Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Kaiju Notes:
(Ishirō Honda, 1954)

Like many genre movie obsessives I suspect, this month has seen me grovelling in supplication before the monolith that is Criterion’s Godzilla: The Showa Era Films box set, which landed on my doormat with an appropriately earth-shaking thump a few days after Halloween.

“Box set” is actually a bit of a misnomer in this case, as Criterion have housed these fifteen movies in packaging which more closely resembles an over-sized hardback book. I’m not usually one to geek out over the packaging of physical movie releases (well, not in public, anyway), but Yuko Shimizu’s newly commissioned artwork on the front, back and inside covers of this thing looks absolutely stunning at full size, and most of the interior content (both text and illustration) is equally impressive.

Although I’ve not had much of a chance to dig into the discs themselves yet (this could take years, frankly – I’ve only just finished off Criterion’s equally formidable Zatoichi box, a full five years after I first received it), I nonetheless feel confident in recommending this release as an object which will enrich your life and enliven your home in all manner of wonderful ways.

Obviously more important than any of that however is the access this set provides to the films themselves. With the exception of the original 1954 ‘Godzilla’, these Showa-era kaiju movies have long suffered from a chronic lack of availability, particularly here in the UK. When I first started trying to track them down around a decade ago, I found myself resorting to a mixture of pan-and-scan VHS releases, imported DVD box sets of similarly poor quality and low-res mp4 downloads - all, without exception, featuring the American release versions of the films with English language dubbing.

Admittedly, these English dubs often proved quite endearing, if not outright hilarious (I’ll never forget the deliriously absurd voiceovers applied to ‘Ebirah, Terror From The Deep’ and ‘Terror of Mechagodzilla’ in particular). In fact, my only criticism of the Criterion set thus far is the fact that many of these dubs have not been carried over as alternative audio options, which makes me slightly sad. BUT, never mind - the point I wish to make here is that opportunity to experience these films as their makers intended, with the original Japanese audio tracks and (in the case of the thirteen post-1960 films) the proper scope ratio, promises to be an absolute revelation for most viewers in the Western hemisphere, and is surely cause for celebration.

I’m not planning to write full reviews of these films as I watch them – I mean, I’m sure you don’t need me to provide a full run-down on the artistic merits of ‘Destroy all Monsters’, for goodness sake – but I will do my best to write up a few notes on things which occur to me during each viewing, whether high-falutin’ insights on the way the series developed over the years, or just picking out scenes or moments which seem particularly strange or noteworthy, and we’ll just see where we end up, I suppose.

So, we begin, of course, with the big daddy of them all, and, viewed purely in serious, cinematic terms, the best kaiju film ever made by a considerable margin - Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 ‘Godzilla’.

Just the lad himself.

Ever since the original cut of Honda’s ‘Godzilla’ was restored and re-released in the early ‘00s, finding itself justifiably reappraised as a stone-cold classic of post-war Japanese cinema in the process, viewers who grew up with a very different idea of what Godzilla movies were all about have found themselves emerging, suitably shaken, from arthouse and festival screenings, scratching their heads and wondering how and why Toho’s signature monster franchise went on to become so silly, so quickly, over the course of subsequent instalments, despite the fact that the auteur responsible for this initial masterpiece frequently returned to the director’s chair.

Well, I for one tend to believe that the dramatic tonal shift which followed this first film’s success in fact makes perfect sense when one takes into account the strange emotional disjuncture at the heart of ‘Godzilla’.

What I mean to say is, for around 80% of this film’s running time, we’re watching a sombre, mature and deeply sad meditation on scientific morality in the 20th century and the very real terrors and threats to individual human agency which can result from man-made societal catastrophe.

For the remaining 20% of the film however – the portion basically encompassing all of the footage in which The Big G is on-screen - we basically forget about all that, and instead just find ourselves simply thinking, FUCK YEAH, GODZILLA!

I’m not sure to what extent a big rubber suit can legitimately be deemed ‘charismatic’, but from the very moment he first pokes his bonce above that hilltop on Odo Island and unleashes his inimitable elephantine roar, Eiji Tsuburaya’s creation here is just so immediately likeable, it’s difficult not to be overjoyed by his appearance, and correspondingly enthused by his lumbering, apocalyptic antics. As a result, the conflicting emotions we feel as Godzilla first stomps his way to shore on the mainland and cuts a bloody swathe through Tokyo’s metropolitan area are strange indeed.

