Sunday, February 7, 2016

ENGH-SkreeeoOOoonk: A Retrospective on the Godzilla Series, Part 1 (The Showa Era)

Recently I've decided to try to expand my tastes, so that I can look at some of my old interests in new light. At the same time, the general theme has been one of pursuing things that have a reasonable connotative link to the stuff I already like. If you've been reading this blog so far, I think you'll feel like my recent watching of Showa's Godzilla series makes sense. Godzilla movies are archetypically bad, but obviously still have a non-ironic following. As we will see, both sides of this dichotomy are true--yeah, they fucking suck, but they are also awesome. This will be my look back on the experience of watching these films; Part 1 will concern what's called the Showa Era (1954-1975), while Part 2 will examine the Heisei Era (1984-1995). Part 3 will talk about the Millenium Era (1999-2004) and affairs beyond, with Part 4 discussing some of the other Toho films that tie in, like The Mysterians and Gorath.

In general, I'd also like to take this time to announce that a new column will be appearing on this site after I have another run of ordinary A-List reviews. But let's not worry about that now. It's time to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the one of the most influential stories of all time: that of the radioactive King of Monsters.

Warning: As is the case for most of the posts on this site, there will be spoilers ahead.

Repeat: As is the case for most of the posts on this site, there will be spoilers ahead.

Godzilla (1954)

Hard to go wrong with a classic. I'm genuinely surprised that the very first of the Godzilla movies wasn't the one that traumatized me as a kid. It is a heartwrenching film that shows the consequences of nuclear war--an artistic movie with a clear but complex commentary on one of the most significant moments of the 20th Century, the revelation of the power of the atom. It has a simple story: Godzilla, a radiation-mutated dinosaur, shows up in the Pacific and attacks Japan, killing thousands of people and injuring thousands more. Doctor Serizawa, a scientist haunted by the devastation of World War II, agrees to stop Godzilla with his deadly weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer, which strips animal life to the bone in a matter of seconds. When he kills Godzilla with the compound, he allows himself to be killed by it, so that his mind can't be used to make another monster in the same way that nuclear weapons made Godzilla.

Sounds pretty deep, right? Well, that is the one thing that took me out of the experience: Godzilla is a movie with both artistic intent and success. Yet the rest of the series is essentially mindless entertainment--there are some pockets of brilliance here and there, but this movie attempted to intellectually challenge its audience while the sequels focused more on monster battles. I compare it to Rambo in my head. Both are movies about the horrors of war that also happen to feature well-made and exciting action sequences. Their sequels featured the former attribute in much shallower ways so as to better emphasize the latter and thus make more moolah. Enjoy the magic of this one while it lasts, because it takes an immediate hard right turn into...

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

...this one.

Jesus Christ, this movie is bad. It serves as the entry that defines one of the primary flaws of the Godzilla franchise--the first handful of entries (beyond the first one) are painfully shitty and stomach-churningly transparent in how little the producers cared about them. It doesn't help that this was also the first Godzilla movie to be absolutely butchered in the American translation, with Godzilla being renamed "Gigantis, the Fire Monster" and given a different roar. But don't mind that--there are worse atrocities carried out in the English dub of this film, which is sadly the version I was forced to watch. I'll get to that in a second.

In essence, the plot concerns two pilots named Tsukioka and Kobiyashi, who end up discovering the emergence of a second Godzilla (or "Gigantis"). Godzilla wages a destructive battle against Anguirus, the second kaiju to appear in this franchise, which wipes out much of Tokyo. Eventually, Godzilla kills Anguirus (as much as you can kill a monster in the Showa era, as they all show up alive again later), and Kobiyashi sacrifices himself by crashing his plane into a glacier to trap Godzilla.

