Is this really the end of Godzilla?
Godzilla appears in his 28th and reportedly final film, "Godzilla: Final wars" PHOTO BY TOHO
TOKYO — For the legions of Godzilla fans around the world, 2004 dawned with a sense of optimism. The monster's latest three films combined an old-school sense of fun with whiz-bang computer effects, restored the franchise's luster following the disastrous American version of 1998.
A well-received Godzilla-themed exhibition at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki, as well as an academic conference in October at the University of Kansas, signaled that the monster had won a place in the cultural mainstream. And to top it all off, 2004 would celebrate the star's 50th birthday.
A 1985 New York Times survey asked 1,500 readers to name a famous Japanese person, and they came up with Emperor Hirohito (then 84), Bruce Lee (American) and Godzilla.
But then, on March 2, the president of Toho Films managed to do what no three-headed monster or gigantic flying moth had done for half a century: He killed Godzilla. "Until there is completely new technology and know-how," Shogo Tomiyama said at a Tokyo press conference that had the air of a funeral, "we won't be making another Godzilla movie."
If "Godzilla: Final Wars," which opens at theaters nationwide on Saturday, is in fact the last film in the series, it will mark the end of one of the most recognizable characters of world cinema — a celebrity who's served as an emblem of Japanese-American relations and who's provided a sometimes shaky bridge between Japan and the West.
Too profitable to abandon
There are several compelling reasons to doubt that "Godzilla: Final Wars" will, in fact, be the monster's swan song. First and foremost is the bottom line; for Toho to abandon its most bankable star strikes many observers as unthinkable.
"I feel that this was a marketing decision, pure and simple," says William Tsutsui, a history professor at the University of Kansas and author of "Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters." "Killing off Godzilla — again — should deliver solid ticket sales in Japan and kindle the interest of distributors around the world."
The decision appears to have already paid off. This week's Tokyo opening was overshadowed by a splashy premiere on Nov 29 at fabled Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, where, preceding the film, Godzilla received his own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. These and other ceremonies led the LA County Board of Supervisors to, in all seriousness, declare November "Godzilla Month."
By comparison, the previous two films in the series ("Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla"(2002) and Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), which were released without the buzz surrounding Godzilla's imminent demise, failed to even attract a U.S. distributor.
Another reason for fans to be hopeful about the monster's eventual resurrection is the fact that Toho has in the past found it difficult to kick the Godzilla habit. The original film, 1954's "Gojira" (the Japanese name comes from mixing the words for whale — "kujira" — and gorilla), ends with the dinosaur being killed by an oxygen-eating machine in his undersea lair, but that movie's stunning popularity led to a sequel the following year, "Gojira no Gyakushu" (The Return of Godzilla).
Similarly, the success of 1968's "Kaiju soshingeki" (Destroy All Monsters), which featured a climactic battle among 11 giant creatures, led Toho to rethink its decision to abandon the franchise. And while it's unlikely that "Godzilla: Final Wars" will be such a surprise hit that Toho pushes through a successor in like fashion, fans can take heart in the similarities between those previous eras and what's happening now.
Godzilla ran out of steam in mid-1970s
"By the mid-1970s, the Godzilla films had clearly run their course in many different ways," Tsutsui says, referring to the 13 movies released from 1962-75, which included such bellwether efforts as "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster" (1964) and "Monster Zero" (1965).
"Box office receipts were weak and no combination of gimmicks seemed able to revive them. The target demographic (young boys) were increasingly being enticed out of movie theaters by television, animation and new entertainment forms."
Toho certainly wasn't shy about using any publicity stunt it could think of to drum up interest. Sensing early on that the U.S. would be a key market, the studio pitted Godzilla against the movie monster that started it all. "Kingukongu tai Gojira" (King Kong vs Godzilla, 1962), the biggest-grossing entry of this period, ushered in many of the franchise's familiar tropes: the film was shot in color; Godzilla fights an enemy his own size; and the big green monster not only threatens Japan, but is enlisted to protect it from an even greater menace.
