Wednesday, September 20, 2006

King of the Monsters

Okay, I'm going to get lynched for this one. I'm going to get hate mail, so I'm going to shut off the comments for this one. I just don't want to hear about it.

Before I start, though, here's the trailer for the recent North American release:

So, the original uncut Gojira, eh?

This is a sacred cow to many geeks, and probably should be for someone who loves kaiju movies like myself.

Well... nope. This is a not a particularly good movie, nor a particularly terrible one either, but it is an amazing achievement for it's role in the expansion of Japanese cinema. I'm a little more fair about the film than Ebert was, but at the same time, he's got it right on a few key points.

I'm not going to describe the plot, as you're probably well aware of it. Even if you haven't seen a Godzilla movie, you know the plot: Monster attacks Japanese city. Military counter-attacks. Scientist uses pseudo-science to save the day. The End. (There's also: Evil monster attacks. Military counter-attacks. Good monster shows up. Military confuses good monster for evil monster. Kenny does something. Good monster fights evil monster. Kenny cheers. The End.)

I'm also not going to comment on the quality of the special effects, as this film was the origin of the suitmation style of shooting FX movies. Yes, the effects are pretty crude, but at the same time, almost all FX were crude at the time. Even the classic George Pal version of War of the Worlds, which won the Academy award for FX, was pretty chintzy. Gojira didn't have the FX budget that War of the Worlds did, and it unfortunately shows. At the same time, it does work for the film, which is almost black for most of the night scenes and hides the short-comings of the FX work. (Now, whether or not it's supposed to be that dark is left to be explained.) It should also be pointed out that, despite the comparison to the bigger budget Hollywood movie, this film was one of the most expensive Japanese films at the time, and it shouldn't be seen as just a cheap creature feature.

I'm also not going to comment on the anti-Nuclear elements of the film. It is a very political film, and was probably one of the biggest anti-Nuclear films of the time period. As Ebert states in his review "properly decoded, [it] was the "Fahrenheit 9/11" of its time." It does take a decidedly sober look at the effects of nuclear testing, and does draw an almost direct link to the Daigo Fukuryƫ Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) incident. The only comment I'm going to make is that this line of commentary in the film is about as ham-fisted as it comes. There's little subtlety here at all folks.

All of that is film history, and it doesn't really affect the film's quality either way. Many argue that the high mindedness of the film directly equates to quality, but it unfortunately does not. I'll be the first to say that the message that the film gives is an important one, but at the same time, it's where the issues begin. If the film weren't so high-minded, it would be easier to overlook the other issues as just something out of a B-movie. The same sort of issues plague the 2001 G-flick, Godzilla/Mothra/King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which is another high minded film that gets tripped up in it's own absurdity.

What I'm going to comment on is the seeming ineptitude of the film-making process itself. The story is borderline ridiculous, the science is wrong (even for its time period), and the majority of the characters are pretty two-dimensional. It's obvious that this was an early film for director Ishiro Honda, as far too much of the film's background is relegated to bouts of exposition, and scant little of it is actually shown on the screen. In his later films, he generally avoided this issue, or at least managed to balance it much better, but in this outing it was a little too thick.

Basically, with Gojira, Honda broke the first rule of film-making: show, don't tell. The commentary leads one to believe that this is just how films were made in Japan, but the two other major Japanese films released at the time, Miyamoto Musashi and Seven Samurai, illustrate otherwise. What makes this so unforgivable is that the dialogue points out things that the direction should. For example, the entire love triangle between Emiko, Ogata, and Serizawa is nearly invisible until it's pointed out in exposition. For that matter, the character of Serizawa is introduced through exposition after he silently stands in a crowd.

There's also the issue of the characters themselves, and the lack of any character development. Even veteran actor Takashi Shimura, who played the lead in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, can't even rise beyond the writing. His character is very passionate, he performance is fine, but he just spouts pseudo-scientific gibberish. At the same time, his performance does rise above the rest of the cast, and he always comes off with understated grace. The worst off is Akihiko Hirata, who portrayed the tortured Dr. Serizawa, as his pivotal character is reduced to a one-note caricature. It's not the fault of Hirata, but it is the fault of the screenplay and the direction.

