[7 May 2004]
Godzilla. What’s not to love?
|::|| GODZILLA, FRIEND TO THE CHILDREN OF THE WORLD |
By James Baker
I was born in 1970, seven months after the breakup of the Beatles. I narrowly missed flower power, Woodstock, and the first moon landing. In retrospect, I couldn’t be happier. This new decade was mine, and I was much too young and naive to know what Vietnam was, or what Watergate meant. The ‘60s had laid the foundation, thus informing this nascent era, but the ‘70s soon found its voice and took on a groovy life of its own. To a child, the ‘70s were a candyland of day glo pop culture references, some fanciful and kid friendly (Sesame Street, The Brady Bunch), some scary but cool (Kiss, Alice Cooper), and some absolutely bizarre (HR Puffnstuff, or anything else by Sid and Marty Croft). Towering over all this cultural noise, however, was the radioactive green giant from Japan and friend to the children of the world, Godzilla.
I discovered him a few years into the decade, during a Saturday afternoon TV showing of King Kong Vs. Godzilla circa 1975. I was first drawn to the look of the beast, being somewhat of a dinosaur buff, but this was no Tyrannosaurus Rex! I was fascinated by the ornate scales down the back, the flailing tail, the radioactive fire! The true selling point, however, was the Godzilla roar, sounding like a far eastern demon monsoon ripping though my tinny TV speaker. I was awestruck. It mattered not that the undeserving, inferior King Kong won this battle, for from this point on I tried my best to duplicate that mighty battle cry on the playground, at the dinner table, and to anyone that would tolerate it.
I was consumed by a desire to see more of Godzilla. Week after week, I would navigate every page of the TV Guide with my stubby little fingers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the name. The films would usually screen on Saturday afternoons, and I gradually became familiar with the other characters that populated the Godzilla universe. Rodan was a favorite, as he had super sonic speed and had the most in common with actual dinosaurs. Mothra was great when it was actually a moth, but somewhat lacking in charisma as a giant worm. I also had much respect for Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster and arch enemy of every decent giant beast that roamed the earth.
This was old school appointment TV. The era of the VCR had not yet begun, so waiting for a Godzilla film to screen built a palpable excitement, as this was an event that you truly could not miss. Who knew when you would be granted another opportunity? Godzilla toys were not easily obtainable in the ‘70s, either, and I would fantasize of winning a Tokyo Toys R’Us shopping spree, looting all the prime Godzilla booty I imagined they had piled to the rafters. I remember owning only a few model kits and my only major piece, a large Godzilla figure from Mattel with wheels in his feet. His fist shot from his arm when you pressed a button. My Godzilla on wheels endured many of his own exploits, with me by his side.
As the decade progressed, so did the Godzilla films. The creatures became modernized, such as the missile firing, laser shooting Mecha-Godzilla. The movies themselves became a bit more colorful and weird, and seemed less old looking. Say goodbye to the suits and skinny ties of the ‘60s, and say hello to bell bottoms, long hair, and funky wah-wah guitar on the soundtrack! The most important change was in the big guy himself, as his role in the ‘70s flicks turned from marauding invader to defender of the earth. I’m sure the purists were enraged that their monster had turned into a kid friendly sop, but I reveled in it! It was much easier to sleep at night knowing that Godzilla was out there patrolling the Pacific, dealing out serious beatings to any monster that dared disturb the world order. My hero had finally grown into his role.
The late ‘70s witnessed the coronation of a Godzilla holiday in the New York/New Jersey area, granted by WOR Channel 9. Year in and year out, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, three consecutive Godzilla films would air between the hours of 12 noon and 6PM. This was MANNA! Thanksgiving itself would be spent in napkin shredding anticipation of the main event, as the old RKO “classic” King Kong films were given equal airtime. I watched reluctantly, as I had developed a grudge against the big monkey since he got lucky and bested the true King of the Monsters in their sole cinematic meeting.
When Friday morning would arrive, I would assemble all available action figures in front of the living room TV, as well as enough provisions to last me the six hours. The film fest began with Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster, in which Gojira takes on his robotic doppelganger, Mecha-Godzilla. The film is a dramatic treatise on nature vs. technology, and comes to its cinematic highpoint when Godzilla rips the head right off the metal bastard. The bizzaro factor was heightened with the next film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, in which our hero is aided by a rather alarming looking clown faced robot named Jet Jaguar. They dispatch the title goon and his birdlike sidekick, Gigan, with the help of some serious flutes wailing away on the soundtrack. These two films were just a prelude to the main event, the Japanese Citizen Kane, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
I felt palpitations as I endured the Child World and Crazy Eddie commercials before the start of film three. Then it began. This movie is like no other in the Godzilla roster. The story concerns the smog monster, called Hedorah, a walking pile of filth birthed from pollution. He emits clouds of acid that melt the unfortunates who cross his path. Made at the dawn of the decade, the film is filled with bits of off-kilter animation, ecological preaching, psychedelia, and scenes of innocent human casualties unheard of since the first Godzilla film 20 years earlier. Macabre images abound, including one hallucination scene featuring a disco full of body painted dancers wearing bloated, grotesque fish heads. Repulsed yet fascinated, I hung at the edge of my seat as Godzilla struggled to beat this bile-spewing nightmare. Meanwhile, darkness fell outside my own windows. And in the glow of the TV Godzilla managed to stomp Hedorah into dust. He cast a disapproving eye towards us, the viewers, and the cause of such pollution. I shed a tear out of shame for my complicity and relief for my safety. And my day was over.
Fast forward some 25 years. The day after Thanksgiving has long ceased to be a haven for Godzilla, as WOR is now a UPN affiliate. The only place on TV these days where you might catch Godzilla is on the Sci-Fi Network, but it’s been cleaned-up and letterboxed. Select titles can be hunted down on DVD. The magic of waiting weeks on end for your only opportunity to watch a film is missing from today’s society of convenience. The films still give me a taste of that sense of wonder, however, of being taken to a world where Monster Island does exist.
When I watched as a child I never laughed at the bad dubbing, but rather I accepted it as part of the flavor and was often struck by how exotic, beautiful, and vibrant Japan looked, even diluted through the family Magnavox. It wasn’t until years later that I learned Godzilla was originally birthed out of the aftermath of World War II, a dark symbol of the atomic bomb. Ignorance is bliss. I was so immersed in these Toho films and Godzilla in particular that they’ve became intertwined with most of my childhood memories, so much so that a viewing brings glorious pangs of nostalgia for a simpler time a simpler time for children like myself, anyway. For that, Gojira, I thank you.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/11baker/