Godzilla Raids Again: beginning, break, rapid

After five decades of watching kaiju eiga — Japanese giant monster movies — there were still two Godzilla movies I had not seen. I just scratched one of those off, by watching the second Godzilla film produced, 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again.

Movie posterThe English dub of this film doesn’t even call him Godzilla. It is known as Gigantis the Fire Monster and the owners of the domestic version didn’t keep it in distribution, which is why I never is saw it on any of the late night or afterschool creature-feature shows on my local TV stations. Where I did just see the Japanese original was on, of all the places, the Criterion Channel streaming service. I have no idea why this movie is in their collection along with the works of Welles, Bergman, Kurosawa, etc. Godzilla Raids Again is not a good movie. Yet it has some interesting aspects worth considering, for the genre it helped create, and for styles of Japanese storytelling that go back to medieval times.

The film was produced in a rush after the success of the original Godzilla the year before. It is not even directed by Ishiro Honda, who was responsible for most of the classic “Showa” era Godzilla films of the 1960’s and 70’s. At least the special effects were handled by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya, though even that aspect of the film is problematic. Some camera mechanical issues resulted in much of the monster action appearing sped up – rather than slowed down as one would expect, to increase the sense of scale. In spite of that there are actually some impressive special effects in the film, such as the crushing of Osaka, including its famous castle, beneath two wrestling kaiju. There are also some shots looking down on Godzilla from an airplane high above, which is not how the king of monsters is usually depicted. That these shots make him seem small and non-threatening is something I’ll return to later.

The plot of this film is mostly a slice-of-life about a fishing company and its employees – that just happens to have Godzilla as one of the issues they have to deal with. The economic impact of Godzilla is something that doesn’t come up often. The first issue this sequel has to deal with is that in its predecessor, the 1954 Godzilla, the monster was pretty thoroughly killed – we not only saw the body, we saw it dissolve into bones and then into nothing. This film’s solution? There’s another Godzilla. Enough said. And there’s second monster, Anguirus, who is identified as a type of dinosaur, the ankylosaurus. The film is unequivocal that Godzilla and Angurius are dinosaurs. As a dinosaur nerd myself it was amusing to hear the film’s experts go on and on about what a vicious and aggressive predator ankylosaurus was – since most any schoolchild could tell you that it should be included in the list of placid plant eating dinos. Anguirus, along with Godzilla II, is assumed awakened by H-bomb tests.

The movie has three acts that work more like three episodes of a serial, rather than one movie. The first act spends plenty of time introducing the fishing company and its two spotter pilots, Tsukioka and Kobayashi. They are the ones who discover the second Godzilla, already locked in combat with Anguirus. This film introduced the trope of Godzilla fighting other monsters, a main element in most subsequent movies of the franchise. Often there is a convoluted plot to get the kaiju brawling, but in this movie it just happens. Our two heroes barely escape to report their discovery.

The second act starts out with a lot of meetings and planning about what to do. Eventually a scheme is concocted to use flares to scare Godzilla away, should he come to shore. This is another tradition: making up an arbitrary weakness for Godzilla that are only mentioned for a short sequence and then forgotten. Bright lights are frightening because they remind him of the H-bomb test that awoke him..? Additionally the story has already forgotten that this not the same monster that attacked Tokyo the year before. That fact is never mentioned again in the franchise, as far as I know.

After much tracking and careful observations, everyone seems ready when Godzilla shows up at Osaka. Another trope introduced is the evacuation sequence. The first Godzilla was memorable for its scenes of injured survivors in makeshift hospitals suffering the consequences of the monster’s attack. The parallels with the devastation of World War II bombings being obvious. In subsequent films there is a requisite sequence where citizens are warned that monsters are coming and they need to flee. By the time buildings are crumbling and exploding, the city can be assumed empty. When this convention is ignored, as in Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, the results are brutal and shocking. In Godzilla Raids Again, while Osaka is reduced to flaming rubble, there are few signs of any causalities outside the military.