In keeping with the film’s more serious agenda, what we are shown here for the most part is something we would rarely see again in a kaiju movie - real human misery on a vast scale. People’s homes, livelihoods and families going up in smoke as they frantically try to pack their remaining possessions onto hand-carts and shopping trolleys; a circumstance which must have been horribly familiar to many in the film’s original domestic audience, less than a decade after the Pacific War left much of the nation in ruins.

As the shadow of the Godzilla’s colossal paw looms above the Ginza streets, one famously harrowing shot shows us a single mother – a war widow, presumably - attempting to comfort her daughter as they crouch helplessly in an alleyway; “it’s alright, we’ll be joining daddy soon,” the mother tearfully exclaims. Devastating. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by this simple, appalling vignette.

BUT, as soon as we cut back to the next model city / special effects shot and get another look at the big galoot causing all this mayhem, we’re immediately back on a more comfortable footing. FUCK YEAH, LOOK AT HIM GO; Godzilla doesn’t give a fuck about your stupid power lines! Look at him, swatting missiles out of the air like Mosquitos! COME ON! This is amazing! Godzilla rules!

How are we to deal with this tonal disjuncture, to reconcile these conflicting impulses? As soon as the initial box office receipts started to come in, Toho dealt with it by entirely ditching the brooding, serious aspect of Honda’s film and instead doubling-down on the kiddie-placating Monster Fun in subsequent kaiju films, significantly watering down their portrayal of the damage wrought upon Japan’s citizenry by Godzilla and his fellow cyclopean sluggers.

And, it’s easy to see why the studio went with the path of least resistance and took this decision, just as it’s easy to see why The Big G romped his way through fourteen more essentially light-hearted sci-fi adventures over the next twenty years. He has such an innate capacity to make an audience (especially, I dare-say, an audience of excitable ten year olds) just so damned happy, it would be a crime for him to have not been given the opportunity to do so, just for the sake of, you know, art and human dignity.

(By some accounts, Honda himself was initially unhappy with this shift in emphasis, but at the end of the day, he was a company man, and as a life-long SF enthusiast, I suppose he must have simply decided that being ordered by his employers to keep on making movies full of space-ships, doomsday weapons, model cities and giant alien monsters wasn’t exactly the worst thing that could have happened to him, all things considered.)

Until my most recent viewing, I had never really appreciated the extent to which ‘Godzilla’, in its first half in particular, basically plays as a horror movie. In stark contrast to everything which was to follow in the Godzilla franchise, Masao Tamai’s photography here is extremely dark and brooding, utilising heavy chiaroscuro effects and unconventional, chaotic framing to establish a palpable sense of foreboding only emphasized by the relentless crashing of waves against the rocks of Odo Island, and the baleful majesty of Akira Ifukube’s legendary score. (Metal fan in particular will likely appreciate the extent to which Ifukube just plain lays down some killer riffs here.)

Scenes such as the one in which an as-yet-unseen Godzilla undertakes a nocturnal attack against a character’s isolated cliff-top home feel as if they could have come straight from the play-book of innovative kaidan horrors such as Kaneto Shindô’s similarly war-haunted ‘Onibaba’ (1964) or Hiroshi Matsuno’s contemporary-set oddity The Living Skeleton (1968), whilst in some sense Honda even pre-empts the island-bound terrors of Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ring’ films, nearly half a century later.

(Odo Island, where Godzilla is first encountered, is widely considered to be a fictional stand-in for Oshima, the sparsely populated volcanic island around 30km out to sea from Tokyo bay where the family of the dread Sadako make their home in the ‘Ring’ mythos.)

With its dark coloration, striking red lettering and montage of fearful figures, the film’s Japanese poster (see above) certainly resembles a contemporary kaidan poster, and the temptation to see ‘Godzilla’ as a horror film is further encouraged by the fact that the tragic Dr Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) appears for some reason to reside in a Western-styled gothic crypt, where he keeps his extremely impressive array of Frankensteinian machinery in a subterranean burial chamber – the signifiers of a Hollywood horror movie perhaps acting here as a canny metaphor for the reckless, predominantly American, scientific advancements which have guided the tormented doctor (himself a traumatised war veteran) toward the construction of his oxygen-destroying “doomsday device”.

