Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Osaka on His Mind

Godzilla Raids Again (AKA Gigantis the Fire Monster) was the 1955 sequel to the original Godzilla. Like it's admittedly superior predecessor, it's shot in stark, grainy black and white and suffused with a dark post-war melancholy, an almost solemn edge of nouvelle vague existential fatalism. And in the beautifully restored print the photography is gorgeously bleak, with great deep blacks and grain to spare.

Since the events of the first film are still fresh in the minds of the humans in the sequel no one doubts the two fishing company pilots when they report seeing Mr. Zilla tussling with an ankylosaurus-style monster (the humans in the film call it "angilosaurus" or Angilas, or sometimes Anguirius, for short). In fact, a tearful and defeated military advisor (Takashi Simura, who starred in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai the year before) comes into the big summit meeting and--trying to be a brave boy and failing--starts to cry like a little bitch, exclaiming how Godzillas (note the plural) are indestructible; if the monsters come to the mainland, Japan is doomed.

This is so cool because a) Americans refuse to name their mutations; titles like The Beast from 2,000 Fathoms, Them, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Tarantula bespeak a lack of respect. Refusing to call the monsters anything but "them" or "it" or "that.... thing... in the ice" is our way of letting ourselves off the hook for destroying them in cold blood.  The Japanese definitely have mad props for this gigantosorically leviathenesque behemoth stomping on them, hence the holy-ish name Godzilla. Imagine if John Agar called the giant tarantula something like "Aranya Jesus" or "Dr. Enoch"? Look out, Dr. Enoch is coming! It's a nest full of Aranya-sooses. But no, we're too snobby.

I was a fan of Godzilla as an indiscriminate child, and then once I "grew up" became annoyed by bad dubbing, cheap effects, cropping for television, faded colors, and pointless insertions of talky go-nowhere "added-on" scenes with American actors like Raymond Burr (for the US market). With the glorious new DVDs from Media Blasters all of those problems are long gone; and if you're a glutton for punishment all the movies are presented in both versions: the original Japanese and the American butcher jobs (for those who really hate reading subtitles). To cinema snobs like myself who are always trying to balance an inbred love of schlock and learned artsy pretensions, Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again (in their original Japanese versions, with new subtitles) are the alchemical mostest.  

Keeping an almost Antonioni sense of snail pace and meditative vast wasteland landscape / cramped warm interiors contrast, Raids Again flows icy, with long scenes of pilots in the air and slow long shots that show vast Rothko-ish blocks of empty black sky, with the Osaka factories and temples way down at the bottom of the screen, humbly blowing up in big white gas explosions for your viewing pleasure. In the composition of these shots one senses the unspoiled artistic eye of a child, for whom the ground is always a line across the bottom of the page, the sun is always in the upper right and the sky is a blue bar running along the top of the page. Even when monsters aren't onscreen, the camera is always waiting and watching from a safe distance - it's a good trick, because the close-ups of each monster look rather ridiculous (though strikingly puppe-poetic in the high contrast blacks and grays).

This being a sequel, the Hokkaido militia knows about Godzilla's problematic invincibility; they know they need to play it cool, to pretend they're not home when Godzilla comes calling. Everybody turns out the lights and hides like it was 1945 and the B-52s were coming for the nightly firebombing (or worse)! The Osaka militia coordinates a total black-out and when G-Zil comes trudging ashore looking for fast action and he's at first quite confused. Studying footage from the previous film, the Japanese officials know he follows and attacks mainly sources of light (due to H-Bomb trauma). So while the city blacks out and stays deathly quiet, the planes shoot a barrage of flares back out to sea, and Godzilla stands there looking one way, then the other, his animal brain endeavoring to figure out what's going on. But then, inland explosion she wrote!

The guys at Stomp Tokyo aren't particularly kind to this movie; the touching camaraderie of the fishing company is completely lost on them:
"Somewhere along the line someone decided that devoting twenty minutes to the reconstruction of the fishing fleet and Kobiyashi's brotherly devotion to Tsukioka would increase the human interest in the story, but the results fail miserably. It’s tough to imagine any viewer who wouldn’t be waiting for the next monster scene to start.
Yet here I am, Mister Sparkle! Anything set in Hokkaido, renowned for its countless soap factories, is all right with me.

According to Stomp T, the film bombed and Godzilla disappeared from the radar for almost a decade. I don't think that's quite fair. The scenes of quiet blackout in the empty city carry a ghostly melancholic charge and though the battles are sped up instead of slowed down at least they're not boring and best of all are always presented from a safe spectator's distance. When everyone is quiet, hoping Godzilla will go back to the sea quietly, the film has a hushed, suspension of time quality reminiscent of the first Infernal Affairs or certain scenes in Michael Mann's Heat.

The music too is tastefully restrained, aside from the Japanese pop hit title track--but the subtitles include the lyrics, fitting the nouvelle vague trend of subtitling chansons. There's poetry in this crazy flick, I'm tellin' ya! If you go into this expecting an all-out monster fight you'll be disappointed sure, but if you go in assuming it's a proto-new wave film about the loves and losses of some pilots at a fishing corporation (they scout the schools and currents from on high), then it's a pretty far-out narrative disruption once giant monsters arrive, like Only Angels Have Wings meets the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The puppet-like nature of many of the monster close-ups make it all a kind of a fractal loop where the very small (children's rubber monster toys) are also very very big and vice versa, as if the fate of the human world hung on the balance of god and evil waged in the rec room basement with the kids' train set, HO scale model airplanes and spark-breathing wind-up toys ordered from the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland. It's all connected, all summed up in a cup of sake and a churning sea... and a rubber suit with your name on it, so when I say zip up... ZIP UP!

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