Thursday, July 21, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: GODZILLA 1985, a.k.a THE RETURN OF GODZILLA


Directed by Koji Hashimoto
U.S. Scenes Directed by R.J. Kizer
Music by Reijiroh Koroku
Additional Music by Christopher Young
Cinematography by Kazutami Hara
A Toho Production
Starring
Kenpachiro Satsuma as Godzilla
Keiju Kobayashi as Prime Minister Mitamura
Hiroshi Koizumi as Professor Minami
Raymond Burr as Steve Martin
Ken Tanaka as Goro Maki
Yasuko Sawaguchi as Naoko Okumura
Yosuke Natsuki as Professor Hayashida
Godzilla 1985 is the first movie I remember seeing on the big screen. I was maybe three years old, and it was an intoxicating experience. I don't recall being scared when I first saw it. I was awed. I saw the entire modern edifice of civilization, its skyscrapers, its ultra-tech military toys, its pathetic Cold War Great Powers gamesmanship, its nuclear reactors, and even its nuclear weapons utterly obliterated by a giant, quasi-humanoid dinosaur with crazed, hurting eyes that breathed blue fire, and roared in a way that I always wished I could imitate whenever I was at home with my Godzilla action figure.

That roar was a sound that no human could make. I was convinced. Godzilla was real. Godzilla was unstoppable. Never mind the fact that he gets dropped into a volcano and buried under a massive, demolitions-triggered avalanche--I knew he would be back.

I knew Godzilla was real. Even though the movie was obviously fake. Tanks, mobile anti-Godzilla missile batteries, fighter jets, and those articulated mobile laser beam satellite dish things that never do any damage but are always trotted out, at vast expense to the Japanese taxpayers, to zap the giant monsters--all were clearly radio controlled toys. The skyscrapers were all obviously models rigged to fall apart and explode in exact ways. The Japanese actors were all clearly dubbed into flattened-affect English, although the Japanese Prime Minister's face quivered with genuine emotion as he faced the prospect of a third nuclear annihilation by a missile meant to assassinate Godzilla. All of this transparent artifice conspired to create a kind of fantasy zone where a story this outrageous could safely play out, where an audience could sit in the dark and let a Devonian beast of doom sweep away a world made grim by nuclear weapons, Reaganomics, Secret Soviet Nuclear Cities, and the doldrums of sitcom idiocy. To a child, radio-controlled toys are cool. Giant monsters spitting fire are awesome! Crumbling-exploding model buildings are superneat! And what about that disgusting mutant sea louse that attacks the guy on the derelict boat at the very beginning?! Realism is not necessary or sufficient for whimsical fun.

And then there were the US-only "added value" scenes with Raymond Burr as a journalist and a bunch of guys no one ever heard of as the military functionaries voyeuristically observing Godzilla's rampage via telescreen in a Strangelovian bunker somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. One of the voyeurs is a red-haired smartass who at one point remarks of Godzilla's rampage through downtown Tokyo, "That's quite an urban renewal program they have going on there!" Raymond Burr's character, named Steve Martin, offsets laughing boy's Airplane!-esque wisecracks with such grim pronouncements as this,

