Is Godzilla science fiction or horror?
Keith: Here’s a question without a real answer, but one I think provides an interesting starting point for talking about Godzilla: Is this a science-fiction movie, or a horror movie? On the one hand, the answer is obvious: It has a big monster in it. King Kong has a big monster in it. King Kong is a horror film. Ergo… And yet I think there’s a crucial difference. King Kong, the ape, comes from Skull Island, an unexplored corner of the world, and King Kong, the movie, comes from 1933, pretty much the tail-end of the era when it was possible to think the world might be full of unexplored pockets filled with mystery and monsters. Godzilla has a touch of that, too. Odo Island has its own traditions, many of them related to a giant monster that hasn’t troubled its residents in centuries (and that, like the Skull Islanders, used to take the island’s women as sacrifices). But the fact that Godzilla is awakened by a nuclear blast, and consequently breathes down death in the form of his atomic breath, complicates matters. Appropriate to a horror film, he’s a monstrous manifestation of things that have been repressed. That’s literally true, in the sense that at the beginning of Godzilla, the eponymous monster hasn’t troubled anyone for a long time. But it’s figuratively true in that he embodies Japan’s fears of nuclear warfare, both the atomic bomb that caused massive casualties in two major cities, and the hydrogen bomb, which claimed its first victim by killing the radio man of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a Japanese fishing boat that sailed into bomb-test waters. Godzilla is the anxieties of the day writ large, and given a nuclear coating, which brings it closer to science fiction. So which is it?
Tasha: If it’s really necessary to pin this down, I’m voting “science fiction.” The actual fear factor in the film is much, much lower than it would be in a horror film. Horror tends to be more about personal problems: Isolated people stuck in a situation that provokes terror. Once the problem becomes societal, and the answer lies in analysis and methodology, it stops feeling like horror to me. And Godzilla is surprisingly analytical and detached about the problem of a gigantic monster flattening a city. That said, does this film really need to fall into one division or the other? I think of Japan’s giant-monster movies—kaiju films—as their own fairly specific subgenre, not all that frightening, but not all that scientific, either.
Matt: If pressed to choose, I would call Godzilla a horror movie with science-fiction trappings. Unlike Tasha, I find Godzilla kind of terrifying, particularly the early scenes where one fishing boat after another is destroyed by something lurking in the waters off Odo Island. That sequence really reminds me of Jaws, with this unseen force that’s all the more terrifying because it’s left offscreen. Eventually, we do see Godzilla, but by that point, the film has created this incredible atmosphere of dread, and a world where death can come at any moment, without warning or explanation. The performances match the unsettling mood: The actors on the fishing boats or the shores of Odo Island writhe in agony or scream in terror, with disturbing intensity. Godzilla becomes more like science fiction as it progresses, and certainly as the series evolved over years and decades, it gradually became less scary and more silly. But for my money, this original is one horrifying experience.
Nathan: I agree with Tasha about putting Godzilla closer to the science-fiction side of the fence. Re-watching the film, I was struck by how little Godzilla actually appears in the movie. He has that giant rampage (which may have inspired the videogame Rampage, but not the William Friedkin film Rampage), but otherwise, as Tasha noted, he’s a force for society to deal with, as it would with space aliens, sharknados, or any of the fantastical afflictions found in science-fiction movies. The film devotes more screen time to scientists contemplating the ethical dilemmas posed by Godzilla’s emergence and the super-weapon that can destroy him than it does to Godzilla stomping, so while it may not be super-scientific, it is surprisingly philosophical in a manner more in line with science fiction than proper horror.
Scott: I think it’s telling that it never occurred to me to classify Godzilla as anything until this prompt, and I’m still not sure I have an answer for you. Yes, there’s science fiction, with plenty of contemplation of technological advances on humankind, particularly with regard to the inventor of the dreaded Oxygen Destroyer, who faces an ethical dilemma in line with the scientists on the Manhattan Project. And yes, there’s horror, with lots of people fleeing from a rampaging monster. But the film’s connection to the recent past and the brutal, mournful tone that dominates it reminded me of neither genre. This is real horror, veiled oh-so-thinly by a monster movie.
