Update late 2018:
With all the claims about the 2014 American update inaugurating the “post-human” blockbuster, I was reminded on a re-watch of the original how salient Ishiro Honda’s crisis-ridden cinematic creature is. Charged with atomic energy, Honda conjures not only a hundred-foot paleolithic behemoth but a reckoning with a past come to haunt us, a vision of pre-modernity wreaking havoc with our pretensions toward teleological progress into the future. In its vastly more noirish, pugnacious way, Gojira plays like the B-side to the prior year’s Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s take on the crisis of modernity and the dialectics of the private-public divide. Although punchier and not as meditative, Gojira, perhaps no less than Ozu’s film itself, is fully aware of its own paradoxes, and, especially in its final anti-cathartic gesture – science immolating itself to correct its own mistakes – fully aware of the paradoxes which construct modernity itself.
Watching the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira (or Godzilla, its American title) brings haunting, caustic visual poetry to the collective suffering of a post-war nation still reeling from World War II and the H-Bomb Drop. The film is an exposed wound, a lesion on a collective consciousness. It has the big man, of course, in the titular character, but it has much more: humans fending for their lives, running around in total chaos not only from an attack but the impression of an attack leftover from a previous life. Godzilla bestows its titular figure with a looming presence – he towers over the film even when he’s not on screen that often, going beyond the physical object and into the doom lying down on the hearts and souls of Japan. He is an idea more than a physical presence. The film is draped in a malaise of human inactivity on the eve of assured destruction, and a realization, after all, that there is little to be done against a force so impenetrably inhuman. And yet so penetratingly human he is.
The film makes no bones about its subtext: war and the aftereffects of war in Japan. It is very much about the Japanese experience, emphasizing not only nuclear fallout but a communitarian response to tragedy. There’s a sense of its effect on Japan, first and foremost, not only on the individual people witnessing Godzilla in the buff. The film is all business – it has no time for dillying or dallying and places its eternal theme out in the cold light of a barren day with nothing to hide it. But if it tackles humanist themes, it does so with pure, visceral filmic energy and vitality, the kind of frighteningly unpretentious stylistic clarity that could only be born in B-cinema.
Emphasizing the craft isn’t meant to delimit or diminish the film’s thematic resonance. The “nature strikes back” view commonly held about the film bears undeniable weight, but there’s something to be said for the monster himself as a blend of nature and artifice. He’s a lizard, sure, but he also bears the unmistakable contortions of a burn victim, a being that resonates with human dejection and not simply nature’s cry. Godzilla himself feels less like a natural being than a product of man’s technological destruction, an unholy but all-too-apposite amalgam of creation and destruction both biological and constructed.
But, subtext aside, it’s the filmmaking of Godzilla that allows its “themes” to mean anything in the first place. First and foremost, the scenes of Godzilla attacking Tokyo are sublimely somber and chaotic, effecting horror-fused, chiaroscuro cinematography to render an expressionist dream of abject destruction. The lighting of the film is unmistakably noirish in its stark, monochromatic illumination and cavernous, decaying darkness, bringing light to the feverish hyper-realism of living a collective nightmare. Director Ishiro Honda, long underrated in the Western world, knows well the cinematic language of horror and lets it loose on us with a garish, brutal immediacy.
At the same time, he doesn’t forget to give us more impressionist, more pensive sequences of moody melancholy in between all the destruction. And for this reason, more than anything, he captures the chief fact long-forgotten in Godzilla’s universe (recently recaptured by Gareth Edwards’ new film): Godzilla should hang over the film, whether he is on-screen or not, and his presence as idea and oppressive essence is more important than his physical existence in-the-moment. He’s a figure who exists as much in the human mind as in reality, and Honda realizes this and sees his destruction, and the build-up to his arrival, as an extension of an existential disarray. What matters most is not that Godzilla is destroying Tokyo, but that he could destroy Tokyo at any moment – this ever-present thought cripples brittle human beings into submission more than the physical destruction.
Which brings us to the other chief fact of Godzilla, the thing which separates it most directly from the many American films it apes and betters: Honda was monumentally interested in the cost and effect of his monster, and not just the monster itself. The film puts its shiniest dollars into shots, ironically, of mud-covered, barren, strikingly dejected death and destruction. None of its horror imagery (nor Akira Ikufube’s all-time score, which begins the film at its most harrowing as it replaces instrumentation with anguished screeches, moans, and crashes that pierce the ears), can cover up the fact that Godzilla knows well the destruction of humankind and wants to linger on it for impact. It doesn’t just depict Godzilla having a night on the town, but the people so caught up in the hazy malaise of perturbed chaos that they can’t help but walk through it matter-of-factly. This is a nation, after all, that had lived through this before, and living through it again may, scarily, breed something more akin to simmering hopelessness than devout anger. The effect of this visual tension is uncanny, essaying a place at once a gasping-for-breath, depleted reality and sublime thunderous nightmare.
And it is perhaps for this reason too that the film does directly address the after-effects of the war with such blunt matter-of-factness. One character literally asks how to live with something that so closely mirrors the nuclear fallout of the bomb. There’s an anger here, a feeling that the film couldn’t but directly address the war, that it had no choice. In its very existence as a Japanese monster film – taking a genre popular in America and elevating it from callous B-movie to the realm of overpowering real-world horror – it re-reads and raises the bar for the genre in a way America never could (especially because it sacrifices the sometimes crippling de facto logic of American individualist storytelling for a more Japanese focus on collective conflict resolution). The film’s very existence then is an act of subversion, a kind of artistic revenge. In turn, there’s a frank directness to the film that is uncanny and, ultimately, quite terrifying in its lean and mean efficiency and propulsion carrying it to uncertain doom. It, unlike the malaise of the characters, has passion and verve, but it uses it to convey a melancholy hell of 20th-century humanity’ making.