Not long ago, I was chatting with some fellow cinema fans, one of whom confessed he had never seen a film by Yasujiro Ozu and would be rectifying that in the near future. Since the group of us had met through our mutual affinity for kaiju eiga, the joke inevitably came up that he best not look for any giant monsters in whatever film he chose to watch, because none ever turn up in an Ozu film. (Though King Kong does get a mention in 1935’s An Inn in Tokyo, in which the great ape’s declared to be tougher than lions and tigers!) The joke had no sooner played out when I thought of a similar cyberweb gag which had made its way through the fandom back in 2016, when the hype for Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla was current and strong.
The owner of the item in question has since set its online status to private, so I must rely on a four-year-old memory in this case, but in mid-2016, Jonathan Kiefer of Fandor’s now defunct digital magazine Keyframe released a short video combining trailer clips of Shin Godzilla with footage from Ozu’s 1959 film Floating Weeds. (One of those videos that splices together shots from different movies to create new “scenes.”) As I recall, the video started with characters from the Ozu film sitting on a beach and, one by one, looking up at something which has nabbed their attention. At that point, we cut to a shot from Shin Godzilla: of the monster’s fourth form lumbering forward. Back in the Ozu scene, everyone sits calmly and keeps looking up. Memory compels me to believe the wide shot in which one of the characters raises his hand and gives a little wave was also included—the implication being he was greeting Godzilla. A fun and surreal video, to be sure. (For the record: what the characters were originally looking/waving at was an airplane.)
Kiefer’s video had obviously been made for fun and was not meant to be taken serious (like, what was the first clue, right?). Still, when I thought back on it recently, the whimsical part of me couldn’t help but run with the idea and speculate: If Ozu had been given the reins for a Godzilla movie, what might we have seen?
Granted, there’s not much to go on. Ozu never dabbled in tokusatsu (in his late-career films, the closest thing you get to a special effect is simulated rain); he only worked with Toho once, on his penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961); he died between the releases of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964); and I seriously doubt he would’ve agreed to make a kaiju movie even if someone had approached him with the idea. After all, this is the same director who responded to the Japanese New Wave by saying: “A lot of people now equate drama with sensational incident, such as someone getting killed. But that’s not drama; it’s a freak occurrence.” His impulse was not to produce events, but to show things one sees and knows—and feels—in ordinary life, evoking them through very simple framework.
Now, having said that, the fact that Ozu’s storytelling methods were so completely antithetical to what one expects in a Godzilla movie only makes it all the more enticing for me, as a fan of both, to imagine a kaiju movie in his hands. And having pontificated on the idea, I decided to write down my thoughts. For absolutely no reason other than, like Mr. Kiefer’s video, it’d be fun.
Yasujiro Ozu’s early films tended to be more “conventional” in the kinds of stories they told (it is shocking for anyone who knows his movies to remember his directorial debut was a period piece featuring swordplay, and that he also made a crime picture in which—gasp!—people get shot on camera), but as his career progressed and he honed his own style and gained more creative control, he gradually shied away from “big moments” other directors take for granted.
In a late Ozu film, death usually occurs because of something like a stroke or a heart attack, and it typically befalls someone in their upper years. If a young person’s done in through more dramatic means (drowning, getting hit by a train), the accident is talked about but not shown. Similarly, a husband who perished in World War II is either referred to in conversation or appears via a photograph on a shelf (there are no flashbacks and certainly no prologues showing his death in combat). And even though Ozu preferred to tell stories about ordinary life, he often steered clear of domestic “climaxes.” A movie about a daughter being pushed out of the nest likely ends with her departing for her wedding, the actual ceremony—and her groom—never observed by the camera. (In a situation like this, Ozu was more interested in how a young woman’s marriage impacts the home she’s leaving, not the one she’s joining.)
