Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Chairman Of The Board, Part 1

Gozirra, Then and Now
(Part 2 follows)

Disgruntled:  Not Allowed On The 'Blue And Gold Fleet'
Arooo, Arooo / Godzilla Sure Likes You
He's Got Big Feet/ And He Smells Real Neat
Arooo, Arooo Arooo; Arooo, Arooo...
>>  Rhyme Started By Friends' Children;  To The Tune Of, "Hi Ho, Hi Ho; It's Off To Work..."

The Big Guy will be making his appearance this week, on a gigantic multiplex screen near you, in another installment of the timeless saga of ambition, terror, sea water, and a 350-foot Lizard who just wants to be the best 350-foot bipedal Lizard ever, and find love in a busy uncaring world -- the 28th (or, depending on who you ask, the 29th) film version of Godzilla.

In Sixty Years, He Has Entered Our Collective Unconscious
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Spoiler Alert, Sort Of

Be Advised: If viewed in reverse, this film shows the Giant Happy Fun Lizard putting out fires and rebuilding a large, urban area for its inhabitants, playfully wrestling with other large alien figures (but none so large as He), then backing away respectfully into the ocean as a grateful nation sends naval vessels and its airforce to join in celebration.  Roll credits; everyone goes home feeling good.
  
According to people who have actually seen the film (the most creative take I found is by illustrator and reviewer, Natalie Nourigat, and can be found at her site, Spoilers !), most classic moments you expect to see in Giant Monster movies are present: The scientist who tries to warn the population and is ignored; the brave warrior; scenes of people chatting about things personal; the happy children, playing at the seaside... and all the while, the audience knows: Gorzirra Out There. Gorzirra Come Soon. U Are All So Scrood.

So Much For 'Suspension Of Disbelief': No Way It's That Overcast On The Bay In August
In fact, it may be that Godzilla 2014 is so much like previous Giant Monster films that it runs the risk of ironic self-parody -- and when The Big Guy appears, he's just in the nick of time to keep us from nodding off.

And still, we don't know: What the hell does he want? Why does he do the stuff he does? Is he just pissed off, twenty-four-seven? About what? Is he sad? Is there a Ms. Godzilla? And the answer always comes back --  It's In The Script! He's Godzilla! It's a monster movie, for crying out loud; it's not 'Prime Suspect'. There is no nuanced, emotional or rational context in the film to provide those kinds of answers.

 We've seen "Earthquake!" and all the Airport movies, and "2012": the earth shakes a lot; planes almost crash; and there's that Mayan, end-of-the-world thing. They're genre films, which build on every previous film of their kind that's gone before.

The best you can expect is that a director is superb at delivering a genre story (M. Night Shyamalan, say, before Lady In The Water). Rarely, a classic appears and redefines a genre (like Chinatown, or Alien) -- but in general, most of these films follow a formula as faithfully as the tides.

Outtake For The Gag Reel: Having Blown His Line, The Big Guy Does Karaoke
And special effects -- showing us what the impossible looks like -- draw us in.  I'm also curious to see what Bryan Cranston does with his role (his first after Breaking Bad), and Ken Watanabe (of 'Letters From Iwo Jima' and Inception), but the CGI treats will be a focus.  And I'm interested to see whether my neighborhood survives; from the stills on the Intertubes, it appears North Beach, the Waterfront and Financial district are Toast, so who knows.

And I'll go to see The Chairman Of The Board, of course. He's been a treat for sixty years.
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1954: Big Guy's Beginnings

(Note: This narrative undoubtedly has holes, inaccuracies, and is incomplete. It won't satisfy a Godzilla, or a film, purist. This an arc about the evolution of a character from destroyer, to near-slapstick character, and back again. Enjoy.)

Gojira (The Original) Attacks The Tokyo Diet Building, 1954
The Godzilla franchise isn't as old a film character as Dracula or Frankenstein, Batman or Superman -- but the mythos behind all of them has periodically been re-imagined and re-translated on the screen for new generations. There's no doubt about it, though: As a concept, Godzilla is a classic. And in Japan, Gorjira is regarded as one of the two most classic films in its national cinema -- right alongside Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

No joke: when it premiered in 1954, Japanese audiences (who have very different cultural reference points than we here in the West) didn't consider it a cheesy monster flick so much as a serious morality tale about the limits of science, told through the destructive hijinks of a mythic lizard. In fact, there's a bronze statue honoring The Big Guy in downtown Tokyo.

