Review: Why Gojira was the District 9 of its day

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

One of the reasons District 9 did so well when it was released a month ago was because it told a familiar story in a fresh environment; no matter how time-honored certain science-fiction conventions are, it never hurts to see them set in a new context.

But Neill Blomkamp's terrific, thoughtful opus was hardly the first film to find universality—much less compelling fantasy storytelling—in specific cultural details; rather, that precedent likely goes to Ishiro Honda's Gojira, which combined traditional Hollywood storytelling and the troubles of postwar Japan in a dazzling display of artistic and technical virtuosity. Newly released on Blu-ray with a commentary track that highlights its historical and cultural relevance, this progenitor of Japanese monster movies is a sleeper triumph of storytelling that remains as devastating today as it did 55 years ago.

Thanks to a series of films that increasingly defined the character as a rubber-suited wrestler who did little more than square off against swinging prosthetic monsters, Gojira is no longer taken seriously as a fixture of the science fiction world. His iconography and his visual landscape is so deeply familiar to most people, even if they haven't seen many of his movies, that it seems impossible to imagine that anyone could or would tell a story with him at the center of it that wasn't at least in part a joke.

But what few people remember is that his creation was indirectly inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII, and in 1954 the story of Gojira served as a parable for the dangers of nuclear testing. Like District 9, which used South Africa's troubled racial history as a template for a conflict between mankind and an alien race, the film evokes these real-life horrors without exploiting them, but references their devastating repercussions in a way that is undeniably recognizable.

Although the film is essentially an ensemble piece, Gojira stars Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Serizawa, a scientist who accidentally discovers a weapon of unimaginable power while conducting studies on oxygen molecules. When a towering monster called Gojira begins attacking Japan's coastline, the military tries in vain to stop him with their own weapons, and consults with various experts, including a venerated zoologist named Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), for advice on dealing with the creature. But when even a massive electrical fence built along miles of the coast fails to slow Gojira down, Serizawa is forced to make a decision whether or not to reveal his weapon—and thereby jeopardize the lives of the Japanese people—even if it purports to save them from the creature's own destructive force.

Also like Blomkamp's film, Gojira is not merely some soapbox screed, even though it definitely possesses deeper political resonance. Shooting on a shoestring budget but using the most sophisticated technology available at the time, director Honda conjures a fascinating, scary and surprisingly realistic tale of a monster invasion that works first and foremost as entertainment. In addition to Serizawa's crisis of conscience, there's a love triangle between himself, Dr. Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and a steamship lieutenant named Ogata (Akira Takarada), which lends the larger-than-life decision-making a poignant human edge. And then of course there's Gojira's repeated attacks on Japan, which start modestly in the mold of a classic mystery, soon become skirmishes out across the surface of the ocean, and eventually erupt into full-scale assaults that leave cities in rubble.

As suggested above, the special effects are certainly primitive by today's standards, but in many cases they're only noticeable when directly pointed out—which they are, in the commentary track by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. But even then, the film is so fully-conceived that its technical deficiences are easily overshadowed by the superiority of its artistic and emotional strengths. All of the performances, anchored primarily by Hirata and Shimura as the two tormented scientists, are pitch-perfect and effectively sincere, and the narrative details injected into virtually every scene—including a truly devastating moment when a crying mother hugs her three children and says "we'll see your father again soon" as Gojira destroys the buildings around them—give even the most incredible sequences a sense of believability.

Unlike Classic Media's 2006 standard-definition set which includes the American cut (starring a sloppily-injected Raymond Burr), the Blu-ray features only the original Japanese cut of Gojira, although once you've seen it you know that's the only one that matters. But I can't overstate the importance of Ryfle and Godziszewski's commentary track, which can easily be watched without sacrificing any of the movie's story (thanks to English subtitles). But more importantly, it explains and reveals important information about its production, its artistic design, and its cultural history. The duo manages to reveal both context and subtext, talking about subjects as varied as the presence and importance of an orphan in the Yamane home, the ways that the cinematography augments different performances in the film, and the historical and practical origins of Gojira's trademark bellow.

Ultimately, if that recent success of District 9 means anything, it's that audiences are ready to embrace entertainment that also possesses a little intelligence, and Gojira is a film that similarly deserves to benefit from this underfed appetite for thoughtful thrills, especially now that it's available in a high-definition format. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Blomkamp's movie will stand the test of time, especially since Honda's had many of the same qualities and has since become a starting point for a series that while successful is considered a laughing stock. But if Gojira proves anything, it's that it's never too late to rediscover the real value of a truly great film; so even if in a decade (or five) District 9's status has somewhat diminished, it will nevertheless have Honda's now-proven classic to share company with it for years to come.