The next several movies would try variations on that formula while introducing such familiar characters as Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah. But by 1967's "Gojira no Musuko" (Son of Godzilla), the strain was obvious. The title character of that film, a dwarfish yellow pipsqueak with doe-like eyes who blows fire rings instead of jets of flame like his dad, was created in a bid to attract preteens. But as the emblem of a cherished film franchise reduced to pandering to the kiddy market, the son of Godzilla became his generation's Jar Jar Binks. "Destroy all Monsters" briefly revived hopes about the series the following year, but at the end of 1975's poorly received "The Terror of Mechagodzilla," when Godzilla walks out to sea after fighting a scorched earth battle against his metallic clone, he effectively takes the franchise with him.
Today, the series is suffering from a similar malaise. "We have done all we can to showcase Godzilla, including using computer-graphics technology," Toho's Tomiyama said. "And yet we haven't attracted new fans."
Tomiyama doesn't discount a return at some point, and fans can hope that history repeats itself. After a break of nine years, Toho revived its franchise for "Gojira 1985," bringing the monster back for another seven moderately successful films before 1995's "Godzilla vs Destroyer."
That movie, too, was seen as the end of the line, this time to pave way for the big-budget American version starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno — one that threatened to steal Japan's most beloved film character. "The possibility that Godzilla might become an American franchise seemed very real back then," Tsutsui says. "Fans took this ?edeath of Godzilla' very seriously at the time and many were said to have left movie theaters in tears."
Godzilla's distinguished pedigree
Such a reaction might seem strange for a film that's often held up as the embodiment of kitsch, but in fact Godzilla has a surprisingly distinguished pedigree. Sharing the Toho stable with the big green monster was famed director Akira Kurosawa, who at the time was producing some of his most acclaimed films. Toho's other big release of 1954 was "Shichinin no samurai" (Seven Samurai), and the studio regularly rotated actors and crew among its projects.
The director of the original Godzilla, Ishiro Honda, was a lifelong Kurosawa collaborator, and the film's haunting martial theme was scored by the eminent composer Akira Ifukube.
"This is the period of the great Japanese film," says Mark Schilling, film critic and the author of "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture."
It was also the golden age of grade-B science fiction movies. Schilling points out that a re-release of "King Kong" in 1952 sparked an interest in the genre, which Hollywood capitalized on by releasing such monster-on-the-loose films as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" and "It Came from Beneath the Sea." "
Godzilla," with the tagline "It makes King Kong look like a midget," distinguished itself by having a man in a costume instead of the tiny models that the Americans used for their beasts. Known as "suitmation," this innovation resulted in significantly reduced production costs and changed the face of sci-fi films. The movies also appealed to an audience longing for a lighter alternative to the ponderous postwar films. "There was this whole entire other market of people who didn't want to bare their souls," Schilling says.
In other ways, too, the original film is emblematic of its time and place. Gojira's scenes of a ravaged Japan played on the emotions of a war-weary audience that had lived through the fire bombings of Tokyo and that had seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to atomic rubble. "The scenes are virtually identical to photos taken of Japan's firebombed and A-bombed cities at the end of the war," Tsutsui says of the destruction Godzilla leaves in his wake. The movie also alludes to the numerous natural disasters visited on Japan. Schilling points out that Godzilla's approach is often announced by his rumbling footsteps, which resemble the onset of an earthquake.
Godzila captured postwar Japan's mood
"In the 1950s, Japan was a weak and vulnerable place," Tsutsui says. "The nation was just beginning to recover economically, the Cold War was raging, and the Japanese people felt little confidence about their future. The 1954 'Gojira' captured these fears and this insecurity perfectly."
Indeed, the first film, when viewed today after decades of lighter monster-movie fare, is shockingly brutal and unafraid to heap scorn on the Americans. The blame for Godzilla awakening from his ancient slumber is laid squarely on U.S. nuclear weapons testing. Scientists investigating a Godzilla attack visit a hospital and take a Geiger counter reading of a healthy-looking girl in pigtails, and a grim knowledge passes between them — she's doomed to a slow death by radiation poisoning. Another scene shows a mother clutching three young children as Godzilla approaches and buildings crumble around her. "We'll be joining father soon," she tells them, a not-so-veiled reference, says Schilling, to the preponderance of war widows in the country.