In fact, the few times he went the “melodramatic” route in his later career were often slagged upon as serious missteps. The record shows, for instance, many felt he went overboard in having Kinuyo Tanaka fall down the stairs at the end of A Hen in the Wind (1949), and Ozu himself agreed that the movie was something of a lesser effort, calling it a “bad failure.” Even though the film’s subject matter—namely the censorable things a person might do when pushed to the point of desperation—is certainly relevant, it was deemed inappropriate for a director with such a gentle aesthetic and narrative style. Ozu’s usual screenwriting collaborator, Kogo Noda, opined that A Hen in the Wind flopped artistically because it had tried too hard in depicting the suffering of the postwar Japanese. (He, too, might’ve been of the view that the climax was overly, for lack of a better word, “climactic.”) In short: the material wasn’t necessarily unfit for cinema; it just wasn’t right for Ozu.
Many Godzilla films show regular people whose world is suddenly impacted by extraordinary events, but Ozu wasn’t interested in the extraordinary. Grand-scale cataclysms (like war) are in the past; memories; climaxes that happened before the opening credits. Even when the American Occupation vacated in 1952 and Japanese filmmakers were free to recreate the death and destruction their country had endured, Ozu tended to stick to his tactic of less-is-more. Buildings crumbling, monsters stomping around, scores of people running in a panic, etc. probably would’ve constituted too much distraction, too much “freak occurrence.” So, Ozu’s instinct likely would’ve been to take what few components he found useful in a kaiju movie and then work them into his own formula.
I like to believe that, with this hypothetical Godzilla movie, the director would’ve treated a monster attack the same way he treated World War II in his post-1945 work. His film would probably be set a couple of months (or even a few years) after the monster was defeated, the story transpiring not in the ruins but in some city district Godzilla never touched. I picture a narrative revolving around Ozu’s usual subjects (work, school, family, marriage, etc.), embodied through locals who remember the disaster but just occasionally comment on it as they go about their daily lives. The primary drama consists of simple material like: parents marrying off a daughter; college graduates enduring the rigors of office life; salarymen drinking long into the night. In other words: the movie’s not about the monster attack; it’s about the ordinary lives of people in a city that just so happens to have experienced a monster attack long ago. (Just as 1949’s Late Spring features characters who endured World War II, even though the film itself is not largely about the war or its effect on the populace.)
Maybe there’s a widow whose husband perished in the destruction. Maybe a retired soldier, now a bar patron, turns up and reminisces about how he had to fight Godzilla, similar to how Chishu Ryu recalls his war service in An Autumn Afternoon (1962). But dialogue would consist of simple remarks like, “It was a scary time. Yes.” The widow recalls her husband with a smile and then goes back to work; the former soldier continues drinking. And if Ozu did choose to set the film in the damaged part of the city, he’d most likely refrain from showcasing the ruins (at least in graphic detail) and still have the story take place years later, so that the people have had a chance to move on (i.e., hide some of the destruction).
I similarly doubt we’d have seen any characters dying of radiation poisoning. When someone dies of sickness in an Ozu film, as in Tokyo Story (1953), it comes suddenly, with no warning outside of maybe an isolated bit of lightheadedness. Showing someone withering away over the course of a film likely wouldn’t have gotten past the “ideas” stage. Again, when Ozu pushed the suffering button too hard—as in A Hen in the Wind or 1957’s Tokyo Twilight, which is also not among of his most celebrated—he was usually criticized for sinking into a kind of melodrama unbecoming for his style.
It’s fitting that Shin Godzilla came up in this article, because one might be tempted to ask: If Godzilla’s not allowed to stomp around and smash things—and if the story must take place after the calamity is over—are we at least permitted to see him frozen like a big piece of concrete à la the end of Anno’s movie? This is the only condition under which I could picture Ozu allowing such a special effect to appear, though Godzilla would not be the main focus of the scene he’s in. A possible scenario: a husband and wife sit on a park bench, where they can see Godzilla from a long way away, talking about finding a husband for their daughter; they chat about this for a few minutes (their conversation filmed in Ozu’s usual cross-cutting with the occasional medium shot); and before they leave for home, one of them looks at the frozen monster and remarks what a terrifying time it was when Godzilla raided Japan. Then we’d get a distant shot of Godzilla (no close-ups of those humanoid things sprawled out of his tail), then cut to some trees or an alley—and be off to our next scene, somewhere else, back to the drama of current, everyday life.