Review:
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

(3/5)
Author: Patrick Galvan
Published:
January 30, 2015
Note: review may contain spoilers


One of the most interesting things about analyzing one's personal relationship with cinema is deciphering how individual perspectives sometimes change with age. I myself can cite a small number of cases where I saw a picture at an early age, formed a sincere opinion on it, then saw the picture again a few years later and realized there were virtues or faults I hadn't picked up on the first time around. There doesn't seem to be much in terms of a pattern. Some films get better with repeated viewings; others, regretfully, do not. And in regards to the Godzilla franchise, there is no finer example, for me, than Motoyoshi Oda's Godzilla Raids Again. This 1955 production was the very first in a long line of sequels to Ishiro Honda's magnum opus Godzilla (1954); and when I first saw it at the age of fifteen, I was enthralled; I even went so far as to call it one of the best in the entire series.

However, regarding the film now as an adult, I must sadly confess that my feelings toward Godzilla Raids Again are now divided. On the positive side, I still appreciate the serious tone, some of the technical accomplishments, and I most certainly continue to admire the postwar symbolism. (The picture has never struck me as mere thematic rehash of the original.) But whereas those particular elements have held up quite well, the screenplay, in regards to the human characters and pacing, shows plenty of room for improvement. I haven't completely reversed my opinion, but Oda's film doesn't resonate with me with as much impact as it once did.

As the film opens, a scouting pilot named Shoichi Tsukioka (a very young Hiroshi Koizumi) is cruising over the North Pacific, searching for schools of fish. Shortly after sighting a shoal of bonitos, Tsukioka receives some distressing news: one of his fellow pilots, Koji Kobayashi (the great Minoru Chiaki), has been forced to make an emergency landing due to severe engine trouble. Tsukioka breaks off from his course and eventually finds his comrade's plane on the shores of an uninhabited island. Kobayashi had succeeded in landing his plane, suffering no injuries apart from a sprained wrist. As the two pilots converse, an eerie feeling of unease falls over the island, and just seconds later, a pair of giant reptilian monsters rise over the rocky crests, locked in combat. One of the monsters bears an uncanny resemblance to Godzilla, the fire-breathing behemoth which reduced Tokyo into a smoldering graveyard just a year before. Tsukioka and Kobayashi manage to escape when the warring titans collapse into the ocean; the pilots return to Osaka and report their discovery.

A subsequent conference with Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) confirms the scientist's worst fears: the continuous testing of nuclear weapons resulted in the birth of a second Godzilla. Worse still, the explosions had awakened another species of prehistoric monster, called Anguirus. And without the late Dr. Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer, all hopes of destroying either creature was gone. Godzilla is soon discovered in Japanese territorial waters and later wanders into Osaka Bay. Despite the military's best efforts, they are unable to keep Godzilla in the ocean, and the monster makes landfall. A short skirmish is cut off as Godzilla's opponent, the ever-voracious Anguirus, also comes ashore. Upon spotting one another, the behemoths resume their battle to the death, slowly decimating Osaka in the process. When it is all over, the city is in ruins, and the survivors are forced to begin their lives anew…fully aware that, someday, Godzilla could strike once again.

As far as intentions are concerned, Godzilla Raids Again is equal to its predecessor. And it is a genuine continuation of the first film's symbolism. The original Godzilla (1954) was about the horrors of nuclear devastation and used its monster as a doppelganger for the hydrogen bomb. The sequel, by contrast, recaptures that exact same sentimentality but mostly in the first forty-five minutes. After the battle in Osaka, the screenplay for Godzilla Raids Again takes an entirely different symbolic course, represented by the behavior of its human characters. Instead of portraying an immediate quest to end the monster's rampage (as in the original), Godzilla Raids Again presents a small group of people, most of them just ordinary civilians, simply seeking out a way to rebuild their former lives. We follow Tsukioka, Kobayashi, and their comrades as they strive to get back on their feet and prosper following the destruction of their beloved city. They've lost their home, but not their will to live. And surely, this sentimentality would've been prevalent in Japan so soon after the end of the Second World War. In a sense, Godzilla Raids Again is the consummate allegorical sequel. The first film was about the consequences of nuclear war; the second is about a nation of people moving on with life in the aftermath of nuclear war. One logically follows the other. Yes, there is a climactic battle with Godzilla once again re-entering the story, but until this finale, most of the third act is devoted to these regular, ordinary civilians who are, in their own small way, helping to rebuild their country.

