Sunday, October 31, 2010

Godzilla and His Frienemies

Over the past few months I’ve developed a taste for Godzilla pictures, mainly the Showa period up to 1975. I’m no lifelong fan, having only fragmented memories of Godzilla and Mothra on grainy UHF broadcasts, so I learned a lot about the franchise as well as several other daikaiju….and a few things about life along the way:

The Toho franchise is divided into three periods: 1) the Showa Series from 1954 to 1975, 2) the Heisei Series from 1984 to 1995, and 3) the Millennium Series from 1999 to 2004.

The original Godzilla (1954) is a masterpiece - the message, the execution, the characters, the score – it’s all great. There’s nothing campy or silly about it. Even the premise and the pseudo-scientific Oxygen Destroyer® work as well as any sci-fi logic.
And the ominous nature of the beast – totally void of humor or good nature – foot falls like bombs - drives home the seriousness of the picture. It wasn’t till the 60s that the Japanese monster movies started playing for laughs – all the early ones were played straight.

Godzilla wasn’t born, he was hatched.

Rodan wasn’t born either. He was hatched.

Ditto: Mothra.

If you come across an egg the size of a bus, DO NOT remove it to Tokyo.

The same thing goes for foot-long Peanuts that talk in unison or any large and mysterious lizard-like creatures you might come across in a volcano.

If your commuter train or your tank looks like a model, then you’ve had it!

It doesn’t matter what year it is, Godzilla is still a man in a suit. At this stage of my learning at the Geek College of Netflix U (Go Anti-Socials!), I’m unaware of any Godzilla that is not a man in a suit, except a recent cartoon I have not seen. The series has a devoted adherence to the suit, which I think is good for the franchise, though I say that with hesitation, being almost totally ignorant of the later pictures.

After watching The Creature from 20,000 Fathoms, which was the Harryhausen picture made the year before Godzilla, I wondered: what is it that Godzilla has that The Creature… does not? Both are good movies and Harryhausen’s effects, as always, are special. But The Creature… just isn’t as important a movie and could not have launched the same type of franchise as Godzilla. Then the answer came to me: destruction. The Beast leaves a trail of toppled cars and crushed buildings, but not near the scale of Godzilla. The shots of the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage are horrifying and reflect the total destruction of 1944-45. By comparison, The Beast…is just the story of a giant rhedosaurus who tried to take in the sites of Manhattan one day and ended up getting shot at Coney Island. Happens all the time. Such a story might make the papers on page 18A, but after Godzilla’s rampage there are no papers, not in Tokyo, anyway.

The British daikaiju, Gorgo, leaves a destructive wake in London more similar to Godzilla, but even that wake isn’t as horrifying. It’s interesting to see that the British film focused on the rushing masses going underground to avoid the destruction, which fits the images one often sees of the Blitz.

Mothra is a Grade A monster flick with a maternal twist.

Oh, caring Mothra,
Your wafting wings have destroyed
the fishing village.

The Peanuts, who played the 14” twins in the Mothra pictures, were popular before, though when I asked my resident authority on all things Japanese (Lady T____) she recognized them as made famous by one of the daikaiju, she wasn't sure which. To be fair, The Peanuts were well before her time, and she did recognize the ditty “Mossura”.

It’s bad to keep girl twins locked up for your own profit and amusement, especially if they are 14 inches tall. You know it. Now don’t do it. It’s wrong.

In Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorha, the Three-Headed Monster, the twins are dressed in the latest Tokyo fashions, complete with purses. That leaves open several questions: What do they put in those purses? Would they have had a difficult time at the currency exchange counter at Haneda Airport? What is the exchange rate between the yen and the Infant Island dinar? Does their fingernail polish ball up in normal sized droplets or are those droplets really small? If they are so small, wouldn’t they want tennis shoes instead of heels because they are already at a disadvantage mobility-wise? Many real-life Japanese girls have a hard time finding clothes their size in American stores – being more petite and all – do these miniature twins have a similar problem in Japan?

The case which the twins are transported in….is it padded? Do they strap themselves into seats for safety?