Ray Harryhausen's Stop-Motion Creature, 1953
Godzilla's cinematic roots were Made In The USA: In 1953, Warner Brothers premiered the classic Beast From 20,000 Fathoms -- a giant, prehistoric dinosaur, released from frozen sleep in the Arctic by a nuclear test explosion, swims to New York City and then comes ashore to raise all kinds of ruckus. Sound familiar? The monster was played by a large rubber model with an internal, articulated armature, operated by the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, (the armature designed and built by Ray's father), and the film was distributed around the world.

But Godzilla's real genesis began over a labor dispute: In the spring of 1954, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka of Japan's Toho Film Studios was in a real fix.  Having negotiated making a film for Toho in Indonesia, with everything ready, the Indonesian government refused to grant visas to Japanese actors (one way of saying, "Thanks for the brutal occupation of our country a few years back").  Tanaka, who was just trying to make a movie, was moderately screwed.

Director Honda (Left), Producer Tanaka (Right), Toho Films
Toho Studios had grown out of a theater company which (among other things) managed all Kabuki theatres in the city of Tokyo. It began to make films in the late 1920's, and operated movie houses for a new, domestic Japanese market. After 1945, it was struggling to make and distribute motion pictures in a Japan still trying to define itself after the end of the Second World War. 

Tanaka had funding to complete a film, but suddenly, no project; he had to find one, or else. As he flew back to Japan from Indonesia, that American film he'd seen, Beast From 20,000 Fathoms -- about a monster lizard terrorizing New York -- drifted through his head, and he began getting ideas.

Back in Tokyo, Tanaka made a forceful pitch to the studio heads to make their own version of  20,000 Fathoms. He was given approval to re-direct the budget of his Indonesian picture towards this new film -- but with one catch: he had only six months to get a film in the can, edit it, and produce a Final Cut.

This called for what the Japanese referred to during WWII (some enthusiastically; some with sarcastic derision) as a "Hero Project" -- shortened deadlines, intense work, little sleep, and All Hands On Deck. In short order, Ishirō Honda (who had already completed two domestic films for Toho) was hired to direct what Tanaka called "Project G" (for 'giant'). Shigeru Kayama, a science-fiction author, was engaged to develop a screenplay and the concept of  The Monster -- originally a wild predator which came ashore, ate people, and went back in the water.

A second draft of the screenplay by Honda and Takeo Murata expanded on themes Tanaka wanted to see in the finished film -- fears of radiation and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, real-life monsters unleashed by the United States in the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and through continuing nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific.

The Monster in their script -- which had no name, yet -- grew in size, particularly after the studio consulted their special-effects director, Eiji Tsuburaya, who had worked with director Honda on his previous films.
 
Before Godzilla's Visit: Tsubraya's Miniature Tokyo Bay (1954)
Tsuburaya was known at Toho Studios for the realism of miniature model effects he created for a 1942 Toho film dramatizing Japan's attack on at Pearl Harbor. He had been intrigued by stop-motion animation ever since seeing King Kong in the 1930's, and while he was impressed with Harryhausen's work for 20,000 Fathoms,  Tsuburaya advised Honda and Tanaka that a stop-motion Creature would not work for the new project.  That technique was time-intensive, and 'Project G' had no time to spare.

Tsuburaya suggested an actor wearing a large suit would be their Monster, and attack a tiny Tokyo. Some wanted a monster designed with a mushroom-shaped head, reminiscent of a mushroom cloud, but the traditionalists won -- the Creature was dinosaur-like, but still needed a name. Producer Tanaka reportedly overheard colleagues talking about a Toho Studio press agent, nicknamed "Gojira," -- a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (Gorira) and whale (Kujira). Tanaka decided to use it as both the name for the Creature and the title of the film -- and to Western ears, 'Gorjira' sounds very much like... Godzilla.

(MEHR, Mit Arooo: In response to a question, yes: the sound, "Arooo!" assigned to The Big Guy did originate from its use by 'Nixon's Head' in the animated series, Futurama

Here at Before Nine, we've reported Arooo being used by The Zombified Ronald Rayguns, among other things. Oddly, it's a term also applied to conical, clear plastic packaging, and [our favorite] Dog Products.)
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(Part 2 Follows Below)

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