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One man’s ‘Godzilla’ marathon is another man’s nightmare

  • ‘Godzilla is coming!!!’

  • Usually that line is followed by something like, “Run for your lives!” or “Evacuate the city!” It’s blared over an outdoor loudspeaker while panicked crowds run through the streets of Tokyo. They know it means a large, mutated lizard with jagged dorsal fins, heat-ray breath, and a penchant for knocking down buildings is approaching.

  • The phrase would fit in nicely with the advertising campaign surrounding the May 16 release of Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla” reboot. Directed by Gareth Edwards (“Monsters”) and starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, it’s the first Godzilla film since Japan’s renowned Toho Company finished its long-running series. Toho made 28 features with the big gray guy, starting with “Gojira” in 1954, and ending with “Godzilla: Final Wars” in 2004. It’s only the second American-produced “Godzilla,” after the overwhelmingly panned 1998 film starring Matthew Broderick.

  • Although it makes me feel like an addict at a 12-step program meeting, I have no problem admitting “I am a Godzilla fan.” I saw “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” as a 6-year-old. It scared the dickens out of me.

  • The first couple of Toho films in this genre were straight-up horror stories; Godzilla was a metaphor for the real-life atomic devastation America unleashed upon Japan less than a decade earlier. The movies then became kiddie fare, often featuring Japanese boys and girls cheering on Godzilla as he blasted or bashed other monsters or space invaders. By the end of his run, he had turned back into a villain.

  • In preparation for the new film, I decided to watch — in some cases rewatch — a few earlier ones. But a few turned into a dozen, and I kept going, ingesting a total of 1,379 minutes of Godzilla films in just under two weeks.


DAY 1

“Godzilla, King of the Monsters” (1956)

  • I decided to start with the one I started with all those years ago, re-edited from the original, and in English. There’s stern Raymond Burr, soon to be Perry Mason, playing a journalist, climbing out of some Tokyo rubble and reporting, “The odor of scorched flesh fills the air.” In flashback, we meet paleontologist Dr. Yemane — I recognize the actor (Takashi Shimura, who originated the character onscreen) from “Seven Samurai” and “Throne of Blood” — and soon travel to Odo Island, where natives speak of a monster. Burr: “If he’s seen a monster, he’s had too much sake.” But Godzilla appears again, and scientists hypothesize that he’s from the Jurassic period, back now because of experiments with H bombs. He makes his way to Tokyo, where, with his radioactive breath and clumsy maneuvering, he burns up people and knocks down buildings. He’s done in by an “oxygen destroyer.” This is a bleak, well-made movie.

AP

“Gojira” (1954)

  • The one that started them all. Scenes that were later narrated by the Burr character are played out here. After Gojira’s discovery on Odo Island, Dr. Yemane classifies him as something between a marine animal and a terrestrial animal, and explains that he “has been altered by American nuclear testing.” Ah, yes, the first negative reference to Americans. We visit the Counter Godzilla Headquarters in Tokyo, where the monster is headed and where, eventually, he knocks down a lot more real estate than in the American version. There are grim hospital scenes, showing dead bodies and radioactive kids, and after Godzilla is vanquished by the oxygen destroyer, Dr. Yemane issues a warning about future nuclear testing.

DAY 2

“Godzilla Raids Again” (1955)

  • Godzilla — wait, wasn’t he killed in the first one? — is hanging out at Owatu Island, where another creature, Anguirus, picks a fight, because that’s what monsters do. Dr. Yemane is back, explaining, “The H bomb awakened Godzilla, and now it awakened an Ankylosaurus.” In this movie world, Godzilla is a type of dinosaur, so the sequel’s lead monster is a second Godzilla. He heads to Osaka this time, and gets into another battle with Anguirus, in which they grapple like middle-aged wrestlers. Keeping a hint of anti-American sentiment, a radio announcer calls Godzilla “the creature born from the hydrogen bomb.” Godzilla soon heads to a snowy island where the Japanese military drops bombs, burying him in an avalanche. Too bad there wasn’t a bigger effects budget. The scene looks like he’s being covered by giant ice cubes. This is a hastily made film that’s a big step down from the first.

Bob Eggleton

“King Kong Vs. Godzilla” (1962)

  • The first Godzilla film in color pits America (King Kong) against Japan (Godzilla) and begins on Faro Island, where Kong subsists on red berries that keep him in a state of bliss. A Japanese pharmaceutical company needs a monster of its own to pump up ratings on a TV show it sponsors. The suits find out about Kong around the same time that an American submarine hits an iceberg where, yup, Godzilla has been encased. Godzilla is said to be a cross between a tyrannosaur and a stegosaurus. But there’s no explanation for the big red land octopus that battles Kong for his buzz-inducing berries. Kong, captured by the pharma folks, and newly freed Godzilla head to Tokyo, where Kong busts up a train, grabs a woman, and climbs — wait for it — a five-story building. As the big guys duke it out, demolishing the recently rebuilt Tokyo, they go over a cliff and fall into the ocean. Godzilla vanishes, and Kong swims back to Faro as a reporter states, “We wish King Kong luck on his long journey home.”

