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Go Go G-dzilla

King of the Monsters is a fun, cathartic release for Japanese fears about nuclear holocaust.

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 15, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!," directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, 1956. The film is actually a reedited version of the 1954 film "Gojira," directed by Honda, with several new scenes added, which were directed by Morse.

Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!," directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, 1956. The film is actually a reedited version of the 1954 film "Gojira," directed by Honda, with several new scenes added, which were directed by Morse.

For fans craving city-stomping action, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" will rear his scaly head this summer in a rare big-screen appearance, incinerating steel and citizens alike with his nuclear halitosis.

Fifty years after the English-language cut of the Japanese "Gojira" first hit theaters, the American Cinematheque will celebrate the behemoth's United States debut in its "Giant Monsters on the Loose!" series, June 30 to July 5. Like the 1954 Japanese version, the American film follows the ancient dinosaur as he is reawakened by nuclear testing and lumbers off to trample Tokyo. Also screening will be seven other Japanese humongous-critter movies, including three of the 27 "Godzilla" sequels, spawned after he left deep footprints in the science fiction genre in the 1950s. "Godzilla 2000," for example, is the Japanese response to Roland Emmerich's pricey American flop, "Godzilla," (1998), which reduced the macho lizard to an egg-laying wimp.

The series will also screen non-Godzilla fare, such as "Gamera The Brave" (2006), starring a flying turtle and episodes of the Japanese TV series "Ultraman Max," involving an alien superhero (see sidebar).

Godzilla remains the alpha male of this menagerie -- although he may seem, well, cheesy compared to the hyper-realistic dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park." One can't quite forget that he's a guy in a rubber suit swatting at toy airplanes and trashing miniature cityscapes.

Then there's the bad dubbing in the English-language version, which added new scenes including an American character -- a reporter played by Raymond Burr. The U.S. filmmakers also cut virtually every reference to the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (remember this was just a decade after World War II), diluting the movie's anti-war message.

Yet the Americanized Godzilla hasn't lost his bite -- or entertainment value. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently called him the "campy, loveable king of all monsters."

And he's still "pop culture's grandest symbol of nuclear apocalypse," according to Entertainment Weekly.

"The fact that most 1950s giant monsters are forgotten and Godzilla remains iconic is significant," USC film and comparative literature professor Akira Mizuta Lippit said. "His staying power is that even in the American cut, his symbolic impact sticks. The movie remains an allegory about the monstrosity of nuclear power, and Godzilla a metaphor for atomic horror."

The film series' programmer, Keith Aiken, is well aware of the monster-as-metaphor -- and cinematic fun. The jovial, 37-year-old storyboard artist, with bleached platinum hair, drew Godzilla for Dark Horse Comics and TV's "Godzilla: The Series" in the 1990s. His Culver City single apartment is crammed with more than 100 figures of the lizard and friends; he laughs heartily as he points out toys from "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" (a fuzzy creature who resembles Oscar the Grouch) or "Godzilla vs. Destroyer," a giant shrimp.

Don't tell him these films are campy.

"It's sad when people laugh at them and aren't willing to let their imaginations go," he said. "The movies may not have state-of-the-art special effects, but there are good stories, and many are about current events and the effects they have on the world. So they offer a lot more than just monsters beating the hell out of each other."

Lippit explores this idea -- and the bomb in cinema -- in his book "Atomic Light" (Shadow Optics). The son of a Japanese mother and a Jewish father, he's studied how movies reflect the Shoah. While he is careful not to equate the 6,000 degree Japanese holocaust with the unprecedented Jewish genocide, he is fascinated by how both cultures have expressed (or not expressed) their respective tragedies on screen.

First, some history. As Jewish survivors scrambled to find loved ones in the chaos after liberation in Europe, a United States airplane, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 5, 1945. Three days later, another bomb leveled Nagasaki. In both cities, human bodies melted into stone, hospital wards filled with patients whose skin had sloughed off their limbs, and starving survivors hobbled amid blackened ruins (the kind of carnage seen in Godzilla films). Within a year, more than 300,000 people had died as a result of the blasts or subsequent radiation poisoning.

Like Jewish Holocaust survivors, Japanese hibaku (translated as those "who bore the firebombing") mostly kept mum about their experiences, and their respective landsmen didn't care to hear about them.

For years, cinema reflected these unspoken taboos (exceptions include Alain Resnais' 1955 Holocaust documentary, "Night and Fog," and 1952's "Children of Hiroshima"). Yet Shoah-themed films eventually proliferated, with fare as diverse as Roberto Benigni's controversial tragicomedy, "Life Is Beautiful," Tim Blake Nelson's crematoria saga, "The Grey Zone," and Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster, "Schindler's List."

But to date, some two-dozen feature films have tackled Hiroshima, few of them directly, and none of them big-budget blockbusters, Lippit said. There have been art-house movies such as Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959) and Akira Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in August" (1991), which filter the tragedy through the eyes of non-Japanese protagonists. Other films disguise bomb-angst as period dramas or horror stories.

Scholars trace the phenomenon to complex factors, including Japanese feelings of guilt that their war crimes prompted the bomb.

"Japanese people can't see or talk about [Hiroshima]. It's both too intimate and too immense," filmmaker Nobuhiro Suwa ("H Story") told the World Press Review in 2002.

