My sons heard about some Godzilla movie and wanted to watch it. I said they could watch it so long as they watched the original Japanese version. This pledge lay unfulfilled for quite some time, but was made good last night during a vacation in Drumheller. It seemed a fitting film, as it dealt with dinosaurs.
The film was subtitled, so my wife and I took turns doing the voices for the characters until she fell asleep. I took over and did the remainder.
For those who are unfamiliar with the history of this very immense franchise, Godzilla is a 1954 Japanese movie about an enormous dinosaur that was living peacefully in the depths of the ocean before being roused into a murderous rage after being irradiated by underwater nuclear weapons testing. This film was released 9 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the midst of American nuclear testing in the waters near Japan.
While its effects may not pass muster compared to today’s Michael Bay CGI-fuelled shit-flix, it’s quite well done for its time. Basically, it’s a guy in a rubber dinosaur suit smashing around a set of miniature buildings, trains and power lines. The boys, unaccustomed to the world of miniatures, quite enjoyed the effects and thought they looked really cool.
But behind the obvious destruction is a heavy tale. Godzilla is definitely a tragedy and one of the saddest films I have seen in a while. I’m still sad about it today.
During the film, my sons and I rooted for this massive dinosaur with fiery, radioactive breath. He was really angry — and he had every reason. He wasn’t a scary monster to us, but rather a sad reminder of the war-mindedness of humans, a testament to our ability to awaken a sleeping giant and then kill it mercilessly when it gets rightfully mad about being bothered.
Whether intentional in the script or made so by history, the film deals with some very heavy themes. Obviously, the theme of nuclear devastation and the recent wartime firebombing of Japanese cities is clear. But more interestingly, there is a clear parallel between the discovery and weaponization of a technology, as embodied Serizawa, a scientist.
For context, it’s worth remembering that Albert Einstein, whose discoveries led to the creation of weapons that obliterated two Japanese cities, was a pacifist. He pleaded with the US government to reconsider their actions, to no avail. (Interestingly, a year after Godzilla’s release, Einstein and Bertrand Russell wrote a manifesto warning of the dangers of atomic weapons as the Cold War began to ramp up.)
In the film, the scientist Serizawa was recently a soldier in WWII and lost his eye during combat. After the war, he discovers a deadly technology with devastating effects that he very reluctantly brings to bear on the enormous thunder lizard. Before he is convinced to do this, he has a lengthy scene where he agonizes over his decision, worried that the discovery of this technology will lead to another arms race and an even deadlier weapon. He burns his research and at the end of the film, when he is underwater with his bomb on a mission to kill Godzilla, he takes his own life and the life of the once peaceful sea-lizard.
It’s a very sombre movie. We all went to bed sad after having a very big hug.
During our last house party, I got into an argument with a friend about why remakes of old films are, more often than not, a waste of time. Film is art and art has a time and a place, a time and a place that dictate a context for the themes and content of the film. In this case, the film was made in Japan by people who were still reeling from the atomic destruction that rocked their cities. It was not, by contrast, made in a Hollywood studio by privileged white men incapable of thinking up a meaningful story for their own time.
This film, which led to nearly 30 derivative or remade works, had a time and a place and a message. The other Godzillas are just destruction porn. This one, the original, is art. You should check it out if you can.
(The image above is of the creature moments before his death, looking over his shoulder, perhaps aware of what lies in store. His slow, peaceful underwater movements belie the fate that awaits him. It is most certainly the most tragic moment in the film.)