Wednesday, November 18, 2009


One of the goals I set for myself with this blog was to watch and comment on all the Godzilla movies in chronological order. This is a somewhat more modest goal than, say, landing a man on the moon but this blog is a one man job that I'm just doing for laughs. Even though I have no idea how far I'll get before I get bored I should at least grind through a few films. What can it hurt?

Besides, the first one up is a goody. I speak, of course, of the original Godzilla film. Or Gojira. Or Godzilla 54. Or whatever the heck you want to call it. Just so we're clear, it's the first film starring Godzilla. Wow, this blog is going to be a painful experience if this is how all my posts are going to read.

Anyway, I'm here to talk about the film, not it's name. Part melodrama about the collateral damages of war, part bald-faced rip-off of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla is a surprisingly serious rubber monster movie. Considering how ridiculous the genre is it's only natural that it became goofy once this sort of story caught on. Godzilla, however, is often as grim and thudding as Akira Ifukube's score.

That's not to say that the movie isn't insane. Far from it, really. Even discounting the whole giant monster thing the movie often lets bizarre events unfold on-screen without comment. For instance, at an early point in the film an old man is seen decrying the loss of traditions that once guaranteed good fishing conditions and prosperity for the village he lived in. At first it seems that he could be there as a mouth-piece designed to bemoan the modernization and Westernization of Japan at that point in time. A moment later, however, he starts to sound a bit too thrilled about remembering the good old days of virgin sacrifices so in the end he comes across as one more bit of kooky local color. Then again, this guy is living in a world where television sets turn themselves on automatically when something interesting is being broadcast. In that kind of world who can judge what is too much?

One certainly can't judge Dr. Serizawa [Akihiko Hirata], the tragic hero of the film and major movie egghead. Scientists are an almost inescapable part of monster movies but Serizawa is in a league of his own. Not only does this man of learning win a fist fight at one point but he lives in such a crazy mad scientist lair that people don't even take off their shoes when they go inside. Serizawa should be an inspiration to us all. I know somebody who was excited because she refurbished her basement by moving in a couch and putting down some carpeting. Serizawa managed to create a device more dangerous than an atomic bomb in his basement lab. Now that's a productive hobby!

Yes, Godzilla's rampages continue to thrill and the highly strung but unflappably polite humans continue to amuse. But what struck me most during my most recent re-viewing was how little I know of the film. Sure, I've heard the rhetoric about how Godzilla is a serious critique of the atomic age, Japan's place in the world, blah, blah, blah, and so on. But what was the actual reception of the film like? What was the popular and critical reaction when it was released and where does the film stand today? Although the film does try to present some sort of message the same can be said for many other movies. Was Godzilla viewed as a message movie the same way Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow is seen as a subtle, level-headed discussion on global warming or the way that the beefcake burlesque of The Ten Commandments is viewed as a pious rendition of Biblical events? Seriously, did anyone buy what Godzilla was selling now or then? Even the fact that it was a success at the box office doesn't tell me anything since there's no shortage of successful movies that aren't any good. Feel free to add the name of your least favorite popular movie here.

I have read any Japanese academic work on Godzilla and I can almost say the same for pieces published in English. I've read articles by Professor William Tsutsui but that's only a single viewpoint. Considering the longevity and cultural impact of Godzilla there has to be more criticism out there. It seems that I'm off on a scavenger hunt for more information about the oeuvre of Godzilla and where he stands in the worlds of movie criticism and academia. Even after all these years the King of the Monsters continues to fascinate me.