The Big Monster tradition
Nathan: When people think of big monsters, Godzilla is undoubtedly one of the first names that comes up, along with King Kong. Kong predates Godzilla by decades, yet is closely associated with the thunder lizard in the public imagination, in large part because of the successful 1962 monster mash-up King Kong Vs. Godzilla. In that respect, the film is a link between King Kong’s dashing, old-fashioned adventure and the kaiju films that followed, many of which introduced monsters who went on to square off against Godzilla and/or King Kong. But the film also belongs to the long tradition of monster movies that reflect the prominent anxieties of its time; in that respect, its successors are movies like Cloverfield rather than, say, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, though the purposefully apolitical Pacific Rim is also very much a Godzilla descendent. Where do you feel the big guy fits in the big timeline of terrifying, sympathetic giant beasties?
Matt: Kong may have won the battle in King Kong Vs. Godzilla—and no, the movie didn’t have different, partisan endings depending on the country, that’s just an urban legend—but Godzilla clearly won the war. He’s appeared in almost 30 more films than Kong, and he’s proven far more durable and elastic, slowly evolving from sinister symbol to national hero. He’s changed with the times both physically and metaphorically, while Kong has basically remained the same (a big angry ape with the hots for blondes) in every incarnation. Plus, Godzilla has one of the all-time great theme songs, atomic fire breath, and a cousin named Godzooky. He’s obviously the best. That’s not opinion, that’s science. Mothra’s pretty cool too, though.
Scott: In the case of King Kong vs. Godzilla, I’m not sure there’s a clear winner, unless you’re judging by quantity, in which case Godzilla, per Matt, comes out well ahead. But there’s such a disconnect between this Godzilla and most of the incarnations that followed that it’s hard to think of him as a single monster. King Kong and Godzilla are both soulful beasts, whether they’re a manifestation of mankind’s hubris and quest for power, or merely victimized by it. But in terms of metaphor—and fighting smog monsters—I’d have to go along with Matt and give Godzilla the edge, because the big guy has stood for humanity at its most destructive and heroic, and signified many different things over the years.
Matt: Hold on a second. King Kong and Godzilla fight, they both tumble into the ocean, and then only Kong comes back up the surface and swims away. The characters even wonder whether Godzilla is dead. That’s a win for Kong! Maybe it’s not a knockout, but on the judges’ scorecards, it’s a unanimous decision. And by judges, I mean me.
Tasha: In the King Kong vs. Godzilla debate, I’m going to loop back to the topic header, and choose “any giant monster that gets the screen to itself.” On his own, King Kong is a tragic symbol of elemental nature, tamed, turned into a sideshow, and ultimately destroyed for rebelling against encroaching civilization. Godzilla is a more flexible symbol for whatever the age requires. But put them together and make them fight, and they stop being resonant, individualistic symbols, and start being kids’ toys being whanged against each other in a never-ending, not particularly weighty battle for supremacy. On his own, Godzilla is chilling; once Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, Gamera, and all the other goofiness comes into play, being a giant monster isn’t particularly special anymore. So I’ll take the Cloverfield monster, or the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, or Bruce the shark in Jaws, or the bronze Titan in Jason And The Argonauts—any outsized creature that gets to be singular in its own movie, and representative of something larger and more interesting than “Who would win in this monster fight of the week?”
Keith: When I proposed this topic, I had something headier in mind than “Who’s better: King Kong or Godzilla?” But now that it’s out there, I’ll have to out myself as a longtime Kong partisan, because I feel for the big ape. But I have to feel for Godzilla, too. He’s less expressive, but audiences went for him right away, even in this film: On the audio commentary, Godzilla expert David Kalat relates stories of original viewers weeping over his death at the end. Even after all that destruction, there’s something about the guy.
We also shouldn’t let this topic die without acknowledging a couple of other key influences on the film: Mighty Joe Young and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, both of which featured expressive monsters created, in whole or part, by Ray Harryhausen, and both of which contributed to Godzilla’s DNA.
