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Critics get frank when it comes to Godzilla

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Because Japanese media are incestuous in their inter-corporate dealings, those writers referred to as hyōronka (critics) tend to be less critical about popular culture than their counterparts in North America and Europe. They are more likely to engage in punditry or public relations, because complaining about the quality of a movie, album or novel risks upsetting someone in the same business — publishing, broadcasting, advertising — who could influence your professional life.

Some years ago I wrote movie reviews for a local publication whose editor encouraged us to express our opinions frankly, and on occasion he was punished for it by distributors who uninvited his reviewers to their press screenings. The magazine was in Japanese. When I write in English in Japan, I can say whatever I want because, well, who cares?

This Japanese code applies also when the subject is foreigners appropriating Japanese material. Local critics reacted enthusiastically to Hollywood’s take on Japanese femininity when it adapted the best-seller “Memoirs of a Geisha” for the screen. Though the novel, written in English by an American, was well received, the movie version was generally derided overseas for its canned melodramatics and the awkward earnestness of its Japanese depictions, not to mention its casting of a Chinese actress in the title role because she had more international star cachet than any Japanese actress the filmmakers could think of. Japanese critics simply expressed their delight in the notion that Steven Spielberg, an executive producer, would deign to cover such a subject. They even liked “Pearl Harbor.”

But Godzilla is different. Godzilla belongs to Japan, as both a film series and a character, in a way that demands scrutiny whenever non-Japanese attempt to use the monster for their own ends. In 1998, the first time Hollywood made a feature starring the big lizard, the Japanese press was mostly silent, a reaction that indicated displeasure with the movie, which basically transplanted the monster’s famous disregard for urban infrastructure from Tokyo to New York without providing a story that was compelling. But what mainly bothered them was the transformation of Godzilla into a typical dinosaur. Godzilla may be cold-blooded and scaly and huge, but he’s nobody’s T-Rex.

There has been less polite caution with the new Hollywood incarnation. The Japanese media has covered it in detail and opinions have varied in tone and purport. For the most part the comments have been positive, because the filmmakers have made more of an effort to honor the spirit and visual style of the Japanese series, but by the same token there’s an undercurrent of impatience with how difficult it is for Hollywood, and by extension Americans (though the director is British), to break old habits, especially when it comes to a movie positioned as a summer blockbuster.

Asahi Shimbun attempted to summarize these views in a recent feature that included reviews by four media figures. What’s consistent is the attempt to wrestle with Hollywood’s faithfulness to the original rather than any closely considered criticism of the film’s value as entertainment. No one specifically mentioned the recent digitally restored version of the 1954 “Godzilla” that was shown in theaters several months ago and on NHK. It’s understandable, because the original version, which, as Mark Schilling explained in this newspaper several months ago, was as much a cautionary social drama as it was a sci-fi thriller, has always been available in Japan, while it has only recently come to the attention of American audiences, who previously had access to a bowdlerized dubbed version that contained only sublimated references to nuclear weapons, a vital subtext of the original Japanese production.

The only critic in the Asahi feature was Naofumi Higuchi, who acknowledged that Hollywood complicated the “anti-war, anti-nuclear sensibility” of the original with a mixed message about the usefulness of atomic weapons. On the one hand nuclear technology is what awoke these dormant monsters, but on the other it is initially seen as the only means of destroying them. The scientist played by Ken Watanabe represents the outlook of the old movie when he tells the American military commander that using nukes to kill Godzilla and the insectlike Muto Godzilla is fighting is like using gasoline to put out a fire. “Let them fight,” he says. But rather than the overarching theme of self-sacrifice that made the 1954 version so moving, the new “Godzilla” is characterized by resignation: Humans are nothing to these creatures, so why not just sit back and enjoy the carnage? The best joke in the movie is a TV news bulletin at the end hailing Godzilla for “saving” San Francisco from the Muto, when, in actuality, the battle between the monsters has effectively destroyed the city.

Screenwriter Kazuki Nakajima takes issue with this stance, saying that making the monster into a “good guy” turns it into “the sort of Godzilla aimed at kids in the late Showa Era.” He believes Godzilla should be a fearsome entity, as in the original. Illustrator Yuji Kaida, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed the new film, calling it a “real kaijū eiga” (monster movie) that honored the original in that Godzilla was presented as a force beyond human understanding that maintained the Earth’s natural balance. He also complimented the monster’s physique and the way the director conveyed its mass.

But the last word was had by documentarian Kazuhiro Soda, who decried the “scattershot script” and lack of nerve on the part of the filmmakers to say “anything substantial” about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy. By burdening the Muto with all the movie’s villainy, humankind is let off the hook, which is the same reason the original “Godzilla” had to be re-edited for the U.S. market back in the 1950s. “Humans should be Godzilla’s enemy,” says Soda, since we’re the ones who upset that natural balance in the first place.