They Weren’t Fans: Godzilla Directors
by Patrick Galvan
June 14, 2017
Blog
 

GODZILLA (1998), the first big-budget Hollywood adaptation of the popular Japanese monster, has been on my mind a lot as of late, albeit not for the same reasons as most fans. (I critiqued the film back in 2014, in which I examined it predominately as a generic science-fiction action flick which just so happened to bear the name ‘Godzilla,’ and I stand by every word in that mixed but hardly venomous review.) Rather, I have been focusing my attention on a certain bias the movie imprinted on Godzilla fans in terms of who they want and do not want to see in the directors’ chairs for these films. Roland Emmerich, who made the 1998 film, never made an effort to hide his lack of enthusiasm for Godzilla or, for that matter, his wish to completely change the character once he agreed to direct the film. He certainly followed through in terms of that second regard: presenting a creature whose primary scenes involved weaving around high-rises, fleeing from rockets, and falling dead when a couple of commonplace missiles pounded into its ribs. The film remains, to this very day, for a good many Godzilla fans, the standard example of what happens when you turn over a beloved pop culture figure to someone who is not a major enthusiast. And Emmerich remains, to this very day, for a good many Godzilla fans, the standard example of a non-fan director: someone whose apathy results in a movie completely failing to translate the property’s recognizable characteristics in virtually every regard.

Hollywood eventually took a second stab at the monster, this time hiring a director who was a fan (Gareth Edwards), and the result was Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla (2014), a film which maintained most of the character’s iconic attributes (design, invulnerability, atomic breath, etc.) and was much better received overall. I reiterate recent history only because it ties into the bias I mentioned above. A little over a year ago, word came out that Edwards had dropped out of the 2014 film’s upcoming sequel—now titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters—and the general response from the fan community was precisely what I expected: domineering hope that Edwards’ successor would also be a Godzilla fan. (In other words, people remain worried that another Godzilla movie directed by a non-enthusiast would result in a repeat of 1998.) Those concerns simmered a bit when replacement director Michael Dougherty revealed his affection for the Big G. Concerns simmered further still when Adam Wingard, the man hired to direct Godzilla vs. Kong, hopped onto Twitter and began answering questions regarding his favorite things about the Japanese classics. The Legendary series has been placed in the hands of ambitious fans; thus, the torches and pitchforks remain lowered.

But I, for one, would be completely open to the idea of a new Godzilla movie directed by a non-fan, provided that the non-fan in question has some experience and the talent needed to make a good movie. And this is where I feel the general perception on the topic has been slanted. Let’s remember: personal fondness for a trademarked character is not in and of itself a guarantee of quality, or lack thereof. (This is, in no way, a dismissal of the gentlemen hired to direct the impending Legendary movies; I wish them nothing but luck. I am, however, suggesting we wait to see their finished films before we crown them with laurels.) Furthermore, when one considers historical context, GODZILLA (1998) was merely one example of a Godzilla movie made by someone who wasn’t big on the character. It was not the only example. Some of the classic Toho directors, whose movies we’ve come to adore, were simply carrying out a job; making a Godzilla film was not a lifelong commitment for every single one of them; and a few of these men, despite not holding Godzilla dear to their hearts, still managed to craft some of the most well-received entries in the entire series due to their aptitude and ingenuity as moviemakers.

I would now like to salute two such artists.

Jun Fukuda

"I don’t think that any sequels to the first Godzilla movie should have been made."

Jun FukudaA highly talented craftsman who could bounce back and forth between various genres with genuine ease, Jun Fukuda was a loyal employee to Toho during the studio’s golden age of the 1960s—a time during which he, like Ishiro Honda, would be summoned on multiple occasions to direct monster movies even though both men, at various points in their respective careers, and for different reasons, might’ve preferred to be making something else. Except whereas Honda eventually became less enthused about directing science-fiction due to being pigeonholed in the genre, Fukuda directed all five of his Godzilla movies simply because he had a knack for it and the studio kept approaching him to make more. In his perfect world, though, Godzilla's career would have consisted of a single film—the first one—with no follow-ups tied to him. The quote above comes from Fukuda’s 1994 interview with David Milner in the magazine Cult Movies, in which the veteran director expressed limited affection for the Godzilla series and looked back on his own contributions with an attitude that can only be described as sheer resentment. When asked to name a few favorite monster movies that he made, Fukuda’s reply was a simple "None of them." When recalling the time Toho sent him a copy of Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), he compared receiving the tape to "opening up an old wound." When asked if he’d seen any of the Heisei Godzilla movies, his answer was a simple "No." And when film historian Stuart Galbraith IV contacted Fukuda to request an interview for his book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, the response he received was something to the effect of: "I think my movies are all terrible, but if you really want to talk about them with me…well, I guess I would be happy to talk about them."

On a more positive note, some literature suggests Fukuda held the original 1954 classic with a certain degree of respect. In Galbraith’s book, Fukuda is quoted saying: "Godzilla was born of nuclear power, and in that social environment Godzilla (1954) appeared. Originally, Godzilla didn’t have emotions—he shouldn’t have any emotions at all. […] [N]o other film can beat the original Godzilla."

Before we move on to the meat of this section, I want to cite one more anecdote, this one coming from author Steve Ryfle’s interview with special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano. When asked about Fukuda’s attitude toward the monster movie genre, Nakano noted his assumption that the director didn’t care too much for kaiju eiga and then made one of the wisest and most truthful comments I’ve ever read regarding the art of film production: "I think sometimes the greatest movies we make are ones we don’t necessarily like. Whether or not we like something has nothing to do with making a great movie." These words apply across the board when it comes to cinema—it’s hardly limited to Japanese monster movies—and they most certainly apply to the man who directed such classics as Son of Godzilla (1967) and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974).

Godzilla and EbirahAs I mentioned before, Fukuda made his series debut during the mid-1960s, around the time Toho began to noticeably transition Godzilla from a voracious engine of destruction into an anthropomorphized anti-hero. The timing could not have been better. Whereas Ishiro Honda preferred monster pictures to be played straight and relatively serious, Jun Fukuda specialized in humorous, fast-paced action movies. His pictures are characterized by vibrant photography, colorful characters, chase scenes, and a fine dash of comedy. And it is this amalgamation, I would argue, that made Fukuda distinctive and, to a degree, recognizable. His movies, by and large, have a unique feel. His first Godzilla movie was the earlier mentioned camp classic Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), which bears a few similarities to his previous movie, the delightfully entertaining spy spoof Iron Finger, made the year before. When one watches the two films back to back, one will notice: many of the same cast members (with Akira Takarada helming the lead); tropical settings; characters who use quick thinking to escape from perilous situations; abundant humor; and antagonists who appear in the form of power-hungry terrorists staked out on islands. Themes in Fukuda-directed Godzilla films, if at all present, were either minimalized to lip service—the anti-pollution stance present in Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)—or articulated through the mechanics of the plot. Son of Godzilla, for instance, has a rather ambivalent outlook on advancing scientific technology. In the course of the narrative, the weather control system, designed to help end world hunger, produces both good and bad results. In its first test, it creates a radioactive thunderstorm, resulting in gigantic praying mantises. And later on, the same apparatus is used to generate a snowstorm and freeze over the island, thus allowing the stranded heroes to escape. There is also some chatter early on about how the weather control system could potentially be used as a terroristic weapon, but it never goes on for too long and serves mostly as a reason for the film’s confined setting. For Son of Godzilla recognizes it is, at its core, a simple entertainment film. Too many longwinded speeches would’ve just bogged things down.

In addition to incorporating his own style, Fukuda further distinguished himself from other Godzilla directors with help from his recurring collaborators. All but two of his contributions to this franchise were written by the exuberant screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa—the exceptions being Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974), for which Sekizawa merely provided story outlines. A fitting team, as Fukuda’s preference for fast-paced action and zany characters might’ve clashed with the brooding, pessimistic Takeshi Kimura, Toho’s other go-to science-fiction writer at the time. In addition, upon accepting the assignment to direct Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, Fukuda recruited his friend Masaru Sato to write the original score. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t ecstatic about this decision, preferring series regular Akira Ifukube be given the job, but Fukuda insisted on Sato. "I asked him to compose the music for those movies because I wanted them to have a different feel than Mr. Honda’s Godzilla films," he explained. The combination of Fukuda’s deft hand at action-comedy, Sekizawa’s consciously campy scripts, and Sato’s energetic music established an overall tone that, more often than not, produced sheer cinematic joy.

Son of Godzilla wide shot

Fukuda was also a natural when it came to producing beautiful-looking images; this is especially evident in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla, which make the most of their tropical island settings. (The change of locations was a cost-saving measure that oddly enough added some welcome visual variety of the series: now the monster action could take place somewhere other than a vast cityscape or the hilly countryside.) One can also recognize the recurring use of canted camera angles in suspense scenes—something also on display in Fukuda’s non-Godzilla pictures. And when it came to violence in these 1960s films, bloodshed was kept to an absolute minimum.

In a way, even Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon, widely considered the low points in Fukuda’s spectrum, are further examples of their maker’s skill. Now, critical defenses of these two pictures are somewhat limited: while both have redeeming qualities, all the viewer can really do at the end of the day is acknowledge whether or not they had fun with them, as their scattershot scripts and so-so acting cannot compare to the majority of what was being done in the previous decade. However, it is important to consider historical context when gauging how these films fit not only in terms of the Godzilla series but also in the history of the Japanese filmmaking industry as a whole. In the early 1970s, the industry was on the verge of collapse. Daiei had gone bankrupt, Nikkatsu had refocused to producing softcore roman porno, and Toho wasn’t in the best of shape, either. In 1973, the year of Godzilla vs. Megalon’s release, the studio released a mere thirty-six features: a sharp reduction from the seventy-eight produced just thirteen years earlier. And while Toho was occasionally still willing to crank out a lucrative budget for a disaster epic like Submersion of Japan (1973) or Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974)—for this was the sort of film luring in mainstream audiences at the time—Godzilla had largely devolved to a collection of made-on-the-cheap kiddie matinees. In short, the budgets and production schedules permitted to Fukuda at this time were anything but favorable. But as a trustworthy employee of the studio, he nevertheless made the best of what he had at his disposal.

And with that said, there are some director-based bright spots to be found within these two films. Godzilla vs. Megalon features some impressive widescreen shots—such as a vista of the main characters standing before a drained lake—as well as a bouncy mid-movie car chase perfectly suited for anyone in touch with their inner-child. And for all its faults, Godzilla vs. Gigan makes for a captivating visual experience with its lush cinematography (arguably the most colorful in all of Fukuda’s Godzilla movies), occasional lens tricks, and Fukuda’s usual striking compositions. The scene where the film’s villains—extra-terrestrial arthropods disguising themselves as humans—reveal their true identities is very effective in its use of imagery, with Fukuda relying upon dynamic lighting, shadows, and camera movement to deliver the twist. (More more imaginative than if one of them had just said, "We’re space cockroaches.") Critical landmarks? No. But products which nevertheless show a talented filmmaker doing what he could under less-than-ideal circumstances? You bet.

Godzilla MechaGodzilla raysAnd the next 70s Godzilla film—what would turn out to be Fukuda’s swan song in the series—was none other than Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974), which remains for me (and quite a few people I’ve spoken to over the years) a go-to pick when hungering for a Godzilla movie that is not necessarily searing with depth but is just plain good fun to watch.

Jun Fukuda might not have been the world’s biggest Godzilla fan, but his general lack of affection for the King of the Monsters didn’t negate his crafting some of the most delightfully entertaining entries in the series. And, as fans, we can take some small comfort in that, toward the end of his life, the man did come to understand just how much of an impact his films had had and that they were cherished by so many people. "I had hated watching or hearing about [Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon],” Fukuda said, “but later I realized that they really are popular among children. When I was interviewed by the BBC, too, the staff told me how much they liked them. I just don’t get it. Recently, I was watching a TV documentary on Godzilla, and there was my film, in the U.S. video rental shops, under the title Son of Godzilla. Kids over there apparently watch Godzilla on TV. […] Godzilla’s popularity is pretty amazing.”

Kazuki Omori

"I’m not such an enthusiastic fan. Although movies are, more or less, in some ways unreal or complete fabrication, Godzilla seems like the biggest fabrication of them all."

Kazuki OmoriI think it’s fair to say every fan base has had its share of Kazuki Omoris: those who were fond of some pop culture element in youth and eventually outgrew their enthusiasm. In his essay How I Suppressed My Fears and Became the Director of a Godzilla Movie, Omori admitted to having been an avid Godzilla fan up through junior high school, around the time Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964) were making their initial runs in Japanese theaters. But his boyhood fascination came to a close after those two pictures. "I don’t know if the word ‘graduation’ is proper or not," he continued, "but I started going to theaters showing 007, The Great Escape, or The Sound of Music." Western entertainment started to leave an infinitely bigger impression on him, and giant monsters devolved, in his mind, to campy nostalgia.