What is the primary issue of this movie? Well, think about that one cut of Blade Runner where Harrison Ford endlessly narrates every minor thing we see the characters do. That is this movie. If Godzilla uses his nuclear breath, Tsukioka will tell us. If Anguirus knocks Godzilla over, Tsukioka will elucidate on it. If someone picks up a cup of coffee, Tsukioka will find it necessary to inform us that they have done so. It is violation of the "show don't tell" principle cranked up to eleven, because the dub actors thought everyone in the theater was a fucking idiot. And if the Japanese dub is anything like this, it's still an awful movie, because it's incredibly dull. The good thing is--it's not even 70 minutes long.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

While this one sucks, it does at least have two things going for it: 1) it was responsible for the 1967 Toho film King Kong Escapes, a fantastic mess that I'll get into in the fourth part of this series; and 2) it is fucking hilarious. A pharmaceutical company decides they need better advertising, and so when they hear that King Kong lives on a nearby island, they choose to kidnap him and force him to participate in their promotion. Of course, this ends poorly, and is further complicated by the fact that Godzilla escapes from his icy seven-year tomb! And contrary to a plethora of rumors, King Kong does beat Godzilla in this one. There is no alternate cut where Godzilla wins. Because Kong must live, so that he can face down the evil of Doctor Who!

Like I said. I'll get to it.

I have seen both the Japanese and English tracks of this film, and both are striking in particular ways. The English version has awful dub actors, and it presents an interesting continuity flaw when you realize that the previous movie, to contemporary audience, was not a Godzilla film. Therefore, the Godzilla of this film is explained as being trapped in the ice for thousands of years--it's unclear if the events of the first movie are supposed to be canon to this one. The Japanese version continues proper continuity, but has the dubious honor of featuring two audio tracks: yep, the American characters speak English. And they sound just as ridiculous as any of the English dubs from the American cut. The movie begins to goof off a little, such as the infamous scene wherein Kong, uh, forces Godzilla to eat a tree. But for the most part, I found it to be a dragging and painful experience.

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

And here is where we meet the first major snag of this retrospective: I hate Mothra. I liked her as a kid, but after watching these movies in order, I became severely disappointed at the amount of times that she appears. And each time, her appearances are the same: we cut to Infant Island, Mothra is prayed to by the Shobijin (the tiny fairy princesses), and then she finally flies away. Oftentimes to be subjected to full Worf Syndrome. All of this takes an insulting long time, and I swear a lot of it, especially in the later Showa films featuring Mothra, is comprised of stock footage from this movie, the original Mothra, or the next film. And while this is a superficial criticism, I don't feel like Mothra's world of magic and fairies really fits well with the Godzilla universe. But this one is decent. It's interesting to see both Mothra and Godzilla duke it out in a time when they were much more ambiguous figures. Both were destructive and hadn't been established as protectors of humanity yet (or as nature avatars, blech). All the same, if you envision the vaguest possible outline for this movie, with what you basically know about these characters, it will fit this movie's reality perfectly. Mothra and Godzilla fight around the world, while the Sobijin watch with some human characters. That's all there is to say.

I suppose at the time this film could've been much more revolutionary, as the kaiju concept as we know it today was still forming. Today, crossovers in all kinds of movies, in Japan and all over the world, are pretty common, but audiences probably weren't expecting these films to meet each other in the way they did. That deserves respect, but this movie drained me nonetheless.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Fortunately, this is the last bad one before the series starts hitting the stride that fans actually remember it for. And yes, I am calling Ghidorah bad. A lot of people apparently consider this to be the best Showa film, but I will fight that conjecture by saying that I barely remember this movie. Because it was tedious. I started skipping around near the fifteen-minute mark, and I don't remember any of the monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah all appear) appearing until nearly the last twenty minutes of the film. I would summarize the plot if I could, and I wish I could say more in general. But wow, this one shocked me in how unbearably slow it was.

Fortunately, I do like King Ghidorah. I wasn't anticipating that, because I tend to hate shallow villains that writers adore despite their shallowness. Like Boba Fett. Boba Fett is a fucking background character, and his following, in both official Star Wars media and the Star Wars fandom, is motivated by the dumbest of reasons (he lookz KEWL!!!1! he dusn't TALK!). Ghidorah, similarly, seems to be well-loved even though he's just a three-headed dragon. I appreciate Ghidorah for one reason: in the Showa era, his roar is a dolphin giggle.

Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

At last, the greatness begins! Some astronauts travel to Planet X, where they discover that the native Xiliens are under attack by King Ghidorah. The Xiliens plead with humanity to borrow Godzilla and Rodan so they can defend their homeworld against the space dragon. Except, sike! They have been mind-controlling Ghidorah this whole time, and take control of the other two monsters to unleash Hell on Earth. Can the world fight back before their great cities are reduced to dust?

At this point in the series, the filmmakers had some of the basic features down pat. The monsters had been established, the idea of several monsters teaming up or fighting each other became mandatory. The battles were clearly the central focus, though they hadn't reached luchadore levels of silliness yet. This one brought in the concept of alien invaders. The monsters were no longer forces of nature or representatives of man's hubris--they were weapons employed by a more traditional sci-fi menace. The Xiliens must've left a notable impact, as they returned as the antagonists of both Godzilla Island and Final Wars. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on with the Xiliens which is sadly pushed to the side in favor of monsters punching each other. They look like Jerec from Star Wars: Dark Forces II, and their society is ruled by computers and numbers. Their plan is elaborate and clever, though I don't remember exactly why they're trying to take over Earth. When Godzilla has good aliens, they're indeed very good. Unfortunately there are still a fair share of them that are only pale shades of what we see in the Xiliens.

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)

My first! Meaning I have a bias, because this is said to be one of worst. On my rewatch of it, I can totally understand that I only liked this one as a kid because I hadn't seen too many of the others--I'm sure I would've been snoring if I'd been shown, say, Destroy All Monsters before this. Good thing it's got a good MST3K!

A bunch of people steal a bank robber's yacht and end up trapped on an island, where the terrorist organization known as the Red Bamboo is working on some sort of nuclear project using slave labor. They use the juice of one of the island's fruits to control Ebirah, a giant lobster. The natives and castaways must work together in order to awaken Godzilla and Mothra so they can stop Ebirah and escape...

You know, I can see how that could conceivably be boring, especially spread over 90 minutes. There are some fun diversions, like when Godzilla fights a giant condor. But at the same time, it's a poor follow-up to a movie like Astro-Monster, which was fascinating all throughout. In addition, Ebirah himself has menace but is sans gimmick. He's just a larger version of a real animal, with no martial arts or breath rays (or indeed ranged attacks of any kind). He even ends up occupying a minority of his own movie. For some reason, however, the slow creep of this movie, and Ebirah's somewhat disturbing nature (lobsters are hard to emotionally relate to compared to lizards or cute moths) sell the whole affair to me. The fight between Godzilla and Ebirah where they swat boulders back and forth is dumb enough to leave a good impression, too. Trust me, far worse is yet ahead.

Son of Godzilla (1967)

Another one that people tend to hate, but I don't. Again, because there is worse. Some hilariously poorly-dubbed scientists are on Solgell Island trying to create a weather-control system. They're joined by a reporter who has an even worse dub. They are suddenly set upon by Kamacuras, the mantis kaiju (they try to call him "Gimantis" in the English version), and they discover the existence of Minilla. Yep. This is Minilla's outset, but he doesn't talk in this one. He just hogs the screen. Godzilla shows up to protect Minilla, and defends him against Kamacuras and Kumonga (err, "Spiga"), the spider kaiju. Eventually the scientists turn their weather-machine on Godzilla, sending him and Minilla into hibernation.

Not much to say about this one--it's relatively quiet, but has more in it than Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. The presence of several new monsters, and a lack of Mothra, helps it out, and I think Kumonga is visually impressive. Of course, since his attack involves spraying thick, white sticky substance over his foes he's bound to draw laughs from people who can't grow up. The dubs, too, are pretty goddamn funny. From here on out, expect at least every other movie to have the dubs that make this series legendary to so many.