And even though the first half of the sequel essentially recaps the original's ideas, it is not devoid of fine moments of dread. After the fight on the island, we don't even see Godzilla or Anguirus until they arrive in Osaka Bay. In between those two crucial moments, the audience gets scenes of military officials—and civilians—receiving radio reports concerning the monsters' current locations. It's not much different than if they were listening to the progress of enemy movement during a war. Frequently cutting back to the characters (who react to the terror in different ways) adds another fine layer of authenticity to the mood the filmmakers want to convey. We get numerous scenes of paranoia as the characters await the monsters' ultimate arrival, interspersed by brief moments of peace and hope that the terror will pass them by—something the Japanese people certainly must've felt in the months leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other foreboding images: people fleeing into the countryside; music-less scenes of fighter planes roaring through the heavens; a businessman watching the devastation from his rooftop. And let's not forget one of the greatest moments of visual horror in any Godzilla film. Tsukioka's fiancée Hidemi (nicely played by Setsuko Wakayama) is safe at her father's house in the mountains. She is standing at the window, watching Osaka burn in the distance. Her reaction: she backs away from the soul-crushing sight, sits down in the middle of the room, and bows her head in silence. The music remains suitably minimal in both volume and verve. There is no dialogue. Just eerie, discomforting silence. And after Osaka's decimation, the camera pans over the results: smoldering rubble; partially shattered buildings; charred trees positioned in the foreground, stripped of their vegetation. It's very much like a similar shot in the original movie. It all works brilliantly.

Why then, you might ask having read those last two thoroughly enthusiastic paragraphs, do I respond to Godzilla Raids Again with mixed feelings? In short: the film has very fine—and certainly poignant—allegorical content, but those ideas are unfortunately delivered via a screenplay that is, shall we say, in need of further revisions. Part of the problem stems from the human element. This is a character-driven story, and the characters are a little too rough to really care that much about. This is not a strike against the incredibly talented cast. However, just as most directors need good stories to make good films, actors such as Hiroshi Koizumi and Minoru Chiaki similarly need good characters in order to fully resonate on screen. Compare their roles here to roles they had in 1954. Koizumi had appeared in a superb drama by Mikio Naruse called Late Chrysanthemums, where he played a young man so desperate to escape poverty that he abandoned his own mother to the slums. A superb role, and Koizumi made it even better. And in that same year, Chiaki, as if I really need to remind you, had the beautifully written part of the joke-happy ronin in Seven Samurai (1954). In those roles, Chiaki and Koizumi had three-dimensional human beings to portray; in Godzilla Raids Again, their roles are rather shy in terms of personality. Yes, there is something to be said for Tsukioka's willingness to help the military with the defense of his country and questioning his own courage in the face of danger, but so very little is done with this, and Koizumi isn't given much of a chance to add resonance to it. And despite Chiaki's gusto (maintaining that Seven Samurai vibe, he manages to score a few laughs and a few tender moments), Kobayashi's ultimate fate doesn't amount to much. Fine actors such as Yoshio Tsuchiya (also fresh off a great role in Seven Samurai), and Seijiro Onda also appear in the film but aren't given that much to do. There's nothing objectionable about any of the characters. They are unpretentious, never annoy, and I can easily watch them, but they still do not really impact my emotional involvement with the story. I enjoy what they stand for more than I enjoy their actual personality.

While we're still on the characters, there is a much-derided subplot that I actually find myself virtually alone in championing. As in the case of the original Godzilla (1954), we have a love triangle—this time between our two male protagonists and Hidemi. And just like before, it's clearly established the girl loves one of them while retaining admiration and deep friendship for the other. However, we don't learn about Kobayashi's secret feelings for Hidemi until rather late in the third act. There are slight hints (Kobayashi desperately hiding a picture of his secret love from the others; a nice little moment where he asks Hidemi what sort of presents would be suitable for a secret love) but no confirmation until quite late—and when it comes, it's by accident. Tsukioka, as far as we know, never learns about Kobayashi's affection for Hidemi. Many people regard this subplot as a lazy last-ditch effort to get us feeling something for Kobayashi before he dies, but I rather like the slight buildup and the unintentional reveal by the character before his sacrifice. This scene is followed up by another nice moment where Hidemi places Kobayashi's photograph next to one of herself and regards them in silence.