Technology and ethics
Tasha: When I first saw the original Godzilla, I was expecting something tonally more like Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American version: a dim, enthusiastic thriller primarily focused on the fear caused by a giant monster ravaging a city. Instead, I got an ethics debate. That’s what fascinates me most about the film: the way the city-smashing monster takes a backseat to a conversation about technology and humanity, and to what degree mankind can be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. First, nuclear testing causes the Godzilla problem, by freeing him from the ocean depths, or disturbing his Cthulhu-esque slumber, or mutating a lizard to giant size, depending on the version of the story you believe. Then, scientist Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) comes up with a way to kill the beast, but would rather just let it rampage, because he knows once his Oxygen Destroyer weapon is out there, it’ll be impossible to keep people from using it. The argument that a singular unstoppable force of destruction may be better than a reusable weapon is pretty melancholy and cynical one. That’s what makes the first Godzilla stand out from the others, and what I wasn’t expecting at all: melancholia and fatalism.
Nathan: Tasha, it’s awfully generous of you to describe the 1998 American version as a “thriller,” and not an insultingly campy insult to everything, including the concept of camp. You certainly will not find any melancholia or fatalism in Emmerich’s Godzilla, and as you stated, those are the dominant tones of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla, a film haunted by the outsized shadow of World War II. I was struck by images echoing the destruction of the atom bomb, particularly the mother crying out to her children that they are about to join daddy. The scene would border on kitsch if it weren’t so directly rooted in the still-fresh wound left by the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are a lot ethical debates in Godzilla (come for the city-stomping, stay for the philosophical conjecture!), but every option entails death, destruction, and sacrifice. The world had gotten a whole lot scarier for Japan by 1954, and Godzilla powerfully reflects that.
Matt: I don’t know, Nathan, when Emmerich’s Godzilla ended with Puff Daddy rapping over Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” I remember feeling pretty melancholic and fatalistic. But back to the more immediate matter at hand: Those debate scenes are yet another way this Godzilla stands apart from its sequels and transcends the whole rampaging-monster genre. Rather than playing kaiju mayhem for escapist thrills, Godzilla does the exact opposite; the filmmakers are actively trying to wrap their brains around this incomprehensible tragedy and wrestle with it onscreen. Serizawa isn’t the only character to weigh the potential responses to Godzilla, either; Professor Yamane, for example, spends a long time arguing that the creature is a major scientific discovery, and needs to be kept alive. The bleak conclusion, with Serizawa killing himself to keep his Oxygen Destroyer from falling into the wrong hands, suggests that mankind’s nuclear folly has opened a Pandora’s box that can only be closed with extreme sacrifice.
Keith: It’s a neat contrast, too, with the way scientists were used in subsequent kaiju films: essentially as exposition machines, or stereotypical mad scientists. With his eyepatch, Serizawa looks the part of the latter, and by following the path of research wherever it takes him, he acts the part, too. But once he recognizes the implications, his conscience kicks in, and that makes him a considerably different sort of character.
Scott: The moral fretting over the Oxygen Destroyer is one of the things that makes Godzilla special as a monster movie, because if you consider that the creature is capable of leveling cities without showing any vulnerability to conventional defense, the natural thing to do is kill it by any means necessary. And though that’s what ultimately happens, the emphasis on handling destructive technology carefully and thoughtfully—in this case, to use once and never again—is a powerful commentary on the recent past.
Matt: Toho’s Godzilla films are remembered for their lovably cheesy special effects, and for decades of guys in rubber suits swatting at giant moths on poorly concealed wires. But I find the special effects in the original Godzilla surprisingly convincing, mostly because the film doesn’t overreach. As we mentioned earlier, it keeps Godzilla offscreen for most of the first half of the film, and once he’s unleashed on Tokyo, he attacks mostly at night, and rarely in shots that last longer than a second or two. There are few extended looks at Godzilla while he’s lumbering around. Honda focuses instead on short, concentrated bursts of action, and lets editing and viewers’ imaginations connect the dots. The film’s murky black-and-white photography definitely helps mask some of the flaws as well. How do you guys think this Godzilla holds up on the technical side of things? Am I being too generous?
Keith: I don’t think so, but then I tend to be generous and try my best to put myself in the place of audiences at the time, who were used to effects with visible seams. (The moment on the Casablanca audio commentary where Roger Ebert laments that audiences snicker at obvious optical effects—in this case, he was noting a bit of rear projection—that were once just part of the expected grammar of filmmaking has stuck with me.) Perfection can be a little boring, and while there are a few elements that look a little clunky—jets on obvious wires, trucks that look a little too much like they were made by Tonka—I think the overall effect is terrifically convincing.
