Wednesday, November 07, 2012

CGAA Cinema Monsters!: Enter the Kaiju!

As suggested by my previous teaser post, I’m starting a spin-off CGAA Cinema series entitled Monsters! Which as you may well of guessed is dedicated to the simple delights of monster movies the world over. Why monster movies? These films are pure cinematic spectacle, so what better choice of genre for a thread dedicated to cinema. More practically as far as character design and animation are concerned, then there’s much to be absorbed from the wealth of cultures who have spawned their very own monsters. I’ve no idea what I’m expecting to discover from these films, as so many of them are just as new to me as they might be to you, but I hope that it can inspire some fun observations from a relatively neutral observer.

Once again, this is open for anyone to submit, and it could be interesting to see Monsters! extend into other CG Arts Blog threads such as One-a-day and The Supplement. As a general rule I'm going to ignore  Americanised versions of Japanese films (and vice-versa) and focus only on the native releases where possible, unless there's an interesting reason to include them. I will however refer to the films by their English translated names for the sake of easy reading. 

Before discussing the 'finer' points of the giant monster genre, there's the need to look briefly over the films which shaped it's development as a genre. There's plenty of points in giant monster movie history to start from – in 1925 Willis O’Brien bought to cinematic life the dinosaurs of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World - a genuine milestone in film history where fantastical visions become filmic reality. Following on from The Lost World in terms of technical accomplishment, there’s King Kong in 1933. The titular ape animated again by O’Brien whose masterful stop-motion gave Kong an emotional elegance which is still remarkable. Kong may have been brought to life more convincingly, but when you think about giant monsters, there’s only one who springs to mind first. Toho Studio’s iconic man-in-a-suit mutant dinosaur, Godzilla, whose first appearance in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla (or Gojira) kicked off the giant monster genre as a phenomenon rather than an amusing curiosity. Enter the Kaiju.

The Lost World – Full Movie

In Japan, giant monsters are known as Kaiju, literally translated as 'Strange Beast'. Godzilla wasn't quite the first chronologically but Godzilla was the first and perhaps only giant monster film post-King Kong to transcend the genre beyond the cheap B-movie thrills which have come to define almost every movie in the genre since. It still is a B-movie through and through, but it’s execution as a serious piece of science-fiction narrative has never really been made to the same success. Even after countless sequels, spin-offs and remakes - nothing quite matches Ishiro Honda’s very first Godzilla film. 
Plot Synopsis

"One of the longest-running series in film history began with Ishiro Honda's grim, black-and-white allegory for the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bomb. As his visual metaphor, Honda uses a 400-foot-tall mutant dinosaur called Gojira, awakened from the depths of the sea as a rampaging nuclear nightmare, complete with glowing dorsal fins and fiery, radioactive breath. Crushing ships, villages, and buildings in his wake, Gojira marches toward Tokyo, bringing all of the country's worst nightmares back until an evil more terrible bomb -- capable of sucking all the oxygen from the sea -- returns the monster to its watery grave."
Godzilla 1954 Poster
Godzilla 1954 - Trailer

Arguably it owes a lot of it's success and narrative invention to one particular American film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms directed by  Eugène Lourié in 1953.  Godzilla is a loose remake with the cultural context transported to Japan in the wake of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The story is almost like for like, barring the origins of the two creatures, which differs slightly. In Lourie’s film - The Beast (animated by Ray Harryhausen no less) is a prehistoric monster awaken by nuclear testing, who quite expectedly goes on a rampage through Manhattan (where else?), with the cities armed forced unable to ward off the impressive beast. Godzilla on the other hand, is created as a direct result of nuclear testing and atomic activity which has caused genetic abnormalities. A Frankensteinian result of the folly of man.

A further difference story-wise is the hint of Japanese melodrama which underpins Godzilla, making it for the most part a character oriented film. Yes, the film is about the rampaging destruction of a radioactive dinosaur, but it's also about the suffering of being witness to nuclear atrocities, human relationships in the face  of unstoppable man-made destruction, and the moral dilemmas of innovation and progress in nuclear science. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is thin when it comes to character development (i.e. it has none.) Still, it's a fun film. The effects look great in that classic 50's style and anything Ray Harryhausen touches turns into animated gold.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – Full Movie

Godzilla contains all the traits which have come to define the Japanese monster movie spectacle- sloppy effects, a man in a rubber suit and questionable consistency of scale. But Godzilla feels different.  Perhaps the sensation knowing the film was a breakthrough nullify the faults or makes them easier to forgive. More likely I’d argue it’s Honda as an individual in control with a distinct vision. Godzilla is a film from a director who at that point would define himself as a director with serious intent, even if he didn't quite have the consistent platform of films to match after Godzilla.  There’s rarely anything comical in Godzilla beyond the primitive effects involving miniatures and the clunky rubber suit. It’s almost entirely bleak thanks to the stark black and white cinematography, subdued acting and almost unending, needless destruction.

