Godzilla vs Godzilla

This past weekend, my daughter took me to see the American film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters for Father’s Day. Earlier in the week, we watched the 2016 Japanese film Shin Godzilla. Afterwards, we had fun comparing and contrasting the two films. Since Shin Godzilla is something of a reboot, it might make more sense to compare the Japanese film to the 2014 American Godzilla, but King of the Monsters is the one that’s fresh in my memory and it is a direct sequel to the earlier film.

As I understand, the Japanese word “shin” has several meanings including “evolved,” “new” and “god.” All of them could apply to the Godzilla of Shin Godzilla. The movie has occasionally been shown under the title Godzilla: Resurgence, but I like the way the audience is invited to interpret the meaning of Shin Godzilla. The movie’s plot is familiar. A giant creature has appeared off the coast of Japan and soon begins rampaging through population centers. When the creature first appears, it’s not the familiar Godzilla form, but rather a fish-eyed, gilled creatures with rudimentary forearms, more like flippers. As the movie progresses, we learn that this Godzilla can evolve to meet whatever challenges he’s faced with and eventually takes on his familiar form.

The movie doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on the monster. Instead, Shin Godzilla focuses on the politicians and scientists trying to figure out what to do about the monster. An important feature of this is how it shows the relationship between the United States and Japan. The United States attempts to control the situation and wants to use atomic bombs to destroy the monster. Of course, this doesn’t go over at all well with the Japanese, even though they see it might be the only choice. This part of the plot strongly recalls the 1954 Godzilla, but updated to reflect modern politics. One standout character is the American Foreign Secretary to Japan, who is, herself, Japanese-American and stands in contrast to the male-dominated Japanese cabinet.

Perhaps the most striking element of Shin Godzilla is Godzilla’s design. This Godzilla is lean, mean, huge and terrifying. He also strikes me as something out of H.R. Giger’s worst nightmares. By contrast, America’s Godzilla looks like he could stand to lose a few pounds. I could accept that he’s just meant to look muscular, but every time I saw his body, I thought he looked more like a large squirrel than a fearsome dragon.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is at once a loving tribute to the Japanese Godzilla franchise and an American action film. I loved the variety of monsters they portrayed. Godzilla’s nemesis is the three-headed, hydra-like King Ghidorah, who is truly ferocious. By comparison, we should have sympathy for Godzilla, so that no doubt helps to contribute to his gentler design.

King of the Monsters opens on senate hearings into the Monarch project, which monitors the monsters, or Titans, as they’re known. I began to wonder if we were going to see something similar to the Japanese version, but it soon turns into standard action fare as bioterrorists capture a scientist and her daughter to make them unleash the Titans to “correct” all the damage humankind has done to the planet.

Perhaps my biggest issue with King of the Monsters is that it follows a trope I’ve been seeing in American films of late where women sacrifice themselves so the men they’re with can succeed. There are some unique twists on this, and I’ll avoid saying more to avoid spoilers, but I still found myself predicting all too easily who wouldn’t make it to the end of the film. Immediately after the film, my daughter and I started listing off several other plot issues. Jeez, don’t bioterrorists believe in guarding their secret headquarters? That said, it’s not like Japanese Godzilla films have all been cinematic masterpieces.

So, who wins in this battle of Godzilla vs. Godzilla? Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a lot more fun on the first watch. There was a lot of action and I cared about the characters. I enjoyed going on the ride the filmmakers created for me. However, I have a sense, that the more I watch it, the more issues I’ll have with it. Shin Godzilla was a bit slow and had a lot of political wrangling, but there were interesting layers in the film and I came away having a sense that if I watched again, I would see things I missed the first time. Both held up mirrors and asked us to consider whether kaiju or humans are really the most terrifying monster. Of the two, Shin Godzilla not only gave me scarier Godzilla, it gave me the most think about on that score.

Gamera

I think it’s fair to say that I grew up watching a lot of media from Japan. A lot was anime such as Tetsujin 28, Mach Go, Go, Go, and Gatchaman, perhaps better known here in the United States as Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets respectively. However, I can’t overlook the role of giant monsters, or kaiju. Godzilla is clearly the most famous, but when I was a kid, my hero was Gamera.

I was thrilled to find Blu-ray copies of Gamera’s first eight films a few weeks ago. I’ve slowly been working my way through them. I’ve run into some people who think Gamera is part of the menagerie who battled Godzilla during his ongoing reign as King of Monsters. In fact, Gamera was the property of an altogether different movie studio. Godzilla’s stories were filmed at Toho Studios. Gamera was competitor Daiei’s entry into the kaiju arena.

For those not familiar with Gamera, he’s a giant fire-breathing turtle with tusks awakened from arctic ice during a dogfight between US and Soviet forces. Although he goes on a rampage for energy in the first film, he seems to have a soft spot for humans, and children in particular. In later films of the series, he’s revealed to be something of a guardian for humanity, protecting them from other monsters. The first eight films take place during Japan’s Shōwa period—the reign of Emperor Hirohito.

To be perfectly honest, the first eight Gamera films are far from great cinema. There’s a good reason several of them were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, I’ve long had the sense that the people behind the film series knew their limitations and had fun with them. At one point Gamera defeats a shark monster called Zigra, then plays a couple of bars of his own theme song on its back. Afterwards, he does a little dance. Another great moment comes in Gamera Super Monster when Gamera is ordered to go on a rampage by aliens and knocks over a sandwich board advertising a Godzilla film. Scenes like these make me think the Shōwa Gamera films have more in common with the 1960’s televised Batman than with films like Manos: The Hands of Fate filmed just down the road in El Paso, Texas.

As it turns out, Gamera was reimagined for a trilogy of really good films in the 1990s. These Heisei-era Gamera films gave a solid backstory to the titular turtle. He still attempts to protect mankind as a whole, but he’s still a giant monster and is prone to mass destruction. Not everyone likes Gamera in these films. The Heisei-era Gamera films also presented some cool glimpses into life in many different parts of Japan. I highly recommend Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and its two sequels.

My love of these films is a small part of what makes me the writer I am today. As a kid, I was drawn to the action and good-natured humor of these films. If it weren’t for these films, I probably wouldn’t have sought out more serious Japanese films like those of Akira Kurosawa, which gave me a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture and storytelling. Writing what we know is, among other things, writing what interests us. So watching Gamera films as a kid, was a first step toward writing my novel The Brazen Shark about samurai resisting cultural change in an alternate, steampunk Japan.

If you’d like to learn more about The Brazen Shark and my inspirations for the novel, I’ll be interviewed on the radio this Friday, July 13 on KTAL Community Radio from 12:30 to 1:00pm Mountain Daylight Time. My friends in Las Cruces can listen on the radio on 101.5 FM. For my friends outside the area, you can listen at: https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html