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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Six Decades Later, Godzilla Still Has a Message for Us

Posted By on Tue, Jan 24, 2012 at 9:30 AM

click to enlarge Haruo Nakajima (as Godzilla) towers over a miniature Tokyo
  • Haruo Nakajima (as Godzilla) towers over a miniature Tokyo

Watching Godzilla for the godzillionth time was even more rewarding than I had anticipated. It's one of those movies that is far better than its iconography and countless parodies might suggest. Someone says, "Godzilla," and you think "silly monster movie with bad special effects," but it's actually a fairly scary monster movie with some pretty decent special effects (for 1954) -- plus a lot more. Much has been made, for example, of Godzilla's "nuclear message," although on this viewing, I took in that concept from a new angle. The filmmakers weren't condemning Western nuclear aggression (read: Hiroshima and Nagasaki); they were warning Japan about the threat it posed to itself, and the threat that nuclear weapons posed to the entire world. Criterion's new Blu-ray disc showcases the film in its finest home video version to date, along with the re-cut American version (released in 1955 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and a substantial selection of extra content.

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On balance, Godzilla is probably less of a monster movie than it is a message movie. A sober tone is established immediately. Blasts of radiation strike a fishing boat off the Japanese coast, and then a rescue vessel as well. A lone survivor washes up on Odo Island, and the islanders fear the return of the ancient predatory amphibious sea monster of the title. A scientific survey ensues to determine the origin of the blasts and the nature of the beast.

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The blasts of radiation are attributed to underwater nuclear tests. Although the film's inciting incident is inspired by the sad fate of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon #5), whose crew was exposed to fallout from U.S. nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, the blasts in the movie are Japanese in origin. When the paleontologist Dr. Yamane presents his findings to a government committee, controversy breaks out, with officials fearing that the role of nuclear weapons in raising Godzilla from the deep will spark a public outcry and an international furor.

Later in the film, the reclusive scientist Serizawa won't allow the use of his Oxygen Destroyer -- a device that would easily kill Godzilla -- because he is convinced that once the outside world learns of his invention, it will be instantly co-opted and weaponized by governments around the globe. Serizawa's attitude reflects the film's message as a whole. Although Godzilla specifically references the nuclear attacks upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it almost makes a point of not assigning blame for them. Instead, the movie is concerned with nuclear power as a global threat -- not just as a danger to Japan.

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The central sequence depicting Godzilla's raid on Tokyo is spectacular, although I suspect it looks better on a big screen in a theater. Rubber suit aside, the miniature work and pyrotechnics are impressive, as is the photography and editing. The movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who also helmed several of its sequels (he was also a close friend and collaborator of Akira Kurosawa). Honda's economic visual approach glides fluidly between intimate thematic material or character moments, and the special effects set-pieces. Akira Ikufube's score is noteworthy not just for its driving, familiar main theme, but particularly for the lush, oddly moving cue that accompanies the film's underwater finale.

A beautiful restoration job has left the 58-year-old film looking crisp and immediate. The American version looks terrific, too. In it, a documentary-like framework and voice-over narration tell the story from the perspective of Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter living in Japan. The storytelling choices, and the recombination of original Japanese and new American footage, are interesting, but the weak dialogue and dubbing undermine director Terry Morse's revision.

Each version of the film is paired with a commentary track by Japanese film and Toho Studios expert David Kalat. Criterion has also assembled two and a half hours of video supplements, including a lengthy documentary on composer Ikufube and a look at the true story of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru.

It's possible that viewing Godzilla as a warning to Japan itself is an idea provoked by the largely avoidable Fukushima meltdown that followed last spring's earthquake and tsunami disaster. But some films resonate in more than one direction, which is why we continue to watch those that, like Godzilla, inform us about the world in past, present, and future tenses.

Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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Casey Burchby

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