The original Godzilla film (aka Gojira), was released 65 years ago this week. To celebrate – and take a little breather from the marathon of 31 Days – I thought I’d watch a couple of the classic giant monster films.
There’s always a bit of a hesitation when I think about watching a kaiju film as a horror movie. On the face of it, giant monsters should obviously be horrifying and therefore count as a horror movie. However, in practice that’s not always the case. Is Pacific Rim a horror movie? I’d say no – it’s a science-fiction/kaiju action movie. What about Megapython vs Gataroid? I still don’t know as I haven’t seen it, despite it being on the recommended list. I think Bigass Spider counts as horror/comedy because it makes heavy use of horror tropes – and come on, it’s a bigass spider! Cloverfield is also very much a horror movie.
And then we have Godzilla, the grandfather of all kaiju films. I’d argue that most films starring Godzilla aren’t horror movies, really. They’re fun monster wrasslin’ movies, in which most of the enjoyment comes from watching giant monsters beating the tar out of intricately constructed model cities – and each other.
There are exceptions, however. The original film was much darker and more serious than most – if not all – of the rest of the Showa era pictures. The same can be said of The Return of Godzilla in relation to the other Heisei era pictures – though I think there’s a bit of a darker tone to those in general than the previous period. The Millennium era, on the other hand, stays pretty steadily in the science/action genre from Godzilla 2000 on. If we include American adaptations, then the first Legendary Pictures Godzilla film – whatever its faults – was much more in the horror line than the either its sequel, King of the Monsters, or the 1998 TriStar film.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say that giant monster pictures are a struggle to classify as horror films for me and I tend to set them apart from the genre. With some specific exceptions, which are the ones I’m writing about today.
I always liked Godzilla, but was never what you would call a fan. I didn’t watch every film nor did I ever pick up a copy of the G-Fan magazine. I couldn’t tell you the names of each monster. I saw a few Godzilla films when I was a kid – probably on TBS, a channel that also used to show Japanese tokusatso shows I loved, like Ultraman. For most of my life my clearest memories and fondness for Godzilla was actually tied to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon and it’s annoying but catchy theme song (‘and Godzoooki!’).
I liked Godzilla because he was a huge lizard that stomped on stuff and then set it on fire and occasionally fought other monsters. Beyond that, I didn’t really pay much attention to Godzilla and didn’t watch his films until the 90’s.
At that point I was working for a comic book shop and as a result had interacted with quite a few Godzilla fans. Over time their enthusiasm got me interested, and I started to watch some of the newer (Heisei) films and found them fun and enjoyable. When I finally got around to watching King of the Monsters I was surprised at the seriousness and level of quality in the film and ran out to pick up a DVD for my collection. It wasn’t until the Criterion release that I was actually able to view the original Japanese release.
I have both of these films on blu-ray. The Criterion version of Gojira is everything you would expect from that fine institution, with an excellent restoration and exceptional picture quality. The packaging and extras are also top-notch. The disk also includes Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1985) – the American version with inserts starring Raymond Burr. I’ve always liked that version of the movie and still think it’s a worthwhile watch.
The Kraken Releasing disk of Return of Godzilla just isn’t as good. It’s decent enough, it just pales in both production and quality to the Criterion film. It also doesn’t include the American version, Godzilla 1985, which I would have loved to see. It’s acceptable – but then, it has to be.
Criterion just released a set of all the Showa era Godzilla films, 15 of them in all – from Gojira to Terror of Mechagodzilla. I don’t consider myself a big enough fan to shell out for this enormous set – but a Heisei and/or Millennium era collection might tempt me!
When the fishing vessel Eiko-maru is destroyed another boat, the Bingo-maru, is dispatched to find out what happened. The Bingo-maru disappears as well and yet another fishing vessel is destroyed trying to rescue survivors. Later, the only survivor of the last fishing boat arrives on a remote island, unable to explain what has happened to him. Reporters descend on the island and the elder villagers blame the disappearances – and the recent vanishing of fish in the area – on an old legend of a sea monster named Godzilla. That night a storm arrives – and something else comes with it, bringing destruction and loss of life.
There’s a sense of dread to early scenes in Godzilla, before we find out what’s causing all the problems. The monster himself is only glimpsed and then only in the middle of a terrible storm. The connection – Godzilla as force of nature – is one later films abandoned in favor of monster fighting spectacle. It’s nicely done as is the depiction of the immediate aftermath. All the destruction could easily be from the storm – except for the giant, radioactive footprints.
Godzilla himself, when he first appears over the top of a hill, is a bit of a disappointment. Oh, I’m sure he was terrifying when the movie first came out, but this first appearance – a shaky matte over the top of the hill – isn’t exactly inspiring. A roar and those footprints/tail sweep on the sand, leading back into the sea, might have been more effective.
