One of the silliest (though sometimes highly enjoyable) genres in American cinema is the fifties gigantic- or creepy-monster-movie, which often falls into one of two thematic categories: the Red scare (“Keep watching the skies!” is the closing warning of Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s terrifying 1951 The Thing, about an oversized, malicious carrot); the scare that atomic testing was unbalancing nature and creating nasty creatures quite beyond even Goya’s imaginings—often bigger, badder versions of familiar animals (giant ants in the 1954 Them!; a giant spider in the 1955 Tarantula). (The actual-sized tarantula is quite scary enough. My mother once inadvertently brought one home in a bunch of bananas.) One can argue, I suppose, that the seriousness of the underlying themes lends substance to these wayward entertainments for (mostly) kids, but the form is too flimsy to provide more than mere pretext. In Japan, Ishirô Honda’s Gojira is something else entirely—something of a very different order. A fine piece of work, its pretext, too, is the frightfulness of nuclear bombing. But Honda of course has something real upon which to draw as well: the horror unleashed by the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly a decade earlier.
Honda is famous for his launch of and toil in kaijû—big monster movies. He made many about the enormous reptile at the center of Gojira (called Godzilla in the 1956 English-language version, which is a slashed, dubbed version of the original, with an American reporter inserted to provide easy navigation amidst an unfamiliar culture), and the enormous pterodactyl Rodan also was Honda’s invention (Sora no daikaijû Radon, 1956). The genre, and Honda, often pitted one big beast against another, as in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). In Mosura tai Gojira (1964) Gojira battled a giant moth, and Mekagojira no gyakushu (1975) even had dueling Godzillas. (In Japanese, “gojira” means “gorilla whale.”) Honda made numerous science-fiction films as well.
Honda and Takeo Murata co-authored the screenplay for Gojira from an original story by Shigeru Kayama. Four of their principal collaborators are black-and-white cinematographer Masao Tamai, who gives a profound depth to the film’s images of darkness, Kazuji (billed as Yasunobu) Taira, who finely edited, Akira Ifukube, who composed the spare though effective score (a much better one than John Williams’s not dissimilar one for Jaws), and Eiji Tsuburaya, who directed the film’s special effects team.
In the film, the 150-foot reptilian beast with scorching radioactive breath rises from its watery depths. Identified with night, in which it majestically cloaks itself, and recorded by the camera initially as eerie and unfathomable amidst the oil-blackness of night, Gojira in effect is emerging from Japan’s collective consciousness. Its first appearance is accompanied by a blinding blast of light in the dark: a visual echo of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Its subsequent appearance in a fishing village, its head visible from behind a mountain, suggests Odilon Redon’s 1898 oil painting The Cyclops.) Soon after, it is also identified with torrential rain from above and upheaving sea below: water gone riotous. It reeks of primordial nature but, too, of a violent interruption of nature. Visually, the film unites the elements of water and devastating light that identify Gojira; it turns Tokyo, which it attacks, into “a sea of flames.” The slight slow motion that is applied to the fire that Gojira leaves in its wake, disclosed mostly in long-shots, indeed suggests a waterlike wavering. We learn that Gojira has “absorbed an enormous amount of atomic radiation,” a fact not only sealing its identification with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings but also defining its astounding limits of endurance. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, splendid), a radiologist convinced that the Jurassic relic is beyond human capacity to kill it, believes that the dinosaur-dragon needs to be captured and studied for its survival of such high doses of radiation. But the nation is mobilized in its attempts to down the beast, for instance, by a coast-long electrified fence and by missiles shot from airplanes. Nothing seems to work, and Gojira’s long assault on Tokyo that pitch-black night, set to the measured pace of the entire film that allows us to contemplate, not merely react to, the depth of horror that Gojira represents, constitutes one of cinema’s great waking nightmares. Gojira bellows, moans and groans, but mostly it is silent, an implacable thing that somehow seems to have strayed from the silent film era into the relatively fragile domain of sound. The day after the attack, a leftward tracking shot reveals the ravage that Gojira has left behind before returning to the sea to regather strength for its next attack. What we see is a bombed-out landscape, the outcrop of war.