Nathan: If Godzilla were to linger too long on the image of Godzilla, upright, stomping about, the effect would be disastrous and more than a little ridiculous. We’d be completely taken out of the movie by the presence of what is clearly a dude in a silly monster costume. But Godzilla does wonders with suggestion and mood. The atmosphere and tone create the sense of danger more than the monster itself; by the time we see what Godzilla has done, we’re sufficiently primed to be scared by a dude in a monster suit.
Scott: It’s absurd to look at the effects in Godzilla without considering them in the context of the time, rather than comparing them to what’s possible today. And frankly, I’ll happily take the rubber suits and scale models over more seamless CGI, because hand-crafted effects have so much more charm and tactility. What impressed me about Godzilla on this viewing was how long the effects sequences are. The filmmakers hold off on showing the creature as long as possible, but not because they’re ashamed of how it actually looks.
Tasha: And don’t sell that “silly monster costume” too short. Godzilla’s movement may be a little too human—it took Jim Henson (and later, Ridley Scott and his crew) to really work out how to make a person in a creature costume move like something other than human—but his look is still amazing, especially in the high-contrast black-and-white that shows off every pebbly scale on his body. The rugged, crenellated spikes on his back are always what surprise me most in their attention to detail. I think they make the look: Without them, Godzilla might just be a big lizard, but given back-plates reminiscent of a stegosaurus’, he looks positively prehistoric. More importantly, they’re actually made to look rigid and bony, which helps make the rubber suit look like something other than rubber. It’s just a costume, but it’s an extremely well-designed one.
And for that matter, this Godzilla gets more out of Godzilla than other movies in the series because it focuses on the uncanniness of the suit and Godzilla’s lumbering presence, and doesn’t have him jumping or flailing around, as he does when fighting other kaiju critters. There’s a ponderous dignity to the way he moves when smashing miniaturized electrical towers and burning down entire districts—when he’s up against objects on a human scale, he seems bigger and more majestic, and in the original Godzilla, those things tend to be intricately constructed and designed for convincing realism. That sense of detail and weight don’t come into play in later movies, when he’s flapping his tail or his rubbery neck at other creatures on his scale, which just makes them all look smaller and less convincing by comparison.
Scott: The American cut of Godzilla with Raymond Burr, called Godzilla: King Of The Monsters!, makes mincemeat of the Japanese version, hacking it down to 80 minutes and telling the story through Burr, who relays the action as a reporter for a news agency. Though the practice of re-editing imports continues today—thank you, Harvey Weinstein—there’s also an increased awareness of it among critics and cineastes, who will often call it out. Looking at The New York Times review for Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, written by the reliably clueless Bosley Crowther, there’s absolutely zero mention of the changes, other than to note disdainfully that the Japanese actors have “plainly” been dubbed into English. (Nice detective work there, Bosley.) The kicker: “The whole thing is in the category of cheap cinematic horror-stuff, and it is too bad that a respectable theatre has to lure children and gullible grown-ups with such fare.” Fortunately, time has been kind to Godzilla. Bosley Crowther, not so much.
Keith: On the commentary track for Godzilla: King Of The Monsters!, Kalat points out a) there isn’t that much dubbing, with much more information coming from Burr’s character (Steve Martin!) translating Japanese, and b) that review picks on the acting even though the Times previously called Takashi Shimura one of the world’s great actors. So something was getting lost in translation, clearly. Mostly, I’m glad to have the original version back in circulation, though the American edit isn’t quite as bad as its reputation. It’s a lot easier to defend one of the landmark movies of the post-war era with the original in hand.
Nathan: Godzilla has been mutated, re-imagined, and reinvented so many times, by so many people, for so many different reasons, that it’s bracing and essential to go to the source and see just how powerful the original product is. Godzilla’s strange evolution from a sad, sinister emblem of nuclear tragedy to a goofy symbol of Japanese pop culture reminds me of the way over the course of a few films, John Rambo went from being a brooding, sorrowful representation of a lost war to a jingoistic hero of the Cold War. What begins as tragedy morphs over time into comedy, per the famous equation.
Yesterday, Keith Phipps kicked off our Movie Of The Week discussion of Godzilla with a Keynote on how the film’s incorporation of atomic-age fears keeps it scary to this day. And tomorrow, Noel Murray takes a look at the very British Godzilla knock-off Gorgo.