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

The Best. And it's very easy to see why! Hm, are they really gonna Destroy All Monsters? You bet. Anguirus, Mothra, Rodan...why, monsters that aren't even from previous Godzilla movies appear! Varan from Varan the Unbelievable, Manda from Atragon, Baragon from Frankenstein Conquers the World, and Gorosaurus from King Kong Escapes all show up. But King Kong doesn't come back for copyright reasons, and Ebirah and Kamacuras don't come back either because fuck those guys apparently. A movie with this many monsters has to have a very small plot, and indeed, there's not much to say: in 1999 all of the world's monsters have been contained to Monsterland/Monster Island. However, an alien race called the Kilaaks take control of the monsters and unleash them on the world. In the end they all come together to face the most evil monster of all...who is, natch, none other than King Ghidorah.

Do you see that title?! Did you see that lineup?! This movie is great. If you feel like I'm skimping on describing the plot, that's basically all there is. There's something in there about a group of human characters fighting the Kilaaks on the moon, but if you haven't noticed, I haven't exactly focused on the human characters of this movie. That's because I generally don't remember them. They exist primarily so that the audience has something to relate to. As we'll see, the Heisei series tried to make something more of them by having recurring characters, but even then, I at least am here for the battles. That having been said, Toho made a show called Go! Godman, which Wikipedia tells me "[had] no story at all, and wrestling between the rubber monsters and Godman was the only element of the show." So they did experiment in having something that was just the fights.

All the same, I can't say that I'll be watching Go! Godman at any point--even if it's apparently canon to the Godzilla series. Godman fights several of the Godzilla monsters, starting with Gorosaurus. By the way, as I will probably repeat at the end of this retrospective: Gorosaurus is my favorite kaiju. Look him up. He is probably one of the saddest- and dumbest-looking things I've ever seen. He has no powers (he is literally just a dinosaur), but he does kick people. But I digress. Destroy All Monsters is, hands-down, the best Showa film. And, with one possible exception, the best of the entire series.

Godzilla's Revenge (1969)

Admittedly, one of my biggest concerns about starting this reflection was that so much has already been said about Godzilla. In fact, my rankings of the individual films are pretty typical for fans of the series. So what can I possibly add about Godzilla's Revenge, said to be rivaled in shittiness only by...well, take a wild guess. (Hint: it's one of the non-Japanese ones.) I must admit that Revenge is pretty awful, but if you go into it expecting it to be bad even by Godzilla standards, you can at least marvel in the surrealism of it. A kid named Ichiro, whom I would call the most annoying child in history had I not seen a Gamera movie,* is left alone at home often by his overscheduled parents, and is picked on by a nerd named Gabara. He often fantasizes about hanging out with Godzilla, a monster who has probably killed tens of thousands of people at this point, which says a lot about him. Through a device invented by an old man he hangs out with, Ichi(ro) the Killer mentally (?) travels to Monster Island, where he sees a fuckton of stock footage from previous movies. However, he also meets Minilla, who can talk now. With a Barney the Dinosaur accent, that is. Minilla is also bullied by someone called Gabara, though this Gabara is of course a kaiju. Through Minilla and his awfulness, Ichiro learns how to overcome his fears, even when he is kidnapped by bank robbers, and his family life improves as well. He faces up to his Gabara and beats him, and then joins the gang of bullies himself, presumably starting a career of taking out his anger on smaller kids.

It's not a good idea to watch this movie as a Godzilla film--instead, watch it as a farce, or maybe a practical joke on the audience. After all, assuming that Monster Island does only exist in Ichiro's dreams, it's possible that this movie is set in "our" world, and Godzilla is just a fictional character. Of course, it's also possible that Ichiro was traveling via astral projection to Monster Island. But why, then, does Gabara never reappear, except in Go! Godman and Go! Greenman? In the end, it is a genuine mess, but maybe not as sanity-shattering as some people would believe (but remember what I watch for fun). Switch off your brain during this one and it might be passable. And hey, the opening theme is catchy! 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

This is the one that traumatized me as a kid. Which is funny, given that it features 500% more go-go dancing than any movie I've seen, much less any Godzilla movie. But it does make sense--Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the first movie since the original to be sincere in a "message." Namely, Pollution Is Bad (which it is). Whether or not it portrays that message in a hamfisted way or not is largely subjective--what matters is that Hedorah is a gross and creepy monster, and there's enough blood and suspense in this movie for it to be a very nice breath of fresh air in the wake of the last film.

