Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book: All hail the king, baby.

My friends and I (yes, screamers and screamettes, check the plural, I had like three of them at the time) were once discussing what film held the dubious distinction of the best horror movie to suffer really horrible sequels. Conventional wisdom is that sequels are always worse than the originals, but sometimes we're getting down to really fine distinctions. Is Urban Legend 2 really all that worse than Urban Legend? Perhaps, but who's keeping track?

What we were talking about were those rarer cases where a truly classic film drags behind it, like somebody leaving the head and unknowingly trailing a bit of toilet paper on their shoe, an embarrassing string of truly crap flicks. Jaws exemplifies this. The first Jaws flick is a truly great film. The second is a semi-competent, but wholly unnecessary project. Jaws 3 is a god-awful mess that works only as camp. The fourth and hopefully final Jaws, "This time it's personal," is essentially an unintentional parody.

Though we didn't think of it at the time, William Tsutsui, historian and Godzilla fan, makes an excellent case for the original Godzilla being the greatest horror film to be betrayed by vastly inferior sequels. In his book, Godzilla on My Mind, Tsutsui takes a quirky tour through the global phenomenon that is the Godzilla franchise. He covers the creation of the iconic big lizard, discusses the string of films that followed (perhaps the longest running franchise in screen history), Godzilla's status as a globally recognized figure, and even the American linguistic quirk of adding "-zilla" to things in order to suggest great size or rampaging destructiveness.

Though much of the info in Tsutsui's book makes for interesting trivia, the material on the creation and reception of the first Godzilla movie is wonderful. Tsutsui frames the Japanese original in its historical and cultural context, revealing not just the general nuclear anxieties that helped fuel the film, but pin-pointing specific historical incidents that were reworked for them film. For example, the original Godzilla contains a scene in which a small fishing boat encounters the giant monster. Apparently, this was an allusion to a contemporary nuclear tragedy. A Japanese fishing boat sailed too close to a U.S. nuclear testing area. The fishermen received lethal doses of radiation and their irradiated catch enter the Japanese food market before people knew what was going on. The fear of poisoned food and out of control nuclear testing was still in the papers when Godzilla hit the screen.

Tsutsui also reveals the profound impact the first Godzilla film had on its makers and viewers. He quotes one filmmaker as saying that he believed the release of Godzilla would actually scare the world into stopping all nuclear testing. Now that’s ambitious filmmaking! Viewer reactions, from those who saw it as parable for the dropping of the A-bomb to those who read in it a longing for the return of Japanese militarism, are also surveyed.

Though the entire book is full of amusing and interesting details, it is this insight into the first flick that makes the book well worth reading. Part scholarship, part love letter, Godzilla on My Mind is a fitting tribute to the King of Monsters.

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