And You Thought It Was Safe(?)


Godzilla: 1985 (1984)
April 29, 2007, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Movies, Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

Where others formed their love of movies in the dank bowls of old theaters with important sounding names, I, your humble narrator, was a mite deprived in this regard. My obsession with this movie formed at an early age in the dank bowls of a crackerjack video rental store in a small, Missouri town, with a decided lack of apostrophes in its name, typical of the local dialect.

What a place it was to my five year-old self. For him (me) a trip to Movies N More was a consistent birthday gift, a Christmas morning and a church visit all rolled into one. The stacks towered over my vertically-challenged self, but I could always ask my parents, or the nice man behind the counter, to stretch out and nab that copy of the Transformers movie for me.

I hunted through those shelves with all the relish of a Predator hot on Ah-nold’s – excuse me: Governor Ah-nold’s – tail. I got to know that store well after years of bi-weekly visits with my parents. I grew to love even its most annoying idiosyncrasies. Example: the decided lack of a Science Fiction section. Most of the titles labeled “Sci-fi” in your national chains – your Blockawoods, your Movie Times, your Dirty Fantasy Video Pornoriums – were buried inside the Action section, amid war films and buddy cop movies I couldn’t give less of a shit about.

Thanks to a similar filing oversight, I found my first Godzilla movie in the Horror section, within spitting distance of all eight (for at the time there were only eight…those were the days) Friday the 13th movies. Those I was forbidden to bring them up to the front counter, and for good reason. But here, in sight of them, was a comfortably PG giant monster movie. Staring a fire-breathing dinosaur, as it turned out. I’m sure I considered it one hell of a find, though I obviously had no idea the effect it would have on my life.

Somebody up there, I thought at the time, must like me. Ah, the naivete of childhood.

It was Godzilla: 1985, though the movie was well in the can by then, debuting on Godzilla’s thirtieth anniversary, 1984. That was the year of Orwell’s prophecies. The year of Regan. The year of Thatcher. The year of Billy Graham and Patrick J. Buchannan. Yet, even with all that evil in the world, 1984 saw rays of hope from the land of the rising sun. For this was the year of Godzilla’s triumphant return from the existential vacuum of the 70s. The year he stopped saving the world and returned to his destructive roots, embodying the horror of the age that birthed him and then re-birthed him. An age that is still with us, despite what the suits might say, tightening its grip around the world’s collective throat. The moment we stop fearing nuclear obliteration we’ll have no more need for Godzilla. The fact that we do may supply more fuel to Godzilla’s continued popularity than previously suspected by your average, fat film critic. But they are not browsing this website, are they? No. Only you elite, you philosophers, have managed to hang on this long. For such you shall be rewarded, if only with these meandering scribbles.

Nominally a sequel to the original Gojira, Godzilla: 1985 (as I originally knew it) began what would become a tried-and-true trend for Toho Studios: the utter bucking of continuity. Goodbye, Toho said, to the seventeen films proceeding this one in the franchise. Hello to the tabula rasa of new beginnings and better tomorrows. As a result, there’s a queer doubling effect underlined by key scenes that kinda reminds me of how Stephen King’s described the process of writing ‘Salem’s Lot:  a tennis game with the source material, in this case, obviously, Honda’s original film. Both begin with ships at sea attacked and destroyed by an unseen force. Both end with the titular monster’s attack on Tokyo and his subsequent (apparent) destruction at the hands of human ingenuity. Both films are pregnant with Nuclear Age paranoia. Both wearily circle a love story among its central (human) characters. But whereas the Emiko/Yogatta/Serezawa triangle proved central to Godzilla’s resolution, Godzilla: 1985 utilizes Love in a much more traditional (and far less important) manner.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. As I said, we begin with a ship in the northern Pacific. No surprise it’s yet another fishing vessel, the Yahatta-Maru. Caught in a storm surge of cinematic proportions, we meet the crew as they send out a frantic S.O.S. and madly scramble to avoid running aground on an uncharted bunch of rocks. Now you and I both know those rocks aren’t really rocks and only the doomed sailors are surprised when they rise up in a chorus of radioactive light. So much for our fishers.

