Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.
What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.
The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.
The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.
Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm.
Remakes have a tendency to revive interest in the originals, at least as far as the studios are concerned. They roll out new editions rolling on disc and digital streams in anticipation of interest and the new Godzilla has no shortage of ancestors: 28 Japanese Godzilla features (and one American film that is best not spoken of) from the 1954 original to the final Japanese appearance in the 50th Anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Eleven of those films are newly released on Blu-ray this month, spanning forty years of Japanese giant monster madness. Not all of them are masterpieces (or even particularly good, to be honest) but a couple of them are classic and most of them are great fun. And through them all, Godzilla is incarnated by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.
Kraken, an imprint of anime specialist Section23, has three pictures from the first wave of Godzilla film, known to the kaiju cognoscenti as the Showa Period. One of them, the 1971 Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released in the US as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, is the trippiest picture of the entire cycle. It’s a Mod-zilla mixing of pop music, hip nightclub scenes and psychedelic imagery with an environmental message and the pollution spawned monster.
That’s right, Hedorah is born of pollution and toxic waste, growing from a bizarre black tadpole to a weird, blobby slime monster (the name, in fact, is a pun on the word hedoro, the Japanese term for sludge or slime) through osmosis and a voracious appetite for pollution. In the film’s most memorable (and unabashadly druggiest) scene, Hedorah grows legs (or something similar that provides landfall locomotion), ambles up to a smokestack belching black smoke and huffs it down like a stoner with a giant, putrid bong. Sounds like a solution for pollution, right? Except that Hedorah oozes poison gas as a by-product, which itself evolves from a knock-out gas to an acid fog that eats its victims down to the bone. Yes, this is the first Godzilla film since the debut that leaves victims littered across the screen. Even Godzilla is affected by it, and when he punches Hedorah, his arms simply sink into the creature, like it was made of sludge.
The series had been sliding into juvenile silliness for a few years and Banno was brought in to recharge the series. He has some big ideas for this mod monster party and the environmentalist theme is unmistakable, but the seriousness of the message is somewhat upended with the pop-art playfulness of his direction. Animated interludes are interspersed, providing anything from pseudo-educational illustrations for scientific exposition to mere cartoonish doodling, and a dour sequence featuring refugees from the affected cities rendered in black and white jolts to color a teen hipster grabs a guitar and leads a rock band in a high energy dance party in the middle of a rural field. Less endearing is the woozy new Godzilla theme with a wah-wah trombone that suggests the comic stumbling of a wobbly drunk rather than the mighty threat of a prehistoric creature with an atomic upgrade. And for this one film only, Godzilla flies, and it’s not dignified by any measure. He tucks his tail between his legs, turns around, and uses the force of his radioactive breath as a jet propulsion to chase Hedorah flying backwards.
It’s truly bizarre and quite a trip, and it was too much for Toho Studios. A planned sequel was scrapped, Banno was bounced from the franchise and journeyman director Jun Fukuda brought back. Some fans hate the film. I think the sheer oddity of the creative chemistry makesit one of the most strangely entertaining entries of the entire series.
Godzilla—the lizard king of the post-nuclear age—turns sixty this year. To celebrate, Hollywood is launching a second attempt to revive the Japanese kaiju (giant monster) franchise as an American spectacle.
Godzilla 2014 marks the thirtieth original Godzilla film but only the second American production (not counting the reworked American editions of the original Godzilla and Godzilla 1985: the Legend Is Reborn). Director by Gareth Edwards (whose only previous feature, Monsters, was an inventive take on the kaiju genre on a budget) exports the Big G from Japan to San Francisco by way of Honolulu and pays tribute to the franchise with a CGI creation that nonetheless recreates the ferocious majesty of the Japanese original and even embraces the monster smackdown formula of the classic series. It’s an American reworking of the Japanese conventions. But is it really Godzilla? Because stateside comic books and the odd animated series aside, Godzilla is a Japanese phenomenon. We Americans are simply bystanders to the artful artifice of its crazy glory.
The U.S. had its own nuclear-spawn giant creatures in the atomic scare of the 1950s—Them!, Tarantula, and of course the proto-zilla of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms—but Godzilla was very specifically born in the wake of Hiroshima and America’s nuclear tests in the Pacific, events that resonated deeply with a culture still dealing with the devastation of the war. That original devil-monster incarnation transformed over time from enemy of humanity to Earth’s protector and back again, and his story was rebooted twice in revivals that kept Godzilla and friends returning for monster mashes through Japan’s major cities until his Final Wars in 2004. Through them all, Godzilla was brought to life by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.