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Gojira (Godzilla) (1954)

Greatness in film often derives less from manifest perfection than it does more debatable flaws. Perfection suggests rigid structure, a quality most in opposition to the exploratory nature of art (although not necessarily in opposition to cinema’s potency as a storytelling medium), and artistic approaches that instill unease or discomfort (or even revilement) on one hand are often the most aesthetically charged and cause for celebration on the other. This kind of introduction would, admittedly, be more appropriate for one of the medium’s many “flawed” masterpieces; Apocalypse Now and Gangs of New York come to mind. Yet in the case of Ishirô Honda’s original Godzilla (to be referred to as its native Gojira hereafter) – a serious examination on the effects of nuclear war that has since become clouded by endless, cheesy sequels, rip-offs, and remakes – there is a definite case of cinematic split personality that should at least be examined before being accepted or rejected. Is it a bad movie? Technically speaking, yes, but movies are much more than just a technical exercise, and to suggest otherwise is to blaspheme. Yet the tagline “The Original Japanese Masterpiece,” printed on the newly released DVD set, is equally misleading.

Like many, monster movies were a staple of my youth, and, along with endless “versus” sequels, Godzilla was introduced to me not in the form of Gojira, but the stripped-down, re-edited version released into American several years later (officially known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!). Purists will endlessly speak of the original version; its scathing indictment of nuclear testing, and of its potent allegory. However, looking at both cuts side by side for the first time, it’s easy to see that the American version doesn’t so much dampen the metaphor as it does negate the originals preachy attitude (not to mention badly editing in Raymond Burr talking to Japanese extras, but nonetheless). Godzilla himself isn’t just a metaphor for nuclear power, he is a physical manifestation of it, and to think that audiences in America wouldn’t have noticed the connection less than ten years after (unnecessarily) kicking Japan’s ass is more than a bit naïve (or, if such was really the case, indicative of their own shortsightedness). Gojira, unlike its American brother, rarely ceases in its agenda pushing (which is not to suggest that agenda pushing is a bad thing in this case), the dialogue ridden with references to the bomb and the dangers thereof. As a 50-meter tall prehistoric menace, Godzilla would be dangerous enough, but when his dorsal fins glow ominously and radioactive fire bellows from his mouth, the lethal side effects of the weapon pack quite a wallop.

It’s earnestness notwithstanding, though, Gojira hosts many aspects that would even have the Mystery Science Theater cast rolling their eyes (appropriately enough, they watched many of the sequels in the show’s earlier seasons). With few exceptions, the human performers can’t act a lick, and from strictly technical standards, the film feels assembled from sloppy piecemeal. The latter attribute, however, lends a sense of authenticity through imagination to the film. During its 2004 re-release, Roger Ebert (arguably the most humane and socially conscious movie critic) belittled the movies look and low-budget restrictions. “Godzilla at times looks uncannily like a man in a lizard suit, stomping on cardboard sets, as indeed he was, and did” How ironic (if not necessarily wrong) it is to criticize the output of a country that recently had two major cities wiped clean off the planet for sub-par technical standards, especially when the work in question is a rumination on that very tragedy. Roger continues: “This was not state of the art even at the time; King Kong was much more convincing.” True, but nobody ever thought Kong to be real, and the slight artificiality lent Kong the surreal quality that the best special effects need to instill themselves in our imagination. The same goes for the rubber-suit Godzilla smashing model sets. Unlike the 1998 CGI “Zilla” (for he took the “God” out of Godzilla), there’s personality and soul here, and proper submission to the film will remove concern from the fact that the crashing fire truck and toppling buildings are obviously toys.

Gojira’s greatest claim is its destructive centerpiece, in which, prompted by military attacks on his aquatic domain, Godzilla rises from Tokyo bay to pay back the mainland; he is an amoral force of nature as destructive as he is childlike. Most effective is Akira Ifukube’s tense and soulful score, even if it’s used to some maudlin extent at times. Bathed in murky blacks and grays, the destruction of the city is a harrowing sequence, as Godzilla’s lumbering form topples landmarks and crushes onlookers underfoot while his path is marked by a sea of flames rising well above the skyline. Honda shoots these sequences not for their monster mash value, but for their humanitarian undertones, an approach that would rarely be reprised even in the wake of the film’s extensive influence (to date, only Steven Spielberg has topped the film’s use of imagery as an examination of social trauma, in his 9/11-saturated War of the Worlds). Meanwhile, the film adds an extra layer of moral pontification though the subplot involving Dr. Serazawa (Akihiko Hirata), whose scientific research yields an invention capable of destroying Godzilla, but is even more powerful than the forces that triggered him in the first place. Gorjia is a long cry from Dr. Strangelove, but in a day where the leaders of the most powerful country in the world hope to change military regulations so as to allow for first strike with nuclear arms, Godzilla is still as relevant a monster as ever.

I still haven't seen this one, even in it's altered Americanized form, quite a feat comsidering that a friend is a huge fan of the 'man in suit' brand of monster films.

Added to the Netflix queue....

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