This thing of nightmare, this thing of war guilt and real, pure horror, once roused, invades Tokyo twice, generating panic, destroying nearly everything in its path, filling hospitals (as had the atom bombs) with the burnt, the contaminated, the dying. This is a thing one shouldn’t try to kill? One scientist, the eyepatched Daisuke Serizawa, perhaps possesses the means: a doomsday device—the English translation, not much help, is “oxygen-destroyer”—that can better Gojira at its game of blind, all-powerful mayhem. It is introduced to us in a terrifying fashion: an off-screen demonstration recorded on the face of Serizawa’s cousin, Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, as her witnessing to what happens to a huge tank of fish draws from her a bloodcurdling scream. Deepening the perplexity here, for me at least, is the fact that by showing her this horror and swearing her to secrecy Serizawa perversely seeks to bind Emiko’s heart romantically to his own. Emiko, however, loves Ogata—in this subtext of family secrets, the couple have not yet told her father—and it is the two of them who eventually succeed in overcoming Serizawa’s reluctance to have this weapon of his rise from its depths, even to destroy Gojira, lest it fall into military hands and be used just as the U.S. used doomsday devices—atom bombs—against Japan. In symbolic terms, all this re-creates the situation of the United States as it sought a decisive end to the Pacific war. (The European war had already ended.) What would Japan have done in the position of the U.S.? In psychological terms, Serizawa’s dilemma poses this question. Weighing the moral and historical imperatives, the victim, Japan, thus contemplates its own behavior had the tables been turned. This is a fascinating aspect of Gojira.
Honda’s film, at the time the most expensive Asian one ever made, startles with its brilliance. Like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) a few years hence, it treats memories of the Second World War, and the atomic dread that followed, at a symbolic, even an allegorical, remove. Between them, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956) also did this. It is almost as though the atom bomb, the God of a new era, had to be approached indirectly, so great is its fearsomeness. However, Kurosawa also addressed the theme directly and contemporarily in his underrated I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being, 1955), whose title more or less discloses the unspoken motto of the time. Two Japanese films about the Japanese holocaust and its aftermath of suffering, to which one can relate Honda’s more elliptical treatment, are Kaneto Shindô’s Children of Hiroshima (1952—the first Japanese film to treat the event openly) and Shohei Imamura’s especially stark and sober Black Rain (1989).
Born in 1911 in Yamagata, Honda became an assistant director in his early twenties. War interrupted his career; he was a prisoner of the Chinese in his mid-thirties. In 1951, he began directing his own films, many of which relied heavily on special effects, and he wasn’t above assisting again, in the case of his friend Akira Kurosawa: Kagemusha (1980); Ran (1985). Honda was an actual contributor to Kurosawa’s splendiferous Dreams (1990). One of his segments is “The Tunnel,” a stunning piece about war in which a soldier, uncertain whether he is alive or dead but learning from his commander that the entire Third Platoon was killed, marches upon order, along with his lost comrades, to the land of the dead. One of the elements of this “dream”—this sorrowful nightmare—is one of the most brilliant monsters ever conceived for a film: a dog, normal size, grenades strapped around its radioactively red-glowing torso, eyes like burning coals, aggressive barks amplified on the soundtrack to ferocious, fiendish proportions—in effect, the beast of war; war’s embodiment. Another of Honda’s segments is “Mount Fuji in Red,” about the blowup of a nuclear power plant. Two signature elements of Honda’s appear here: panicked human commotion; holocaustic fires. Honda also contributed scenes to Kurosawa’s wonderful mortal meditation Madadayo (1993). That year, Honda died at age 81; Kurosawa delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Six and a half years later, Kurosawa himself died, so perhaps the two are once again making films together on the other side.
I hope so.
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