February 02, 2007

F5 #1: The Great Green One

I haven't a clue when (or why) I started liking giant-monster movies. As near as I can figure, it started with the stop-motion dinosaurs in the old Saturday-morning TV series Land of the Lost.

Anyway, the bottom line is that at some point in my childhood, I started getting cheap thrills from the illusion of very big monsters trashing some very small buildings, trains, and people. This has manifested itself in a number of ways: I like the original King Kong, especially the bits where the giant gorilla is chasing Carl Denham's crewmen through the jungle, or doing battle with a stegosaurus.

After awhile I discovered the classic stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen in movies such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers or It Came from Beneath the Sea (and, as I discovered later, Harryhausen had actually worked on Kong). But my favourite genre of monster movie is the kind that comes from Japan: especially so if it features a 400-foot-tall, radioactive lizard.

"Godzilla" is a very bad transliteration of the Japanese name Gojira, which apparently comes from a combination of the words for gorilla and whale. Of course, Godzilla looks nothing like either a gorilla or a whale.

Anyone who has seen one of the many Godzilla sequels is well aware of their campy, often-unintentional comedic style. It certainly came as a surprise to me to discover that the first Godzilla, made in 1954, was not only quite serious, but quite dark - it is a bona fide horror movie (such as they were in that era). It's well known that Godzilla is an allegory for the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, as well as the relentless firebombing of Tokyo: Godzilla is a mutant dinosaur created by nuclear testing that wreaks havoc on Japan. In the end, a scientist has the ability to destroy the giant monster with an ultimate weapon, but he is very reluctant to make use of such a powerful destructive force.

The original Japanese cut of Godzilla (which I have not yet seen and was not available for North American viewing before 2004) is apparently quite dark and brooding, which is understandable given Japan's war-weariness less than 10 years after Hiroshima. However, the more familiar American cut is less so - after all, it was us Allies that were raining destruction down on Japan in the first place. In the American version, several minutes have been cut out and replaced with scenes of Raymond Burr as an American reporter caught in Japan as Godzilla begins his reign of terror. Burr never went to Japan, nor did he actually interact with any of the Japanese cast, although the clever editing does conceal the fact somewhat.

I guess that somewhere along the line, someone realized that such a sombre monster movie was a little ridiculous, and none of the sequels take themselves half as seriously. Godzilla himself plays varous roles, from an unstoppable, destructive force of nature, to a superhero, the defender of Japan, and the friend of microshorts-wearing schoolboys named Ken. The original series of movies got progressively sillier until Toho let the whole franchise lie fallow for about 10 years before rebooting the concept in the early 80s for another run.

No one is ever going to accuse Godzilla of being great cinema. Indeed, it seems to me that there is always one execrably bad special effect in each movie - so much so that I wonder whether it was done on purpose. In Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, for example, Godzilla does a victory jig after defeating the three-headed gold lamé dragon King Ghidorah for the first time. In another movie, he plays a game of ping-pong with a giant shrimp and a boulder. In yet another, he uses his atomic breath as a rocket to propel himself through the air.

But who watches Godzilla for intelligent plotting or expensive eye candy? The point is, a guy in a rubber lizard suit trashes remarkably detailed miniatures of Tokyo. He looks like he's having a ball doing it, and we have a ball watching it. Godzilla is Saturday-afternoon popcorn fare, not serious cinema.

So it's ironic that if it weren't for Godzilla, I probably never would have gained much of an interest in any other Japanese cinema. If not for the guy in the rubber suit, I wouldn't have paid any attention at all to the more serious films of Akira Kurosawa, whom I discovered for the first time about a year and a half ago.

So chalk up Godzilla and its many sequels as one of my "guilty pleasures." My favourite of the lot is probably the aforementioned Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, which has a lot of things going for it: King Ghidorah, the "victory jig," Nick Adams, silly dubbed English, and sillier alien costumes for the invaders from "Planet X."

One more thing: The Great Green One isn't actually green; he's grey.