The next day, we meet Maki (Ken Tanaka) in the midst of some post-storm sailing. He will be our Reporter for the remainder of the film, and as such it falls to him to discover the Yahatta-Maru just as the Plot Specific Radio Network broadcasts news of its disappearance. Being a Reporter, and a human, Maki boards the adrift and uninhabited-looking ship, calling out useless “Ahoys.” There’s not much left aboard to hear him, apart from the charred corpses. Watching the original, Japanese cut of this flick, I realized these scenes were severely shortened for the film’s American release. Shame, really, for this is a genuinely creepy sequence, a rare thing in the daikaiju genre, where the horror is often so abstracted past the point of non-existence.

The film’s American distributors (New World Pictures) also shorted Maki’s fight with the giant sea louse that assails him from a cabinet below-decks. Now here I see the wisdom of judicious editing, as the uncut scene betrays the louse’s wire-puppet origins. In either cut the fight is short, and serves more to introduce Okomora (Shin Takuma), the Sole Survivor of the Yahatta-Maru, than showcase special effects.

As in the original Godzilla, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (and King Kong and…hell, you pick), a solitary survivor is the only person left to relay news of the monster’s coming to the civilized world. However, unlike the Beast, the existence of Okomora’s monster is a well established fact in this film’s wacky, parallel universe. Once Okomura’s safely back on land, he instantly identifies Godzilla from still photographs lifted (obviously) from of the original film. These look much less silly than one might think thanks to Okomura’s reaction.

The Prime Minister’s first reaction? In America we heard the man solemnly intone, “Godzilla. I was hoping I’d never hear that name again.” I much prefer his reaction in Japan. There, audiences heard him solemnly intone, “I was hoping to finish my term peacefully.” I feel there’s a certain ring of truth to this later sentiment, echoing the scene in the original when, after Prof. Yamane’s report, the first topic of discussion in the Diet was, “Should we hide this from the public?” (And you thought Jaws came up with that. Foolish, puny mortals.) Both have the sneaking, weasely ring of a politician’s line, and the Prime Minister’s second reaction is even more on-the-nose: “Keep it from the press,” he says. “At least, for now.”

Obviously the PM fears what politicians always fear in these situation: mass panic. The “bewildered herd” (as the Structuralists philosopher Levi-Strauss called us, we non-politicians) must be kept oblivious of Godzilla’s continued existence or…bad things will happen. As if the monster’s eventually stomping of his nation’s capital weren’t bad enough. Logic would dictate the PM worry about that, and the panic it might cause. Rational beings might begin an immediate mass-evacuation of all coastal enclaves…but rational beings, as a rule, rarely become politicians. And politicians, as a rule, wield power in service of the Status Quo. It, above all, must be preserved. Even the hint of Godzilla’s existence would send it toppling like so many balsa wood houses from the ’60s. The doomed Mayor of Amity in Jaws vocalized this feeling quite succinctly when he told Roy Schieder’s Sheriff Brody, “You yell, ‘barracuda’ everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘shark’…and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July.”

Irony being that word of a radiation-baked ship overrun with giant sea lice is quite the supersized hint, and it’s already been delivered to our movie’s Reporter, rendering attempts to conceal Godzilla a fool’s errand at best. In the absence of any other defining character traits, I’m tempted to think the PM a fool of Bushian proportions…if his nation’s media weren’t so willing to co-operate with him.

“Suppose, Maki,” the Reporter’s editor tells him, “that we were to print your story. There would be mass panic on all levels of society. The stock market would collapse. The cabinet would be out of power.” And so on, and so on. None of this comes to pass, of course. Tokyo is destroyed, again, and one can only assume many thousands loose their lives. Does Maki throw this (or the potential or this, it still being early in the film) back into his obsequious editor’s face? Of course not. He stands, meek and mild, as the bullshit parade marches over him, proving himself no hero…or, at best, a hero with a vested interest in the System. “So for now,” he’s told, “just keep it to yourself…It’s a question of timing and now’s not the time.” Rather, Maki’s instructed to call on the Scientist of this picture, Professor Hayashida, a “bio-physicist” at the “Bioscience Institute” because in this parallel dimension such thing actually exists.