"Nature has a way sometimes of reminding Man of just how small he is. She occasionally throws up the terrible offspring of our pride and carelessness to remind us of how puny we really are in the face of a tornado, an earthquake, or a Godzilla. The reckless ambitions of Man are often dwarfed by their dangerous consequences. For now, Godzilla-that strangely innocent and tragic monster-has gone to earth. Whether he returns or not, or is never again seen by human eyes, the things he has taught us remain . . ."
Godzilla is famous for his grudge matches against other giant beasts such as the pro-human lepidoptera Mothra, the malevolent space-born King Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, Hedorah the Smog Monster(a.k.a. Hedorah the Shambling Pollution Metaphor), the freakish pteranodon Rodan, and his shiny cyber-doppelganger Mechagodzilla.
In Godzilla 1985 the primary antagonist is not a fellow giant beast but the high tech, heavily armed VTOL craft the Super-X which has been secretly under construction by the Japanese government in anticipation of World War III. The Super-X is equipped with missiles, vulcan cannons, high powered laser beams, and cadmium bombs which the powers that be hope will shut down the biological nuclear reactor that is speculated to be at the heart of the beast. The Super-X is piloted by a hotshot crew of dudes in orange jumpsuits who could pass for a dedicated Devo cover band.
The Super-X comes close to killing Godzilla with its cadmium bombs which it fires down Godzilla's throat with a (circa 1985) high tech aiming system that makes total war seem like a big budget video game. Godzilla suffers a titanic case of heartburn and acid reflux. Drooling stomach acid, he slumps against the base of a towering skyscraper. "Wonder Lizard is down for the count!" cheers Corporal Smartass.
Too soon, my bro!
A Soviet nuclear missile which had been launched in the hopes of preventing Wonder Lizard from bringing down the Iron Curtain is intercepted by another nuke launched by the USA. A massive atmospheric nuclear blast triggers an EMP, interfering with the live feed into the secret bunker of the Pentagon, shorting out some of the navigation systems on board the Super-X, and causes a formidable lightning storm which launches a lightning bolt at Godzilla. The bolt jumpstarts Godzilla's heart. He shakes off the dust of ruined buildings, and rises to his full height. He fixes his hateful eyes on his foe, the Super-X, and charges into battle. The Super-X unleashes a storm of ordinance and death rays, all of it detonating harmlessly against Godzilla's super-tough hide. Godzilla scorches the Super-X with a withering blast of radioactive fire, and the hope of the Japanese military-industrial complex sputters and sinks towards the asphalt. Godzilla delivers the coup de grace by crushing it with a skyscraper. Exit Devo cover band.
At age three, the battle between Godzilla and the Super-X was without a doubt the coolest thing I had ever seen. When Godzilla dropped dead after swallowing the cadmium bombs, I thought that was it. Then the whole nuclear missile plot kicked in, and the suspense of whether or not Tokyo would be annihilated by the Russian missile supplanted the saga of the radioactive lizard. But not for long . . . and when the revivified beast finally crushed the Super-X I was deeply gratified. Once again, the bogus progress of an arrogant high tech civilization had been shown up for a sham. Wonder Lizard marches on!
In the end, humanity triumphs when the military-industrial complex prostrates itself before the university scientists. The eggheads come up with a plan to lure Godzilla away from Tokyo by transmitting modified bird frequencies into the beast's brain. The logic, I suppose, is that since dinosaurs evolved into birds, Godzilla somehow has a rapport with the sounds that birds make. Or maybe the scientists were able to use their DNA sampling supercomputers and sound manipulation software to extract the ancient dinosaur mojo from the birds and transform it into signals that would attract Godzilla. Toho Science at its finest!
The signal lures Godzilla to the precipice of Mount Fuji. Explosives are detonated. He falls into the churning magma, soon to be buried by a second wave of high explosives. Godzilla unleashes a piercing, high-pitched version of his scream. The music swells, and Raymond Burr eulogizes "that strangely innocent and tragic monster" in a sonorous voice over. Exit Wonder Lizard.
Watching this movie again, it still gets to me. It imprinted itself upon me at a very early age, and I suspect it was the beginnings of my anxiety about world annihilation. All throughout my childhood and adolescence I had recurring dreams of the world being destroyed by nuclear bombs. I was always fascinated by imagery of nuke tests and displays of military firepower. As a teenager, I read H.P. Lovecraft and was captivated by his mythos of giant rubbery beasts from distant stars waging cataclysmic war across the face of the primeval earth. Reading At the Mountains of Madness I discovered humanity's true origin: our species evolved as a by-product of menial work organisms bred for slave labor by the Great Old Ones. The menials were among the few survivors of those disastrous conflicts. Most of the Old Ones were killed, some fled to the stars, others went into hibernation. Was Godzilla a Great Old One? Maybe a distant relation. If Godzilla was a Great Old One, maybe his desire to inflict damage on humanity grew out of his resentment at the ascendancy over vast gulfs of time of the former servitor organisms. Godzilla lashes out at humanity to remind us of where we come from . . . yeah, I know, that's not what the Godzilla movies say about his origin. This is my homebrew fanfic version, take it or leave it.
In recent years, I've rediscovered the joys of old monster movies. In particular the Godzilla films, but also other Japanese sci-fi and fantasy films. In my adolescence, I lost track of my sense of humor, and could no longer tolerate these movies' distinct retro-charms. The beyond-lame 1998 Hollywood movie directed by Roland Emmerich did not help. This disinterest continued well into the 21st century until around 2005 when I saw Godzilla Final Wars. I tracked down a VHS copy of Godzilla 1985 and was instantly transported back to the age of three, and realized this movie was my Citizen Kane, my Rosebud of a sort. It's hard for me to be too analytic about it, although certain rather adult sentiments and ironic reflections have worked their way into my understanding of the movie. Watching it now, it acts as a strange kind of magnet drawing forth from the depths of my consciousness my three year old self, not totally obliterated by time and neuronal demolition and reconstruction (Neuronal Renewal Program . . .?), and I view the movie not alone but with this ghost of my three year old self.
Trailer for International English Dub of Godzilla 1985:
Steve Martin Eulogizes Godzilla:
Exit Godzilla NES Music:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A SLOW DEATH: 83 DAYS OF RADIATION SICKNESS by NHK-TV "Tokaimura Criticality Accident" Crew, 2008 English Translation by Maho Harada


