Why Godzilla is the Best Thing Ever

godzilla new

A group of business professionals with college degrees sat around a table in their office building today discussing the most critical topic of the week, far more important than any potential merger, major new account, or policy initiative: When to see the new Godzilla movie that opens this weekend.

Thank you, world, for finally catching up with me. It has been a lonely bunch of decades.

I am a man of many interests. Music. Writing. Art. Film. Architecture. Science. Multiculturalism. Civil Rights… Drums. Guitars. Rock. Soul. Jazz. Metal. Funk. Pop. Classical… Horror and science fiction. Star Wars. Star Trek. Doctor Who. Zombie movies. Italian Gialli. Friday the 13th. Tarantino. Kubrick. Cronenberg…

I remember where I was in my life when I discovered all these things, and I know how each interest has helped shape my identity.

On the other hand, there’s Godzilla. I don’t recall discovering Godzilla, simply because my memory has not retained anything prior to age three. I was already a veteran at that point.

My mom has photos of the toddler me sitting on the floor, staring in wonder at our grainy old Zenith TV while the world’s most famous monster stomped across the screen, kicking up a maelstrom of fire, debris, sparks, and wind as he obliterated yet another Japanese city. The TVs have gotten better, DVDs and blu-rays offer picture quality undreamed of in the days of Saturday-morning monster marathons, and a 180-million-dollar epic remake is about to shake theater speakers all across the world, but the star of the show hasn’t really changed, other than cosmetically. Godzilla is still the coolest, baddest, biggest character in all of cinema.

Yes, the budgets were low in those old flicks. Of course it was a guy in a rubber suit. No, I don’t believe Godzilla exists on the same artistic plane as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, or Martin Scorsese.  But as much as I revere those artists, only Godzilla:

  • Inspired a shy, scrawny little boy feel strong for the first time in his life
  • Awakened that boy’s imagination and stimulated his drive to tell colorful, fantastical stories
  • Impressed upon that boy what wonderful, unreal things were possible if he was open to them
  • Put an appreciation, fascination, and respect for other cultures and ethnicities into his young, impressionable mind before forces around him had a chance to indoctrinate him to a life of judgment and intolerance

If you didn’t grow up watching this stuff, there’s little I can do to convince you Godzilla is great. I will only say that what’s ridiculous about those films is also what makes them so spectacular: The outlandish, implausible monsters and the manic plots. In one, a metallic bird monster with a buzz-saw chest and a bomb-spitting giant cockroach from an undersea kingdom team up to fight a robot that can change size at will and a 30-storey Tyrannosaurus who shoots blue fire from his mouth.

Show that to a three-year-old child and see if he lacks for imagination when he grows up. I may not recall my first experience with Godzilla, but I remember my son’s, and I will admit to more than a little satisfaction when he became mesmerized in an instant. Years later, he speaks with reverence of the different films and monsters, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention he is a rather imaginative writer himself.

I’ll also invalidate the frequent criticism that the films are “cheesy” because of the obvious special effects fakery. Realism and naturalism in art is a western convention. East Asian art has never aspired to look “realistic,” so comparisons are irrelevant. But I’ll make one anyway: watch any of the contemporaneous monster movies filmed in the west. With rare exception, the creatures and sets are rather shoddy compared to those constructed by their Japanese counterparts.

Oh, and making fun of the dubbing is misdirected superiority. The bad lip-syncing is the fault of the American distributor, not the filmmakers.

End of mini-lecture.

I have no idea if this American remake is going to be any good, though it is getting excellent reviews and appears to pay great respect and homage to the source material. I guess I’ll find out Saturday morning, when I invite the whole world into my house for two hours.

***

A gallery of big G through the decades

Godzilla 1950s2

The 1950s, as a metaphor for the atomic bomb

Godzilla 1960s

The 1960s, as a burgeoning global icon

godzilla 1970s2

The 1970s, as a children’s superhero

godzilla 1980s2

The 1980s, once again as a metaphor for nuclear proliferation

godzilla 1990s2

The 1990s, as a super-sized commercial property

godzilla 2000s

The 2000s, highly stylized and re-imagined for 21st-century tastes

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30 responses to “Why Godzilla is the Best Thing Ever

  • Doug Brown

    And Godzilla became our defender, a collosal superhero, taking out the nasties before slipping away until the next major giant moth attack. I’ll be catching it on Saturday too!

  • Kevin Brennan

    I had this when I was a kid. http://bit.ly/1lw57zJ Mine wasn’t that color, but the finished product was terrifying as it peered at me from my dresser at night. Much more terrifying than that lagoon lizard.

    I’m still kind of partial to King Kong, though. Just minding his own business. He didn’t want to wreak havoc. We forced his hand.

    • ericjbaker

      Sweet. I had one too. Not purple, either. I’m not sure what that’s about. I also had a Phantom of the Opera. My favorite detail was the prisoner in the dungeon at the Phantom’s feet who looked to be suffering from some kind of flesh-eating disease.

      I’m not sure about everywhere else, but NY TV stations back in the day used to show King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young on Thanksgiving day and three Godzilla movies in a row on Friday. I think that was the highlight of the year, aside from Halloween perhaps.