Jumping forward to the mid-1980s. The original creators of Godzilla have either passed on or entered semi-retirement, and a new generation of moviemakers is being sought to continue the franchise. Following the profitable but still somewhat disappointing ticket sales for The Return of Godzilla (1984), Toho began contemplating why their film had performed lower than expected. One explanation offered was that the 1984 reboot had been too old-fashioned, too much of a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear, and that contemporary Japanese audiences were in the mood for something new. In response, Toho set its sights on picking out a younger director—someone with a fresh aesthetic—who could appeal to the modern generation’s sensibilities. Kazuki Omori, meantime, had made a number of (monster-free) films, many of them featuring singing idols and proving popular with young audiences. Undeterred by the man’s personal lack of enthusiasm for Godzilla and with a recommendation from a group of Osaka-based fans, Tomoyuki Tanaka sought Omori for the job. It took many years to get a film off the ground, and the end result, Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), made even less money than its predecessor, but Toho had found a talent they trusted and were comfortable with—as evident by the fact that they kept Omori onboard, in one position or another, for a good many years afterward. After writing and directing a second entry, Omori penned the screenplays for two of Takao Okawara’s films: Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).

And oddly enough, the man’s very indifference for kaiju eiga just might be what made him a valuable asset to the series, at least in the beginning. By contemplating new ways to make a monster movie—by seeking a compromise between his mainstream sensibilities and what the fans enjoy—he incorporated fresh ideas and a burst of creativity which, for a little while, gave the Heisei series something genuinely new to distinguish itself with.

Godzilla vs. Biollante tackles the dangers and ethical quandaries of bioengineering technology, along with the political backdrop through which science can be manipulated. (It’s worth mentioning the film was the brainchild of two scientific minds. The original idea came from Shinichiro Kobayashi, a dentist and part-time screenwriter. And Omori, in addition to being a successful filmmaker, is also a licensed doctor. He even developed an award-winning career in movies while attending medical school! How he found time to succeed at both simultaneously, I can’t imagine.) One of the film’s central plot points is Godzilla’s cells being a source of untapped genetic technology; from this spawns a fierce international race to weaponize and commercialize said potential. The Self-Defense Forces wish to use the cells to develop a bacteria capable of cleaning up nuclear waste—there’s a nice counterpoint brought up that immunization from nuclear fallout would render all atomic weapons nugatory and thus disrupt the balance of global power; Dr. Shiragami sees the immortality of the cells as a means of preserving the spirit of his deceased daughter; the Saradia Oil Corporation seeks to develop a super-crop (and thus one-up the United States as the world’s top exporter); the American conglomerate Bio-Major wants to acquire the cells for their own shady purposes. With a complex web of debates, shootouts, and terroristic ultimatums, Omori cynically depicts scientific advancement as a ballfield for competing powerhouses. In a sense, this is a manifestation of what Dr. Serizawa in the original Godzilla (1954) predicted would happen should the world find out about his Oxygen Destroyer— a material waiting to be turned into a weapon, garnering multinational attention, with everyone determined to get their hands on it first.

King Ghidorah attackingEven though it’s a weaker film overall, Omori’s second monster film, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), is in some ways even more fascinating. Ever since its release, this film has been (wrongly) accused of anti-Americanism due to 1) its depiction of Caucasian time-travelers seeking to destroy and subjugate Japan, and 2) the World War II sequence in which a huge dinosaur (destined to become Godzilla) savagely crushes a platoon of American soldiers. Admittedly, the western characters aren’t portrayed in the most flattering light (though it’s hard to make a credible anti-U.S. claim when one of the time-travelers is quite plainly a Russian); however, when examined closely, what Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah has to say about Japan isn’t overly sweet, either.

To put the movie in some long-forgotten context: Japan experienced what’s known as an economic bubble in the 1980s, which resulted in a surge in stock and real estate prices as well as the acquirement of notable American institutes by Japanese companies. In 1987, CBS sold its records division to Sony Corporation. In late 1989—the year the Nikkei stock average hit its still-unsurpassed high—Sony acquired Columbia Pictures. A month later, the Rockefeller Group sold company control to the Mitsubishi Estate Company of Tokyo. And in 1990, following the obtainment of Music Corporation of America by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., USA Today reportedly ran a front-page story begging the question: "Will Japan end up buying it all?" These recent acquisitions, in addition to the more famous Japanese postwar economic miracle—which resulted in Japan possessing the second biggest economy on the planet by 1968—left a good many commentators wondering if Japan, despite losing the Second World War, had triumphed in the long run with a superior financial system and if it was on its way to producing a negative global effect. It might have been tempting for Omori to crassly endorse the foundation of these concerns in the 1991 Godzilla film and make a movie which championed his country as the rightful leading world power; but he chose to question its virtues instead. In one important scene from Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah often glanced over, Emmy Kano, a woman from the future, explains to her ancestor that Japan is destined to become a supreme economic force in the 21st and 22nd centuries—swelling with riches to the point where it buys up other countries and essentially controls the entire planet. The nation expands its interests beyond picking up foreign businesses and industries and instead goes after entire continents. In the future, Japan is the villain!

