To say that I’m something of a monster movie nerd is like saying that Isaac Newton was something of a scientist. I’m the guy who asked Santa Claus for The Blob, owns It Came from Beneath the Sea on VHS, saw Son of Kong more than once, and has watched many, MANY Godzilla movies.
So imagine my excitement upon coming across the original Gojira (Godzilla‘s “Japanese name”) and its sequel, also in its original version, at the library. Up to this point, I had only seen the American hack job done to the original film (hint: Raymond Burr is NOT in the Japanese release–at all) and most of the re-edited sequel (called Gigantis: The Fire Monster when released in the U.S., and also heavily re-edited).
Unfortunately, for the first film, at least, my enthusiasm was not quite justified.
Not to say that there aren’t good parts in it , but it has some major problems. I feel there’s no need to go into the shortcomings with the special effects, since they should be well-known to anyone who has seen any Godzilla movie (particularly concerning the miniatures that look like miniatures), but I would like to go into shortcomings regarding the script. In your average monster movie, the script isn’t so important, so long as it makes you somewhat care about what happens to the main characters. But Godzilla is not your average monster movie. Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic bomb, and for the horrors unleashed not just by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by atomic bomb testing (in fact, the first scene in the film is a thinly-veiled reference to the Lucky Dragon incident, when members of a Japanese fishing boat strayed too close to the site of the Bikini Island atomic bomb test). In subject matter, this is as serious a movie as Ikiru or Tokyo Story, and should approach the competency of those two movies as regards its script.
Part of its problem has to do with the one dimensional characters it has created. Most of the characters in this film act like they believe exactly what they say, and what they say has only one layer of meaning. Even the great Shimura Takashi, who had starred as the title character in Ikiru only two years before, cannot bring much complexity to a role that doesn’t require him to be human, merely a scientist (though he tries).
The only somewhat complex character in the film is Dr. Serizawa, and Hirata Akihito, who played him, seems to be the only actor to suggest the emotions lying under the surface. It’s no surprise, then, that the scene where his fiance (Emiko, played by Kochi Momoko) and her lover (Ogata, played by Takarada Akira) try to convince him to use his Oxygen Destroyer to defeat Godzilla–after the monster has laid waste to Tokyo–is one of the best in the film, made better by a scene on Serizawa’s TV of young girls singing for world peace (the song is “Oh Peace, Oh Light, Return,” which is also played in an instrumental version during the climax), taking the focus away from the fakeness of the scenes that accompanied Godzilla’s rampage (and the one dimensional characters), and placing it on the devastation that Japan suffered during the war.
As I watched that scene, I thought of the ages of those girls. They were probably around fourteen years old. Born during WWII, they would have remembered only its aftermath, and perhaps its last dark days.
The most affecting scenes in Godzilla, in fact, are not the scenes that Godzilla appears in (except for the final sequence in the film), but the ones that contain subtle allusions to the war and the atomic bomb, like when a woman comforts her kids during the rampage by saying to them, “We’ll be joining your father in just a moment! A little longer, a little longer, and we’ll be with your daddy!”
My biggest problem with the script, however, is that too much of the dialogue relies on explanations: explanations of what Godzilla is, explanations of techniques that will be used against him, and explanations by characters of why they are taking the actions that they are taking, which slows down the pace of this film considerably, and which requires a second viewing in order not to be bored during some of the lengthier expositions. Say what you will about the Raymond Burr remake (which removed all the gravitas of the original in its effort to be “just another monster movie”), at least it wasn’t boring.
Nor, however, did it pack the emotional punch that the later scenes in this film do. One wonders if Godzilla would have matched in excellence the strength of its ideas had Honda Ishiro had more than three months to film it in, or if Tsuburaya Eiji had had seven years in which to use stop-motion animation, or if the script-writers had had more time to polish the script, or if the actors had taken their cue from Hirata. On the other hand, the booklet that comes with the movie is excellent, and both this film and its sequel come with the original American releases, for those viewers who want side-by-side comparisons.
Having not liked the original film much after my first viewing (I saw it a second time and enjoyed it a little more), I was hesitant about seeing the sequel, especially since it was released only six months after the original. Yet Godzilla Raids Again (Gojira no gyakushu) is a decent monster movie. The “special effects” are as fake as ever (I particularly like the fake men used in both films :-)), but the dialogue is better, and if the characters aren’t as complex as in, say, an Ozu film, they at least display more dimensions than most of the characters in the original movie did. Plus, it’s never boring, and some scenes (such as when Godzilla is led away from the coastline by flairs) include a good mix of tension in them.
The film has a more relaxed feel to it, and is significant for a few reasons. Not only is this the first Godzilla sequel, this is the only time that Godzilla attacks a city in Japan not called Tokyo (in this case, Osaka). It also is the first Godzilla movie to include another monster, a feature that would become prominent in future Godzilla movies. And while they originally battle on Iwato Island, one wonders if the idea for Monster Island took root in the initial fight between Godzilla and Anguirus.
So, is the sequel better than the original film? To answer that question, I would like to use my Flying Dutchman analogy. Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is a problematic opera, and certainly not one of his best, yet there are arias in the opera that are better than anything to be found in Tannhauser (including an excellent duet between the Dutchman and Senta that I still think is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that Wagner ever wrote), even though that opera is, overall, better than its predecessor.
Godzilla is like that, too. The last moments of the film, and the seriousness of its message, make it a more ambitious film than its sequel, and if its sequel is overall a more even film, it also lacks the power of the scenes which follow Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo. One only wishes that the rest of the film had been as good.
Following traditional Japanese practice, family names are given first, followed by first names. I have not, however, followed this practice in regards to the characters’ names in the original film.
Some interesting trivia about the original Gojira: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047034/trivia