Hayashida is an interesting character in the annals of giant monster movie Scientists. Unlike his predecessors, Hayashida has the benefit of time on his side, having survived Godzilla’s initial attack in 1954. His parents did not. And so, like Bruce Wayne, the bio-physics has dedicated his life to understanding the force that prematurely ended his childhood. Unlike the Batman, Hayashida has no revenge left in him after thirty years of slaving over his subject. To Maki he admits that, “At first,” he did want revenge. “But not anymore…” Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate, and Maki is too polite to press his elders. I suppose Hayashida’s given into the impossibility of killing Godzilla, something often mentioned and amply demonstrated later in the film, though never explored in its own right.

For most of my youth I disregarded Godzilla’s supposed neigh-invulnerability as both scientifically absurd and destructive to narrative tension. How the hell, I wondered, am I supposed to care about a character that can die, or even get injured? What kind of tension is that supposed to create? And if I don’t care about a movie’s titular character why, should I care about the minuscule primates scrambling beneath his feet?

In my defense I can only say I was young and missing the point. Later permutations of this story have posited that Godzilla possesses some extraordinary ability to spontaneously regenerate at a molecular level and near-instantaneous speed, giving him only the appearance of invincibility. In either case, the result is the same, working to strengthen Godzilla’s function as a metaphor for both the old unstoppable forces of the natural world and the man-made unstoppable force of Science and Technology that have, and continue to, ravage us.

None of this is discussed within the film itself in anything more than the most superficial of terms. And thankfully so, for the plot must move. This scene, apart from reminding me of all of the above, provides another crucial example of all the myriad differences translation makes. Here, Maki asks Hayashida straight out, “Professor, what is Godzilla?” His response in Japan: “I think he’s a monster created by man. Humans don’t think about the monsters…[they create? It’s unclear, for here the Prof pauses to light his pipe. God bless the eighties, when we could all smoke in our labs]. Godzilla is a product of nuclear weapons. A living nuclear weapon, capable of mass destruction. Besides, a monster can live for ever.”

Meanwhile, in America, we impressionable children heard that Godzilla is, “a product of civilization. Men are the only real monsters. Godzilla’s more like…a nuclear weapon. A living nuclear weapon. Destined to walk the earth forever. Indestructible. A victim…of the modern nuclear age.” Make of the difference in narrative focus what you will. I could write a whole book on that alone, if it weren’t already scattered, in various bits and pieces, around this website.

Enter the Chick, Hayashida’s assistant, Naoko, who like any good assistant, serves tea to the professor and his guest. Maki is surprised, having seen the Chick’s countenance before on a picture he lifted from Okomura’s wallet while the unfortunate sailor was still in post-traumatic, sea louse shock. Hayashida informs him that Naoko is Okomura’s sister, not his girlfriend, leaving the field wide open for our intrepid Reporter to get himself a Love Interest. The sappy flute music that plays as he and Naoko meet and greet certainly leads a jaded American to suspect that’s the path these two will take. Maki even wins points for violating all the provisions he’s up-until-this-point swallowed and droping the (figurative) bomb on Naoko: her brother’s alive and well at a Maritime Security Hospital, and Maki just happens to know which one, and where. Like Vic Sage he, “thought you should know,” a statement immediately proven false by the next scene.

There, Naoko and her brother tearfully reunite…only to find Maki has followed them, photographer in tow, to catch a picture of the happy siblings for what will no doubt be his eventual scoop. This is the last bit of character development Maki’s allowed, apart from some contrition later on, when Naoko gives him her best doe eyes. On the surface, it appears a very journalistic, cold, heartless thing for him to do. Especially if he wants in Naoko’s pants. But it gives him a depth of character few Journalists possess. Unlike the army of altruistic, crusading journalists infesting American movies of a certain vintage, Maki at least appears to be in this for himself. Of all the human characters he, in the journey from this scene to the tender-hearted ones that follow,  gets the most of a small amount of character development.

