Big G and Me

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GojiraOne of my fondest childhood memories is sitting between my parents on a warm summer night, on the front seat of the family car, watching a movie through the windshield, above the dashboard. A single, metal-wrapped speaker hung from the glass of the half-opened window on the driver’s side. A box of salty popcorn passed between us, soft drinks too. Around us were dozens of other cars, all facing the giant outdoor screen, their occupants nothing more than dark shadows. Behind us was a low, concrete building with a screen-facing opening where we could buy snacks and drinks.

It was a treat to be allowed to stay up late, far later than the usual bedtime, to go to the drive-in, and many a night I fell asleep on the backseat as we drove home to the cottage along the unlit, unpaved rural roads a few miles from the village of Penetang. My immersion in film culture began early in this environment.

The films we watched were mostly what are called B-films; standard drive-in fare, many of them shot in stark B&W. What I liked best were the monster and scifi films: The Attack of the Crab Monsters, Them!, Forbidden Planet, The Mysterians, and others. Often scary for a youngster, but mostly a lot of fun. Sitting there with the comforting presence of my parents in the confines of the small car while the stars shone above the big screen usually made it less scary. While we likely saw also other films there – musicals, thrillers, westerns, romances – the only ones I can recall are the scary ones.

From the latter half of the 1950s until around 1962, we went to the drive-in frequently every summer. Then, circumstances forced my parents to sell the cottage. I don’t think I ever went back to another drive-in theatre after that. I did, however, watch many similar films on the small, black & white TV set in our living room – rainy day viewing on the four or five channels we received back then. Once hooked, I didn’t stop watching.

Gojira figureDuring the school year, the family often went to an indoor theatre (in the Golden Mile plaza, as I recall) to see films, although not the scifi and monster films I loved. Later, when I was in my early teens and we had moved, I spent many Saturday afternoons with school chums at a local movie theatre watching even more of my favourite films (and the serials that used to be shown before the actual movies). Again, a lot of B-films in double-bills were on that silver screen. I was in my cinematic heaven.

During a period of just over a decade, it seems I watched a lot of memorable movies. I saw the great monster films from the 1930s and ’40s – the original King Kong, Frankenstein, Wolfman, Mummy, and Dracula, as well as several of their sequels and knock-offs – I had all the Aurora model kits of the monsters, too, and eagerly bought the fanzines and comic books. I also watched later monster and scifi offerings like The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Fly, The Day the Earth Stood Still,  and One Million BC, often on our little TV set. Somehow they never seemed quite so intense or scary when interrupted by commercials and I was watching from my living room couch (sometimes with milk and cookies at hand).

I also started reading science fiction and fantasy around that time. I began with the Tom Swift Jr. novels around age 9 or 10, but soon read through all of them (books were favourite birthday and holiday gifts in our family). I read through the local library’s meager offerings quickly and started buying paperbacks from a rack in the local convenience store (remember those double novels from Ace?). Authors like Ben Bova, Andre Norton, Chad Oliver, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury all captivated me. I read Frank Herbert’s Dune the year it was published, borrowed from a library’s bookmobile. I’m still reading scifi and fantasy novels.

Criterion collection: Showa Godzilla filmsSometime in that period, I saw Godzilla – the 1956 American edit with Raymond Burr inserted into it. I can’t recall exactly when or where I saw it, but I remember vividly the dark, shadowy images of the monster smashing through the miniature sets and Burr’s faux-earnest reporting as if he was there, witnessing the carnage. I can still remember at least some of many of the films from that time, but Godzilla stuck with me, even after my memory of the others had waned.

In part, I suppose, because the others were mostly one-off productions, never meant as more than a single production, while the Godzilla films continued to be produced – it’s the longest-running movie franchise of all time. A bit ironic because (spoiler alert), Godzilla is killed in the first film; it was meant as a single production, not a series. But the monster dies and gets resurrected several times over the franchise.

Since the original 1954 release of Gojira, there have been 30 Godzilla films and three anime specials released, and a new film is scheduled for late 2020. The first 22 were all produced in Japan, then in 1998 came an American-made release. The franchise went back into Japanese hands for six more films from 1999 until 2014, when the next American-made Godzilla film was released. A Japanese release in 2016 (Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence) was followed by a third American version (Godzilla, King of the Monsters). Five of the older Japanese titles had edited releases in the USA (various edits, including characters inserted, music changed, scenes altered, cut or added) and most were released with dubbed voices. Some received theatrical release in the USA and Canada, some merely went to TV, others direct to VHS or DVD.

I saw several of the Showa era (1954-75) Godzilla films in the 1960s through the ’80s, mostly on TV or VHS. The Heisei era (1985-95) films I’ve only seen on VHS or DVD. And now we have them on Blu-Ray.

After the first Gojira, later films evolved into a sort of cheesy, fun romp, the sort of corny, choreographed monster mayhem that fans of TV wrestling would appreciate. The producers started to aim at a younger target audience, including children. The dark monster of the original B&W film gave way to colour and bright sets,  comic gestures, a bit of romance, and thin plots; none of them scary at all. The rampages through the artfully- and painstakingly-constructed sets were often there to delight the viewer, although budget cuts reduced their frequency and quality. There were later attempts (the “millennium” era films, 1999-2004) to get back to the aggressive monster theme of the original, to remake Godzilla as a threat, not comic relief or defender of humankind.

