• science-fiction 10.04.2009
    When Godzilla first appeared in 1954 he was no joke!

    When Godzilla first appeared in 1954 he was no joke!

    Godzilla fans in the western world have to learn to live with derision. Most of the English-speaking world is familiar with the name Godzilla and see it as a nothing more than a stupid joke. One need only mention the monster’s name and eyes start rolling as if on cue. What can one expect when the venerable New York Times sets the tone with words like this:

    May 24, 1998 by Tom Kuntz
    Well, so what if the new “Godzilla” movie stinks? It is protected by an immutable dictum of Godzilla cinema: To be good, it is preferable for a Godzilla movie to be bad. A good movie with Godzilla in it (have you ever seen one?) may be by definition a bad Godzilla movie. Conversely, a bad movie in which Godzilla appears is bound to be a good Godzilla movie. In summation, the ideal Godzilla movie is, paradoxically and counterintuitively, the classic “good bad” movie, the elements of which can include but are not limited to lousy dubbing and stentorian proclamations from Raymond Burr.

    Godzilla in more recent years

    Godzilla in more recent years

    Being a Godzilla fan myself I’ve learned to live with it but to allow the derision to continue unchallenged would be irresponsible. The Godzilla movies are justifiably called classics and its a shame they receive so much scorn from the English-speaking world. There are several reasons for this:

    1) Americans have seen the Godzilla movies in their American incarnations: badly dubbed, poorly edited with lobotomized plots and reduced picture quality. I’ve seen these hack jobs and I hate them too. You can’t say you’ve seen a given Godzilla movie until you’ve seen the original version with subtitles.

    2) Older science-fiction movies always fare poorly by today’s standards because of special effects. Judging movies made in the 1960’s and early 70’s by today’s standards make the special effects look bad and amateurish. If you can suspend your criticism long enough to watch, say, the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) then you are ready to try Godzilla movies. It should be mentioned here that the special effects engineered by Eiji Tsuburaya for the first 9 or 10 Godzilla movies were top-rate for the time they were created.

    3) American film critics have worked hard to give Godzilla movies a bad name. In his book A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series film historian David Kalat recounts the wildly innaccurate and horribly biased reviews given of Godzilla movies by American critics. After reading this I no longer wondered why Americans are so set against Godzilla movies.

    4) The monsters are actors in rubber suits. This draws a lot of criticism which is odd when you consider that the 1976 King Kong remake used a rubber suit and won an award for its special effects. Some of the monster suits created for the Godzilla movies were poor but most were quite well-done. Although the faces of these monsters were not very expressive what can one expect from the era before CGI was commonly available? Besides, take a trip to the zoo and take a look at the lizards and alligators. Not very expressive faces, are they? Perhaps even a little “rubbery” looking.  And isn’t Godzilla supposed to be a reptile?

    5) Very few Americans have seen the original version of the first Godzilla movie. After you watch the subtitled, uncut Godzilla (1954) you will never see the King of the Monsters the same way again.

    6) The Godzilla movies have silly poses and humor that detracts from the drama. This criticism is warranted. There were a number of Godzilla movies from the late 1960’s and early 70’s that contained humor meant to appeal to Japanese audiences. Ishiro Honda, director for many early Godzilla movies, protested bitterly against this trend. Humor targeted at Japanese audiences in the 1970’s can’t be expected to work for Americans today.

    7) Most Americans saw Godzilla movies on TV when they were children. American culture teaches people they must completely divorce themselves from the innocent, open-minded person they were in their youth. One result of this is anything associated with a person’s childhood becomes “childish” and not worthy of any attention.

    8 ) Many Americans point out what they see as a flaw in the premise of giant monster movies.  How can the monster resist military weapons?  A cannon shell or missile should tear right through Godzilla!  This is missing the concept entirely.  Godzilla was meant to represent a force of nature unleashed unwittingly by science.  You can’t shoot down a hurricane.  You can’t bomb an earthquake into submission.  The best you can do is hide and hope you’re still there when it’s over.  Whether Godzilla represents the atomic bomb or scientific progress is something for fans to debate but either way the King of the Monsters is a metaphor for forces we awakened but can’t control.

    9) Americans haven’t heard the final word. Did you know that Toho Studios woke Godzilla up to make 12 movies from 1989 to 2004? In these newer movies you’ll see a meaner, tougher Godzilla that will probably surprise you.