The meticulous plan goes awry when, first, escaping criminals accidently set an oil refinery ablaze, and then Anguirus happens to show up again. While humans watch helplessly, the monsters have their vicious rematch, destroying the city. Godzilla wins, biting and then incinerating Angurius. That’s it for the ankylosaurus (until an identical monster reappears in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters). Yet there’s still more movie to get through. That Godzilla’s main opponent is dead half way though the film is not the only odd thing about the story structure here.

In the third act, the fishing company has shifted its main operations to its northern offices, on the snowy island of Hokkaido. Pilot Kobayashi has settled in to his new assignment and is hoping to get married. Things seem to be going well — until Godzilla shows up again and sinks a fishing trawler. The pilots track him down to remote island and Kobayashi attempts to distract and delay the monster to give the military time to act. Sadly he is killed, but his plane crash revealing a possible means of finishing off Godzilla: trigger an avalanche and bury him in ice. The second pilot, Tsukioka, joins the military to avenge his friend.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how Asian traditions of storytelling show up in works of popular culture. There is the four-act Kishoutenketsu dramatic structure, which I’ve mentioned some in these posts, but also there is the pattern of Jo-ha-kyū, which has origins in medieval Japan and 14th century Noh plays. When I watch something from Japan that has a puzzling structure, I try to think if I am looking at it from too Western a perspective. Godzilla Raids Again was a strange candidate for this approach, but it seems to have some application.

Roughly, Jo-ha-kyū is “beginning, break, rapid.” An example that comes to mind is the classic confrontation between samurai warriors which you see all the time in movies, manga, and anime. Rather than a prolonged duel of clashing blades, these fights tend to consist of two samurai appearing on the battlefield. They stare at each other, then slowly draw their katanas, taking a few steps, then building to a run. They pass each other, making a single slash with their swords. There’s a pause, and one falls dead. An introduction, a buildup to a crisis, and then a very swift resolution. Beginning, break, rapid. This is also the pattern of two cowboys gunslingers meeting for a showdown: one of the many reason why the cowboy and samurai genres intermix so well.

All three sections of this movie have slow introductions and build ups. We see a lot of how this industrial fishing operation works, from its airplanes looking for schools of fish, to the crews of the fleet, to the administrative structure of the company. Those are the “Jo” sections. These people are really just trying to do their jobs, but Godzilla keeps showing up and interfering with their production schedule. That’s the “Ha”: when the menace has made itself known and everybody has to plan how to deal with it. When Godzillas attacks come it is a sudden escalation of danger and destruction — “Kyū”

Some of the odd scenes in the movie have a clearer purpose when put into this structure. For instance in the third act, to celebrate the recovery of their business, the company has a sake drinking party at a local inn. While there, Tsukioka meets up with some old war buddies (now part of the Japanese Self-defense Force). The only narrative function of this long, complicated sequence is to reconnect him with his military friends so that, at the end, he can request to join them in their final assault on Godzilla. Nothing else actually happens in this sequence. It just shows the lives of these characters, going about their business — until the news of Godzilla upsets things. From a Western storytelling perspective it seems filler, something to give the movie feature film length, but as a “Jo” section it moderates the pacing, giving more emphasizing on ordinary life, contrasting the unnatural events to come.

This may sound like I am presenting this movie as having unappreciated value — but not really. Many plot events just happen at random. Basic facts shift as needed — is Godzilla frighted of lights, or attracted to flames? Why would barrels of burning oil drive off a giant radioactive dragon? In the final act Godzilla comes off as a hunted beast. Godzilla trapped in a valley, with snow covered mountains towering over him is a strange image. He seems more like a lost, out of place animal. One might think he is meant to be pitied, but no other element in the movie supports that.

The rush to start a series of Godzilla films in the 50’s did not go well. Godzilla Raids Again was not a big success. There would not be another until Ishiro Honda returned to direct the color King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962. The remaining Godzilla film I have yet to see is the 1967 Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka The One With the Giant Lobster.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters — and a little bit of Proust

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty, 2019) was better than the previous U.S. Godzilla film, Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014), but still pretty bad. That earlier film was so awful it left a lot of room between it and “okay” for other bad films to live. I don’t intend this as an extensive negative review, but rather a comparison of what didn’t work in this film with what I do enjoy in more successful movies of this genre – movies I frequently wished I was watching instead of this one. What I thought of most often was Godzilla: Final Wars (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2004) with its frantic energy and love of all things crazy and over the top in “kaiju eiga,” — the giant monster movies which Godzilla epitomizes. A better example to call on though is Hideaki Anno’s 2016 blockbuster Shin Godzilla.

