Friday, June 7, 2013

Godzilla (1956)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
seen on TV @ TCM

I would imagine the first time I had ever seen a Godzilla movie was on TV around Thanksgiving, back when local television would show old movies on special occasions. There was a Godzilla Saturday morning cartoon (but the less said about that, the better), not to mention a Godzilla comic book (though I don't recall reading it much), but it was the movies that made an impression on me. I never became a huge fan, but I always watched those movies whenever they'd come on TV.

In hindsight, I should've known better about seeing Roland Emmerich's remake, but I got caught up in all the hype around  it - and the hype was tremendous - to the point where I went to a Tuesday night advance screening (it went wide on a Wednesday, if I recall correctly). It tried to combine elements of the Japanese original, Gojira, as well as the American cut, but in the end, there was too much stupid in the screenplay to overcome.

Of course, looking at the American cut last night for the first time in a long time, I realize it has more than enough stupid on its own! At first, I was interested in seeing how the original Gojira was integrated into this version - for example, showing certain Japanese characters talking to Raymond Burr in English, but with their backs to the camera so you can't tell these aren't the original actors! I have to wonder if American audiences back then were aware of cheats like this - or if they cared.

I mean, the movie doesn't try to hide its origins. If Gojira had been made today, Hollywood would just remake it completely (which they did), instead of making this patchwork version which tries to integrate Burr's character into the story. Did audiences of the day care about the bad dubbing? Burr's intrusive expositional voice-over? Burr's stone-faced visage in general? Or perhaps it was considered "camp" even back then? (Unlikely.)

Burr was really devoted to that pipe, wasn't he?
But let's give Godzilla '56 the benefit of the doubt for a moment and imagine this technique being applied today. Let's say someone like, I dunno, Liev Schreiber or Aaron Eckhart or someone similarly square-jawed in the Burr role and footage from a modern version of Gojira would be integrated into an American cut with new footage. CGI, of course, would make it easy to insert our star directly into the Japanese version. Would it be more successful than Emmerich's remake? (Questions of quality aside, of course. It's not like this is The Dark Knight or anything.)

I suspect the answer is no, for one simple reason: modern audiences are more demanding. Thanks to the geek revolution, they're savvier and more up on modern filmmaking techniques. Plus, the globalization of popular culture means they'd probably be aware of the Japanese original and would bitch and moan over any attempt to "corrupt" it. Look at the furor over George Lucas' tweaking of Episodes 4-6 of the Star Wars saga, for example. And I suspect this is also why American audiences in 1956 probably didn't care much about the changes to Gojira. They weren't geeky enough.

As for me, I can easily appreciate the camp value of Japanese monster movies in general; after all, I grew up watching them badly dubbed and re-cut for American audiences. Plus, there's just something about Japanese culture in general. I mean, they make movies, cartoons and comics with the most outrageous, over-the-top imagery, sex and violence, together or separately, and in numerous combinations, yet it's presented with a high degree of... earnestness. 

Like the scene in Gojira/Godzilla where all those legions of schoolgirls sing to lift everyone's spirits the day after Godzilla wipes out Tokyo. They've just seen their hometown destroyed by a giant lizard and have no doubt seen friends and family maimed and killed, but are they traumatized? Are they emotionally scarred? Hell no! Here they are, lined up in their perfectly neat and clean school uniforms, ready and eager to come to the aid of their country in its darkest hour! I mean, I dunno about you, but I don't remember any choir of schoolkids singing on TV the day after 9/11.

So here's hoping the Japanese never stop making "kaiju" movies, and that Hollywood keeps trying to remake them - so that we geeks will always have something new to complain about!


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