DAY 3

“Mothra Vs. Godzilla” (1964)

  • A big egg — really big, says one character: “about the same size as 153,000 chicken eggs” — washes ashore. An evil entrepreneur claims it. But wait, what’s with those two little voices coming from tiny twins saying, “You must return the egg!” After an Yma Sumac-like musical interlude, we find that the twins and the egg are from Mothra Island (later to be called Infant Island), and that Mothra wants the egg back. Mothra? Oh, right, you should see the 1961 film “Mothra” first. In this ’64 follow-up, Godzilla, napping in some far-off locale, suddenly pops out of the ground — tail first — and clumsily knocks down some structures. The twins ask Mothra to stop him, and a battle ensues. Lessons learned: Mothra’s atomic fluttering is no match for Godzilla’s atomic breath, one moth egg can produce two larvae, and when Godzilla is spewed upon with sticky webbing, he’ll always fall into the ocean again.

Bob Eggleton

“Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” (1964)

  • Hey, Godzilla’s name isn’t even in the title! A foreign princess visiting Japan is telling everyone she’s from Venus, in the manner of Dan Aykroyd telling everyone he’s from France in “The Coneheads.” The tiny twins return, Rodan is about to be resurrected (the nasty pterodactyl was launched in the 1956 film “Rodan”), and villains attempt to kill the princess. Meanwhile, King Ghidorah, a dragon with three fire-breathing heads, is planning to “turn Earth into a dead planet,” and the twins will only ask Mothra for help against Ghidorah if Godzilla and Rodan will stop bickering. Mothra has a “talk” with the two monsters, during which Godzilla “says” he’s tired of being bullied by humans, and Rodan concurs. But an agreement is worked out, lots of rocks are thrown at Ghidorah, who flies away, and the other monsters become pals.

“Invasion of the Astro-Monster” (1965)

  • Planet X has been discovered behind Jupiter. The two astronauts sent there are met by locals, hear the presence of “a horrible space monster” (Ghidorah’s in town), and are presented with a deal: “If we can borrow Godzilla and Rodan from your planet to help get rid of King Ghidorah, we’ll give you the cure for cancer.” But when they return to Earth, the offer must be OK’d by the medical community and a group of women who “represent housewives and wish for peace in the galaxy.” Before you can say, “giant airtight bubble,” Godzilla and Rodan are sent to Planet X. Before you can say, “Bwa ha ha,” it’s revealed that the aliens plan to take over Earth, and are controlling Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah. All three make it back to Earth, where they fight each other, destroying yet another carefully constructed miniature city. All three fall off a cliff into the ocean. Note: This is the only film in which Godzilla dances a little jig after defeating an opponent.

DAY 4

Bob Eggleton

“Son of Godzilla” (1967)

  • This was the first of the cute, kiddie-oriented Godzilla films I watched. That’s not what I generally want in my monster movies. Mysterious weather experiments are underway at Sollgel Island. But things go wrong, and bugs grow large. The scientists find a big egg, crack it open, and discover “a baby Godzilla,” which is why the egg’s dad — you know who — is heading there. (A question that’s bothered fans for decades is, “Who is Godzilla’s mom?” Sorry, that’s never revealed.) The baby is named Minilla, he’s immediately saved by Pop from a giant spider, and is then taught how to turn wimpy smoke rings into radioactive breath. (The secret: Stomp on his tail.) The scientists launch a refrigeration balloon, Godzilla and Minilla vanquish the spider, everyone is happy. I suddenly grow tired of watching Godzilla movies.

DAY 5

Bob Eggleton

“Godzilla Vs. Hedorah” (1971)

  • Hedorah, a.k.a. the Smog Monster, can only grow in polluted sea water. When he makes it to shore, he takes a few hits from billowing smokestacks. When Godzilla sashays by, enjoying the day, Hedorah attacks him for no reason. Godzilla shows him who’s boss, but accidentally kills some nearby mah-jongg players in the process. The filmmakers might also have been taking a few tokes on this one, as the action switches from a psychedelic rock club to scenes of Hedorah flying overhead, causing people below to gasp for breath, and a shot of an “anti-Hedorah oxygen mask” salesman doing some brisk business. This is the only film where Godzilla flies, and it all ends, ridiculously, in a big fight, complete with body slams, in which Godzilla knocks the smog out of Hedorah.