The biggest thing that American Godzilla movies seem to miss is that a sequence showing giant monsters fighting should be *about* giant monsters fighting. The titanic, city-wrecking melee shouldn’t be functioning just as a background for humans playing out an uninspired family drama. It is like the film’s creators have a hesitancy or lack of faith in the very monsters that are supposed to be their stars. Shin Godzilla itself has a lot of focus on its human characters, their scenes were their scenes. It is fundamentally a film about people, but once monster action started, that’s what we were meant to focus on. If a sequence did involve both monsters and humans, it was about their actions and reactions to each other, not an “A” plot and a “B” plot to cut between.

The Godzilla: King of the Monsters battle scenes were technically impressive, but rarely left much emotional impact. They played out just as you’d expect. If you tried to imagine what this film looked like from a few still pictures, you’d probably be on target. Marcel Proust wrote that we often approach art by seeking the familiar, what we know we like and have liked in the past. What truly moves us though is discovering the unexpected. One of the most classic Godzilla tropes is his powering up for his atomic breath. A glow begins along the scales on his tail, moves up the large spines along his back, building up to a radiant blast from his mouth. We’ve seen this many times, and both recent America films make a big deal of it. It is “fan service” giving us what we are supposed to want in such a familiar way that we know exactly how it is going to play out. Shin Godzilla sets this up this familiar situation – only to unsettle us by having Godzilla belch out not firey incandescent vapor, but a torrent of black bile that ignites into a napalm-like holocaust that incinerates entire city blocks. Godzilla’s jaw enlarges and splits unnaturally as the energy focuses into a brilliant laser knifing through skyscrapers.We’ve watched Godzilla use his atomic breath for decades, but we have never seen or expected it to appear as it does here, and so it shocks, amazes, and terrifies — things Godzilla: King of the Monsters never does. Shin Godzilla has several such moments that throw the viewer off balance, messing with our expectations, and leaving us almost unbelieving that we are really seeing what is there on the screen. Godzilla’s first appearance on land in a floundering, tadpole-like form leaves us unsure what we are meant to be feeling. Is it funny or an incomprehensible nightmare? Godzilla: King of the Monsters, like most Hollywood epics, never really tries to surprise us and telegraphs exactly what it expects us to feel as it runs through its check-list of set pieces and tropes. And if ever those feelings risk developing any weight, there’s always a character available to make a wisecrack or funny profanity to keep us from actually experiencing anything lasting.

Making an effective giant monster fight is a serious challenge for any film. The best Godzilla films present the conflict as humanity against an elemental force. We are struggling against a walking atomic bomb, an untouchable natural disaster, or the embodiment of supernatural vengeance. It is more problematic when a film pits Godzilla against another giant monster. Through the history of the franchise most of Godzilla’s fights have looked like professional wrestling matches. That has been part of the fun and can be appreciated as the stylized dance performances they, like pro wrestling, are intended to be. Trying to be more serious or “real” is a problem. Director Shusuke Kaneko approached the issue with his trilogy of Gamera moves between 1995-1999 by breaking the rules and playing with the expectations of the genre in his own way, but that’s a big enough topic for another day. The recent American Godzillas – as well as other giant monster films such as the Pacific Rim series – try to deal with the issues by throwing vast amounts of money into the visual effects. The results continue to be uninspiring.

One of the best realized giant monster fights in live-action or animation is in End of Evangelion, an earlier work of Shin Godzilla’s director Hideaki Anno. This was the feature film conclusion to the anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The fight is climatic confrontation between the character Asuka in her giant robot/cyborg Eva Unit and a squad of faceless winged giants. There is balletic combat, horrific violence, and an environment torn apart by this deadly dance of gods. In the midst of all this auction, the real the focus is on the very human Asuka. Every aspect of the titantic external battle is representative of the character’s personal story arc and ultimate mental breakdown. The two elements, internal and external, of character and conflict are united.