Because after all that, at long last, its time for the action to begin, in a way that introduces two elements made prototypical by this movie – so much so genre purists cannot see them without subconsciously recognizing, Hell, yeah, they did that in Godzilla: 1985.

The first element is a Soviet nuclear submarine patrolling off Japan’s coast. It puts two torpedoes into Godzilla, who responds in kind, the munitions serving only to anger him. This puts the Soviet Union on instant, double-dutch Red Alert. Obviously they Blame America First. The Plot Specific TV News Network informs us that, “The Russians and the Warsaw-pact [!] countries are ready to attack at any time. They are waiting for a signal from Moscow. Meanwhile the Americans and their NATO allies are on full alert. The tension is mounting as both sides seek to prevent a world catastrophe.” Or cause one. Whichever.

Luckily for everyone wanting to avoid nuclear holocaust that a spotter plane caught a picture of the sinking, complete with the sonar shadow of Godzilla. The Prime Minister immediately calls for a press conference. His Press Secretary (or whatever the Japanese equivalent of such is) even holds the photo up for all to see. In Japan, they put press conferences on giant jumbotron screens in the middle of public parks. (At least, they did in the 80s.) Though I suppose it’s no different than the trucks full of loud speakers they drove around during the “Great” War, announcing rubber shortages, food rations or (in Japan) American air raids.

“There is not doubt,” the officials say, “that Godzilla still exists,” and if the panic they so feared at this announcement comes to pass the makers of this movie chose not to showcase it to us. There are better things to focus on as, soon afterward, Godzilla steps ashore under cover of darkness  and attacks a nuclear power plant, feasting upon the radiation. He runs smack into the second prototypical element this movie introduced: the homing beacon. For as Godzilla enjoys din-din, a flock of migrating sea birds passes his head going the other direction. The Big G drops his meal and follows, prompting Professor Hayashida to do what a good scientist must and concoct a hair-brained scheme that Just Might Work to end Godzilla’s reign of terror…

Which, of course, they will. That much is never in doubt, and questions of Will this or Will this not work are robbed of any tension-building power for anyone other than a first-time watcher. The remainder of the movie is filled with Godzilla’s final raid on Tokyo, a city that rebuilt itself quite nicely after his initial attack. While he slept, the ancient city of bamboo palaces transformed itself into a forest of neon, concrete, steel and glass that practically begs to be reduced to rubble. And so it is, the Japanese Self Defense Force little more than a speed bump in Godzilla’s path toward whatever inexorable goal drives his shore-board forays. Even the pinnacle of Japan’s military-industrial complex, the flying tank code-named “Super X”, can do little more than put Godzilla to sleep and give the main characters time to flee their disintegrating city.

All of this is fairly standard for the genre, copied and re-copied in the endless waltz of necro-cannibalism that characterizes a movie studio’s creative process. The humans we are supposed to care about so much are pushed into the far background by Godzilla’s screen presence (and believe you me, it takes all my will-power to avoid calling it “larger than life”). Only three divergent elements, apparent throughout, save this film from falling through the cracks into genre ubiquity.

First, we have the aforementioned Cold War sub-plot, made manifest by the American and Soviet insistence, in the middle of the film, that nuclear weapons be used to destroy Godzilla, much to the chagrin of Japan’s PM. I’m surprised neither Cold Warrior Nation declared a Global War on Giant Monsters, or used the impending threat of such to keep their populations cowed and docile…which is not to say they haven’t in this wacky, parallel dimension but, if so, the effects are not shown.

And that’s a shame, really, as that could be a movie in itself. Needless to say, the PM is nonplussed at the idea of letting either country vaporize a large chunk of his just to get at Godzilla. “I said,” he tells his Chief of Staff, “that if Godzilla appeared in your countries, and attacked Washington and Moscow would you have the courage to use nuclear weapons, knowing that many of your people would be killed? Both leaders finally understood.”

