I went and saw the new Godzilla movie last night in 3D at the IMAX theater in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I figure if you’re gonna go see Godzilla, do it right. I loved it.
I was cautiously optimistic about this film. I’d heard good things about it, but the 1998 American-made Godzilla movie directed by Roland Emmerich was a travesty. Perhaps if they’d called it something other than Godzilla, I would have liked it. Because it wasn’t a Godzilla movie. Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin did not understand Godzilla at all.
When I worked at Tsuburaya Productions I met a number of American film business people who would smile and say, “Oh I love Ultraman! I’m a huge fan!” I don’t think they expected me to actually be a fan of the show since I worked in part of the company’s sales division, and people in the sales divisions of film companies are generally clueless about what their company produces. I quite enjoyed smoking these guys out with a few key questions.
So I can just imagine Emmerich and Devlin pitching their movie to the execs at Toho who were probably just as clueless about Godzilla as they were.
After a few years of seeing how things worked on the business side, I remember thinking that there probably would never be another good Godzilla film. The business people controlled everything and they spent all their time trying to figure out what sold. Their mindset appeared to be that if you just imitated something that was successful before it was sure to be successful again. They seemed unable to see that that strategy never worked.
What makes the new Godzilla film so great is that director Gareth Edwards understood what Godzilla is and what a kaiju (Japanese monster) movie is. Emmerich and Devlin thought Godzilla was a big animal. Godzilla is not a big animal. He is the mythic representation of forces beyond human control and human domination. In the 1998 film, Godzilla is killed by a couple of missiles. GODZILLA CAN’T BE KILLED BY MISSILES! GODZILLA LAUGHS AT MISSILES!
The first Japanese Godzilla film was about the atomic bomb and how we had tampered with nature unleashing a force that we could not control or stop. In later films Godzilla came to also represent nature itself. For example, Godzilla pretty much always emerges in the south seas off of Japan and travels northward along the eastern coast. This is the path that every typhoon that strikes Japan takes. You cannot stop a typhoon with missiles. The new Godzilla movie gets this idea.
Edwards also understands the standard kaiju movie format. For example, my favorite part of any Japanese monster movie is the bullshit scientific explanation. The most stunningly ridiculous scientific explanation in any Godzilla movie is found in the American version of the second Godzilla movie, Gigantis the Fire Monster (now called Godzilla Raids Again on DVD). In that film a scientist looks at a children’s book on dinosaurs and solemnly tells the assembled military people;
“This is bad. Every lesson we’ve ever learned has told us that horrors in the world of science are part of nature’s plan. Anguillosaurus, a monster commonly known as the Anguilas, a specimen of the giant reptiles that roamed the Earth millions of years ago. Murderers, original plundering murderers who killed everything in their wake. These creatures ruled the Earth at one time but disappeared suddenly. I’ll read you what it says. ‘Enormous in its size, tremendous in its strength. Somewhere although it is not known when, these creatures may come alive after years of hibernation due to radioactive fallout.’ It is a member of the Anguirus family of fire monsters and can wipe out the human race.”
The scientific explanation in the new Godzilla isn’t quite as delicious as that. But we are shown a drawing of some Brontosaurs and Allosaurs seemingly cut out of a 1950s dinosaur book and told that Godzilla and his enemy monster Muto date from a time when the Earth was far more radioactive than it is today and that these creatures feed off of radioactivity. Oh man! Genius!
Edwards also knows that in a Godzilla movie you need to have a brooding scientist who knows what must be done battle it out with a military man who just wants to blow the monsters up, which will (of course) only make them stronger. Ken Watanabe is great as Dr Ishiro Serizawa, named after Dr. Serizawa, the brooding scientists who figures out how to kill Godzilla in the first movie and Ishiro Honda, director of most of the classic Godzilla films.
Some people have complained that there’s not enough Godzilla. But they’re wrong. It works just like a kaiju movie should. Just because these days monster movie makers shove the monster in our faces every 23 seconds doesn’t mean it’s better that way.
I happen to know a little of the back story of how this film got made. I haven’t seen anyone write about this yet. So maybe this is a scoop.
If you look at the credits you’ll notice that one of the producers is Yoshimitsu Banno. Banno directed just one Godzilla film, 1971′s Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster (the Blu Ray is called Godzilla Vs Hedorah). Although it did well, Banno tampered with the formula so much that he was never asked to direct another Godzilla movie.
His worst crime in the eyes of many fans was putting in a scene in which Godzilla files through the air using his atomic breath like a jet engine. Personally, I thought that was kind of neat. But then again, I actually like Godzilla Vs Megalon, supposedly the worst of all Godzilla films (if you want my opinion, the actual worst G-film is Godzilla Vs Space Godzilla).
For decades Banno was trying to find someone to finance his dream of making a sequel to G Vs SM. While working at Tsuburaya I met a few people over the years who’d been contacted by Banno. Sometimes they’d ask me, “Do you think this guy is legit?” I never knew how to answer. As far as I knew he wasn’t really officially connected with Toho, the company who actually owned Godzilla. As tightly as they held the reins on their one marketable character, it was hard for me to imagine they’d let an independent producer who had made only one film for them have the rights to make another, especially a big deal American movie. But I didn’t know the inner workings and I actually kind of hoped Banno would succeed. So I’d just sort of say, “You never know. He did make that one movie and it did pretty well. So maybe…”
I was both kind of shocked and kind of pleased when I saw Banno’s name attached to this film. I figured that at last there was someone on the Japanese side who wasn’t just a business guy. It seems like that made a difference. Probably without Banno in there, we’d have gotten another Emmerich-Devlin style G-movie with lots of eye candy effects but little else.
My one complaint is the new roar they gave Godzilla. For all the advances in technology, the roar created for the very first G-film is still so much better. Listen for yourself. Legend has it that after trying a few dozen ways to make that sound effect, such as recording lions’ roars and playing them backwards as they’d done for the original King Kong, they turned to music composer Akria Ifukube for help.
Ifukube produced the roar by covering a leather glove with rosin, loosening the strings of a double bass and rubbing the glove slowly down the neck. They added some echo and slowed the tape down and voila! The greatest monster roar ever!
Now go see the movie!
Recommended Godzilla books
Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters by August Ragone – Although August wrote the text of this book, I pretty much did everything else. I pitched the project to Chronicle Books, found and then cleared the rights for all the images (no mean feat, I tell you!), wrote captions for all the images, and wrote all of the sidebars credited to anyone Japanese (after interviewing them). It’s one of the best picture books on Japanese monsters even among books published in Japan and August tells the tale of the man who made Godzilla with authority and style.
Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star by Steve Ryfle – This is the definitive history of Godzilla. Steve did incredible research not only into the Japanese original films but also into their often quite different American versions. There’s nothing you could possibly want to know about Godzilla that isn’t in this book. The only drawback is its lack of photos due to the publisher’s fears about getting sued by Toho. I provided a few photos from Tsuburaya’s library, though.
Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo by Start Galbraith IV – An oral history of Japanese monster films. Stuart talked to everybody important in making Godzilla and a slew of other Japanese kaiju movies, including Akira Kurosawa who played a fascinating tangential part in Godzilla’s history. Stuart stayed at my Tokyo apartment part of the time he was writing this.
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