In one of the featurettes there is mention that there may have been a flashback scene that never made it to the film that illustrated the relationship between Emiko and Serizawa, and another scene that had the main cast sharing a car ride. These scenes would have added much depth to the character, and would have made the character that much more tragic of a figure. What we're left with is a brooding, mad-scientist type in an eye-patch whose own personal tragedy is only referred to in passing during another bout of exposition. The only scene that illustrates Serizawa's character without exposition is the scene where he's introduced. He stands silently in a crowd of people, looking alone, and which is probably one of the more artful scenes in the entire first hour of the film.

The rest of main cast is bland, which is sad, as they're actually billed as the leads. The character of Emiko Yamane, played by Momoko Kochi, is more of a catalyst than a character. She's the typical 50s daughter of the scientist, and love interest of the male lead. There's not much depth to the character besides being in the middle of the love triangle. The other point in the triangle is Ogata, played by Akira Takarada, and he's about as non-descript as Emiko. He's the handsome, young rugged Navy man... and that's about it. There really is no purpose in the film for him except as part of the weak triangle, and to help Serizawa at the end. That's it.

The other major issue with the film is the big G himself, and the absolute lack of motivation for his rampage. In the original screenplay, he was searching for food. In the film, it's never established why he decides to come ashore in Tokyo and level it. The commentary says that it's to show that Godzilla is an indiscriminate killer who just destroys everything in his path, which is all well and good, but there is never an explanation as to why he does this. Yes, there's the whole nuclear bomb metaphor, but there was actual motivation behind the bomb. Godzilla? Not so much. There's implications that he's just angry, made by the commentators, but it's never really answered in the film. The commentary felt like fanwankery at times, at least for me, in that they just seem to assume things to make what happens on the screen seem better than it really is.

I should point out, in all fairness, that the commentary is otherwise excellent. Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszweski know their stuff better than most do, far better than I, and it was a treat to listen to them even if I wasn't as enthusiastic about the source material that they obviously are. I'm looking forward to their commentaries on the upcoming discs from Classic Media, as I at least know that I like those films.

As I type this, I've got the movie running behind me, for the second time, with the commentary on. What's just passed is the scene where the news crew in the tower is killed when Godzilla topples the tower. This is one of the more idiotic scenes of the film, as the crew continues reporting as Godzilla rends the tower in his teeth and claws. The reality would be that the newsmen would've long ran for their lives, as no reporter in the world is that dedicated enough to their craft to pointlessly give their lives for it. It's scenes like this that ruin the mood for me, destroying my suspension of disbelief, and take the film into the realm of Ebert's "stupendous idiocy."

Now here's where I'm going to change my tune. After the destruction of Tokyo, Honda captures the devastation with great sobriety and compassion, and these few scenes bring what depth there is to the film. I suppose these are the scenes that are the most personal to the director, Ishiro Honda, as he saw the devastation of Hiroshima first hand and, as the son of a Buddhist monk, was greatly touched by it. The somber and haunting moments in the final act of the film are what people tend to remember about the film, and it is very difficult not be moved in some way.

This is where my largest issue is with the movie. The first two acts almost completely undermine the final act, and the final act deserves a better lead-in to what it has. The blasphemy I'm about to speak is that this movie needs a remake to correct the errors of it's way. The film needs to have a serious opening in order for the final act to earn the power it shows, and it doesn't have that. This is probably also what makes the 1998 American Godzilla film that much less palatable, in that it sheds any level of sobriety to make it a summer popcorn movie.

As for the DVD itself: it's nicely packaged, the menus are great, the features are nice, but the remastered video is borderline terrible. The contrast and brightness is spotty, at best. The night scenes are almost impossible to see at times, and since the issues don't occur in the US version, it's most assuredly a problem with the transfer itself. There's also the poor font choice for the subtitles, which is one that's so thin that it gets lost if there's any high contrast detail behind it. Mind you, at around 20 bucks, it's still worth the price.

I really, really wanted to like this movie, but I can't. It is, however, a piece of film history and deserves respect for that. So, with a heavy heart, I'm giving it a **.5 out of ****.