Monday, May 12, 2014

Godzilla Week: Godzilla vs. The Thing (1964)

Godzilla movies can often be quite blunt in presentation, so -- in honor of that trait -- allow me to be blunt about Godzilla vs. The Thing (1964).

It is, basically, a superior, artistically-coherent version of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). 

This movie dramatizes a very similar tale, but Godzilla vs. The Thing ties all the familiar elements together into a caustic and effective critique of Big Business.

Accordingly, this film feels far more direct and meaningful than its predecessor did.  In fact, I would agree with critics who state Godzilla vs. The Thing is one of the all-time best Showa Godzilla films.  

In particular, it is noteworthy how Godzilla vs. The Thing forges a link between irresponsible Big Business and environmental and manmade catastrophes. Even Godzilla himself is contextualized in light of this nexus.

In man’s blazing desire to profit from things that aren’t his to profit from, says the film, he risks total apocalypse, even if that apocalypse is unintentional.

But Godzilla vs. The Thing doesn’t desire to be a polemic, either, and also comments meaningfully on man’s connection not just with nature, but with his fellow man.

The great Mothra -- who has seen her island devastated by atom bombs -- could refuse to help civilized Japan in its hour of desperate need.  But, as the film states, “we must learn to help one another,” or we’ll all go down, if not to rampaging Kaiju then to some other dire threat.

Agree or disagree with its premise about reckless capitalism, Godzilla vs. The Thing really works splendidly, and the battle scenes are fantastic too, featuring more cut-ins and extreme close-shots so the fighting monsters seem even more vicious than before.

“Money, that’s all they’re interested in….”
Following a dangerous typhoon, a reporter, Ichiro (Akira Takarada), and his new photographer, Junko (Yuriko Hoshi) survey the damage to the shore-line. They uncover a giant reptile scale, but that discovery pales in comparison to another.
A giant, colorful egg has been seen in the shallow waters of the coast.
This colossal egg is brought ashore by the poor locals, and studied by scientists, including Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) until a businessman named Mr. Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tojima) brazenly explains that the egg is his property. He has just purchased it from the desperate locals, who have endured the typhoon damage. He plans to sell it to the head of Happy Enterprises, with the express purpose of creating an amusement park attraction based on it. 
Soon work is under-way to incubate the egg in a large structure…
Before long, the Shobijin -- two tiny fairy women -- appear in Japan, and ask the businessmen for the return of the egg to its home on Infant Island.,The egg belongs to their deity, a giant old creature called Mothra. Their pleas are ridiculed and ignored, however and the small women face capture themselves.  They escape from custody and return to Infant Island.
Meaenwhile, Godzilla rears his head in Japan again, this time near the beach where he washed ashore (and lost his scale…) in the hurricane.  Godzilla promptly begins to cause great damage to Japanese industry and property, prompting Ichiro and Junko to visit Infant Island and beg Mothra’s help to defeat him.
On the island, Mothra’s help is solicited, even though the island has been ravaged by atomic testing, and civilized man refused to return the giant monster’s egg. Still, Mothra agrees to help…but the monster is aged, and may not be able to defeat Godzilla.
When Mothra dies in a fierce battle with the giant radioactive lizard, her egg finally hatches, and two Mothra grubs continue the fight, for all mankind.

“I’m sure they hate us for what happened here.”                                     

If the angle about a pharmaceutical company and its CEO was played largely for laughs in King Kong vs. Godzilla, a similar plot-line gets more serious treatment in Godzilla vs. The Thing. Here, a company takes possession of an egg it clearly didn’t hatch, and offers to let scientists study it…for a price.

The “entrepreneurs” that turn this egg into a commodity hope to mint a fortune by making it the center of a tourist attraction. In short, they seek to exploit that which is not theirs. An egg is a symbol for nature, and for life, but these men see it as a golden egg, a path to personal wealth.

Then, when the fairies -- speaking on Mothra’s behalf -- ask for the return of the egg, the company people all but laugh at them. The egg is the company’s asset now, and they have extended themselves with some expense to build an incubator, and so forth.

