For monster movie geeks like me, there is no bigger news than today's release of the Gojira/Godzilla, King Of The Monsters DVD. This is the first authorized release in the U.S. of the original Japanese cut of Godzilla (Yeah, I know, the official Japanese title is Gojira, but come on, we all know the Big Guy as Godzilla!), and as such is an important piece of film history.
For no film ever captured a nation's mood as eloquently as Godzilla did upon its release in Japan in 1954. Devastated by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humiliated by the post-war U.S. occupation, Japanese audiences couldn't help but respond to images of cities destoyed by a force beyond comprehension, and a military and government powerles to stop it. (American audiences may find some connection to the destruction wrought by Katrina, as well.) Godzilla amps up the anxiety by introducing the tragic, possibly demented scientist Serizawa, whose oxygen destroying invention may be possible of stopping the monster...but which may in itself prove an even greater threat to mankind. There are no easy answers here: We are either puppets to the capricious whims of nature, or we must act boldly, but be blind to the consequences of our actions.
Metaphors aside, this is one terrific movie. Director Ishiro Honda orchestrates a sense of mounting dread, and his charcoal pallette is splendidly atmospheric. Honda was a director of real talent--he essentially served as a co-director on many of Akira Kurosawa's later films, including Kagemusha and Ran, and his psychedelic horror film Matango is a fine piece of work by any standards--but the success of Godzilla unfortunately stereotyped him as the go-to guy for giant monster movies, and he became less of an artist and more of a traffic cop, shepherding dull human characters in between scenes of enormous critters beating the hell out of each other.
One of those enormous critters would inevitably be Godzilla his own bad self, who quickly devolved from terrifying symbol of post-war fear to generic monster, destuctive but misunderstood, and willing to defend the human race at the drop of a hat. Even at its worst (that would be Godzilla On Monster Island), the series was always entertaining, but it is a little unfortunate that such a fine, somber and terrifying movie was ultimately responsible for so much silliness. On the other hand, I have a tendency to break into Godzilla's Happy Dance from Monster Zero, so who am I to complain about silliness?