Monday, March 02, 2009

Movies: Godzilla fades again?

Godzilla Raids Again, the 1955 follow up to the seminal kaiju flick Godzilla, almost managed to do what legions of outsized monsters, alien invaders, and several generations of Japanese Self Defense Force personnel have never managed: Kill off Godzilla. Made the year after Godzilla, Raids was a commercial success; but critical and popular disappointment with the flick sent the big lizard back to Toho storage rooms for a powder. The internationally recognized super-dinosaur would not surface again until 1962, the longest break between films in the same series for the entire 1955 to 2004 run of the franchise. In some ways, this is understandable. With less stunning special effects and a plot that sways unevenly between "strange beast" horror and domestic/workplace drama, Raids is an unwieldy flick that clumsily handles the tone and mood changes demanded by its clunky script. That said, it is a little odd that the film was so poorly received insomuch as Raids more resembles the flicks that would come, the nearly half century of films that would make Godzilla one of the most recognizable cinematic characters in the world, than it does the first film in the series. First and foremost, it starts the crucial shift of focus from the embattled citizens of Japan to the series's titular monster. Second, it establishes the "monster-fight" trope that would become so important to the series that most future film titles would simply be match-up announcements. Finally, it starts moving – though only slightly – towards the idea that Godzilla, in his own insanely destructive and fiercely amoral way, is Japan's protector.

Raids opens when a fishing company spotter-plane pilot, Kobayashi, is forced into an emergency landing on a remote volcanic island. Another pilot, coworker and BFF Tsukioka, comes to his rescue. However, before they can leave the island, they are nearly crushed by Godzilla and a new monster, the dino-armadillo Anguirus. The pilots manage to escape and return to Osaka, where they warn the police about the existence of the two giant monsters. Military and police officials call on Dr. Yamane (played by screen legend and Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), survivor of the first film, as a Godzilla expert. Yamane explains that the first Godzilla died, so this is a second monster. He then shows footage of Godzilla's attack on Tokyo (an extended bit of the first flick) and explains that Godzilla can't be defeated, only directed to where he'll do the least harm. As Godzilla seems attracted to light, the doctor recommends that any city Godzilla approaches order a full blackout. Then jet fighters can use flares to draw the mega-lizard back out to sea. Or, perhaps, to some less important town or village. Whatever, so long as it isn't Tokyo again.

Deciding that they can't do anything about Godzilla except stall the inevitable, pilot Tsukioka and girlfriend – Yasuko, the daughter of the fishing company's owner – head out for a night on the town. Unfortunately, their delightful evening at a downtown Osaka dance club is cut short when Godzilla is spotted just off-shore. Operation Not In the Face goes into effect. For a moment, the plan appears to work. Dazzled by the flares, Godzilla turns from Osaka and starts to swim away. But, at that very moment, a prison break occurs which, through a series errors and blunders, ends up creating a massive fire at a gas refinery. This is, of course, all kinds of luminous and Godzilla heads straight for the city. He's joined shortly thereafter by Angurius. Together they pretty much wreck the whole town duking it out.

Godzilla, being Godzilla, ultimately bests Angurius, biting his throat and then melting him with his nuclear breath. Thus Japan is saved from the threat of Angurius, and all it cost was the loss of a major city and life lived under the constant threat of Godzilla attack. If the first flick was an often overt jeremiad of life under the A-bomb, Raids suggests that, one year later, Japan was no more comfortable with their status in the Nuclear Era, but considerably more willing to sacrifice Godzilla as metaphor to Godzilla as entertainer – a decision that would, over time, morph the villain in the child-loving, monster-smashing hero he became in many of the later films.

This shift had a visual component and the presence of footage from the first flick in Raids provides ample illustration of the new approach. The first Godzilla's attack on Tokyo is a shadow-shrouded nightmare, lit only by the flickering flames of the doomed, burning city and the occasional white flash of artiliary. Godzilla is rarely shown in full view and, when he is seen, he's a dark and sometimes almost featureless thing. One of the few near-complete shots of him is an elaborate long shot in which he shares the screen with a foreground of fleeing people, a midfield of fiery wreckage, and him, in the far background, slowly stomping, almost drifting, through the shot. Even today, in the era of CGI, Godzilla's attack on Tokyo from the original film is effective and evocative. In contrast, Godzilla's Osaka rampage is shot like he's the film's star. It starts with a series of close ups, Godzilla remains well lit, the better to show him off to the viewer. His battle with Angurius is filmed with an emphasis on clarity of action (none of the disorienting and frightening confusion of the first flick). Godzilla is no longer some irresistible natural force; instead, he's just the biggest and baddest guy on screen.

As Osaka digs out of the rubble and Tsukioka makes a go of it with his girl, Kobayashi is temporarily moved up north to the fishing concern's Hokkaido branch. Tsukioka and Yasuko come to visit. This leads to a scene in which the girlish and romantic Yasuko witnesses the suits and pilots unwinding at a party hall/geisha house. Yasuko's confusion and discomfort over the rough all-male culture she discovers is finely rendered and genuinely touching. It is a delicately human moment that wouldn't have been out of place in a minor Naruse work. But this scene and the party are quickly shut down when word reaches the group that Godzilla has destroyed on of the company's fishing boats.

This leads to a final confrontation between Self Defense Forces and the King of Monsters on a snow-covered island. Who will live? Who will die? I know because I saw the movie. If you'd been there, you'd know too. Where were you?

Godzilla Raids Again suffers somewhat unfairly because it isn't the sci-fi masterwork its predecessor was, but it hadn't yet become the kaiju-craziness delivery vehicle that its descendants would be. An evolutionary half step, it hangs together kinda precariously and occasionally feels underdeveloped. Still, what does make it on the screen is often entertaining and involving, even for viewers who aren't committed fans of the franchise. In fact, the flick's commitment to character development and its determination to give as big a role to the film's human characters as possible (two traits it shares with the original), it may play better with folks that don't count themselves Godzilla fans than with those who do.

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