I didn’t actually see the Japanese original, Gojira, until failry recently. When I did, I was both surprised and disturbed by the differences – it was a darker, more compelling film than the American edit. Godzilla was destructive, threatening, not very camp at all. Even as a child, the first time I saw Godzilla it didn’t seem like a real monster – it was clearly a guy in a rubber suit lumbering around. But in the Japanese original, that seems less obvious, less pronounced. In the original, people die. There is tragedy, fear, and loss. I don’t recall that in the 1956 edit.

Godzilla vs Biollante, Japanese coverMaybe it’s because I later intellectualized it more than I did the first viewing. Maybe it’s because, many, many decades later, I’m still watching Godzilla films and enjoying them, but seeing them in a different light. Except for just one film (Godzilla vs Biollante) and the three streamed anime productions, I have every one of the long-running franchise’s 30-plus films on DVD or Blu-Ray. I enjoy watching them more today than I did in the past, albeit for other reasons than simple childish pleasure.

My renewed interest in these kaiju films actually followed an earlier return to watching the classic monsters – the Universal monster films first made available on DVD several years back (the original Frankenstein, Wolfman, Mummy, Dracula, King Kong, etc. films from the 1930s onward). I have collected all of these, too. Some of the earliest are masterpieces of cinematography, using light, shadow and makeup and the sheer power of acting to great effect.

Thanks to the internet and eBay, I’ve been able to collect copies of several of the films I saw back when I was a child, including some of the Roger Corman and the Hammer films, as well as others I missed then. Most don’t live up to my childhood remembrances, but some do (some, like War of the Worlds, The Mummy, Dracula, King Kong and The Day The Earth Stood Still are light years better than their later remakes). Others are, well, corny and cheesy and even cringeworthy for their low-budget awfulness. Which, for a B-film collector, can also be a good thing. There’s sometimes a lot of fun in watching a B-film, at least for me.

But the best of them for me have been the Godzilla films, especially since the recently-released Criterion editions (following the success of the Criterion release of the first Godzilla film – 1954 – they came back with a set of the first 15 – Showa – films on Blu-Ray; highly recommended). These also include the American releases of the 1956 film and others. The crisp quality of these transfers really makes it a pleasure to watch them.

Godzilla vs. MechagodzillaLet’s be clear: many of the Godzilla films don’t really belong in the B-film category. B-films from Hollywood and the UK were usually low-budget productions, with less-than-stellar directors, unknown actors (or those who were learning their skills and would become stars later), minimal sets, thin plots and rushed deadlines. 

Many of the Godzilla films, however, were for their time big-budget productions with impressive directors, major stars (in Japan and Asia). They had expensive sets (those meticulously detailled miniatures and the creature costumes cost a lot to create), and symphonic music from respected composers. That isn’t true of every film in the franchise, of course. But they were all well above the production quality of films like Little Shop of Horrors or Plan Nine From Outer Space.

 Back when I was young, I watched movies for pure entertainment value. Today, as I watch, I assess the dialogue, the special effects, the acting, the sets, the plot of every film. I have lost my childhood’s willing suspension of belief; I don’t believe in the existence of aliens, giant ants, 50-foot-women, or supersized apes. On the other hand, I do marvel more at the technical skills of the producers and directors, and am more aware of plot development and pacing.

Invasion of Astro MonsterIt’s possible to over-intellectualize anything, of course, and I’ve read several reviews, essays, and even whole books that attempt to polish Godzilla and other B-films into something more culturally, socially and intellectually uplifting than just entertaining films. I’m aware there’s a fair amount of Japanese culture, lifestyle, mythology and politics in them that generally escapes Western audiences (Shin Godzilla, for example, includes a dry, but pointed political satire and commentary on modern bureaucracy that, judging from Facebook comments, was missed by a large portion of its Western audience). 

Yes, the original Gojira was an allegory about the horrors of nuclear war and radiation, and a chastising lesson about weaponizing science, but that was soon lost in the subsequent releases. There’s always been a lingering see-what-you’ve-done-you-messed-with-Mother-Nature moral streak in the films, but it submerged in the monster-vs-monster smashfests, and until the later releases it didn’t regain prominence.

Like Star Wars and Star Trek, Godzilla has become a cultural icon to which many other cultural elements refer, and which have influenced popular culture in many ways. Both Godzilla and the -zilla suffix have entered English to describe egregiously big, often violent and threatening elements or items. So it always surprises me when I encounter people who have never actually seen a Godzilla film (in particular, the pre-American films), yet still comment on them, or make use of the Godzilla (-zilla) name.

For me Godzilla is, I suppose, a bit like comfort food: predictable, and filling, without ever becoming tiresome. I watch them on my laptop or in the basement when I exercise, alone (Susan doesn’t share my interest). I can watch them several times, each time looking for nuances, peripheral things, other references, but always having fun in watching.

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