Published by Vertical Inc., New York

September 30, 1999:
Three workers at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan are exposed to high amounts of neutron beams during a criticality accident.

This is a book about a man named Ouchi whose chromosomes were destroyed by a blast of neutron rays while working in unsafe conditions in a uranium processing facility in Tokaimura, which is north east of Tokyo. For 83 days, a crack team of doctors, nurses, and medical experts from several countries try to keep him alive. Because Ouchi's chromosomes have been destroyed, his body cannot generate new cells to replace the dead ones. His skin falls off. His mucus membranes disappear. He is in constant pain. He suffers massive internal hemorrhages and the medical staff have to constantly pump fluids and nutrients into his body to keep him alive. His organs fail, one by one, and their functions are taken over by various machines. As he literally melts before their eyes, Ouchi's doctors and nurses question whether or not what they are doing is the right thing to do. That is to say, are they actually helping him, or are they just endlessly prolonging his agony?

This is a slim but tough book. It goes into gruesome but necessary detail about the deterioration of a human body afflicted by neutron beam radiation. It is told in a straightforward reportorial style that goes into thoroughgoing technical detail but not so much that the average reader cannot follow along. It also gives space to the emotional turmoil the medical staff underwent as they battled to keep Ouchi alive.

In some ways, this is a book about the dangers of atomic radiation, but it is also a strange kind of existential novel where the main character's mental state is largely unknown at the height of his suffering, and therefore the crucial question of whether or not to go on living is displaced onto the nurses and doctors. Ouchi was under heavy sedation for much of his sickness to alleviate his agony and he was unable to communicate in any detail what his thoughts and feelings were. The book seems to suggest that had he been awake his suffering would've been monstrous. The medical staff did what they thought was best even in the face of a hopeless situation. Their mission, as they understood it, was to save a man's life and battle his sickness to the last.

This book is derived from a television documentary originally broadcast by NHK in May 2001. I haven't been able to find any clips of it online, but I imagine it must be a harrowing viewing experience. I also wonder if there has been an effort to suppress it from being aired by powerful interests.

This was a very small scale accident compared to the ongoing nuclear disasters afflicting Japan this year, and so I would not compare Ouchi's situation with the present cataclysm. But considering the reports of clean-up workers being overworked and overexposed by their employers, and the seemingly endemic problems that the Japanese government and the nuclear industry overall have with getting their stories and their numbers straight, I think this book is valuable for zeroing in on the suffering of a single human being. Now multiply that suffering by a few million individuals. It's incomprehensible, but every individual person affected by the tsunami and the nuclear accidents this year is undergoing, to a greater or lesser degree, some ordeal, some kind of suffering. Workers in the clean-up effort are very much at risk for severe radiation poisoning and related illnesses.

Nuclear accidents are not new. There also seems to be a problem on the part of the authorities with facing these problems, or, at the very least, giving an honest account of them. I would like to believe that books and other media are a way of keeping governments and business interests honest, of exposing corruption, incompetence, and systemic failure, but I also know that a book like A Slow Death is not a bestseller. Not even close.

Nuclear power offers a potential way out of many of the energy crises facing humanity. There are also great dangers involved through incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption. Political and business leaders seem to be all too cozy with nuclear interests, and nuclear plant designs seem to get fast-tracked with a minimum of oversight on issues of safety, durability, and overall harmonious design of structures in relation to geographic location. And, to be fair to the Japanese government and business interests, I'm not sure what defense exists against a tsunami that sweeps away vast numbers of cars, trucks, houses, shipping containers, tanker ships, and the earth itself.

All that seems certain is that people are suffering now, and more will suffer in the future, no matter what books get written, no matter how insightful the analyses and conclusions are regarding the dire consequences of nuclear accidents and natural disasters, and the predictably mediocre efforts of governments and corporations to do PR damage control, juggle the numbers, and pass the buck to future generations.

Vertical, Inc.'s website: