By Amber Sparks | Press Play May 16, 2014 at 2:53PM
Godzilla was the megaton elephant in the room of my marriage.
I married my husband because we liked all the same things. I know some people talk up the idea that “opposites attract,” but since books and film and food are about 90 percent of my life, it seemed like I had better marry somebody with a brain as much like mine as I could get, without any cloning involved. But there was this one small thing I thought we’d deal with later, the way most couples deal with different opinions on having kids or how to spend and save. That one small thing was Godzilla.
Chris was really into the Godzilla family of films, and I would rather have eaten live worms than have watched these movies with him. Everyone has some idea about these movies,, right? The big dopey-looking guy in the worn-out suit, stomping on poorly-made miniatures and fighting some outlandish other monster suit, like a giant lobster or a weird thing with a buzz saw in its chest. I just didn’t see the point. And I didn’t understand how someone as smart as my husband could enjoy these films so much.
But then, worn down, I finally agreed to watch the original 1954 film, Godzilla, or Gojira. And I was impressed. Not only by the film itself, which—thanks to the direction of Ishiro Honda, the now-classic score by Akira Ifukube, and especially the masterful special effects direction of Eiji Tsuburaya—rose above the traditional sci-fi/monster flick trappings to become a genuinely beautiful, visually impressive, and deeply moving film. I was also impressed by the fact that a film originally planned as a Japanese King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms became so serious, moral, and terrifying.
The monster in Toho’s film was more like the Beast than Kong—less humanized, more an unstoppable force. But unlike the Beast, Godzilla was a sympathetic figure: his end is as tragic as his beginning. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised that a movie about an atomic-age monster would be imminently sadder and more impactful in the hands of the Japanese post-World War II. And certainly the most striking images of the movie are as moving as they are dreadful, reminders of what we did to Japan: a hospital full of burned people; a group of children singing in the face of disaster; city block after city block on fire; a group of sailors attacked with great ruthlessness at sea, clearly influenced by the then-recent incident where a Japanese fishing boat was caught in the fallout from the Bikini Atoll test. It was a movie that resonated absolutely at that time with audiences around the world—even with Americans, after a well-meaning but clumsy American cut was made that included American actor Raymond Burr as a Tokyo reporter named Steve Martin.
So after watching, and being blown away by the first film, I was curious now to see the other films. Did they continue to preach the dangers of nuclear warfare? It seemed they must, since that’s what Godzilla was—a nuclear horror—and yet, it seemed unlikely that the films could sustain that same message, especially through five decades.
And that is the crux of what’s so interesting about the Gojira series, despite its rather serious flaws. I have now watched all of the films, some many times, and yes, I’ve come to love Godzilla, too. And not just because I fell in love with the first film, which was the perfect film for its time, and certainly the only one of the films that could be considered “great.” The other Gojira movies, whether they are great or terrible (and there is a wide range), are movies of their moment: that is to say, rather than being about giant monsters and scrappy humans, these are ultimately films about heroes and villains—and who they are says everything about the time in which these movies were made. And by the way, that means that sometimes the movies are deeply serious, and other times, deeply silly. As Keith Phipps at the Dissolve pointed out recently, “Sometimes a monster is a metaphor for all that’s troubling about a certain time and place; at other times, it’s just a guy in a rubber suit smashing a bunch of miniatures.”
There can be no more fascinating series to watch, for a fan of cultural and film history in the 20th century. Only the James Bond series comes close, but even that is much more limited in its scope and its necessarily static hero. The Gojira films, on the othe handr, vary wildly in plot, character, tone, audience and cinematography. Even the title character goes from hero to villain to symbol to something in between.
The films can be roughly split into three periods. The classic or Showa series, spanning 1954-1975; the Heisei series, spanning 1984-1995; and the Millennium series, spanning 1999-2004. In the first part of the classic series, the two films made in the fifties, doctors and scientists are in ample supply as heroes, and the films wrestle with important subjects – nature, and the monsters that supply it, are villains, though human-made.