Godzilla hates Mothra and Mothra’s egg with a passion. Come to think of it, Godzilla seems to be threatened by anything bigger than three stories. He’ll emerge from the sea to confront any giant – King Kong, Rodan, Ghidorah, Mothra, those giant insects in Son of Godzilla, etc. He doesn’t care for people either and would just as soon step on them as to argue with them. He's not the type of character who sports a misspelled “co-exist” sticker on his terraplane.

Godzilla is a tail dragger.

Godzilla didn’t make the transition to being a good guy until his fifth picture, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), and even then he was a reluctant hero. The conversation between Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra, as translated by the twins from Infant Island, reveals Godzilla’s worldview as eloquently as anything.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is my favorite of the series. It’s funny, looks great and has the optimal monster-to-minute ratio.

The atomic bomb metaphor is often brought up with the first Godzilla, and rightfully so. Ishiro Honda’s anti-nuclear pacifism is well known and often finds its way into his films. But I believe the metaphor can be deepened and applied throughout the Showa series. Like the bomb, Godzilla starts out by annihilating Japanese cities, but eventually he became a protector of Japan, much like the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

If you broaden the metaphor to include nuclear energy, then Godzilla fights off the Smog Monster (Hedorah) like Japanese nuclear energy helped offset air pollution of coal and oil.

It’s seductive to go overboard with the Japanese nuclear experience/hang-ups contributing to the creation of the monsters, but, for perspective’s sake, it’s relevant to point out that the rhedosaurus in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the product of nuclear explosions, as was the British Gorgo. Also, it is curious to note that in the American version of Rodan! The Flying Monster stock footage is added showing nuclear complicity in pushing the larva creatures to the surface, yet in the Japanese version no mention is made to nuclear testing. The Japanese version holds natural tectonic shifts in the Earth’s crust accountable for allowing the larvae to emerge and greedy coal mining companies for digging too deep as an explanation for Rodan’s appearance. By adding the nuclear element, the American version convolutes things without adding any plausibility to the story.

By my calculations, Godzilla starts flying in 1971 (Godzilla vs. Hedorah). It’s not very convincing. He curls his body and tail and looks a little like a sea-horse. The amount of atomic thrust from his mouth and the vectoring of it hardly seems sufficient to lift his massive bulk of prehistoric meat off the ground, yet that’s what he does in order to catch up to the Smog Monster. I prefer my Godzilla to be flightless. Whether he’s traveling along the bottom of the bay or over traversing Tokyo, he should be taking the shoe-leather express.

Rodan is a bird like creature capable of supersonic flight. I could not account for the jet propulsion sound effects. Where are his engines? I hate to cry foul on the logic of these films, but come on!

Some of the early scenes in Rodan! The Flying Monster depicting the miners remind me a little of Ishiro Honda’s friend, Akira Kurosawa, as well as their American predecessor, John Ford – mainly in terms of composition in shots, but also in depicting the plight of victims. The scenes of grieving widows and survivors were no doubt familiar to the Japanese in the 1950s.

Angurius is the first monster Godzilla fought, in Godzilla Raids Again (1955). They battled twice. Afterwards, Godzilla retired from the movies until August of 1962, when he returned to the set and did King Kong vs. Godzilla. Angurius teamed up Godzilla and Mothra to battle Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster in December of 1964. Ever since Angurius has been an ally of Godzilla. Anugurius is a born sidekick – smaller, doesn’t quite have what it takes to carry a film on his own, no back-story to speak of, but he’s good to have along on an all monster combat excursion. I’m guessing he packs the lunches and stocks the cooler full of beer and soda for the gang. He gets tossed around a lot.

You never know if an erupting volcano will kill or energize a giant monster, just like you never know if a hastily erected high-voltage fence will hurt or feed one. Godzilla seems to be annoyed by electricity, though in his fight against Mechagodzilla lightning bolts somehow gave him an added power and a magnetic quality. The Gargantuas (Gaira and Sanda) are hurt by electricity, too. But high voltage makes King Kong stronger. So read the hazard alerts for the particular monster you are dealing with AND NEVER THROW FIRE AT GAMERA! That terrapin would be a ruthless judge at a chili cook-off.

