Godzilla Raids Again
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
This review is part of a Godzilla crossover week with Classic-Horror.com. Click here for Classic-Horror's review of the same film.
This review encompasses both the original Japanese release of Godzilla (referred to herein by its Japanese title, Gojira) as well as the American cut of the film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters!.
When we hear the word "Godzilla" nowadays, we often think of campy giant monster battles, poor audio dubbing, and ridiculous subplots. Basically, we think of many of the Godzilla follow-ups spawned by the original film. It can be easy to forget the tone of the original Gojira, the one that started it all, especially if one's experience with the "original" film was a viewing of its American edit. Gojira is, despite the reputation given it by its successors, an austere film, lacking any of the humor found in later installments, aiming not to entertain but solely to terrify. Only one or two later Godzilla films would attempt to recreate this feel. Gojira is a truly horrifying science fiction film and an essentially perfect metaphor for the destructive power of the subconscious.
Gojira is about a giant prehistoric monster whose species has been roaming the ocean floor for millions of years. Suddenly, the monster, Gojira (Godzilla, as it has come to be called in English), is among us, residing in shallower depths and surfacing on occasion to wreak havoc on the city of Tokyo. As it turns out, Godzilla was knocked from his habitat by H-bomb tests (the film never points the finger directly at America, though it is America that had performed the tests in this area around this time in real life) and altered into something even more horrible than he was to begin with. Trampling buildings, irradiating cities, and killing virtually everyone in his path, Godzilla is, in this film, one of the most vicious creatures ever to be portrayed on the silver screen.
The film unfolds like a nightmare. Throughout the whole thing, the lighting is kept exceedingly dark, even during the daytime, suffocating the viewer and reinforcing the sense of sadness and confusion. The monster surfaces as a mythical being, appearing only a handful of times, wreaking havoc just when we've recovered from the previous attack. At first we don't even get to see it attacking; we see horrible events with no explanation, such as the ocean erupting into fire and spraying sailors with radiation. Then we see the misery of it all: women and children lining up to find out if their loved ones are still alive. Later, a storm ushers the monster in, but instead of being allowed to see what happens, we are shown only the fleeing victims. Later we catch a glimpse of him. A few more sightings ensue, and it all leads up to a final, prolonged attack which lasts over ten minutes, during which time half of Tokyo is bathed in fiery radiation, and the other half is trampled to rubble, all to a slow, inexorable score that evokes a sense of approaching death.
Assisting with the effectiveness of the attacks is the tension built during the time between them. These moments are partially spent trying to understand what Godzilla is and where he came from. These periods in which we are free of the monster are by no means restful. It is during these times that we are forced to figure out what to do about the problem lurking days, hours, or minutes away. Not only do we get some insightful exposition during these times, but it is during Dr. Kyohei Yamane's (played by the great Takashi Shimura) explanations that we learn the H-bomb-radiation origins of the beast and, thus, the fact that it is the folly of man that created it. We are then forced to ruminate on the horrors that await us. Often the anticipation of a terrible event can be just as bad as or worse than the event itself. This is a classic example of that (though in this case, it's not quite "worse than").
It is during the time between Godzilla's attacks also that we watch a love triangle play out. Though American sci-fi films from this period often included love story subplots just for the sake of having a love story, the romance in Gojira is important to its theme. To summarize this portion of the movie, Emiko, the girlfriend of scientist Daisuke Serizawa, begins to fall in love with Hideto Ogata. It is not a case of cheating or adultery; it is simply the fact that her love for Serizawa has waned, and the viewer gets the sense that this waning has been going on for a while. Upon close inspection of Serizawa and Ogata, some interesting details emerge. Serizawa, who you might characterize as a mad scientist (a morose one at the least), can actually be symbolic of the West, particularly as he is given the somewhat idiosyncratic quality of enjoying Western classical music. The most distinguishing characteristic that Ogata is given is the fact that he opposes the idea that Godzilla should be captured and researched; he just wants him killed in order to save more lives (it becomes clear that Godzilla would be impossible to capture without vast loss of lives; killing him is basically the only reasonable solution). So, the movement Emiko is making from Serizawa to Ogata is a symbolic movement from science to humanitarianism, the suggestion being that that is the movement we all should make.
Serizawa's actions are also vital in and of themselves. His studies have led him to the creation of a weapon of great power -- the oxygen destroyer, a weapon that, by no coincidence, comes from a dark laboratory below ground just as Godzilla comes from far below the sea. He and Emiko are also just as terrified at his weapon as they are at Godzilla and, though it is not stated, probably as much as the atomic bomb. For these reasons, Serizawa has vowed to keep it secret and never use it. Even after being confronted with Emiko and Ogata, who know that it is the only way Godzilla could ever be killed, he is adamant that it remain a secret, perhaps fearing consequences similar to those of the H-bomb use. It is not until he hears on the radio the prayer song of hundreds of children that he understands what he must do: use the oxygen destroyer to kill Godzilla. In order to keep the weapon out of the hands of humanity, which has proven itself incapable of wielding such power responsibly, he creates only one oxygen destroyer and destroys all documents of his research so that it can never be reproduced. He then sacrifices himself in order to kill the monster once and for all. It is the ultimate act of heroism: sacrificing not just oneself but one's legacy, in order to save the human race.