That being said, other appearances of Godzilla in the movie ARE terrifying – especially at night, lit from below by spotlights and fire, breathing atomic fire on a city and a country completely unprepared to deal with its rampage.
It’s impossible not to see the echoes of the atomic bomb in Godzilla. A horrific, destructive force that cannot be stopped, cannot be reasoned with and that leaves absolute destruction, chaos and misery in its wake. After an attempt to destroy the creature with depth charges, Godzilla makes landfall. Some of the most effective scenes take place in a hospital full of victims of the destruction. In 1954 this must have brought back recent and raw memories of similar scenes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the end it’s up to Daisaku Serizawa, the first of many science heroes to appear in Godzilla films, to use his own terrible discovery to put a stop to Godzilla’s attacks. The third wheel in a love triangle that forms the human backbone to the story, the good Doctor is terrified of what his discovery could be used for, but acquiesces when it becomes clear that it’s the only way to prevent more horrific destruction.
The Bottom Line
Despite the aging effects sequences, Godzilla remains an effective and affecting film. It’s moody and elegiac in tone and at times can be quite horrifying. It’s a giant monster movie from 1954 – and it’s still the best.
The Return of Godzilla (1984)
After decades of an increasingly light tone, lots of action and oodles of monsters, Godzilla had retired. He’d been forced into it, after declining ticket sales, and he was never really comfortable with the whole thing. There had been rumors for years of his return – including in an American version – but Godzilla’s 25th anniversary came and went with nary a roar.
Finally, for his 30th anniversary, Toho decided to pull out all the stops and bring back Godzilla in a big budget feature which would be a return to his roots. Gone would be the more heroic Godzilla of the Showa films – instead, The Return of Godzilla would be a direct sequel to the original, 1954 film and it would have a more serious, darker tone. And lasers. Lots of lasers.
Return has a great opening that puts the film firmly in horror movie territory for me. After a volcanic eruption, contact is lost with the fishing vessel Yahata-maru – a neat callback to the opening moments of the first film. A reporter, Maki, manages to find the vessel adrift and apparently deserted. Exploring the vessel he finds some of the crew, dead, killed by a monstrous sea louse that attempts to do the same to him. He’s rescued by the only survivor, Okumura. It’s all really well done, with a creepy crawl through the ship and some gory shots of dead crewmen.
Okumura tells a tale of a massive creature wrecking the ship and, having seen pictures, realizes that it’s a new Godzilla. Faced with the possibility of public panic, the government restricts this information – essentially killing Maki’s story about it.
Meanwhile, Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine on patrol in the pacific. In the elevated hostile atmosphere of the time the Soviets blame the Americans and both countries go to high alert. The possibility of nuclear war seems very real, until the Japanese finally reveal that it’s Godzilla behind the sinking of the sub.
Godzilla is definitely the main menace of the film, but the tensions between the nuclear powers and with Japan caught in the middle is a strong subplot – including the accidental launch of a space-based nuclear weapon! It’s a nice touch of contemporary world politics.
Godzilla is confronted by technological wizardry – including a high-tech aircraft called the Super-X. Given what the scientists know about Godzilla’s physiology – his dependence on nuclear fuel is what leads him to attack the mainland, consuming the fuel of a nuclear power plant as a result – they arm the Super-X with cadmium shells. These manage – if only temporarily – to quell the raging nuclear fire within the monster and Godzilla collapses.
Which is when the nuclear missile explodes over Tokyo, re-awakening Godzilla.
Lots of good stuff in this movie. I generally don’t like the ‘tech vehicle to defeat Godzilla’ trope (unless it’s Mecha Godzilla), but the Super-X is actually used pretty well here. I also like the way Godzilla is defeated, even if it makes no damn sense (they trick him with a homing signal, like migrating birds). Unfortunately the pace can be pretty plodding at times, and the mood is more depressing than elegiac. The cinematography is also pretty flat and uninspiring, with little in the way of dramatic camera angles or movement.
The Bottom Line
A decent film and a return to a more somber and monstrous Godzilla, The Return of Godzilla paved the way for a resurgence in interest in the Big G (and a number of fun Godzilla films, including my favorite, Godzilla vs Biollante). It’s a little too heavy-handed for my taste, but I’m glad to be able to see it after a long absence from US video. I just wished they’d included the Godzilla 1985 version, if only to see Raymond Burr in a Godzilla movie again.
So, any G-Fans out there? What’s your favorite Godzilla film and/or era? Or are you more in a Gamera mood?