Yeah, right. Their understanding certainly doesn’t prevent the Politiboro from sending a nuclear satellite control ship to Tokyo Bay…right where Godzilla’s thrashing can cause a cataclysmic malfunction that sends a nuclear missile right to Tokyo. Here we have another instance of the difference an edit makes. In America, New World Pictures saw fit to cast the Russians as unrepentant bad guys, making the missile’s launch entirely their fault and damn anybody else’s torpedoes. In the original cut, Godzilla is the one finally responsible for sending that missile on its way, the Russian Captain dying in the midst of attempting to stop it. Call it…not Reganomics, but perhaps Regancology: the compulsion to demonize those goddamn, godless, commie, pinko bastards that so gripped America throughout the ’80s, even as that other Evil Empire shimmied and shook out its last gasps.

That’s the macro level. On the micro side of things, we have Maki and Naoko, who are not protagonists as-such  – they have a very minimal role in the final outcome of things. More properly, they are our point of view characters. After Okamura and the Professor depart doomed Tokyo to make final preparations for Operation Godzilla Call (my term, not there’s – thank god the movie takes itself seriously enough to avoid any stupid nicknames) we’re left to follow Maki and Naoko through the streets in their (futile) attempt  to evade crossfire from Godzilla’s battle with the Super X.

This sequence, the final fifteen minutes of the film, is deceptively unique. Few giant monster movies (and giant monster movie makers) see fit to put their POV characters through such a mini-odyssey. So few, in fact, that I have to reach all the way to 1998 for a comparable situation…and few of you, if any, will enjoy my comparison. More often the human characters in these things are allowed to view the destruction from a Minimum Safe Distance, much like the audience that’s watching them from the comfort of our chairs. Thus the horror, the real horror of this situation, is abstracted into non-existence and we’re taught (consciously or unconsciously) to view the destruction of these cities as one more mindless, escapist spectacle, dehumanized for our protection.

For whatever reason, Maki and Naoko aren’t so lucky. They are left, stranded, in the chaos and confusion, within spitting distance of Godzilla and the war machine so thoroughly pissing him off. They must climb down the shattered remains of the Bioscience Institute and run, desperate, through the rubble-strewn, red-lit remains of their once beautiful city, as the oblivious titular monster (the real protagonist in all this) unknowingly dogs their trail. In this we’re granted a vision of Hell on Earth few Westerners can appreciate. The living memory of World War II is fast receding from us. And while our brown-skinned brothers and sisters in the south, Mid, and Far East live in daily contact with falling bombs, cataclysmic weather patterns, and a healthy respect for, and mistrust of, the shifting ground under their feet, we, pampered bastards that we are, have few historical analogues to draw upon for a situation such as this. Unless we know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Even that seems to be fading form our collective consciousness, replaced by the latest round of twenty-four hour pabulum. That, among other things, is why we could all use a little horror in our lives. Stories of death and apocalyptic devastation remind us of the self-evident fact that shit can indeed happen, often without warning, and with the most dire result. That we should hold fast to what we have and cherish it while it lasts, because you never know, do you? No. Certainly not.

For this, if nothing else, we need Godzilla and his ilk, and if we didn’t already have him we’d need to make him up. We still feel the need to re-invent him, time and time again, as the age we live in grows more complex, more uncertain, more dangerous. Though the world is full of real ones, we will always need our imaginary monsters, for in vanquishing them we allow ourselves to believe we can vanquish anything, and thus maintain our hold on the hope (infinitesimal though it may seem) that allows us to try our best.

I have a healthy respect for this movie, if for no other reason than that it has reminded me of the above, even as it reminds me why so few people appreciated Godzilla movies, or their lessons. For all its flaws, this Gojira is coated with a sheen of stark, Cold War pseudo-realism that covers the entire picture with a degree of believability sadly lacking from its prequels, sequels, and imitators. It has aged, no doubt, and its characters were never much to sneeze at in the first place…but in the filmmaker’s decision not to look away, to remain focused on the awful spectacle that is Godzilla, they earned my respect. By tracing what Bob Dylan called “the geometry of innocent flesh,” they display a narrative fortitude which this Terrified age of ours sadly and sorely lacks. Godzilla bless ’em, and Godzilla bless us, everyone.

GGG

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