In the sixties, the movies veer away from the original message. As Jim Knipfel writes at Den of Geek: “Early in the franchise and often under the guidance of director Ishiro Honda, when things just got really fucking weird, when images straight out of Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, or Luis Buñuel were inserted into the reality of the Toho universe, and none of the human characters really batted much of an eye about it.” A distrust of corporations went along with the weirdness: in King Kong vs Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla, it’s the corporate types who are trying to make money off of exploiting the monsters – they become laughing stocks and goofy villains by trying to beat nature at her own game, while the monsters become more sympathetic. In Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, a princess runs from assassins while possessed by the spirit of aliens - and the series takes a turn for the wacked-out science-fiction quality which has become a hallmark of the series ever since. The films seem less about nuclear war than they do about the fear of invasion. In these later sixties films, Godzilla becomes a world hero, saving the earth from alien invaders and monsters from other planets.
By the 1970s, the films seem to be largely for and about children – with the powerful exception of Godzilla vs. Hedorah (more on that in a minute.) Bullies and scary criminals are villains, and absentee parents and latchkey kids abound. Godzilla suddenly has ‘friends,’ and the monsters are become cute, hi-fiving, kid-helping pro-wrestlers of sorts. In some of the films, the monsters live together on an island (like Monster Island) and come to the rescue when needed. If the kids aren’t the heroes, they’re still central to the story. These movies are pretty much the worst of the series, often liberally making use of stock footage from past films and featuring monsters so cartoonish they’re slapstick.
(Godzilla vs Hedorah, of course, from 1971, is an exception that is also very much of its time – it’s a strange, bleak look at the environmental havoc caused by pollution, which comes to life in the form of a giant smog monster. It’s a serious film, despite its odd psychedelic dance sequences, one that shows people and animals literally being burned alive by Hedorah.)
The Heisei series of the eighties and nineties is more uniform in tone, though the stories vary wildly. From a rip-off of Indiana Jones that turns into an environmental message where the real bad guys are the corporation pushing for deforestation; to a recurring character named Miki who has a psychic connection with Godzilla, to a mutant Godzilla clone from space; these films usually hold up humans as the bad guys, while another group of humans works with Godzilla or other monsters to save the planet. During the eighties, Godzilla would become a villain once again – only to morph into a hero by the mid-nineties. I should also point out that at this point in the series, Godzilla once more faces some of his classic foes, in an attempt to revive the popularity of the series. Most of these films were not released in American theaters, including Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, a fascinating film that features a pre-atomic Godzilla-saurus ravaging American troops and saving Japanese soldiers during WWII. (It also features time-traveling humans from the future called Futurians, tiny adorable Ghidorah babies, and a Terminator-like android named M-11.)
The Millennium series is the most unwatchable group of Godzilla films (in my opinion), despite a higher production budget. The stories are unmemorable, and the heroes are usually military characters, admirable and steel-jawed, given little to do or say other than climb into a giant robot or shoot “mazers.” Godzilla is, at least, fierce and very much the harbinger of real, deeply felt terror. A dark and modern tone fills the films – even the palette has shifted from the bright colors of the 80s and 90s films to a dark mix of steely greens and grays. An odd quirk of this series: each one is pitched as a separate sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla (with one exception centering on Mechagodzilla.) The movies are all pretty grim, and some seem close to the spirit of the original film: for instance, in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah, Giant Monsters All Out Attack, Godzilla is an ancient beast from hell who’s formed of the tormented souls of the dead of World War II.
Having watched, many times, this evolution of culture reflected in the evolution of the Gojira films, I (and of course, my husband) are fascinated to see what the American film (I’m not even bothering to count the 1998 garbage fest) will be. It certainly promises to be dark, serious, well-acted, and – perhaps in the troubled, pessimistic spirit of our times, Godzilla will be the metaphor, more than the guy in the suit.
Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.