There’s no way the company is giving it back.

Uniquely, the company’s representatives see the egg exclusively as property. They purchase it from a previous (illegitimate…) owner, the locals whose land it came to rest on.  But now, because payment was made, it is a resource that belongs to the company for reasons of exploitation.

In contrast, the fairies make an argument based not on property, but on the common good.  They are afraid that the egg could hatch, and inadvertently cause tremendous destruction.  The fairies, in other words, are looking out for all mankind, while the company just cares about its own profits.

The fear that a hatched egg could inadvertently cause tremendous damage is significant in Godzilla vs. The Thing and we see that fear realized visually with Godzilla. He begins a reign of destruction in Japan, but notice that in this case, his destruction doesn’t seem at all intentional.

For example, his tail gets caught in a tower, and the tower falls down on him. 

Moments later, Godzilla actually slips on a stretch of land. He loses his balance, and falls into another building.  Then, trying to stand-up and re-balance himself, he further damages the building.

This is not the behavior of angry animal pulping a city. This is a natural force doing what natural forces always do: inadvertently causing great damage in man’s world. There is not malicious intent, but damage is nonetheless caused.

The commentary about big business in Godzilla vs. The Thing also extends to journalism.

Journalism is supposed to be a beacon of hope, exposing corruption and danger and keeping the public informed in a timely fashion.  But as one character notes “a newspaper has a limited capacity to reach people. It can’t enforce the law.”

By implication, the government – in bed with big business – should be the one enforcing the law, but it isn’t doing so. 

Again, Godzilla vs. The Thing forges its critique of laissez-faire capitalist practices.  The government and military in vain try to stop Godzilla’s reign of terror, when a route of diplomacy -- with the fairies – has been neglected.

The general idea applies to Mothra’s island, as well.

Look what the countries of the so-called First World have done here, with their fearsome, high-tech military-industrial complex. Such forces have destroyed a once-beautiful island, leaving it an environmental wreck.  Only one small area is still green, and the rest of the island is barren, littered with skeletons. 

The land -- representing nature itself -- was used as man’s property (much like the egg is treated as property…), by people unconcerned with the common good, focused instead on ideological or material profit.

But Godzilla vs. The Thing isn’t cynical or pessimistic about such matters, which is one reason why I love it so much.  Instead, the film is actually hopeful, and shows that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Mothra and her people were treated rudely by the new owners of the Egg, and their needs and desires were never taken into account. It would be easy to treat the people of imperiled Japan the same way now.

The people of the island could have reciprocated cruelty with cruelty. They could have stuck to their “we will not help” line, when assistance was requested. 

Instead, the fairies see how bad judgment should not be repaid with bad judgment.  A line of dialogue in the film notes that “as humans, we are responsible for each other,” and that’s the film’s positive message. 

If we can help each other in a time of crisis, we must do so.  This is true even in times when there is nothing for us to “gain” or “earn.”  That’s the behavior Mothra models.  The giant creature is weak and infirm, and has no “vested” interest in fighting Godzilla.  But Mothra goes into battle for the common good, putting selfish concerns aside. 

It’s true that Godzilla vs. The Thing moves along some familiar story lines and plot points. As was the case in King Kong vs. Godzilla, we here visit the native island and meet a culture that worships another monster.  In both cases, that “other” monster is recruited to battle a rampaging Godzilla. 

And also as in King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla apparently goes down in the last round, and the victor (Kong or the Mothra grubs…) begins the long trek back to an island home. 

In this case, the two closing shots are practically identical.

But if you put aside the familiarity of this narrative’s overall structure, you can begin to see how there is (red) meat on this Godzilla film’s bones, and how the filmmakers have found a way to again explore aspects of man’s world, and his short-sighted misdeeds. 

The best Godzilla films are ones in which the creatures represent some force or aspect of human life beyond themselves. They become, instead, avatars of atomic war, avarice, or even pollution.

Here, sweet Mothra is a shining symbol of hope, and selflessness, representing the capacity for man to do the right thing, even if there are personal consequences.

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