In regards to leading daikaiju, one of two things bring them forth: 1) nuclear testing (the rhedosaurus in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, Rodan [in American version, but not the Japanese version (see above)], Gamera, and Gorgo), and 2) some crime, usually an abduction, as in Gappa or Mothra, but sometimes with old fashion oppression, as in Daimajin 1, 2 & 3.

Non-leading daikaiju – bad guy creatures like Ghidorah, Hedorah, Gigan or Mechagodzilla – monsters that may have their name in a title but never carry the weight of the whole picture – come from other places: pollution, aliens, some guy’s garage.

I keep forgetting that there are really two Godzillas. (SPOILER) The first one was thoroughly destroyed by Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer®. Unfortunately, so was Dr. Serizawa. He was so horrified at the weapon he had created that he insisted he administer the weapon personally to Godzilla, insuring his own destruction and forever hiding the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer® in the process. He thought he was doing the only noble and good thing possible, but, thanks to Serizawa’s good intentions, Japan and the world have no way of killing the second Godzilla, who, within 6 months of the destruction of Tokyo, wipes out Osaka, or any of the other giant monsters that plagued Japan in the 60s and 70s up to today. Presumably, this second Godzilla is in the remainder of his films.

Godzilla suits are like Benji dogs: there are more than you might expect.

When I see Godzilla’s eyes, I’m often reminded of my late cat. You never know how smart Godzilla is just by looking at him (though a scientist in King Kong vs. Godzilla shows a revealing comparison between Godzilla’s pea-sized noodle and Kong's massive brain), but you know when Godzilla is aggravated. My cat, Copernicus, was the same way. Not to mention that they both had similar girthy builds and were pretty clumsy. My cat would constantly knock over table lamps and picture frames with his tail like Godzilla would topple hotels and government buildings with his. I bet if you held Godzilla upside down and dropped him, he would not land on his feet. Neither would Copernicus! The similarities go on and on.

In Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Godzilla is found in the cave on the side of a volcano – half buried in the mud like the Frankenstein monster in Son of Frankenstein.

When I first saw Godzilla’s kid, Minilla, in Son of Godzilla, I thought: ‘Godzilla…buddy…I hate to tell you this…buddy…but that’s not your son.’ But I kept my mouth shut.

Atragon has one of the best animated monsters Toho ever filmed with the underwater sea serpent/dragon.

The chief alien in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) is a shape shifting villain, yet he cannot remedy the discoloration of his face? Or does he call that a beauty splotch?

The aliens in that film aren’t so superior in intelligence, either. They built Mechagodzilla, but needed a earthling to repair him.

There a parallels between Toho (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, etc.) and Daiei (Gamera, Daimaijin): In 1954 Toho essentially created a special effects department from scratch to handle the new genre, then upon the immediate success of Godzilla quickly followed up with a sequel six months later. In 1965 Daiei studios created their effects department almost from scratch to make the first Gamera. After its success, they followed it up with a quickie sequel six months later. I have to give the nod to Toho’s effects team, over Daiei, particularly in regards to the suits and puppets. Gamera never looked animated to me. But both studios put together a lot of great effects, including good model buildings, mat paintings and careful work with water.

Gamera is a mammoth chelonian.

Gamera’s shriek is more hysterical and funny than Godzilla’s siren roar.

A turtle that walks on its hind legs? Sure. I’m not saying that if I came across a real life Gamera I would resist the urge to soil my pants, but I am saying that, on film, Gamera lacks terror. And look! Now he has saved a boy! That can only hurt his daikaiju reputation. Who does he think he is, Mothra?

And he flies? I agreed with the “expert” in the first film when, after the military managed to knock Gamera on his back, he said they had nothing to worry about because, once on its back shell, a turtle can’t right itself. Then Gamera retreats into his shell and out comes the thrusters. But the flames shot outward, not downward, so how could he achieve lift? Nobody sought to figure that out.

Gamera has one of the best and funniest endings of all the giant monster films.

“We have to strike the monster [Barugon] from outside the range of its tongue’s attack.” I’ve often thought this same thing regarding Gene Simmons.

That’s all for now, until I get the gumption to tackle the Heisei series.