Saturday, December 10, 2011

Americanized Gojira (Godzilla)

In 1954, the epic monster film Gojira was released in Japan. Representing the horror of the atomic bomb, this radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur struck a chord for Japanese audiences, and the film was a major success, spawning 27 sequels. 27! The Gojira franchise is incredibly popular worldwide, but American filmmakers like to hijack this Japanese story. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand that without American appeal the franchise probably wouldn’t have become so popular, that artists build off of each other, and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. American filmmakers take the core essence of Gojira and then place it in a context to be appreciated by American audiences. However, sometimes the art is Americanized to the extent that it loses what made it what it was.

The first instance of this was with the Gojira film itself, released in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Instead of just dubbing it, American filmmakers produced a bunch of their own scenes and spliced them into the film, cutting a fair amount of original scenes in the process. Now the main character was Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr), an American reporter there to investigate the mysterious happenings, and the main characters became side characters. I have to acknowledge that they did a really good job of weaving their content into the movie. The problem is that the narrative is completely hijacked. A compelling drama about people dealing with their relationships while facing an entity symbolic of an atomic bomb is turned into just another monster movie. A scientist who wants to study Gojira to figure out how he survived an atomic bomb in the hopes of curing radiation poisoning is reduced to a cold scientist who insists that Godzilla must be studied instead of killed—when, as the audience, we know the threat he poses to Tokyo. The dark ending where characters contemplate the effects of atomic testing becomes a cheerful victory for humanity against the alien. The message of the movie is completely skewed.

The second film, Godzilla Raids Again, is another example of this kind of editing. Though otherwise a really mediocre film about another Gojira showing up to fight another giant dinosaur and destroy Osaka, the film is unforgettable for the absolutely wacky American version. They didn’t even want American audiences to know this was a Godzilla movie. The title was changed to Gigantis the Fire Monster, and some clips from other movies and stock footage were spliced in. An exposition scene that in the original consisted of reusing clips from the first movie was changed to this bizarre tale about fire monsters. More problematically, at one point there’s stock footage of Japanese fishers that serves to create the illusion that the Japanese are a quaint little people without comparable industrial development to America. In general, though, it’s just a bad movie made humorously terrible in its American version. Also, George Takei is in it.

In the ‘90s, Toho Studios allowed Hollywood to make a remake of the original Gojira. Ronald Emmerich, who achieved controversial fame for a realistic depiction of the White House’s destruction in Independence Day, created Godzilla, a 1998 film starring Matthew Broderick as a scientist tracking a giant mutated reptile to New York City, where plenty of national landmarks can be wrecked. Call it a guilty pleasure, but I actually really like this film. Purists dislike the fact that this Godzilla came from an iguana instead of a dinosaur, but that’s just a step closer to realism. In the ‘50s, we thought all sorts of wacky things could happen. For a modern film to work, the premise has to be altered a little so the audience can suspend their disbelief. Smashing beloved buildings was a gimmick in the original film too, so it really does make some sense to make the remake an Emmerich film. As a Godzilla film, though, it’s got a lot of problems.

The original film was about the horrors of the atomic bomb, causing devastation, death, and agony for the survivors. It’s implied that the radiation that awakened Gojira came from a real world hydrogen bomb test carried out by the American military, which victimized the crew of a Japanese fishing boat. At the time, America placed restrictions on the Japanese media, and this atomic bomb monster was a way they could get around the restrictions to comment on controversial political events. The destruction of Gojira was symbolic of a step toward peace, with the threat of another monster—another atomic attack—looming overhead.

In Emmerich’s film, they retain the atomic bomb as a catalyst, but nothing about the symbolism. It’s not even America’s bomb. It’s France’s. And it’s not like there’s any conflict with France. A French special forces team comes in to kill Godzilla and make up for the error, and that’s just great. In interviews, it sounded more like they considered it a message about environmentalism, but they don’t even go into that beyond “there was a bomb; its radiation got into an iguana egg; now we have an implausible monster”. Godzilla doesn’t cause widespread devastation to any comparable degree, and is more just a giant monster. Most of the damage is really caused by the American military being incompetent (probably the most realistic part of this movie). The ending pays homage to the 1976 King Kong remake, and this version of Godzilla really seems more like a scaly Kong than the Japanese movie monster.

Hilariously, Emmerich’s Godzilla has been absorbed into the official Toho monster mythology as Jira. In the 2004 film Godzilla: Final Wars, it’s described how the Americans were attacked by a monster they think is Gojira, but the Japanese aren’t convinced. Jira is one of the many monsters sent by the evil aliens to attack Gojira, but Gojira takes him out in 13 seconds—the shortest fight in the movie. Clearly, the Japanese were not impressed by Emmerich’s attempt.

A few years later, J. J. Abrams was in Japan with his son. They entered a toy store, and he was struck by all the Gojira toys. He wondered why America didn’t have a comparable movie monster and set out to create one, resulting in the 2008 film Cloverfield. While not truly of the Godzilla franchise, Cloverfield is the closest America’s ever come to a Godzilla film that has the spirit of the original Gojira and still tailored for American audiences. Gojira dealt with the political issues of its day, but atomic war doesn’t scare modern Americans as much as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In the spirit of Gojira, a giant monster attacks New York City, causing terror and confusion and destroying a few landmarks. The monster, unofficially referred to as Clover, is an embodiment of 9/11. Knowledge about what’s going on is restricted, creating an atmosphere like those moments directly after the terrorist attacks when we had no clue what was going on beyond the fact that the city was under attack and people were dying. We Americans can care abstractly about suffering atomic attack, but this imagery is much more visceral and effective. In Emmerich’s Godzilla, there’s a brief comparison to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but that’s it. They don’t make a theme about it or anything.

Well, the Americans are making another shot at remaking Gojira. Legen—wait for it—dary Pictures plans to release this new Godzilla attempt in 2012—2014. They claim that they’re making this to appeal to the fans, though that is what was said about Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. I have to admit that the concept art looks like a good homage to the original design. It’s a safe bet that the concept will be altered from the original Japanese to appeal to Americans. I hope that this will run along similar lines as Cloverfield rather than Emmerich’s Godzilla. Otherwise, the next Toho movie might have Gojira easily annihilating another American movie monster.

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