Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Osaka on His Mind: GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)

Like it's admittedly superior predecessor--the 1955 original Godzilla-- Godzilla Raids Again (AKA Gigantis the Fire Monster) is shot in stark, grainy black and white, suffused with a dark postwar melancholy and haunted by a solemn edge of nouvelle vague existential fatalism. And in Media Blasters' beautifully restored DVD the photography transfers over as gorgeously bleak, with great deep blacks and grain to spare. I could smell the Osaka rain, gentle outside my window, and inside, the feeling of a very solemn but groovy funeral going on all year.

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 scout pilots when they report seeing the odious 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--blubbers on about how Godzillas (note the plural) are indestructible. If the monsters come to the mainland, Japan is doomed.... again. 

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/it/that without remorse, without needing to look into its big sad eyes.  The Japanese definitely respect and masochistic yen for the gigantosorically leviathenesque behemoth stomping on them (though they try to bury him in the ice or otherwise get rid of him at every opportunity), hence the holy-ish name Godzilla. Imagine if John Agar called the giant tarantula something like "Aranya Jesus" or "Enocharius"? Or Kenneth Tobey named The Thing "Big Red." But no, we're too snobby, or too insecure. The only Americans to dare to name their monsters? Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward in 1990's Tremors.

I was a fan of Godzilla as an indiscriminate child, and then once I "grew" to monstrous height and I became annoyed by bad dubbing, cheap effects, cropping for television, faded colors, and pointless insertions of talky exposition from American actors like Raymond Burr (for the presumably xenophobic 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 compromised American dubs (for those who really hate reading subtitles). To cinema snobs like myself who are always trying to balance an inbred love of schlock with learned artsy pretensions, seeing these with subtitles and original language allows us the chance to experience these less as kiddie shows and more as nouvelle vague Japonais, n'cest pas?

Thus sleep well in assuredness I know what of I speak when I say Gigantis is expert at keeping an almost Antonioni sense of snail pace and meditative vast wasteland landscape / cramped warm interiors contrast. Indeed, Raids flows icy, with long scenes of pilots in the air against Rothko-ish blocks of empty blackish gray sky above and inky ocean below, with the Osaka factories and temples way down at the bottom of the screen, humbly blowing up in big white explosions. 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. 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 striking in the high contrast blacks and grays).

This being a sequel, the Hokkaido militia knows about Godzilla's problematic invincibility beforehand; they know they need to play it cool, to pretend they're not home when Godzilla comes calling. So the Osaka militia coordinates a total city-wide black-out and when Godzilla comes trudging ashore looking for fast action like any sailor on a 24 hour-pass 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...  Oh no, I shan't spoil it!

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.
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 (and look ridiculous) 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 out to sea in pursuit of the flares, the film has a hushed, suspension of time quality reminiscent of Infernal Affairs or certain scenes in Michael Mann's Heat.

The music too is tastefully restrained, aside from the Japanese pop hit title track (the subtitles include the lyrics, fitting the nouvelle vague trend of subtitling chansons). There's poetry in this crazy flick! 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 50s Japanese 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 a war 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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