Thursday, November 22, 2007

GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA—1954/56)

A few years ago, I tried to start a tradition of reviewing fantasy/adventure movies around Thanksgiving since those were the kinds of movies I remember airing on TV over the holiday. That fell by the wayside, but I'll take up the cause again this year. As GOJIRA begins, Japanese sailors lolling about on a freighter are disturbed by a huge blast in the middle of the sea. The ship explodes and sinks. This is just the beginning of a series of such incidents, the origins of which remain mysterious until one survivor, washed up on Odo Island, mutters, "He did it!" The islanders believe the old legend of a monster named Gojira who lives in the sea and that night they perform an exorcism dance rite. It doesn't help, for soon after, something spreads a path of destruction in the night during a storm. Prof. Yamane and his research group discover what look like gigantic footprints along the beach and soon the beast is sighted over a hilltop; it's huge and looks like a monstrous dinosaur that walks on two feet. Yamane speculates that it is indeed a throwback to the Jurassic age which has somehow survived on the ocean floor and has been freed by atomic bomb testing being carried out in the sea. The creature begins showing up on the mainland, laying waste to Tokyo; attempts to stop it are stymied by its radioactive-wind breath. Meanwhile, Yamane's daughter is caught in a romantic triangle between Serizawa, a scientist who wears an eye patch (due, I think, to a radiation injury) and the younger, more handsome Ogata who works for a ship salvage company. Because Serizawa has been acting strange and reclusive, she gravitates toward Ogata, but discovers that Serizawa has invented an oxygen-destroying element which can kill marine life in a matter of seconds. She wants him to use his invention to kill Gojira, but he is afraid to make the discovery public for fear that it will be misused; Yamane is also against killing the beast, wanting somehow to study it to see how it survived such intense radiation poisoning. Gojira, caring not a whit about human relationships, continues his destructive ways until Serizawa gives in and sacrifices both his discovery and himself to kill the monster.

It was a little startling to experience this, the original Japanese version of the film better known to Americans as GODZILLA; based on the sequels I've seen over the years, I was expecting a chintzy, campy, kiddie-matinee B-flick, but this is instead a scary, grim, totally straight-faced monster movie. References, both symbolic and literal, to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, are everywhere (Ogata flat out says that Gojira is the product of the bomb "which still haunts the Japanese") and lend the film a gravity that the later ones lack. During a lively debate concerning how to deal with the monster, one group wants to hide the atomic bomb connection as another group (led by a woman) fervently argues that the public should be told the truth. The four main characters are not just cardboard figures used to convey exposition, but are fairly well-rounded and conflicted people we come to care about. The monster rampage scenes are easy to pick apart (lots of miniatures and matte work) but they are still effective and tinged with human tragedy, as in the scene of the mother surrounded by flaming debris, desperately grasping her children to her, crying, "Soon we'll be with your daddy in Heaven!" The American version, released two years later in 1956, has Raymond Burr as a reporter in Japan during the monster's reign of terror. Most of the death and destruction remains, but the subtler references to the bomb are mostly gone. The new 2-disc DVD has both versions; the Japanese print is definitely the way to go (with an excellent audio commentary), but the Burr cut is sort of fun as well. Not much real restoration work seems to have gone into this presentation, with lots of scratches and cuts, but it's still a package worth having, as the film rewards multiple viewings. [DVD]

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