The next two weeks we will be taking it back to 1954 to discuss two pinnacles of Japanese cinema, both which are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year. These two landmark films are Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Ishiro Honda’s Gojira “Godzilla” (1954).
They are two very diverse films with very distinct feels, but both came out of the same country during a time that had a huge influence on global cinema. Personally, I saw both of these movies at different times in my life resulting in very different views. Both quite positive in fact.
I saw Godzilla when I was no more than ten years old, and I will freely admit that it introduced me to the whole Kaiju (giant monster) genre. There was something so appealing to having a giant monster rampaging through a city, just “wrecking shop.” At that time the whole analogy of the dangers of atomic energy and the actions taken against Japan during World War II just eluded me. No surprise, since I know very few children under the age of ten who are more interested in nuclear proliferation over a huge monster destroying Tokyo, unless you are in a Wes Anderson movie!
Speaking of rampage, there used to be a game for the Atari 2600 called Rampage and it had a Giant Lizard (Godzilla), a Huge Ape (King Kong) and an Oversized Wolfman (???) that you would control to break down buildings and eat people. That’s right, EAT PEOPLE! Where were video game ratings then? This was one of the first instances where I saw a movie (Godzilla) and wanted to play what I then thought was a tie-in game. Little did I know, Godzilla had been released over thirty years prior! Regardless, I thought that game was the bee’s knees.
Back to the movie. Godzilla had one of those indelible influences on not only Japanese cinema but cinema across the globe. You would see giant monster films coming out in America (It Came from Beneath the Sea-1955), England (Gorgo-1961) and even Korea (Yongary-1967). Some were good, others were awful… I’m looking at you Yongary! Undoubtedly years of Mystery Science Theater 3000 only helped to fuel my love for Kaiju and their absolutely ridiculous concepts but Godzilla is different. It’s actually a pretty brilliant movie.
If you take away the idea that it is a man in a rubber suit, crushing tiny models, and just focus on the plot and the allegories presented, Godzilla creates an impressively compelling story. As I got older, I sought out the Japanese language version of the film (which is the one released in 1954, the American dub version was released in 1956), and it changed the way I saw that movie. No longer did I just see a giant monster stomping the streets of Tokyo, now I saw the biting critique that Honda was filming. Godzilla is a creature awakened by our tinkering with the elements of nature. Godzilla is our punishment for creating (and using) the Atomic bomb. The film even ends with a line regarding the continued use of nuclear testing creating more monsters like Godzilla.
Plus, the movie actually had characters other than Godzilla. One of my favorite characters is Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) who would rather research the monster than kill it. What a great choice of character, to have someone who understood science rather than just military might.
Sure, the effects are dated but it has a particular charm that CGI can never replicate (I will leave that for another blog at another time). Plus, I think that most young children, seeing Godzilla for the first time, will be drawn to the fun of some serious Kaiju action. I think a double feature of Godzilla and King Kong (1933) should be mandatory viewing for all youngsters. Those two movies should be enough to light any child’s imagination on fire.
Now we have remakes, Godzilla (2014) and the unspeakable Godzilla (1998), as well as flicks like Pacific Rim (2013), which seek to bring some of that magic back to the cinema. I recently saw two kids at Barnes and Noble rush to the Thomas the Tank Train table (essentially a mini city) with their Pacific Rim action figures. They instantly started using their Kaiju and Robots to demolish Thomas and Friends while “fighting” on the tracks. It made me think of my younger self and my little plastic Godzilla that I got from Waterside all those years ago. This is the magic of cinema. This is the ability to spark one’s imagination.
Next week we will talk about that other pinnacle of 1954 Japanese cinema, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.