Posted by David Kalat on March 29, 2014
One of the things about being known as “the guy that wrote that book about Godzilla,” is that when something like this new Godzilla movie comes along, everyone assumes that’s what you want to talk about. The fact is, I’ve written more words and spoken on more total audio commentary tracks regarding silent and early talkie comedy, but Godzilla made my name. And with TCM’s screening of the 1954 original today, and the Bryan Cranston version on its way, I guess I have to live up to that name.
Well, the new film certainly looks well-made and serious, and I expect it will be as dramatic and intense as the trailer suggests. It certainly strains no one’s credulity to claim that the original 1954 Godzilla movie is also serious and intense, an allegory about Japan’s experience with nuclear horror. It is not subtext, it is plainly text, with nothing sub- about it. Thinly disguised images of and openly direct references to the firebombings of Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon incident are spread liberally throughout the film.
But… that isn’t Godzilla, not my Godzilla. Godzilla may have originated in austere political metaphor, but he was popularized as a rubber-suited superhero. He dances happy jigs, imitates rock stars, acts like a wrestler, talks with his pals, sometimes even flies—all while saving the Earth from such menaces as a monster made of living pollution, a ginormous bionic cockroach, or even a giant killer rose.
To pretend that Godzilla movies did not veer into absurdity and rampant silliness is futile. The filmmakers admitted it themselves—with screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa a chief architect of this change in direction.
It starts with a trifle called Varan, a hastily-made hack conceived as an amalgam of the least distinctive characteristics of Godzilla and Rodan, produced with the expectation it would be bought up for American TV and using recycled snippets of footage from the Godzilla films. For the most part, this is merely garden-variety monster-on-the-loose shenanigans for its own sake.
None of the filmmakers had any reason to regard the resulting picture with pride, but it did its job and made money.
However, despite the lowered ambitions, when seen in its unaltered form, Varan may be a low-rent retread of increasingly well-worn tropes, but one salted liberally with irreverent dialog and sly humor. The overall plot structure remains traditional in its stodgy familiarity, but the characters that populate it have quirky, sparkling personalities that comes across through Mad Magazine-worthy wisecracks.
Screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa was a late addition to Toho’s monster-movie team, but a vital one. It took Sekizawa’s unique mind to bring the right flavor of craziness to the proceedings, to embrace the inherent absurdity of the enterprise without undermining any of it.
He started out as an animator, studying at the Kyoto Animation Studio alongside Osamu Tezuka, arguably Japan’s most influential manga artist. In hindsight we can easily see the influence it would later have on Sekizawa’s profession that he began his creative life so intimately connected to visual storytelling and trick photography—but before that came to any fruition there was World War II.
Sekizawa found himself drafted into service in the South Pacific. From 1941 until 1946 he was stuck in bug-infested muggy islands with nothing to eat. Sekizawa hated the war, he was hungry, and he wanted to go home.
When the war ended and he finally did get to go home, he set his mind to eating, and living life to its joyful fullest.
Ishiro Honda once said that Sekizawa was never political. But let’s frame that remark in the proper context: The other primary screenwriter of these science fiction spectacles was Takashi Kimura, a dour dark man. Kimura was most explicitly political, and his status as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party was something of an issue for him. Obviously, compared to Kimura, just about anybody would seem apolitical, Sekizawa included. But if we take Sekizawa only in his own context, his joi de vivre, his lust for life, was itself a private political response to the ascetic authoritarianism behind Imperial Japan’s wartime ambitions.
Once back home from the war, Sekizawa went for a career in the movies, initially at the marvelously named Beehive Studios. He started off as an assistant director, but was recommended for a writing gig as well. Sekizawa managed to turn in a finished script for Profile of the City in just 4 days—a record so astonishing he cemented a career there and then. In 1956 over at Shintoho, he wrote and directed a now-forgotten sci-fi bauble called Fearful Attack of the Flying Saucers (only a rough translation: it has never received distribution outside Japan). Following that, Sekizawa was asked to develop a TV series about a giant monster.
The result was Agon: The Atomic Dragon, in which atomic testing unleashes a maninasuitasaurus, which just happens to look and act like the low-rent Godzilla knock-off he was, even down to the fiery breath. Rightfully unhappy at such blatant plagiarism, Toho shut the thing down.
To keep Sekizawa from developing any further viable competition, they put him to work on their own projects, first with Varan. Sekizawa had found a niche, and would specialize in monster movie scenarios until his retirement in 1974, with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
It’s been said that Toho assigned Kimura to the darker, more adult, more politically charged stories while Sekizawa got all the so-called “kid stuff.” In Guy Tucker’s book Age of the Gods, he quotes an interchange between Kimura and Sekizawa. Kimura asks Sekizawa, “Do you really enjoy writing this?” to which Sekizawa replies, “Of course, I think it’s a lot of fun.” Kimura broods, “Not for me.”
Sekizawa loved monster movies. After the deprivation and suffering of the war years, he found a job where he could enjoy himself, and that enthusiasm spilled over to the audience as well.
All the elaborate effects and spectacle in the world means little without a good script—with a dry wit, a flair for characterization, and a boyish embrace of the absurd, Sekizawa wrote great scripts, more often than not. In place of the stalwart heroes and frail heroines who populated the earlier expressions of the genre, Sekizawa wrote for flawed, funny, personable characters. The leading roles in such films were otherwise little more than utilitarian ciphers, bland figures serving functional narrative roles. Sekizawa’s characters bubble with life.
Varan served as a testing ground for ideas that Sekizawa would revamp and improve upon over the coming years. Varan’s basic plot structure would be endlessly recycled: an excursion to a remote area turns up strange discoveries that prompt a second, better outfitted, expedition that finds a giant monster worshipped by primitive locals.
Sekizawa also signaled his disinterest in the shrinking violets and mousy love interests of the previous films—his heroines would be fully engaged in the action.
After Varan, Sekizawa admitted he was bored by the typical monster-on-the-loose scenario. He wanted to change the formula. His ambition, something no other screenwriter involved in giant monster movies anywhere else in the world was even considering, now seems elegantly simple and obvious: the human characters didn’t have to be reacting to the monster mayhem; it could work the other way around. You could build a coherent narrative that continued to develop equally well when the actors were stunt men in rubber suits as when they were trained thespians, as long as you treated all of the characters as characters.
In the old paradigm, monsters threaten people and people resolve it. But what if people threaten people, and monsters resolve it?
In Sekizawa’s world, human conflicts come first, and the monsters cope with that: In King Kong vs. Godzilla, the greed and narrow attention on his own publicity prompts Mr. Tako to bring King Kong to mainland Japan, and the humans then consciously recruit Kong as a defense against Godzilla. Mr. Tako even says it in dialog: “King Kong versus Godzilla!” They will fight, because he says so. The monsters are agents of human conflict.
Shinichi Sekizawa loved doing these movies and wanted them to be the best they could be, and so disregarded the conventional boundaries of a writer’s role. He helped the design department create new monsters, he advised the special effects department on the use of lighter-weight silicon-based materials so that the monster-suit actors could move more easily, facilitating more energetic fight sequences.
As Sekizawa’s influence grew, things changed. He took the monsters—once so noble, fearsome, and imposing, and turned them into slapstick comedians. And then, he took the women characters—victims and bumblers—and gave them pride of place. And above all, he retooled the franchise to be funnier and more appealing to youngsters.
And I was one of those youngsters to whom this appealed. This is the Japanese monster movie I fell in love with—absurd, colorful, gloriously entertaining, goofy as all get-out.
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