Fearing American veterans' protests -- which nixed a graphic Hiroshima exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in 1995 -- studios eschewed anything that could be interpreted as a kind of Japanese "Schindler's List."

"Godzilla" -- the most expensive Japanese effects film of its time -- became the only international blockbuster to address Hiroshima, albeit in disguise.

Toho Motion Picture Co. green lighted the film in 1954 after the United States detonated a 15-megaton H-bomb 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, author Steve Ryfle said in his book, "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of 'The Big G'." The test poisoned the crew of a Japanese fishing boat and renewed Japanese fears of the bomb.

"Gojira" director Ishiro Honda, who had survived a Chinese prisoner of war camp, was devastated after visiting the rubble at Hiroshima and vowed to bring some of that imagery to the movie. In one scene (cut from the American version), a woman says she doesn't have the strength to endure more destruction, "not after I survived Nagasaki."

Although "Gojira's" budget was an impressive $900,000 in 1954 U.S. dollars, Honda and his team invented the relatively inexpensive technique of "suitmation" (basically an actor in a suit) to portray the behemoth -- designed as a mutant cross between a T-Rex and an iguanodon, Ryfle said. Two athletic young performers took turns donning the 220-pound costume, taking care to properly destroy models on the first take, since there was no time or money to rebuild them.

During a 13-minute temper tantrum, Godzilla demolishes many Tokyo landmarks -- actually miniatures based on meticulous measurements and photographs. He torches the upscale Matsuzakaya Department Store, tears down the clock atop the nearby K. Hattori and Co. and chomps on a tower before airplanes confront him, Ryfle said. When tanks attack, "Godzilla is merely annoyed by their pesky gunfire and swiftly does away with them with a blast of his death-breath," he added.

A nighttime silhouette of the beast surveying a burning Tokyo calls to mind the destruction at Hiroshima.

The spectacular scene remains in the American version, directed by Terry Morse.

"The biggest challenge was the dubbing, because the languages are so different," said Morse's son, also named Terry Morse, who helped edit "Godzilla" in a studio on Vermont Avenue. "You can see the lip sync is off in a few spots."

But the younger Morse denies that dad deliberately edited out bomb references to draw U.S. viewers in the midst of the Cold War.

"My father wasn't hired to make a statement, but to come up with something that would sell tickets," he said from his Los Angeles home. "He did the best he could with a small budget and an impossible schedule. He had just a month to build sets that would match up with the Japanese ones, and he shot the Burr scenes in several days. He was hired to make money and he did. His film grossed almost a half-million dollars, and it ran for a long time."

The success of the American movie spurred a new Japanese genre, the kaiju eiga, or giant monster film. The most popular creatures have included the dragon-like Ghidorah, considered by some to symbolize the Chinese menace, and Mothra, who is (what else) a giant moth. Godzilla sequels depict the giant as either a destroyer or a protector.

He's definitely the bad buy in 2001's "Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" (a.k.a., "GMK"), which was inspired by renewed hawkish attitudes in Japan, Aiken said. Director Shusuke Kaneko had become alarmed by calls to turn the Japanese Self-Defense Forces into a full-fledged military, as well as the government's continuing denial of war crimes.

"In 'GMK,' the restless souls of the war dead empower and influence Godzilla to rampage, because they died for something no one remembers," Aiken said. "It's a warning that if Japan forgets its past, the cycle of war will return."

Then again, the movie depicts plenty of mammoth creature slugfests -- a satisfying experience for those with a yen for monsters on the loose.

For more information, visit www.americancinematheque.com.

The 'Ster Schedule

Film:
"Negadon: The Monster From Mars"
Year: 2005
Screening: June 30
Monster: A space creep who does his part for Tokyo urban renewal.

Film: "The Great Yokai War"
Year: 2005
Screening: June 30
Monsters: An army of mechanical bad boys, among other 'sters.

Film: "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" (The American cut of the Japanese movie, "Gojira")
Year: 1956
Screening: July 1, including a question-and-answer session with the director's son, Terry Morse
Monster: An irradiated dinosaur with thunder thighs and a penchant for trashing Tokyo.

Film: "Godzilla 2000"
Year: 1999
Screening: July 1
Monster: The Green One again, this time reanimated by aliens who intend to use him to rule the world (the king of monsters has other plans, of course).

Film: "Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack"
Year: 2001
Screening: July 1
Monsters: The Big G, a moth with stingers and a three-headed dragon with attitude.

TV series: "Ultraman Max"
Year: 2005
Screening: July 2
Monster: Another extraterrestrial, this one from Nebula M78, who teams up with humans to battle space baddies.

Film: "Mirror Man: Reflex"
Year: 2006
Screening: July 2
Monsters: Several, including traditional city-stompers, who shares screen time with a mysterious being from a parallel universe.

Film: "Gamera the Brave"
Year: 2006
Screening: July 5
Monster: A cute flying turtle who protects kids from a villainous sea beast.

Film: "Godzilla vs. Destroyer"
Year: 1995
Screening: July 5
Monsters: A Chernobyl-esque Godzilla, undergoing nuclear meltdown, and a mean crustacean named Destroyer.

 

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