Godzilla destroys Tokyo

Much has been said about the emergence of Godzilla and his subsequent destruction of Tokyo as being a visual representation of nuclear paranoia and anti-American sentiment in Japan following World War 2 . This point couldn't be any more plainly laid out. Godzilla is the creation of American nuclear testing, and the citizens of Japan the innocent victims of it's wrath. Bearing in mind, Japan remains the only nation to have ever experienced a direct nuclear attack and only nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki these memories would of remained as haunting as ever. Which makes Godzilla a particularly daring piece of filmmaking. It takes an unceremonious viewpoint - typically unsentimental, typically Japanese. The devastation as swift and incisive as a real nuclear explosion. Godzilla's assault on Tokyo is rendered with vivid accuracy, evoking the burning mayhem following August 6th and 9th 1945 as described in written works such as The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai or later in Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain. Likewise, it's own influence on other films can certainly be seen, arguably visible in Shohei Imamura’s depiction of nuclear devastation in his film version of Black Rain, and even in the BBC production, Threads in 1984.

Stills from Imamura's Kuroi ame (Black Rain) 1989

Stills from Threads 1984
The success of Godzilla in Japan meant it was inevitable that Toho would produce a sequel in quick time. Godzilla Raids Again was released in 1955 and acts as a direct sequel to Godzilla, with new characters and a new Godzilla - whose is of the same species but a different incarnation caused by the same hydrogen bomb. Also introduced is the quadrupedal Anguirus - another monster raised by the  bomb. His appearance alongside and battling Godzilla established the formula which would come to define Godzilla series from that point onwards. The carnage is set to a fluffy sub-plot of marriage, friendship and Japanese business. Furthermore, Ishiro Honda did not direct the sequel and the task was handed to Motoyoshi Oda. Gimmicks, lower budget and a different director. Classic symptoms of a potentially weak sequel.

Godzilla Raids Again Poster
However, Godzilla Raids Again just about pulls it off. As a cohesive narrative experience it's probably one of the better Kaiju films. The acting isn't shockingly bad, and the human sub-plot adds a certain amount of narrative depth which would go conspicuously missing in later sequels. The end is spectacularly dramatic as Godzilla is forcibly trapped under a a pile of ice-cubes during a precision attack executed with as much swiftness and daring as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor . If Godzilla 1954 was about Japan struggling to contend with the consequences of World War 2, then the final sequence in Godzilla Raids Again is a patriotic ode to the Japanese Air Force and their successes in the war.

The flaws of the film come from making Godzilla more visible on screen, causing the hokey effects to distract from the experience in way which didn't effect the original Godzilla. That film's Godzilla suit was a rubbery, clunky mess but obscured it's primitiveness under an atmospheric haze of oily smoke and night time lighting. The suit in Raids Again is deprived of it's otherworldly menace by dint of the decision to trim down the fat and to set the film in brighter lighting conditions. With a much more marketable design, Godzilla has a toy-like appearance which would stay in every consequent film.

 Godzilla and Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again

Like the monster, the Godzilla franchise would remain frozen for 7 years while Toho explored the potential of other monsters such as Rodan, Varan and Mothra who each got their own fully fledged films in the time between when Godzilla would next appear on Japanese shores. Similarly, Western studios would also begin to develop newer creations such as the gigantic radioactive ants from Them! leaving the great King Kong - an icon of American cinema -  lost in the wilds of Hollywood. Admittedly, he died at the end of King Kong but that never stopped a successful franchise before. What happened to Kong, and what would happen when the ice eventually thawed around Godzilla?  


The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Godzilla executed it's premise with more style and substance. It's a very fun film though. Harryhausen's animation is excellent as always, the effects are convincing and The Beast is a classic movie monster.

Godzilla (1954)
A B-Movie classic, monster movies wouldn't quite be the same after Gojira smashed up and burnt Tokyo with unrelenting force. Striking cinematography and  a lot of style. And although clunky, the Godzilla monster looks great - a hulking nuclear behemoth.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
A par for the course sequel with a lower budget. It's an enjoyable film and introduces the Godzilla vs. formula, but it lacks a lot of  the originality of what makes Godzilla (1954) such an effective piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately as far as Godzilla sequels progress from this point on, they get worse before they get better... 


  1. Many thanks, Tom - really like this idea of theming the CGAA strands in this way - and this is properly fascinating introduction to Kaiju - especially in light of the latest Godzilla remaking in the offing, directed by UCA alumni, Gareth Edwards...

  2. Thanks. Thought it was about time to get it posted, even if it still is a bit unfinished/scruffy! :)

  3. Nice reviews Tom. Glad you stayed clear of the 90's remake too.