This post was originally going to be about why the American, big-budget, Godzilla films are always so horrible and the early, “real” ones, are so good. It was to be a celebration timed to go along with the release of the Criterion boxed set of restored Showa-era (1954-1975) Godzilla films being released this month. But, the more I thought about it, the more I knew it would end up being about more than that. It would be about setting things right.
When I watch early Godzilla films I am instantly transported back to my childhood, long, long…long, ago. This was in the era before streaming and, believe it or not, before cable. Shows were delivered by this magical thing called an antenna directly into your home for free. Yes, free. Of course, you had to sit through many, many, interruptions of your shows by commercials. But, back then, that was just the way it was.
There was no streaming then. No Blu-ray. No DVD. No home VCRs even. For that matter, there were only three real channels, “the networks” and a couple of stations of UHF with bigger numbers. I, honestly, don’t even remember which station had the Four O’Clock movie. I think it was one of the networks. But I’m not, really sure.
I saw my first Godzilla movies this way. In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that I saw one without commercials, even later when I saw one in its original Japanese form, and even later than that, when I finally saw some of them in a movie theater. But, to me, Godzilla will always be associated with Creature Feature Week on the 4 O’Clock movie. A very convenient time for a kid after a hard day of elementary school. And, honestly, a near perfect way to be introduced to the world of Godzilla.
There can be no doubt I take just as much joy now in watching model buildings get crushed and tiny tanks firing their useless shells, as I did back then. The toy-like simplicity of these scenes only makes me yearn more intensely for the days before CGI. The days of elaborate, plastic, models and men in rubber suits. The days of hundreds of extras being used to flee in terror from the attacking creatures.
Watching these early Godzilla movies takes me back to my own imaginary battles of plastic army men and monsters. Or, in my more advanced years, eleven or twelve, trying to make my own stop motion Godzilla film on a Super-8 camera.
Movies just aren’t made like that anymore. Even good CGI loses all that charm. And bad CGI, as in the American Godzilla movies, creates cool-looking, but lifeless nothings. Things without feeling or personality. Things that are just uninteresting and dull as creatures.
But that’s not even the main problem with the American movies. It certainly isn’t helping but, the real issue with them is bigger than that. They miss the very reason the Godzilla films exist. The early Showa-era movies are Godzilla movies. The American ones are, basically, Jurassic Park with bigger, more boring, dinosaurs. Godzilla films are about Godzilla. They are not about humans.
It comes down to who the story is about. Is it really about a group of humans overcoming their fears and painfully emoted backstories using their human ingenuity to defeat the monsters? Not so much. At least, it shouldn’t be. Godzilla movies should be about the beasts, the kaiju themselves. Their personalities. Their battles. Their fates. I don’t understand why that seems so hard for American film executives to get that.
Actually, I take that back. I think I do understand why they can’t get their highly-paid heads around that simple fact. It’s the brainwashing that’s been going on for decades that stories must follow the same formula. Especially big-budget movies.
It’s all about “The Heroes Journey” by Joseph Campbell. The step by step guide as laid out by Christopher Vogler back in the Early-Nineties and taught as storytelling law in every film class and production office since. Hollywood movies are formulaic for a reason. They, literally, follow the same formula, time after time, after time, after time…Damn you, Joseph Campbell!
Anyway, to me, “real” Godzilla movies aren’t that. There are still humans and characters in them. In a few cases, complex characters with very difficult moral decisions to make. I mean, if your country was nuked just nine years ago and you had a device that could be used as weapon that was infinitely more powerful and destructive, wouldn’t you be reluctant to let anyone know about it? That’s what Serizawa was faced with in the very first Godzilla movie in 1954. But even that movie, and that is by far the most well-executed, in terms of the human characters, the movie is not about Serizawa. It’s not about any human. It’s about the ancient creature mankind has awoken from the depths of the ocean. It’s about the return of the gods.
The world of Godzilla is one in which man lives alongside forces far more ancient, powerful and, in many cases, wiser than him. The whole point of the movies, I mean aside from the sheer fun of them, is to remind humans that we are insignificant and can be brushed aside at any time by the stomp of a foot. Especially, if we’re doing something really stupid like dropping atomic bombs into the ocean.
Those scenes where the humans try to attack Godzilla with our guns or tanks, only to fail, yet again, are reminders of our weakness. Godzilla can swat fighter jets out of the air with ease. We are like annoying flies to him. Humble insects that barely register on his radar until we do something ridiculous like destroying the very planet we live on. Then he returns to make us pay the price.
In many of the “real” Godzilla movies, the subject is not even humans against the great beasts, but the great beasts against one another. Some favor mankind. Some despise it. Many just don’t care one way or the other. It is the gods of ancient Greece adapted to the Twentieth Century. Larger than life but plagued by their own weaknesses and imperfections.
Which is why, when some big-name American star emotes in close-up about their troubles, I just get angry. I want them stomped! I am not there to see humans still being self-absorbed and trying to control their world. Have they learned nothing? Our woes and viewpoints don’t matter in the scheme of things. In fact, often our only hope is to have a protector. One of the capricious, sometimes silly, gods who will take pity on our miserable plight and defend us against others of their own kind. Their victory will be our victory. Their defeat will be our doom.
In the most of the “real” Godzilla movies, even when the humans help win through some action of their own design, it is made very clear that it’s a temporary victory. Godzilla, and his kind, might be banished, but they are not destroyed. They are only quietly waiting for mankind to do something else destructive and stupid enough to rouse them, yet again, from their slumbers.
The Showa-era Godzilla movies are amazingly, painfully, nostalgic to me and bring back crystal-clear memories of my childhood in a way few other things can. As I watch the news stories of buffoonish world leaders spouting their hate and nonsense, teenage girls pleading on deaf ears for people to stop destroying her planet, and the day to day miseries of people just trying to survive, I yearn for that simpler age. A time when mankind knew its place and accepted that it didn’t rule the universe. A time of ancient protectors to be both honored and feared. A time where I could just be a kid sitting in front of the TV watching Godzilla make things right.
The Criterion Boxed Set of Showa-Era films comes out October 29, 2019.