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A Bridge Too Small: Gojira crushes the puny structures of man.

Trampled Under Foot

'Godzilla' raids again, in the reissue of the 1954 'Gojira'

By Richard von Busack
(Thanks to Michael Monahan for his help with this article)

On March 1, 1954, the United States tested a 15-megaton H-bomb at Bikini Atoll, some 2,500 miles from Hawaii. The atoll was destroyed, but Bikini lives on as a swimsuit that is supposed to be as dazzling as a nuclear blast.

Previous U.S. testing had occurred in the South Pacific since 1951, with the USSR following suit in the Arctic. What distinguished the Bikini explosion was its size and how it spread clouds of fallout far across the water.

A cloud of waste accidentally irradiated a Japanese fishing boat in the area. The first victim of five victims to die was one Aikichi Kuboyama, the radioman of the Dai-go Fukuryu Maru, a 140-ton boat. "Please make sure I am the last victim of the nuclear bomb," he is supposed to have said before he succumbed to leukemia.

Such is the background of the 1954 Japanese film Gojira, better known in the rest of the world as Godzilla. Restored to its original Japanese version for the film's 50th anniversary, Gojira proves that anti-bomb films don't have to be too downbeat to endure. During the last 50 years, in 26 films, the King of Monsters has sometimes been a constitutional monarch, surrounded by a chamber of scaly deputies: Mothra, Gamera, Ghidra. He has whiled away his time in childish Toho Studios films like the egregious 1971 Godzilla and the Smog Monster, and the 1969 Godzilla's Revenge, with perky "Minya," or Baby Godzilla, blowing his musical smoke rings.

American children were raised with the dubbed, bowdlerized version of Gojira, released in a 1956 dubbed version titled Godzilla, King of Monsters. Some 18 minutes were cut from Ishiro Honda's original version for the Yank release. Credited director Terry Morse pasted actor Raymond Burr into reaction shots. His reporter character, "Steve Martin," was expected to give this Japanese movie Caucasian interest.

The original Gojira is a drastically different spectacle than the old movie that used to turn up on low-watt TV stations on Sunday afternoon. The original Gojira is a dark, serious, even tear-stained drama. And Gojira is no more an ordinary monster than Moby-Dick is a just a whale.

A love triangle contrasts the story of Gojira's rampage. The young Emiko is beautifully played by Momoko Kochi, in a performance that recalls the delicacy of Ozu's actresses. Ogata (Akira Takarada), Emiko's lover, is a salvage expert, called out to investigate the strange goings on in the ocean.

Although she is in love with Ogata, she is seemingly resigned to marry her father's colleague, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), an estranged scientist, scarred from World War II. Serizawa has created a secret weapon far worse than an H-bomb. He fears to use this invention against the reptilian threat facing Japan; what the weapon starts a new and even more destructive arms race.

Gojira first reaches landfall at Odo Island, where there's a traditional fishing village. The movie pauses to look over a kagura dance being held with the old customary masks. At the island, they know of the monster through legends. The village headman claims they used to feed Gojira girl children whenever the fishing haul was too scant.

Here, early on, is the essence of the Godzilla mythos: he's an ancient spirit, awakened and mutated. It's a theme developed in Toho Studios' large-scale and serious Gojira films of the 1990s, when Gojira's regular co-stars symbolized avenging forces of air, fire and water against the giant reptile. Similarly, the modern Japan fights it out with the old superstitions.

Later in Gojira, following that crass comment about the island girls, we see reverently photographed choruses of female schoolchildren praying for deliverance from Gojira. This requiem is a highlight of Akira Ifukube's score. Surprisingly, the score was recorded live, on the same four-track as the sound effects of Godzilla's rampage.

As he slouches toward Tokyo, Gojira becomes a political hot potato. In scenes cut for the American version, the Japanese Diet, or parliament, debates over a way to cover up the danger of radioactive contamination. Angry citizens show up to protest. It's hinted that the Japanese government doesn't want any disputes with the Americans and their nuclear tests. (Gojira was made two short years after the U.S. Occupation had ended.)

As the news of the trouble spreads, commuters on a train complain of being relocated from the city, as they were during the World War II bombings. One woman says bitterly that she lived through Nagasaki, and now she's in trouble again.

Peter Biskind's book Seeing Is Believing proposes that the wave of 1950s monster movies had a political agenda. He claims they reflect the coalition between the military and the intelligentsia in the United States of the time. According to Biskind, America in the 1950s had a centrist Republican government that aimed to balance two approaches to foreign policy. The left side hoped to contain Communism with a Cold War; its hawkish opposition wanted to start a Hot War against the USSR, preferably with nuclear weapons.

This political debate is often seen in the monster movies of the times. You know the drill. A hot-headed military officer and a cautious scientist argue over the right method for taming the giant ants, the aliens or the Thing. Eventually, the heroes to use combination of big guns and science to save the world.

Gojira owes a huge debt to the pioneering 1953 movie The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. A "rheasauros," defrosted from the ice by an atomic test, heads to New York and attacks. It stomps cars, whips down buildings with its tail and pushes through electric lines, just as Gojira does. (Toho Studio's improvement on the electricity scene was building wax models of the electricity towers, which melted as Gojira breathes on them.)

What The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms also has in common with Gojira is a quality of heart. Stop-motion-animation king Ray Harryhausen, who created the Beast, claims that characters aren't "monsters" but "creatures." The difference between these nouns is apparent in the end scenes of his films. As Harryhausen said during a recent appearance last at the Rafael Film Center, he always liked to give his creations "a death like an opera singer." The rheasauros, like Gojira, and like King Kong, is a not necessarily evil. He just doesn't belong where he is. He hurts. His death hurts the audience in turn.

But Gojira is different from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in the heavy development of its human-interest plot. In Gojira, the humans are as interesting as the lizard. The Byronic scientist sweats over his discovery, as Emiko worries how to deal with her remote and angry father (Takashi Shimura, who was later in The Seven Samurai). The other significant difference between Gojira and his American cousins is that this movie doesn't endorse the sane use of atomic power. Atoms raise a rheasauros; an atomic bazooka puts him down. Gojira is only worsened by atomic power. He is atomic power personified, alive and on a rampage.

Despite the rubber-suit effect used to animate Gojira--easier to live with than shaky, mosaic-ridden or color-shifted CGI, I think--much has to be said for the uniqueness of the miniature and model work. The bijou Tokyo in Gojira is a delight, but the tiny neon signs and tenderly detailed scale models of the city's landmarks are crushed before our eyes.

One wonders about the psychological motives of the filmmakers. They'd just seen Tokyo destroyed by American bombs years before, and now they were re-enacted the catastrophe on screen. Unspoken feelings of sorrow must be part of the particular resonance Gojira has, 50 years later.

Gojira plays at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.

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