The title monster, though, is where the bulk of the film's symbolism lies. The most direct metaphor one is likely to find is the incidents' similarities to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred just under ten years before the release of the film. For the Japanese, a horrible atomic disaster that wipes out entire cities was a reality. Godzilla may have served cathartic purposes in that regard. However, the analysis can be taken a bit deeper than that. Following the fact that it was H-bomb explosions that shook Godzilla from the deep (and made him even more terrible than he already was), we can view Godzilla as a metaphor for human ambition releasing a terror from our collective subconscious. Of course, the atom bomb is not a dream-object -- it is a real thing. However, killing innocents is not science but madness; the capacity to use such a weapon, the willingness to destroy countless lives (no matter what device is used), is something that comes directly from below, and that is the essence of Godzilla as a beast from the id. These things may roam the deepest depths for millions of years, but there is always the chance of them resurfacing -- if we prod them just so.
When we get to his final attack, even though it is a moment of the film that we all somehow look forward to, it is not a pleasant experience. This isn't a movie that shows Godzilla smashing some empty buildings and moving on. In this scene, we see Godzilla instill true fear and horror into the inhabitants of the Tokyo, mercilessly destroying everything he can. The peak moment of grief comes when we are shown a mother holding her child in the street, cowering against a building, crying, and telling her, "We'll be joining your father in just a moment. A little longer. A little longer and we'll be with your daddy." Doesn't sound like a crowd pleaser, does it? The film stops at nothing to dismay us as fully as it can.
The finale of the plot and theme is perfect. Serizawa, along with the oxygen destroyer and Ogata, scuba dives to the ocean floor (into society's subconscious) to kill Godzilla (the beast lurking within our subconscious). The scene is even more dreamlike than the rest of the movie, as the two slowly and weightlessly make their way to a hazy Godzilla figure in the distance, with a much calmer, though still sad, score than what has accompanied the rest of the film. Serizawa knows he will die to defeat the monster. The music tells us that he has accepted that. The ending of this film is not happy or even very exciting -- even better: it is appropriate. You cannot kill a dream beast in the real world; you have to fight it on its own nebulous turf.
You may be disappointed if you go into Gojira expecting a movie full of giant monster action. Instead, it is a patiently paced drama whose horror lies in feeling the despair of the characters. It is terror of the monster, not the monster itself, that lies at the forefront of this film. At no point does Gojira take any turn with the intention of doing what the audience may want. Gojira is here for a purpose, and that purpose is to terrify us with an experience that stirs up all our fears of atomic weaponry and of what might be lurking beneath the conscious of mankind. It is here not to scare us fleetingly but to haunt us for years. As a perfectly constructed nightmare based on real-life events, it does just that.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters!
Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the American cut of the film, has one significant difference from the original: the story is told through a news reporter, named Steve Martin, who becomes the film's main character. We follow the character throughout the entire film as he travels Tokyo, essentially following the monster so that he can report on it. The editors did a surprisingly good job of slipping him in naturally throughout the film. Unlike the American inserts in King Kong vs. Godzilla, these added scenes fit in very well and are not noticeable unless you know about the addition beforehand.
The insertion of this new main character doesn't just add a different element to the movie; it alters the whole thing. Specifically, it tweaks its genre categorization while "Americanizing" it. Whereas the original is focused on the terror of an unstoppable monster, this one approaches the material as a string of catastrophes of which Martin must discover and report the cause. The original is a horror film; this one is a mystery flick with a giant monster.
Of course the reason the American producers did what they did to the film was to suit it for mass consumption in America. This change, it may not be surprising to hear, is for the worse. By treating the monster hermeneutically, the movie switches the focus to the monster itself. The characters and their pain no longer matter. It is all treated as spectacle. Though this does not completely ruin the film, it does water it down significantly.
Coinciding with the diminished importance of the characters in the film, the fact that Martin is the new main character (and that, by logic, Emiko, Ogata, and Serizawa are now supporting characters) also displaces us from the drama. This naturally causes characterization to be lost as well. There is no more of the tortured conscience Serizawa had in the original. The love triangle between him, Emiko, and Ogata is now of little consequence, whereas it was vital to the message and drama of the original film. These things that added so much depth to Gojira are lost in the American version.
King of the Monsters! is not the failure that it may at times be made out to be. It is a film that achieves its goal, which is to turn Gojira into a lighter affair, something that can be enjoyed by many. Naturally, this aiming at a larger audience also spreads the film thin. King of the Monsters! is not a bad movie, it is just one that has lost all potency of the original so that anyone can tolerate it.
Gojira was the beginning of a phenomenon. None of its twenty-seven sequels nor its Americanization (not to mention its 1998 American remake) come close to achieving the power of the original, but they are all evidence of the giant lizard's deep-seated appeal. The franchise's less-serious, and occasionally downright bad, installments may have diminished the original Gojira's credibility, but given a fair chance, a viewing with a mindset free of preconceptions, this film emerges as one of Japan's greatest. This is one of those simple masterpieces we get once in a century. It's like a cinematic epiphany.