A cloud of space spores come to Earth and fuse with a patch of pollution. They became the nigh-indestructible Hedorah, who feeds on pollution and spreads deadly acid across the world. Not even Godzilla can grapple with him, because his acid can damage even the mutant dinosaur. Worse, Hedorah can regenerate from tiny parts of himself as long as he possesses moisture. Of course, that means the answer to stopping him may be more shocking than one might think...

I think people hate this one because Godzilla flies in it. He does so by aiming his head down and using his nuclear breath. Yeah, that's dumb, but the intent behind it was to break up an otherwise dark and graphic movie. And it works. Is it whiplashy? Duh. But at the same time, I do see the inherent anxiety of this film and so I appreciate an attempt to break the tension. And it was an influential movie in a lot of ways, too--Godzilla vs. Destoyorah from 1995, hailed as one of the most impressive Heisei movies, is almost a remake of this movie, with some new subplots, and the threat being changed from a real-world one to something fictional. (Instead of pollution, Destoroyah is created by the one thing that can kill Godzilla.) In the end, this one is classic, in my mind.

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)

Yeah, this one is drawing a real blank for me. I recall something about a Godzilla-based theme park, aliens from "Nebula Space Hunter M" (?), King Ghidorah's heads not moving for some reason...

Oh wait. This is the one where Godzilla fucking talks, isn't it.

When reviewing the details behind the movie, I kept seeing that this is another one that people tend not to like. I'm gonna be honest, I'm going to have to agree with the masses on this one. Like I said, King Ghidorah's heads don't move, basically at all, out of what I can assume is a lazy refusal to animate the puppet/suit. And, Godzilla (and Anguirus) speak English in dubs that would frustrate Minilla. I guess in the original Japanese version, there was a cute gag where Godzilla and Anguirus have comic-book speech balloons that they use to communicate. Speech bubbles would be more modest, but the dialogue in both versions boils down to "There's trouble ahead, c'mon!" Nothing is added to the movie by making them talk in either version--it's just one scene, too (if they talked throughout the entire movie, I'd think much more of it because the hilarity factor/shock value). Basically, I don't think the production got the same attention as the other films; the screenplay wasn't proofread. So it makes total sense that I don't remember or really care about the story of this one. They didn't care either.

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

(By the way, nice poster!)

The more time passes, the stronger my love for this movie grows. I don't know why--well, I do. It's a movie about a group of Inner Earth aliens who appear to BE the '70s, and who worship a beetle god called Megalon. They are called Seatopians. Because their country is literally called Seatopia. When the Seatopians are threatened by nuclear explosions on the surface, they send Megalon to bring death to the surface dwellers. He clashes with Godzilla, but that's just the beginning: two clearly-married men and their son have invented the terrifying and awesome robot known as Jet Jaguar, which is desired by the Seatopians as an anti-human weapon. They say it "Jag-you-are," and I swear it's always been pronounced "Jag-wire," but hey, puhtayto puhtahto.** Plus, the Seatopians have allied with the aliens from the last movie, and Gigan is on his way to Earth...!

So yes, that is why I adore this film. Four monsters, or three monsters and a giant robot, if you prefer. AND ALL OF THEM ARE INCREDIBLY GOOFY. Megalon is a little spooky, being a beetle 'n' all, but Gigan is a space parrot with pirate hook-hands and Scott Summers' visor. And Jet Jaguar looks like a fucking serial killer. Seriously, don't look into his smile or you'll be blinded by the apathetic evil that surely dwells within his cybernetic soul. (That's what I consider goofy.) Godzilla becomes even more OTT in this one, too, when he does this move where he kinda leans back and supports himself with his tail, which gives him some sort of dash attack (?). It looks significantly worse than the flying scene in Hedorah, trust me. By worse, of course, I mean better.

Everything in this movie is better. Better than Salisbury steak. And you will become better by watching it. So please do so at once.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

Another one I loved as a kid, for one reason: I thought that the snorting green ape aliens were hilarious. Fortunately, that is a notion that still holds water. Seeing a man's face come off to reveal that HE IS A LIME-COLORED GORILLA is always great. Of course, there is also a mystic kaiju called King Caesar, and Mechagodzilla, in his second-to-last actually-good appearance. I don't recall too much of the plot, despite how many times or how recently I've seen it, but it's another exactly-whatcha-think things--Mechagodzilla ends up impersonating Godzilla, and goes on a rampage so that the Simeons (who built the big Mecha-G) can convince the world that Godzilla has become evil. Again, he has killed many people at this point, so it shouldn't be a shock that he's a little arbitrary. In any case, the real Godzilla shows up, and with King Caesar at his side, he aims to put an end to his mechanical mimic...

This movie represents the last gap of the Showa Era's pure insanity. Ancient magical shrines exist in the same world as ape-aliens and robot dinosaurs. The robot dinosaur in question shoots rainbow lasers out of his eyes. And, King Caesar is essentially the bunny kaiju, or at least, that's how he seems to me. While indeed suffering from the slowness of many of these other films, it has enough oddness happening that emanates endlessly off of Godzilla vs. Megalon. The stupidity is the fun stuff we're supposed to see in a Godzilla flick, contrasted by the talking-monster idiocy of Godzilla vs. Gigan. If Godzilla vs. Hedorah was my childhood's taste of the serious and disturbing side of the franchise, this movie showed me that it could clown around just as easily.

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

Primary cause behind watching this one: Titanosaurus. You'll notice a pattern here, which probably hints at the end of the Showa series, and the nine-year gap separating this film and The Return of Godzilla: a movie will feature Godzilla fighting a monster. Then, that film will have a sequel wherein they'll repeat the fight, but there is an original monster who is added in. But this has fewer monsters than Megalon, and it doesn't even have the benefits of Jet Jaguar or the Seatopians. I like Titanosaurus--who aids both Mechagodzilla and the King of Monsters himself at different times--because I feel bad for him. He is an amphibious dinosaur with no powers, though he is notably taller than Godzilla. He's never made a return after this film, except as a brief stock footage clip in Final Wars. Alas, poor Titanosaurus. We literally hardly knew ye.

In what is a largely uninteresting plot, the Simeons from the previous movie (who, sadly, never go ape) seek to rebuild Mechagodzilla so they can get revenge on Godzilla, though they know they will need a second monster to help. They enlist a scientist who lost his job and reputation years ago over his obsession with Titanosaurus (is dinosaur-obsession really a reason for firing someone?), a naturally harmless creature who lives at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. With his help, they mind-control the aquatic beast to force him into a life of violence, and with Mechagodzilla in tow, revenge seems to be on the horizon...

It's hard to avoid viewing Terror of Mechagodzilla as the end of the Godzilla series, even though obviously there were many, many more movies after this. But in 1984's The Return of Godzilla, the bomb was dropped that in regards to this movie, Godzilla had only appeared once before, in 1954, during the events of the original. All of the Showa movies were completely discounted until (maybe) Final Wars, though a variety of Showa films have been referenced in later films. And obviously, notable monsters like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah will always be a part of the franchise. I'm happy to say that Terror is a solid end for the series, largely because it lacks serious flaws. It's not the most fascinating movie, and again, Titanosaurus is the primary good feature. It has a lot of emptiness to it, and it doesn't add any twists to the series. But in my mind it does stand decently strong.

Its successor, however, would be much, much stronger.

Tune in for Part 2 to see what the Heisei Era has to offer!

* I have seriously considered doing a Gamera retrospective, but I typically like to avoid alcoholism.

**  I've never heard anyone say puhtahto.

Image sources: Wikipedia, Wikizilla

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