Friday, February 27, 2015

Toho's Gojira Rises from the Depths (Guest Writer Beth Kelly)

Well, this is a first. Last month, I was approached by an enthusiastic fright fan who expressed an interest in penning a guest post for the ol' H101 blog after reading my interview with Billy Dubose, writer/director of Godzilla: Battle Royale. While I tried to advise her that any association with the likes of me might do more harm than good, she remained unswayed. And so, for your reading enjoyment (and my delighted Friday off), I yield the virtual floor to the delightful and knowledgeable Ms. Kelly....

Toho's Gojira Rises from the Depths

By Beth Kelly

Godzilla is known the world over as the greatest movie monster of all time. A larger-than-life persona, children and adults everywhere instantly recognize the “King of the Monsters” for his fearsome visage and noxious atomic breath. Having been featured in nearly 30 films, videogames, and even a Blue Oyster Cult song, Godzilla has remained a staple of pop culture since his debut in 1954. Over his 60-year career, Godzilla has undergone many different incarnations, playing the roles of villain and destroyer, hero and savior. But beyond the simplicity of a monster stomping through a city or fighting many adversaries lies a stern warning of the dangers of unbridled scientific power.

Godzilla’s legacy as an allegory for the destructive power of nuclear warfare began in the original 1954 Japanese film Gojira by Toho Studios. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the film presents Godzilla as an ancient sea monster hideously transformed into a hulking behemoth by atomic weapons being tested in the Pacific. Later, Godzilla rampages through Tokyo, turning the Japanese capital to rubble with ease. While the destructive nature of the monster’s path closely parallels the destruction wreaked on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic strikes, the difficulty Japanese authorities have in containing Godzilla further extends the metaphor.

Honda, along with screenwriters Takeo Murata and Shigeru Kayama, seem to suggest that nuclear power, like Godzilla, is unnatural. Were Godzilla a mere monster, a simple bullet or missile would be enough to stop him. But because he symbolizes the invisible and mysterious power of radiation, conventional weapons are useless, much as conventional armaments are no defense against countries with nuclear arsenals. Man has opened a Pandora’s Box in developing nuclear weapons, and the bombs built by the Earth’s leading nations are in fact monsters themselves.

Godzilla’s 1954 bow met with widespread commercial success in Japan, released at a time when political and social opinion in Japan was strongly against nuclear power. This is particularly true when one considers how vehemently the Japanese government opposed nuclear tests in the Pacific. Japanese audiences identified with the destruction Godzilla brought, easily correlating it with what the country had endured during World War II, where many of its cities were firebombed by Allied forces. For further topicality, the opening scene, in which Godzilla strikes unseen from the ocean’s depths, taking the lives of Japanese sailors in a blinding flash, was inspired directly by the Lucky Dragon incident that also occurred in 1954.

Unsurprisingly, the re-edited American version, 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, heavily downplayed the anti-nuclear theme of the Japanese original. (Of course, this was due in part to how strongly the United States relied on its atomic arsenal to ensure its place as a superpower in the world.) It was a prescient decision, since the film would have likely been less of a box office draw had it weighed heavily on the consciences of its American viewers.

In subsequent years, the Monster King would return in dozens of sequels for Toho. Throughout their ’60s and ’70s Showa-series heyday, these follow-ups ultimately traded in Honda’s anti-nuke warning in favor of the more juvenile pleasures of watching Godzilla square off against other giant monsters, including the villainous King Ghidorah and the alien Gigan.

The Heisei (1984-1995) and Millennium (2000-2004) installments, though markedly more serious in tone, were still a far cry from the bleak depiction of Godzilla as human folly made flesh-and-Geiger-clicking-bone. While many of these monster mashes were lost to the late-night-movie garbage heap for years, all have since been made available via one home video format or another, with most easily available for streaming (see this website for more information).

Similar to the response following 1998’s major flop Godzilla, albeit for completely different reasons, the worldwide success of 2014’s Godzilla from Legendary Pictures has prompted the news that Toho will be reviving their biggest import with a new film in 2016. As the release corresponds with the 70-year anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events marked indelibly on the psyche of the Japanese people, many fans hope that Toho will return to its original vision of Godzilla as an allegory for the dangers of nuclear weapons. (The new film may also give a nod to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, and to the resulting environmental consequences still unfolding.)

Three generations of Toho Godzilla suit actors walking down the street together.

From left to right: Tsutomu (Tom) Kitagawa (Millennium Series 2000-2004), Haruo Nakajima (Showa series 1954-1972), Kenpachiro Satsuma (Heisei series 1985-1995)

More than just a movie monster, Godzilla is a vivid warning of the dangers that come with a world increasingly dominated by science and technology, as well as the moral decisions that must be faced by our leaders. Even in the most well-intentioned hands, those same scientific principles that have so advanced our civilization can also be used to bring about its destruction. Here, at the top of the food chain, we tend to forget that. Godzilla, in all his radioactive reptilian glory, reminds us that power and prudence must find a balance to ensure the safety of everyone.

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