DAY 6

“Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla” (1974)

  • A scientist finds a piece of metal in a cave, and concludes that “this can only be space titanium.” Meanwhile, volcanoes are erupting all over the place, Godzilla pops out of one, and heads toward Japan, knocking down buildings along the way, just because he can. But wait, was that really Godzilla or was it Mechagodzilla, the robot built out of space titanium by ape-like creatures from another planet? Who cares? My favorite moment: After Godzilla knocks Mechagodzilla out of order, one of the aliens says, “Damn it! We’ll have to postpone our attack on Tokyo!”

DAY 7

“Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah” (1995)

  • Godzilla is in a foul mood, likely because parts of his body are glowing red. Seems that his nuclear-powered heart is approaching a meltdown. Scientists say that he will eventually explode, ending civilization as we know it. These films have become celebrations of obliteration. While Godzilla roams around, feeding off of nuclear reactors, 10-foot-tall crablike creatures morph into one huge, many-legged thing dubbed Destoroyah. Godzilla’s son has returned, and now is as big as dad. Destoroyah kills Godzilla Jr. Dad goes after him with a vengeance, resulting in Tokyo being razed, after which the Japanese military uses a freezing ray on Godzilla and kills him – KILLS HIM! – but not before Godzilla manages to transfer a last breath of life back into his son. In this, the only dubbed entry I watched (all others were in Japanese with English subtitles), voices were out of sync with mouths, and explanatory Japanese newspaper headlines went untranslated. I didn’t read the news today, oh boy.

DAY 8

“Godzilla, Mothra, & King Ghidorah – Giant Monsters All Out Attack” (2001)

  • One of the series’ best entries tells its story as if there had been no sighting of (or movies about) Godzilla since 1954. It’s a reboot. A nuclear sub vanishes, there’s an earthquake, a tunnel collapses, Godzilla is seen heading toward Japan, and we hear talk of three Guardian Monsters (Mothra, Ghidorah, and Baragon) who can protect the world from Godzilla. When the Guardians appear, an army general blurts out, “What the hell is going on? It’s like a monster convention here!” This is a great-looking film, well shot, and obviously boasting a bigger budget than usual. Godzilla does what he does best: blows away his enemies. For the record, Mothra and Ghidorah put up a good fight, but Baragon is a bust. The military finally gets Godzilla with a missile to the mouth. Stay for the post-credit sequence, as his heart is still beating on the ocean floor.

DAY 9

“Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla” (2002)

  • This one features maser guns and a cameo by former Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui. When the bones of the original Godzilla are discovered, their DNA is used to construct a bio-robot (say hello to the new, improved Mechagodzilla, dubbed Kiryu) made to go up against the current Godzilla species. But when Kiryu finally faces Godzilla, he experiences a flash of the original Godzilla’s soul, making him fight Godzilla and in the same breath turn on his creators. What a cool plot twist! Too bad that Kiryu’s batteries run out right in the middle of a fight with Godzilla. Good story, well paced; dumb ending.

“Godzilla Against Mothra Against Mechagodzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.” (2003)

  • Mechagodzilla, the only protection against Godzilla, is almost repaired, and the twins have returned. But they’re not happy. They have a reunion with Dr. Chujo, a scientist they met way back in “Mothra” (again portrayed by Hiroshi Koizumi, who played him 42 years earlier) and tell him that the bones of Godzilla (that are in Mechagodzilla) must go back to the sea. If Chujo does as told, and Godzilla attacks, Mothra will protect everyone. But if the bones aren’t returned, Mothra will destroy mankind. In the end, there are no survivors among the combatants, but a post-credits sequence reveals the existence of some stockpiled Godzilla DNA. Another great entry in the series.

DAY 10

“Godzilla: Final Wars” (2004)

  • A fast-paced visual recap of Godzilla’s life leads to a submarine, captained by a macho American, being attacked by a big, snakelike creature, but remaining intact. Elsewhere, Rodan tears up Manhattan, Anguirus wrecks Shanghai, and King Caesar shreds Okinawa. A TV announcer shouts: “It seems monsters have appeared all over the world. Don’t go out! Stay at home!” But as a UFO nears Earth, the monsters disappear, and the UN Secretary General announces that aliens have gotten rid of them. They are the Xilians, and they, in turn, tell all Earthlings: “A huge planet is approaching, and will hit you in 11,736 hours, 17 minutes, 32 seconds.” Plus, they add, “You are cattle. You exist only to be our food.” Then they send the monsters back to Earth. Remember that macho captain? He wakes up Godzilla to fight them off. This is an epic, enjoyable, over-plotted mess that ends in an unusually sappy manner. Little Minilla — remember little Minilla? — unaffected by the Xilians, reaches his dad just as he’s about to blast the captain, and convinces him to forgive the human race for making an atomic monster out of him. They walk away together, into the sea.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
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