Thinking further, these horror-ish vibes are actually very much in keeping with several of the more low-key, and perhaps more personal, sci-fi films which Honda subsequently directed in-between his kaiju commitments (1958’s ‘The H-Man’ and 1963’s nightmarish ‘Matango: The Mushroom People’ immediately spring to mind). From another angle meanwhile, they also allow ‘Godzilla’ to fit neatly into an interesting international sub-set of ostensibly ‘scientific’ ‘50s alien / monster movies characterised by their brooding, overtly gothic visual aesthetic – Edgar Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X, Gerardo de Leon’s Terror is a Man and Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava’s ‘Caltiki: The Immortal Monster’, to name but a few.

Given that Japan bore the brunt of the worst extremes of mass destruction that the 20th century had to offer, whilst its densely populated shores continue to abide beneath a more-or-less-constant threat of natural disaster, I’ve always been struck by the extent to which the nation’s culture has portrayed the collapse of its urban infrastructure with an almost unnerving level of enthusiasm.

In fact, there is a whole pantheon of popular Japanese art which has gleefully fetishized this forthcoming, full scale decimation to a nigh-on crazed degree, creating an entire new aesthetic of twisted girders, disintegrating concrete, bridges and overpasses swinging through space like loose tree branches, fire and debris raining down on all sides, and so forth.

Although Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s ‘Akira’ probably represents the pinnacle of this kind of “disaster-porn”, the original ‘Godzilla’ is surely also a major landmark in its development, and the terrifying beauty which Honda and his collaborators bring to Godzilla’s central rampage sequence remains absolutely startling. Looming, expressionistic shadows, vertiginous low angle camerawork and wild swatches of inky blackness all lend a genuine horror to proceedings that would never, ever be replicated by the comparatively quaint, full colour kaiju rampages which would follow through the ‘60s. Throughout its running-time in fact, ‘Godzilla’ succeeds in evoking an almost physical sensation of leaden, stomach-churning dread in its viewers, ensuring that, all these decades later, its status as the ‘Citizen Kane’ of monster movies remains unsurpassed.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

"FUCK YEAH, LOOK AT HIM GO; Godzilla doesn’t give a fuck about your stupid power lines! Look at him, swatting missiles out of the air like Mosquitos! COME ON! This is amazing! Godzilla rules!"

Best summary of why Godzilla rocks I've read for some time!

I was lucky enough to go to the Godzilla exhibition in Nagoya a year or two ago, and it was chock full of all the goodness one would want from a show like that. Some astonishing full sized poster artwork - inc the amazing art for Godzilla 1985 (my personal fav), with the boy standing above a ruined city in bold red flames and lightning. Was about the size of a snooker table in the real and just astonishing to be able to get up close and study it in detail.

I get looks at work as I keep The Important Paperwork in a folder I bought with that very artwork displayed proudly on the cover.

Ben said...

Thanks as always for your comment Maurice!

That exhibition sounds great, I wish I could have made it along... despite regularly visiting Japan for family reasons, my haul of Godzilla-related stuff has remained limited to just a few tatty postcards and cheap, decidedly non-collectible toys...

Cam1020 said...

Terrific review! I too was bowled over on my first viewing of the original Japanese cut by how relentlessly grim it was in comparison to what followed. Have you seen Shin Godzilla? It's a real revelation, both a scathing political satire and a legitimately unsettling depiction of the Big G himself. Surprisingly moving, and the last shot of the film provides a very potent frisson of horror. I suspect Ishirō Honda would have been pleased with it.

Ben said...

Thanks so much for your comment Cam1020, it's greatly appreciated.

I had mixed feelings about Shin Godzilla to be honest - on the one hand, it was great to see Toho doing something so different and daring with the franchise, and great that it was such a big hit in Japan, but as a Western viewer I felt a lot of the deeper social/political satire went over my head - definitely made with the domestic market in mind! - and I found the monster stuff and effects work a bit underwhelming too.

Definitely a very interesting film that I feel will benefit from a re-watch though, so I'll reserve judgement until I've given it some more time. It's worth noting though that I seem to be one of the few people who quite liked the 2014 American 'Godzilla', so my opinions might not be too reliable... : D (terrible reviews put me off subjecting myself to the recent sequel however...)

Cam1020 said...

I am also one of those people. I saw Godzilla (2014) on the big screen and walked away very impressed. I loved that the filmmakers didn't beat us over the head with monster carnage, choosing instead to tantalize and frustrate us until we finally get to the climactic battle. Because of my admiration for the first Godzilla I was initially very excited for the sequel. I am sorry to say that I can only concur with the reviews you've read. It is a very stupid movie with stupid characters making stupid decisions. I could not be less excited for Godzilla vs. Kong.

On an unrelated note, I've been quietly following your blog for about 3 or 4 years, and I've greatly enjoyed your writings on weird cinema and pulp paperback works. In fact I quickly sought out Incubus and Killer's Moon after reading your respective reviews of those, and had a hell of an interesting time with both. So in short, I would just like to offer my gratitude and sincerest hope that you will continue to find encouragement in your writing.

Ben said...

Aw, thanks so much! I'm really glad you've been enjoying what I do here, it always makes me happy to know it has some value for someone other than myself, and great to hear too that you've checked out and enjoyed some of the films I've written about. Thanks again! : )

(Incubus! What a crazy movie... I recently read the source novel actually, hoping it might be similarly weird, but found it disappointingly straight-forward - I think the film somehow ended up with a vibe all of its own.)

Glad too that I wasn't the only fan of the 2014 Godzilla... my expectations for it were so low that I waited until my wife bought the DVD at the supermarket for £3 before I bothered to watch it, but came out thinking "is it just me, or was that actually pretty good?"

I enjoyed the fact that the human cast all keep a straight face through the b-movie type drama rather than smirking and wise-cracking (it felt quite old-fashioned in that respect), and the CGI monsters actually felt quite weighty and real. I also appreciated the way that the film's big set-pieces seemed to draw on real life fears of natural disasters & terrorism for their imagery, which lent a certain amount of seriousness to things, in spite the inevitable gung-ho Hollywood blockbuster type approach...

Cam1020 said...

Unfortunately there's a lot of that smirking and wise-cracking you mention throughout the sequel. It really is just soulless and cynical, almost devoid of the awe and respect with which Godzilla was treated in the previous film. You may still want to watch it at some point for the special effects, as some of the effects shots of Ghidorah are downright demonic in their scope and intensity.

Regarding Incubus, I too was intrigued by Ray Russell's novel. The film version brought to mind words once used to deride Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan - "An incoherent nightmare of sex." I personally don't consider that an insult, but I think it perfectly sums up the film's appeal. I had to know how much of this insanity came from Russell's pen, and how much the filmmaker's added, so I started reading the book several months ago. About 50 or 60 pages in I gave up, completely fed up with the obnoxious characters the author actually expected the reader to like. Would you say it gets better as it goes on?

Ben said...

No, sadly 'Incubus' doesn't get any better as it goes along -- pretty much plods along as expected really. I made it to the end, but very much skim-reading in a "why am I still bothering with this?" frame of mind.

It *does* get more sleazy, as we get ever longer descriptions of the monster's attacks, but despite clearly trying to shock his readers with gross nastiness, Russell still writes in that weird way common to commercial horror authors, using timid euphemisms and describing the human body in the way that suggests he's never actually been very close to one and is working from pictures. It's pretty difficult to be bland and offensive at the same time, but I think he manages it.

And yeah, the characters are *so* dull and one dimensional - I think the magic of the film comes at least partly from John Cassavetes, who seems to have created a FAR more interesting, morally ambiguous character for himself to play than anything that was in the source material.

It helps too that the script is so wild and all over the place that you never know what's going to happen next, whereas you know exactly where the novel's heading from the first few chapters; no mystery, no surprises.

I was really surprised actually to look into Russell's background and learn that he'd been writing & editing for decades and that some of his earlier work is quite highly acclaimed -- 'Incubus' reads so much like some Stephen King fan's "written in my lunch breaks" first novel, I even wonder whether Russell wrote it in a knowingly crap fashion, working purely for the cash or something?