Friday, 13 December 2013

Godzilla (1954): Revisited

In my last post I featured the Japanese classic film from 1954, Godzilla. As I had done in a few previous posts, I decided to take a bit of licence with the film’s story by adopting a creative approach to presenting it instead of merely giving a dry rundown of the story or just resorting to making fun of it at the film’s expense which has been the fashion to do over recent years with sci-fi films from this era. The approach I have taken is simply a way of engaging with the film’s story by using the “What if?” principle: imagining what if such and such had happened while the events were taking place. For instance, in a future post on another film, I might decide to present the events of that film from the point of view of quite minor characters as they interact while the events play themselves out. 

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I’m not sure if this approach is effective, but I feel it’s good from time to time to try something different apart from boring plot rundowns, formulaic reviews or self-serving mocking parodies and put-downs. I hope that my occasional form of paying tribute and homage to vintage or classic sci-fi films is at least entertaining enough for readers to visit such films for the first time or even to revisit them and appreciate much of what they have to offer.

No matter what approach is used to present classic sci-fi films in this blog, I endeavour to cover the following: the film’s historical, cultural and social context; the story line; the characters’ involvement, relationships and what they represent; main ideas and themes; relevance to today’s audiences and context; interesting facts and information about the film; and a fair appraisal of the film’s strengths and weaknesses in light of the circumstances in which the film was created.

The original 1954 film, Godzilla directed by Ishirō Honda is a Japanese language film. Luckily we have English subtitles by which we can follow the dialogue. I haven’t seen the 1956 US re-edited version with actor, Raymond Burr. I prefer to confine myself to the original version as was originally intended by its creator. Subtitles, however, do present a problem when attempting to comment on a film. For instance, is what is presented an accurate translation of the dialogue? Much of the meaning of what is said is often conveyed by certain intonations of the voice, by tone and pitch, by inflection, by non-verbal cues and by other nuances of speech, none of which may be adequately conveyed by subtitles. In addition, differences in linguistic forms of communication are also tied to differences in culture.

I generally ignored much of the dialogue from Godzilla in my previous post. In this post, I will attempt to incorporate more of the dialogue from the film, but it will have to be based on the English subtitles provided. I will also try to include other important aspects of the film that were not covered in the previous post. In fact, I’m not quite sure that I did this wonderful film full justice in the previous post. The masterpiece called Godzilla deserves the extra space for comment and reflection as each viewing of this gem reveals further layers of meaning and significance that may not be apparent with just one or two viewings of the film. If you haven’t seen the film in its entirety, I suggest you do so, at least once in your life!

We once again start at the beginning where we are confronted with a threat from something overpowering and evil; not physically before us, but instead by implication and association. We soon hear the incessant thumping sounds that herald the approach of the monster. That sound almost riggers some kind of primordial reaction within us. For modern audiences, it might force us to recall Jurassic Park and how the prehistoric beast’s approach was indicated.

With the loss of the boats, the Eiko Maru and the Bingo Maru, we learn that “contact was lost for unknown reasons.” We are still in the dark as to the source of this destruction, when one of the three survivors from the lost boats declares that “the ocean just blew up,” and newspaper headlines speculate about the cause of the maritime tragedy as possibly being a “drifting sea mine” or “underwater volcano.”

Gradually the nature of the danger is brought ever so closer to the viewer when another shipwrecked survivor, Massagi declares, “He did it! A monster!” According the natives of Ohto Island this agent of destruction is indeed an ancient mythical monster “from the past” who has “come from the ocean to feed on human kind.”

Still the monster remains an unseen force. It’s presence can only be gauged by the effect of its destructive power as we witness the all too realistic interior shot of an Ohto Island family’s dwelling as it succumbs to the creature’s onslaught. Added to this is their terror stricken facial expressions and horror upon witnessing the cause of the danger, as well as the horror contained in the boy’s scream, “Run, Brother! Run!”

From ancient myths, we move into the realm of modern science and reason in the form of Palaeontologist, Professor Kyohei Yamane in order to put flesh on the bones of this cause of so much mayhem. According to him, this destructive threat is from the “abysmal regions.” While the professor explains his theory, he feels the need to place his neck-tie properly inside his jacket. It is almost as if he feels that his explanations must sound fantastic and eccentric to his audience and that appearances count if he is to stand any chance of being taken seriously.

Finally, we are brought face-to-face with this “creature from the Jurassic period” as it is “coming out of Mount Hachiba.” However, we, along with the inhabitants of Ohto Island, find ourselves being impelled toward the danger. Human beings do have the instinct to flee from danger, but there is something within us that impels us to behold that danger even at the risk to our own survival. But what we behold at this point is only half of the creature’s form as it looms over the landscape, as well as the tracks it makes in the sand after it disappears into the ocean.

