Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jimbocho Goji

So such for those great posters that actually show Godzilla

If you mentioned Godzilla in North America in the spring of 2014 you'd usually hear a few standard responses.  

-Something last movie Something Matthew Broderick.

-"Remember that big Godzilla toy with the shooting fist?"


-Gooo-ji---rah!(said in a corny faux Asian accent)

Most of these spring from nostalgia from the '70s. Much like "Grindhouse Nostalgia" pop culture has twisted the collective memory into something which isn't terribly accurate. There's nothing wrong with being a casual fan or having nostalgia, but listening to people countering opinions critical of the 2014 film, particularly the lack of Godzilla's screentime with the defense  along the lines of  "Have you ever seen a Godzilla movie? He always just shows up at the end", "This is the Godzilla movie we always wanted" and proclaiming how much they love Godzilla movies. 

Last spring I attended 35mm screenings of 12 Godzilla movies over 9 days in Tokyo.While attending these screenings, I had the realization that the gulf between Western and Japanese appreciation of these film is deep and very, very different. I'm a big dummy with a few observations, opinions,  and NO deep insight into Japanese cinema or culture, but I know a bit about Godzilla movies.

In the U.S., the most widely seen Godzilla films seem to be Godzilla 1985, King Kong vs Godzilla and Godzilla vs Megalon. There are a lot of passionate and well informed Godzilla fans in the West, but they are few and far between. And sadly, there is an underlying racism when it comes to American audiences and Asian films. It's gotten better over the years, but it still lingers. 

 Godzilla is not popular in Japan anymore. It's been 10 years since the last film and it seriously under performed at the box office. The last time Godzilla had some consistent popularity was in the the early to mid 90s. Over 20 years ago. 

The Godzilla films weren't meant for Western audiences. And American audiences find it hard to believe that things aren't made with them in mind. Ever since the collaborations with Henry Saperstein back in the 1960s, Toho, while happy is to export them, they have aimed Godzilla films at domestic audiences, In the 1970s the series clearly tried to ape Ultraman and other hero tv shows. Most of the '70s Godzilla films in the States were released out of order and years after they were released in their homeland, Of the 13 Godzilla films released in Japan from 1984 to 2004 only 2 made it to the US theaters with wide releases. Godzilla 1985 and Godzilla 2000. Both of them dubbed, camped up and significantly altered, one painfully so. 

If you are Japanese these films offer up a parade of familiar faces. Idols, comedians, and recognizable actors are all over these films. Another aspect of Godzilla movies are seeing new and old landmarks, famous tourist destinations and possibly your office building destroyed. Locations and structures that don't register with your average Western viewer are well known, many times intimately so, by the average Japanese. Each film features at least 2 or 3 well known sites.

Where's Baragon?

 Japanese culture, folklore and religion is much more "monster friendly". In the West where realism in cinema is held high in popular entertainment, giant monsters must have some reason for being. Godzilla is usually referred to as a radioactive dinosaur or lizard. In Japan, ghosts, goblins and giant monsters are just allowed to "be" without lots of explaining. In the East from Bollywood musicals, martial arts films and Japanese monster movies, "realism" as Westerners expect it, is not the norm.
It's a very Western, particulary American, way of looking at cinema.
For a Godzilla maniac, vacation is even more fun when you realize this is where Godzilla and Biollante had their first fight.

The reason I'm writing this is because I've finally accepted that I like Godzilla and kaiju films because of their Japaneseness. It's why the 2014 American film didn't do much for me. So many  casual fans just irritated me, They consume Godzilla as the America media offers it to them. They don't have the curiosity to venture beyond that, and while I certainly don't expect many people to do that, when I'm in a comic shop or some geeky corner of the web, I rarely see people go outside of what has been fed to them. It's OK "not to know". The context of a lot of these films is fascinating and worth more than a few yucks over a giant moth. There's a certain cultural arrogance that Asian films bring out in North American audiences and it bugs the shit outta me.

It's just hard seeing Godzilla successfully tailored for Americans. It's like going to Benihana after you've had a few good meals in Japan.

At the Japanese screenings of these films, the fans sincerly enjoy them and treat the creators with a great deal of respect. It's something that you can't convey to casual American fans.

Fingers crossed for 2016.