      • Kevin Brennan

        I had the Phantom too. That poor soul in the sewer haunted me.

        Gorillas are definitely worth giving thanks for. How enlightened of NY broadcasters! As for Godzilla, Raymond Burr was never finer…

  • ioniamartin

    Absolutely! I was discussing something similar with a friend earlier today about Godzilla ‘ s lack of respect in this day and age of comic book heroes. Great post.

  • skywalkerstoryteller

    Now that was a pleasurable Friday morning read.

  • shelleyhazen83

    I am so stoked to see the new “Godzilla.” We have a drive-in theater here and I can’t think of a better place to see it.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I always loved Godzilla. I was hoping you’d post the picture of you as a toddler, Eric.
    I heard a great review on the radio this morning. Let us know what you think…enjoy!

    • ericjbaker

      I’m not sure whatever happened to those photos. They’re probably in a trunk somewhere. I don’t know what it is about those old monster movies (not just Godzilla), but they have a charm that will never be replicated.

      The new movie was far superior to the awful attempt in 1998, though I could have used more Godzilla and less hunky hero and his gorgeous wife, since neither character had much to do but look up and be scared.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Eric, that’s great that “Big G” inspired you so much as a child. I think we all have those special fictional characters that have inspire us like a real-life friend (Xena is one of mine) and the cheesiness or campiness of the way said character is presented is secondary.

    I don’t anticipate going to see Godzilla myself, not having that history with it (or interest, I’m sorry to admit), but I am curious as to whether it still takes place in Japan, and how many Japanese actors are given key roles.

    • ericjbaker

      It took place partly in Japan, mostly in Hawaii and California. Only one Japanese actor had notable screen time. It was a good intro to a possible franchise, but if they keep going, I hope the universe expands a bit, culturally.

  • Paula Tohline Calhoun

    You were a mere child back when I was a less mere child, but I agree with you. Although I must say that I was never afraid of Godzilla nor any of his ilk. I was generally amused, and most often entertained. The nuclear holocaust was behind all of them, in my mind, which is why Japan has always, and will forever hold the patent on that particular genre. They know it best.

    It seems that I differ from yo in that while my imagination was always piqued by TV and movies, I did not go straight to writing my own stories or scripts. I went straight to the library and read everything available about the subject at hand. It was hard finding books about the evolution of Godzilla and his/her cousins, but whatever was there, I read it. THEN I started writing. I started writing stupid poetry. Something I still do. Where did I go wrong? The only thing I do know is that if what I was lead to write about was meant to make money and/or enlighten, then I was lousy at it. But I guarantee you that should such musings become valuable, I will be leaving behind a priceless legacy of claptrap.

    If you are really good to me and appropriately obsequious, then I will stipulate certain pieces for your inheritance. Just think – your ship might be on the horizon!

    • ericjbaker

      I had the good fortune of a mother who worked for a global book distributor, so I had the inside scoop on Godzilla-related publications. In fact, I still have 1970s-era book on the subject. I also had ones on Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, but the lure of eBay money proved too great to resist on those titles. i’m all about nostalgia, unless I can flip it for cash.

      Speaking of which, hurry up and become a famous poet so I can inherit some works (far far far in the future, of course) and resell them. I hope to graduate from eBay to Sotheby’s at that point. Handwritten please.

  • livelytwist

    I vaguely remember watching Godzilla & Godzuki cartoons, that is the extent of my knowledge on this.

    Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    I think about the quote and what you wrote about children’s imagination, using your son as a reference point. Yes, these are the things that fan the flame of our imagination.

    • ericjbaker

      So much of our childhood seems designed to stifle imagination. I’m glad present company was successful in resisting. Who am I to argue with Albert Einstein?

      It’s not exactly easy to interest an adult who was not raised on Godzilla, but those 1960s/Early ’70s editions have taken on quite a kitschy charm. the presentations get pretty loopy sometimes. I picture college students ingesting certain substances and then viewing these films with an altered perspective. 😉

  • 1WriteWay

    I have fond although dim memories of watching Saturday matinee movies (on the TV) of Godzilla. I didn’t care about the dubbing (especially when so much of the dialogue was screaming) or the clunky special effects. Godzilla was scary, period, although he had every right to be angry and was just dishing out our civilization’s just desserts. I do want to see the movie and have heard/read good reviews. Hope to read your review sometime soon 🙂

  • kriskkaria

    I love Godzilla! Especially the original Japanese films.

    • ericjbaker

      Warning: I’m about to geek out for a moment… Perhaps you’ve seen the first sequel to the original Godzilla, most commonly known as “Godzilla Raids Again,” though I believe the more accurate translation is “Godzilla’s Counterattack.” The B&W film is far from brilliant, but the Japanese version manages to capture some of the original’s mystery with it’s noirish lighting and shadowy portrayal of the titular character. There’s a great scene of a darkened city helplessly waiting for the monster to arrive, which includes a series of ominous, low-key shots of the dusky, misty sky, accompanied by nothing but ambient sound. Quite foreboding. Later, when it was dubbed for U.S. release, the distributor completely obliterated the tension by overdubbing a narrator with a hokey Asian accent yammering endlessly, all throughout the scene, about how terrifying the attack was going to be. I can’t even watch the English-language cut of this film.

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