Forming many of the pieces that fit together to make this “monster” of a classic sci-fi movie, there are the many tensions that are set up between characters, within individual characters and between opposing ideas.

Firstly there is the tension between the notions of the public’s right to know about matters that affect them versus the perceived need for security on the part of those in authority. This is an extremely topical issue in our modern world, recently highlighted by the revelations from whistle-blowers such Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. Consider the angry conflict during the meeting at which Professor Yamane spoke between the ladies who believed that the public had a right to be aware of the report concerning Godzilla and those who believed that the government, the economy and the fragile state of international relations would be plunged into chaos if the report’s findings were made known to the public.

Secondly, there is the tension experienced within individuals when faced with upholding personal convictions in the face of pressure from societal imperatives. At one point in the film, Emiko enters Yamane’s study to find him sitting despondently in the dark and she switches on the light. Being confronted with the possibility of a creature such as Godzilla, the professor would prefer to rely on the light of reason whereby instead of killing the creature in an act of violence, “we should focus on why he is still alive.” Knowing the intent of those in authority, the professor tells Emiko to switch off the light symbolising the darkness that has come over his soul and the light of reason and understanding being extinguished in the face of violence being the only perceived solution to the problem posed to civilisation by Godzilla.

Thirdly, individuals can experience internal tensions and conflicts when being confronted with a moral and ethical dilemma. In the case of Dr Serizawa, we have an individual who as a research scientist has devoted his life to the pursuit of scientific truth. His endeavours have led him to the discovery of his oxygen destroyer which he knows is a weapon of horrible destruction and that eventually politicians will want to use it. He therefore knows that it should never be made known and used by human beings. But what if the weapon he has created is only means by which the creature, Godzilla can be destroyed? How much must this parallel the development and eventual use of the atomic bomb on Japan! From an equation E=MC2, to the splitting of the atom through to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And this unthinkable means of destruction was considered to have been the only means of ending the war with Japan sooner and preventing the loss of millions of more lives. And what might have haunted the dreams of Oppenheimer and those who contributed to the A-Bomb’s creation and gave the go-ahead to unleash mankind’s potential to annihilate itself? What Serizawa witnesses of the scenes of destruction on the TV report and the song he hears sung by the youth choir (the future generations) reaches into his soul and wrenches the kind of decision from him that will resolve the moral dilemma. As can often be the case when grappling with moral dilemmas, Serizawa’s decision will be at great personal cost to himself and it will take enormous courage on his part.

Finally, another aspect of tension faced by an individual can involve present actions, conduct and perceptions being shaped and impacted by past personal experiences. In the case of Dr Serizawa, such a tension becomes a metaphor for that kind of tension as experienced by his native country, Japan. As Ogata observes, “If it wasn’t for the war, he wouldn’t have received his terrible scar.” Not only Serizawa’s scar, but Japan’s own scar received with the unleashing of atomic weapons upon its soil which as Ogata again observes, “still haunts us to this day.” The unleashing of Godzilla opens up scars revealing wounds not yet healed for its population such as when a train commuter comments upon hearing about reports of Godzilla, “The shelters again? That stinks!” When Godzilla attacks Tokyo, we hear the wail of sirens and the incessant booming sound heralding the creature’s approach. What citizen (on screen and, at the time, as part of the audience) wouldn’t feel a pang in his / her heart as wartime memories (perhaps supressed) come flooding back?

As Godzilla devastates Tokyo, we may wish to debate how technically realistic the sequences are by making references to rubber suits and miniature models and budget constraints. Notwithstanding all of this, the carnage depicted on the screen is harrowing and it conjures up the kind of devastation experienced by Japan’s citizens at the end of World War II with the conflagration unleashed by incendiary bombing and by the only ever recorded war time use of atomic bombs against another country.

The emotional impact of the visual scenes is undeniable as we witness a mother huddling with and protecting her child amidst the destruction. All she can offer her child are the words, “We’ll be joining your father in just a minute.” The scenes depicting the aftermath of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo instantly recall for us the horribly obscene aftermath of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. We are witnesses to a desolate urban landscape, a procession of horribly injured civilians and innocent children being checked for the effects of radiation.

There can be no other mood but one of sad melancholy. The mood is reinforced by the sombre music score together with the soul-wrenching song of lament by the youth choir leading toward the film’s end with the underwater self-sacrifice of Serizawa and Godzilla’s demise signalled by the final roar of this product of mankind’s destructive impulses. This is not a time for high-fives, jingoistic flag waving and tidy Hollywood packaged endings complete with ribbons tied by heroes vanquishing evil villains. After all, the villains reside in each of us and as feared by Professor Yamane, could, like Godzilla, rise to the surface again at any time if we are not vigilant.

©Chris Christopoulos 2013