    People who call themselves Godzilla fans probably do so because they had the benefit of seeing the movies they enjoy in their original versions. However, could there be more to their fondness for the King of the Monsters? Film historian David Kalat offers another possibility. “Fans try to explain their obsession and justify their fandom to those who do not understand, but the appeal runs very deep to an innocence of childhood that some individuals never lost.” This certainly doesn’t explain why the movies appeal to Godzilla fans – Godzilla fans are not immature people who refuse to grow up. Still, there probably is an element of truth to Kalat’s words. I’ve noticed in myself a resistance to lay hold of the cynicism that many people mistakenly call “sophistication.” I would rather be accused of being immature than of being jaded.

    If you haven’t seen the true versions of the Godzilla movies than you shouldn’t wait any longer. Sources like Video Daikaiju can supply you with faithful versions of the original 15 Godzilla movies and Netflix can rent out the newer ones to you. The King of the Monsters is a phenomenon you need to see for yourself.

    Posted by Tachyon @ 6:52 am


  • 3 Responses

    • Thanks for posting this… nice finding substantial posts about Godzilla out there. Would you like to link blogs? My name is August Ragone, and I am the author of EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS (Chronicle Books), about the man who created all of these creatures.

      Oh, by the way, this summer, I’m producing a big Godzilla film festival out there in San Francisco, called GODZILLA & THE MONSTERS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. Our special guest is Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla from 1954-1972. It’s going to be a great show.

      You can read more about it, here:

      August Ragone

    • This has always pissed me off too since I was a child. I grew up in the odd position of having access to subtitled, uncut VHS editions of many of Toho’s tokusatsu films, especially the Heisei films. My father, an English major and history buff, despised the foul dubbing that plagued practically all the US releases of these films. He didn’t want me to be exposed to entertainment that purported half-assed English voice-overs in lieu of a developed foreign language. He made great efforts to go out and find copies of these movies in their native language, especially chancing upon the Video Daikaiju service that you mentioned in your article. Thank God he did…or else I probably would have never fallen in love with Godzilla the way I did.

      The Heisei films were not movies I watched for campy pleasure; I treated them with respect, just as film fans nowadays are apt to treat the latest Christopher Nolan “Batman” films. Of course I was just a kid at the time. I grew up watching Godzilla films with great enthusiasm, reading publications like G-Fan to educate myself on the backgrounds of how these films came to be. I learned the names of actors, directors, composers and SPFX technicians who worked on these productions. Meanwhile, I missed out on popular Hollywood culture. For example, as a 10 year old child, I could easily tell you who Akihito Hirata was and what he starred in. But if you asked me a question about Tom Cruise, I would be dumbfounded.

      After my formative period, I emerged into the world of popular cultures and was horrified to find all these misconceptions and prejudices about these films. What bugged me excessively was just the ignorance possessed by so many voyeurs of cinema. If I had to settle down and take time to learn the names and faces of distinguished American celebrities, then why couldn’t the Japanese celebrities that I respected during my youth get the same respect? But alas, such is the problem with being exposed to the wrong cultural atmosphere during your youth.

      As an adult, I recently went back and watched all the Heisei films in order again to see if they lost appeal with the passage of time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these films were just the same as I remembered them. Obviously the series got worse as it went along, but some entries, like “Godzilla vs. Biollante” still astound me to this day. The atmosphere of Japanese cinema is so markedly different from the atmosphere of Hollywood cinema, that I actually find myself disappointed with the latter in many instances.

      And that’s how I’ve always viewed “Godzilla” films: not as mindless, low-budget schlock, but as professional SPFX films produced by a different culture. It pains me that so many professional US film critics are unable to see past this discrepancy and to this day, continue to spout out ill informed opinions and statements about these films. The simple fact that Ishiro Honda and Akira Kurosawa collaborated on many occasions seems to elude many US critics who continue to insist that Honda’s films be damned and Kurosawa’s films be praised. It’s really a shame…if Kurosawa himself supported Honda’s efforts, then why don’t we?

    • Why haven’t more people seen this? I know what you mean. I am presently 18, and more often than not, if Godzilla is brought up in a conversation the first reaction is “How old are you?”

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