Reviews of Godzilla (1954) and related work

Godzilla (1954Moving picture, 96 minutes)

Ripped from the headlines. Kuboyama Aikichi, radio operator on the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (第五福龍丸), died from liver cirrhosis, Castle Bravo irradiation and a secondary hepatitis C infection from transfusion treatment for the radiation, just one month before this movie opened in theatres.

This sense of atomic actuality is what powers the movie. Giant dinosaur-like monsters threatening cities weren’t new; one of those emerges from an ice cube in “The Arctic Giant” (1942). The suitably invasive breath weapon sells the more novel symbolism. The conversion of it into a beam weapon in the sprawling franchise that followed is sad.

References here: Tidal Wave (1973), “Bambi Meets Godzilla” (1974), Gunhed (1989), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

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Godzilla (1998Moving picture, 139 minutes)

References here: Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021).

moving picture remake Japanese production fiction

Shin Godzilla (2016Moving picture, 120 minutes)

Anno Hideaki (co-director), Higuchi Shinji (co-director).

Seen in 2020.

This satire on Fukushima is hilarious down to the slight social nuances, such as Ichikawa Mikako playing Ogashira Hiromi, an otherwise quite direct nerd who prefaces the statement of a simple and relevant fact in a formal meeting with the polite phrase “Okotoba desu ga”, which, though idiomatically appropriate, is almost an apology for ever speaking: “You have spoken, and yet”. The decision to make a satire led into the decision to place government officials in the spotlight throughout the film. Ogashira, the Deputy Director of the Nature Conservation Bureau, never gets near Godzilla but pitches in as much as anyone else. Anno and Higuchi do include some cool special effects, but there is much less of the rubber-suited tokusatsu aesthetic and urban destruction than I expected from them after the pilot project “Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo” (2012), and no action heroes at all. Similarly, Godzilla’s strongest attack is more tragic than it is horrific.

Instead of action, horror or personal heroics, the theme is national rejuvenation through overwork, chiefly within the famously labyrinthine, non-partisan, non-majoritarian civil-service bureaucracy, which looks about the same here as in The Japanese: A Cultural Portrait (1978). Even the JSDF pilots scramble by rota, making a point of not calling for volunteers. Some theorize that rogue zoology professor Maki meant for Godzilla to be a test of Japan’s spirit, supposedly calcified in this bureaucracy; cf. Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie (1989). Nobody openly theorizes that Maki is Godzilla: It would be quite a coincidence for him to disappear in Tokyo Bay shortly before Godzilla appears and the consumed nuclear waste is discovered, and for the final shot of the frozen tail to reveal such humanoid-looking creatures. Indeed, the decision to converge on Godzilla’s classic form makes intradiegetic sense only if the humanoid traits come from an actual human. Maki being Godzilla would also explain why it goes to Tokyo. Anno probably meant for it to be true that Godzilla changes its own biology on the fly, but this neither makes sense on its own nor does it explain the Tyrannosaurus arms, unless Maki’s in there somehow, guiding that evolution.

I like fission as a kaijū power source, as in the Venerians of Last and First Men (1930), but that’s the only part of Godzilla’s powers in this version that might have made sense in a naturalistic framework. The detail that its fissile material is new to science is superfluous. Despite spending so much time on the Japanese government as a system and the need to evacuate civilians, Anno ultimately rejects naturalism in favour of the Yaguchi Plan, pumping a huge amount of an unknown, unseen, new chemical into the mouth of the implausible creature. This plan apparently presupposes that Godzilla cannot move its mouth even 1 m/s after firing its lasers, that its ability to disable a drone while asleep cannot interfere with the tanker trucks, that it will automatically swallow everything pumped into its mouth despite swallowing nothing else, and that the substance will work if it’s merely swallowed, not being regurgitated or separated from the bloodstream in a digestive tract. These presuppositions appear implausible and baseless. It would have made more sense to load the substance into those nearby highrises—whose existence after the MOP retaliation is a continuity error—before hitting the creature with another couple of MOP bunker busters to expose its blood. Perhaps the Yaguchi Plan is supposed to be symbolic of pumping coolant into Fukushima Dai-ichi or, like the “special bakelite” of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), stand as a throwback to the early days of General Products. Perhaps it is meant primarily as a joke about the implausible last-minute fixes of earlier SF, as described in “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965).

I expected roughly this level of silliness. I also expected suspicious treatment of the USA, and I got it. The US wants to hit Godzilla with a hydrogen bomb, while it’s still in downtown Tokyo, to cover up US involvement in its mysterious origins. Ishihara Satomi as US representative Kayoco Ann Patterson is the most glamorous character in the film; she’s second only to Yaguchi in approximating the sexy and rebellious young heroes I expect in a US Godzilla production, but her English isn’t good enough, and her Japanese not bad enough. The English-language dialogue is generally stiff and overly poetic, making the foreigners seem a lot less human than the bureaucrats. Patterson’s lineage, career plans and thoughts on Godzilla-Gojira nomenclature are superfluous. I have to think she was included for the same reasons as Fujitani Ayako in Ritual (2000), symbolizing a fusion of Japanese and US mentality in the Anpo era via biological hybridization. It is fun to see Anpo itself coming into effect.

I would have preferred internally coherent science fiction with a more believeable Patterson and without a couple of the bureaucratic scenes, but the franchise is long since fundamentally broken and can hardly be rescued by realism. Anno and Higuchi’s weird artistry keeps it fresh. There’s an early shot where they toy with the camera, they make a visual symphony out of copiers rolling into position for a task force’s new office, the music’s an eclectic mix of NGE-like Shirō Sagisu tunes and tributes to the 1950s original, Godzilla’s first form looks wonderfully goofy and bizarre, the military hardware is fetishized, and the superimposed captions go deep. It is as it should be. In fact, even the bureaucratic focus aged well: The film describes not only Fukushima but also Japan’s disastrous response to the Diamond Princess in the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

References here: The Third Murder (2017), Godzilla Minus One (2023).

moving picture remake Japanese production fiction

Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019Moving picture, 132 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Plotless green-screen shit. Bradley Whitford’s traditionalist comic relief made me smile, but that’s it.

moving picture remake Japanese production fiction

Godzilla Minus One (2023Moving picture, 124 minutes)

Seen in 2024.

A suicide bomber makes it out of WW2 alive. In the ruins of a disarmed Tokyo, Godzilla haunts the pilot’s post-traumatic nightmares of violence and personal cowardice.

This film is not as smart, as funny or as pretty as Shin Godzilla (2016), but its climactic confrontation makes 20% more sense and it confronts the perennial subtext of Japanese imperialism and defeat with 30% more courage. Like the 2016 remake, this one has a little musical stinger in Shirō Sagisu’s style and its take on real-world history is uncomfortably romantic, but even getting this close to honesty in popular cinema is refreshing.

moving picture remake Japanese production fiction