned scaly-tail whipping to the space creature Ghidrah. Godzilla, our hero, raises his stubby arms in triumph, while his son, who looks disturbingly like Barney the dinosaur, does a happy dance.
Horror turns to silliness so quickly in popular culture, and that may be the final, unfathomably ambiguous meaning of Godzilla, the Metaphor That Ate Japan. He's the embodiment, in a way, of the movies' Strangelovian power to domesticate the worst, the most unthinkable experience. For 50 years, Godzilla has been teaching us to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of "The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies."
Godzilla, King of the Monsters a k a Godzilla 1956 - Japan/USA - Sci-Fi Action/Monster Film/Natural Horror/Sci-Fi Horror -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Starring Raymond Burr, Akihiko Hirata, Momoko Kochi, Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada. Directed by Terrell O. Morse. (NR, 80 minutes). Filmed in 1954 as Gojira, this grandaddy of all Japanese giant-reptile epics was picked up for American distribution two years later, at which time several newly-filmed inserts, featuring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin (!), were expertly rabetted into the original footage. In both the Japanese and American versions of Godzilla, the story is basically the same: A 400-foot amphibious monster, brought back to life by underwater nuclear testing, goes on a rampage in a tinker-toy Tokyo. An eccentric scientist (Takashi Shimura) does his best to destroy the beast with his heretofore discredited invention, the Oxygen Destroyer. Though Godzilla is apparently disintegrated in the climax, this didn't prevent Toho Studios from grinding out an endless series of sequels, with the title character becoming less destructive and more lovable with each subsequent film. Hampered by a low budget which precluded stop-motion animation, special-effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya was forced to rely upon an actor (Haru Nakajima) in a rubber Godzilla suit. Incidentally, the name "Gojira", a combination of "gorilla" and "kujira", is Japanese slang for "big clumsy ox", and was allegedly the nickname of one of the Toho stagehands! ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide