‘Godzilla’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, May 9th.
Apart from numerous Mel Blanc-generated Warner Brothers cartoon sound effects, my favorite noise in over 50 years of movie-watching is Godzilla’s roar. If you could construct a 240-ton locomotive exclusively out of jagged shards of rusty sheet metal and send it careening down the track at 200 m.p.h., the horn on that surreal speeding sumbitch would, no doubt, sound something like this. Composer Akira Ifukube created that sound by pulling on the loosened strings of a double-bass with resin-coated gloves, then slowing the recorded sound way, way down. But it’s so far removed from what we think of as a musical sound that it’s hard to believe it was created musically.
When the film Godzilla (Gojira) (Japan, 1954) was first being planned, Ifukube had to compose the score without seeing any of its actual footage; he was simply told it would be 'one of the biggest things ever on the screen' … 'I only saw the model of Godzilla and I read the script. In Japan, in most cases a composer has only one week's time to compose film music after the film is finished. I didn't have enough time, so I composed my Godzilla music before I saw the film.' The original visual concepts were based on Eugène Lourié and Ray Harryhausen’s early dinosaur rampage The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), but it was also vitally important to express the story as an allegory of the foolishness and unintended consequences of humanity’s unchecked nuclear ambitions. Needless to say, the Japanese knew a little bit about being on the wrong end of the Bomb; and, in the early fifties, when a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), strayed too close to the Bikini Atoll H-bomb tests, its crew was covered in fallout and came down with fearsome cases of radiation poisoning. “When is enough enough?” was simply not a question Cold War-era Americans and Russians were interested in hearing, unless you sneaked it past them as a Saturday afternoon monster movie.
And, as that Saturday afternoon monster movie, the film was wildly successful. You have to give Joseph E. Levine a little credit for believing that American audiences would respond to it positively, ten years after the Internment camps, with anti-Japanese sentiment still running high. But to leaven its pointed criticisms of American (and Russian) superpower military hegemony, Levine and editor Terry Morse had about 40 minutes of the original film cut, and inserted a chummy but adequately serious-minded American character, journalist Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr), to act as a relatable narrative mediator for American audiences. The jiggering seems pointless and silly today, necessitating a few character-double shots that aren’t too far removed from the work of Ed Wood - but I suspect Levine’s carved-up Godzilla – King of The Monsters (1956) is the version most American audiences have seen.
What makes director Ishirô Honda’s original so effective, contrary to conventional filmmaking wisdom, is its insistence on taking everything seriously, its almost absolute humorlessness. Its numerous sequels, intent on correcting this ‘flaw,’ are usually too conceptually silly to justify suspending our disbelief. Honda’s control of the tone of the film is masterful, and Ifukube’s musical score turned out to be relentlessly funereal. Nonetheless, the film is scrupulously humanistic – each and every missing fisherman seems vitally important to the villagers of Odo Island, each and every military frigate sent, and destroyed, is publicly mourned on TV and in the city squares, and when Godzilla begins its siege on downtown Tokyo, Honda shows us a defenseless war widow huddling alone with her tiny children: “We’re going to join Daddy,” she consoles. “We’ll be where Daddy is soon.” We can be amused today at the primitive special effects – Godzilla is mostly a guy in an upholstered lizard suit with glass eyes, and the miniaturized cityscapes crunched and incinerated by the monster look quaintly anachronistic. But, like the original King Kong (1933), we make allowances for these discrepancies because so many other details – narrative, characters, the sense of scale – ring so true throughout. Godzilla is an avenging folklore demon. Godzilla is a living dinosaur. Godzilla is the modern military-industrial complex.
Everyone in the film puts the needs of humanity first, even the humans whose first question is “How do we kill it?” But those with a larger view – notably the wise Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, a veteran of many of Akira Kurosawa's films) and the reclusive young scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) – see the same short-term thinking bloodlust that created the problem in the first place. Yamane wants to figure out how to study the creature, and scolds panicky politicians, industrialists and military men: “Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb, and survived. What could kill it now?” Serizawa knows what can kill it – he invented what could kill it – but his mistrust of the uses to which it might be subsequently put fuels his absolute refusal to allow it to be used. Serizawa's self-annihilating fate has become cliché in countless horror and science fiction films since, but here, at the end of this film, it’s almost Samuel Beckett-ian, and genuinely tragic.
If you’ve only seen the American release (and very few of us have seen either version in an actual big-screen movie theater, I imagine), you’re in for a treat by attending a showing of these newly restored 60th anniversary prints. The “we’re meddling with Mother Nature” cautionary tale has faded from the reasons we make horror films anymore; films like Night Of The Living Dead, Jaws, Alien, Predator, the Evil Dead films and even Dragonslayer or Reign Of Fire have progressively shifted our view of monsters as the Great Nihilistic Annihilating Unknown, unnatural, or super-natural, forces that we are unequipped to do anything about, but find a way to survive past anyway. The Jurassic Park films, and Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, are undeniably entertaining, but don't even try to incorporate any genuine level of real-world moral circumspection. Godzilla, on the other hand, is a monster that we’re entirely responsible for, an anthropomorphic manifestation of humanity’s own worst tendencies. Godzilla, sixty years later, turns out to be so far removed from what we’ve come to think of as a conventional monster movie that it’s hard for us to believe now that it was created to be one.