Godzilla’s 21st Century Legacy
Published on January 21st, 2012 | by Will Dodson4
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray and standard-def release of “Godzilla” comes a little more than a month shy of the anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The tsunami caused nearly 16,000 deaths and $10 billion in damages, but the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant overshadowed these numbers, striking apocalyptic fear around the world. At least, it did for a media cycle.
For anyone who paid attention, this crisis was a stark reminder of our precarious control over nuclear power. Further, and more frightening, it reminds us how completely reliant we have become on cheap, constant energy. Nuclear energy brings a catch-22; plants require constant sources of electricity to maintain constant sources of coolant, without which reactors will melt down. To produce power, therefore, requires perpetual power. When the tsunami washed over the Fukushima plant, control rooms lost main and backup electricity. The situation was so desperate that workers scrambled to pull batteries from cars in their parking lot to try to restore the cooling equipment.
How did Japan, of all countries, become so dependent on nuclear power? On March 1, 1954, the United States tested what was at that time the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever made, on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Engineers underestimated the size of the blast, and radioactive ash rained down on a Japanese tuna boat called the Lucky Dragon No. 5. The crew’s skin was blistering by the time they made it back to port. Somehow the contaminated tuna was sold at the fish market without any official intervention.
The legacy of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon did little to stem Japan’s desperation for new sources of energy. (There is very little coal and oil in the islands.) Japan fully committed itself to nuclear power, accepting a reactor as a gift from the Eisenhower administration, and waging a propaganda campaign to convince citizens of its safety. Accidents around the world—Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and a 1999 accident at the Tokaimura plant that killed two and exposed hundreds to radiation—did not deter Japan, or any other nuclear country. After Fukushima, Germany declared it would be nuclear free by 2022. The global economic crisis makes that goal dubious, and more countries, like Iran, are pursuing nuclear power.
Thus, “Godzilla” carries even larger implications now than it did in its 1954 release. Coming a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla’s representation of nuclear disaster was obvious, and its opening scene on a tuna boat directly references the Lucky Dragon No. 5. Today, as governments again portray nuclear power as the “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, “Godzilla” represents something much larger. Godzilla, King of the Monsters, personifies our voracious appetite for energy, run amok.
The original Japanese cut of “Gojira” was re-edited for American release in 1956. (For clarity, I will refer to the Japanese cut as “Gojira” and the American cut as “Godzilla.”) “Gojira” wasn’t released in the United States until 2004. For those who have only seen the American version, “Gojira” is a surprisingly still film, with a deep sense of tragedy. In the final scene we see the monster underwater, its back to the viewer, as it slowly wakes up and turns its head to face the scientist Serizawa, who is armed with a device that will destroy them both. The image is profoundly sad and beautiful, a testament to director Ishirô Hondo and cinematographer Masaeo Tamai. The film manages to convey simultaneously a feeling of intimacy and claustrophobia, in which moments of comfort and closeness quickly become oppressive. Godzilla itself seems, particularly in its demise, as small and trapped as the human characters.
The American cut, on the other hand, is little more than a rubber suit movie. American distributors shot new scenes with Raymond Burr as a journalist observing and narrating the action, and edited these scenes so it appeared that Burr’s character interacted with the Japanese cast. Gone is the historical context, the theme of nuclear tragedy. Godzilla is a rampaging monster, and a clean-cut American wanders around, asking Japanese characters to please speak in English so he can understand them. Actually, when viewed in today’s global context, Burr’s clueless and impotent, though nevertheless confident and blustering American is perhaps more resonant.
The worldwide box office success of both versions spawned a long-running series of giant monster films. Tellingly, the thematic heft of the original soon disappeared. With each subsequent film, Godzilla grew cuter and campier, eventually becoming a “good guy” who defended Japan from other monsters. As Godzilla became more of a mascot than a warning, Japan and the rest of the world built more and more nuclear plants.
A good but flawed DVD containing both versions of the film was released in 2004 by Classic Media, which coincided with the first American theatrical screenings of “Gojira.” Its commentaries and extras are interesting and worthwhile, but the transfer uses a scratchy, dark print. Classic Media also released a Blu-ray in 2009, but it too suffers from poor image and sound. Criterion’s release is much better, though not perfect. I have not seen the Criterion Blu-ray, but the standard-def picture quality significantly improves upon Classic Media’s edition. The print is still scratchy and the light levels fluctuate in several scenes, but the image is much cleaner, and the sound mix is improved, which allows the score to thump and swell clearly.
The print and transfer quality is vital for this film. Tamai was a brilliant cinematographer who had a long and fruitful partnership with Mikio Naruse. He was one of the founders of the Japanese Society of Cinematographers, and his work on “Gojira” is a revelation, particularly for those who have only seen the American version. “Gojira”‘s lighting is noir-ish; one scene in particular recalls the lighting of Phyllis Dietrichson’s living room in “Double Indemnity.” The character scenes are beautifully composed, and when Godzilla rampages, Tamai and Honda—a lifelong friend and collaborator of Akira Kurosawa—manage to include images whose emotional impact distracts us from any cheapness in the model work. For example, just as “Gojira” reaches a level of camp during the monster’s destruction of a model town, the camera locks on the image of a woman holding her three children, telling them they’ll be joining their father soon. The moment is earnest, and moving.
As I watched, I thought about how much electricity was being used in my apartment over that 95 minutes—lights, heat, TV, Blu-ray player, laptop, cell phone, refrigerator, clocks, fan… To paraphrase “Gojira”‘s final line, how long before another Godzilla appears somewhere in the world again? I considered it for a minute, then set the timer on my coffeemaker, turned on my white noise machine, and went to bed.