When Emmy goes back to her time in hopes of salvaging a means to save her country from Godzilla’s wrath, her superior questions whether a nation prone to vain prosperity deserves assistance in the first place; in the end, she appeals to his humanity and begs for the Japanese people to be given a second chance. Omori’s admittedly shambolic screenwriting rushes through a few points too quickly and the villains could’ve been a bit subtler in their portrayal (not to mention more could have been said regarding the consequences of Japan’s future economic supremacy), but the movie’s underlying theme is a rather two-sided outlook on Japanese nationalism. The film endorses Japan’s right to protect itself from outside influences while, at the same time, suggesting that one nation possessing too much power could be a very bad thing.

Godzilla and Mr. Shindo

This is especially prevalent, and poignantly handled, in the famous scene between Godzilla and Mr. Shindo, played by that wonderful actor Yoshio Tsuchiya. Shindo, a former soldier unintentionally saved by Godzilla during World War II, essentially represents Japan’s postwar economic miracle. He, like Japan, survived the war. He, like Japan, went on to achieve incredible wealth and power in the decades afterward (economically resurrecting his pulverized country). And, as explained earlier in the film, his corporation was destined to become the wealthiest organization on the planet. In what can be read as a condemnation of unchecked capitalism, Shindo uses his company’s affluence to commit a quasi-violation of Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles: privately purchasing an atomic submarine—and docking it outside Japanese waters to avoid legal consequence—for defense of the nation. And then, when a situation arises, Shindo dispatches his nuclear technology to resurrect Godzilla in hopes that the monster would defend his people. Little does Shindo realize that a nuclear submarine wrecked in the Bering Sea in 1977 has already resulted in the Godzilla’s rebirth. Godzilla, ever-hungry for atomic energy, proceeds to attack Shindo’s submarine, absorbs its stockpiles, and reaches a new destructive state. Just as American nuclear technology once created Godzilla in the 1950s, and revitalized it in 1970s, Japanese nuclear power has now made the beast more deadly than ever. And after disposing of the time-travelers, the monster set its sights on Japan. Shindo’s misguided belief that Godzilla deliberately protected his garrison during World War II (if anything, the Japanese soldiers were just fortunate enough not to be sighted by the dinosaur during its attack on the American troops) has resulted in a voracious behemoth intent on razing Japan anew. Godzilla eventually makes its way to Tokyo, where Shindo’s headquarters are located. The businessman, fully aware of what will happen, stands at the window of his tower—a symbol for all he’s accomplished—at a vantage point where he reaches the monster’s eye line. His imprudent wealth and rash jingoistic decisions have effectively undone everything he and his fellow veterans worked for, and he accepts his fate at the hands of the creature he once thought to be his protector. The scene is quite moving and one which Omori himself considers his favorite moment in the entire Godzilla series.

In the film’s climax, the King of the Monsters makes his way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (the "Tax Tower," as it’s sometimes known by the Japanese public), blasts its top off with his atomic ray, and the remainder of the building is shredded in an ensuing battle between Godzilla and Mecha King Ghidorah. In the end, Godzilla is temporarily defeated, but Tokyo has been ripped apart, and many of the symbols for Japan’s late 20th century riches have been wiped off the face of the earth. And to apply some further context to the sequence: the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building was, at the time of this film’s release, barely a year old, having been completed in December 1990; Omori annihilated a brand new symbol for Japan’s wealth before the eyes of the audience.

I do not place Omori’s scripts for Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah on the same pedestal as his directorial efforts. The former served as groundwork for an entertaining spectacle but didn’t say anything about man’s relationship to the environment that hadn’t already been sufficiently tackled in previous entries. And the latter, despite its overarching doomsday scenario, provided virtually nothing in terms of social commentary: the entire planet is threatened by Godzilla’s meltdown, and there’s barely any international response whatsoever. But the two films Omori helmed as both writer and director are easily the last truly special accomplishments in the Heisei series. What the man really needed was, perhaps, a second screenwriter to come in and polish up his scripts—hone down the finer points, expand on the ideas in need of further exposition, axing the more obvious bits of Hollywood imitation, making a lot more sense of the time travel logistics in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, etc. But, at the end of the day, the good Omori brought to the table outweighs the bad and validates him as one of the more interesting recent Godzilla directors. In spite of the fact that, again, he wasn't a big Godzilla fan.