But perhaps the most explicit dig at the U.S. — and the one that would have the most immediate resonance among contemporary Japanese audiences — occurs in the film's opening scene. The crew of a fishing boat is relaxing during a calm night on the high seas. Suddenly the waters churn off the starboard stern, and as the men look on, they're stunned by a blinding flash of light and their ship is engulfed by flames. The few surviving crew members are later seen to be suffering from radiation illness.
This scene alludes to the events of March 1, 1954, when Americans tested the first hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll — without alerting the Japanese. A fishing trawler named the Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon, found itself squarely in the fallout's path, and the crew of 23 became seriously ill; one man would later die of kidney failure. The incident aroused widespread anger in Japan.
It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that when the American production company Embassy Pictures released the film in the U.S. as "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" in 1956, they discarded most of the references to war and nuclear weapons and instead concentrated on the film's more adventuresome aspects.
In the Japanese version, the monster appears fully only half-way through the film, but the U.S. movie begins with the destruction of Tokyo. An American narrator is added, the dialogue is dubbed, and scenes are reordered. And according to David Kalat's "A Critical History & Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series" (McFarland and Co, 1997), some of the edits have more sinister overtones. In the American version, the narrator implies that a shipwrecked Godzilla victim has died, but in the Japanese film he's only wounded — and appears in later scenes. Embassy Pictures, claims Kalat, did "not expect American viewers to be able to recognize Japanese faces with ease, a racist assumption that justifies the sloppy editing."
Low point was 1998 Hollywood version
But in the history of the two countries' filmic misunderstandings of each other, the low point was certainly the shockingly bad American-made "Godzilla" of 1998. Riding sky-high expectations thanks to an unprecedented marketing campaign and the success of the producer-director team's previous hit, "Independence Day" (1994), the film was a critical, commercial, and artistic catastrophe.
Many reasons have been given for its failure, but Toho's Tomiyama offers one that speaks to differing cultural sensibilities. "In the American version, Godzilla wasn't the leading character," he says. The American monster was also so different physically that he shows up to fight his Japanese counterpart in "Godzilla: Final Wars."
That's not the only surprise that Godzilla's curtain call will offer. "We're cramming all the attractions of 50 years of Godzilla into this movie," Tomiyama says in an interview at the company's Shinbashi office, which resembles countless others around Tokyo save for the walls and shelves full of posters, models and other artifacts of a half-century of monster films.
Among the cities on Godzilla's hit list are Sydney, Paris, Shanghai and New York, and with location shoots at each, the film's budget soared to more than $9 million, the highest of any Japanese entry in the series. The movie is directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who also helmed the Japanese cult favorite "Azumi" (2003), and whom Toho calls "the hottest Japanese director working in Hollywood." For once, that PR proclamation rings of the truth: Kitamura's "Versus" was a bigger hit on the international circuit than in his homeland.
It would be difficult, too, to overstate Godzilla's importance both in and outside of cinema. Almost single-handedly establishing the look and feel of "kaiju eiga," or monster movies, the beast has had an impact on everything from Japan's international image to the workings of the English language.
Tsutsui points to a 1985 New York Times survey of 1,500 Americans who, when asked to name a famous Japanese person, came up with Emperor Hirohito (then 84 and rarely seen in public), Bruce Lee (American) and Godzilla. Respondents today may well cite Hideki Matsui, whose nickname is of course "Godzilla" and who had a cameo in 2002's "Gojira tai Mekagojira." The suffix "zilla," Tsutsui points out, is "universally understood as meaning something big, mean and fearsome."
Although Toho's Tomiyama has the dubious distinction of being the man who put an end to Godzilla, he is well aware of the big green monster's legacy. "Godzilla is the brightest dream and at the same time is the most horrific nightmare of the Japanese cinema," he writes on the film's website.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a world without Godzilla. For now, the monster's fans are left to hope that "Final Wars" is good-bye, not sayonara. "A few years without new films might actually stir fan enthusiasm and drive feelings of nostalgia for Godzilla among the movie-going public," Tsutsui says. "Godzilla has died before, and he's always come roaring back."
December 3, 2004http://www.japantoday.com/e/?content=feature&id=794