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.

Quick Thought: Whisper of the Heart

This week I had the treat of seeing the Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart on the big screen, as part of the ongoing Ghibli Fest.

Whisper is a 1995 film directed by Yoshigumi Kondo, with script and storyboards by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a small, very touching film about youth, love, and creativity. And it is a pretty good example of Kishōtenketsu story structure.

The film also is a fascinating portrait of urban life in Japan, with many real locations in the Seiseki Sakuragaoka neighborhood near Tokyo. The film is over 20 years old now, leaving me to wonder how much has changed. The lack of cell phones is striking of course, particularly given how important they are in contemporary stories, such as Makoto Shinkai’s your name.