Another middling but not egregious strike against the film is the direction by Motoyoshi Oda. I must confess Godzilla Raids Again is my sole exposure to his career, but thanks to research supplied by the late Guy Mariner Tucker, I have come to this understanding of the man: a professional with a modest level of training who treated every film as an assignment to be completed on time and on budget. Not a passionate artist like Akira Kurosawa, but a competent worker nonetheless. Unfortunately, this 'mere working man's mentality' is not necessarily the best when dealing with a symbolism-packed film like Godzilla Raids Again. Such a film demands deep, passionate feelings from its director, and you're unlikely to ascertain that with a straight-forward, indifferent demeanor. That may be the core problem with the film as a whole: it was more of a studio project than a passion project. That's not to say Oda's filmmaking is totally meritless. He does make some good use of camera movement, especially during the evacuation scenes; his wintertime photography is lovely; and the way he handles the scene in the nightclub is simply poetic. Oda provides some superb wide angles and tracking shots as the enamoring voice of Miyoko Hoshino floods the soundtrack. Then we get a couple of taut close-ups of Tsukioka and Hidemi weaving about on the dance floor; to cap things off, Oda presents a nice, gradually retreating crane shot, pulling us high into the air. An enamoring visual and aural experience. Subsequent crane shots of the panicking crowd racing out of the club (appropriately lacking in music) also demonstrate professionalism. Perhaps Oda wasn't the ideal man for the job, but this sequence alone proves he didn't make movies without a single creative thought in his head. And odds were the studio opted for him due to his ability to work fast, meaning they could release the sequel a mere five months after the original.

Given that short gap between releases—meaning a rushed production schedule—it's not exactly surprising that Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects run hot and cold. First of all, we have the Godzilla suit, which can move and perform well but doesn't look very scary. The suit gets by when viewed in profile (Seiichi Endo's marvelous black-and-white cinematography helps) but when viewed head-on, it becomes hard not to chuckle at the suit's dopey expression and ridiculously slender neck. Even more laughable are the puppets utilized for close-ups. The animatronic bust Tsuburaya used in the first movie wasn't a consummate match to the full-fledged suit, but it at least had a menacing expression and powerful-looking jaws. The puppet in Godzilla Raids Again, by comparison, looks more like a partially melted model frog and has no menace whatsoever in its eyes. But worst of all—worst of all—is a brisk moment during the Osaka battle sequence in which the puppet operator accidentally moves his prop too far into frame, and for one illusion-shattering second—one I am stunned no staff member spotted—you can plainly see that Godzilla's body cuts off at mid-torso and there is a man's arm sticking out of his spine. Surprisingly enough, given how bad Godzilla looks throughout most of the film and considering that the staff had not attempted a four-legged monster before, the Anguirus suit fares much better. (The suit actor does a splendid job at maintaining menace while darting about on all fours.)

Still, it is worth noting that, despite the jarring lapses, Tsuburaya and his staff do succeed at staging an exciting battle sequence. Toho's first monster fight features its combatants brawling like real animals, relying mostly upon sheer physical strength: before Godzilla delivers the now-traditional coup de grace with his heat ray, he first weakens his opponent with two gnashing bites to the neck. Not to mention Tsuburaya also makes a point of emphasizing the destruction by showing collapsing buildings and occasionally cutting to a close-up of structures being decimated by a stomping foot or a sweeping tail. In regards to the famous couple of seconds where Godzilla and Anguirus were accidentally filmed at a lower camera speed (which resulted in them appearing to move abnormally fast), I've always regarded that as an accident that worked out quite well. To film the entire sequence that way would've been a mistake; to throw in a few quick-moving shots in the middle adds spice to the visuals. And in staging the destruction as if it were an actual disaster, Tsuburaya finds the quintessential moments to composite separate shots of people fleeing in the foreground as the monsters pulverize everything behind them. All in all, the fight scene is impressive for a first-time effort.

Masaru Sato was one of the most beloved composers ever to work for Toho. And indeed, his later efforts in the Godzilla series and pretty much every soundtrack he wrote for Akira Kurosawa (as well as Shiro Moritani's Submersion of Japan) were marvelous. As for this early-career outing, however, Sato's score, much like the rest of the film, is a modest success but rarely more than that. His main theme works fairly well; it succeeds at being fast-paced and eerie at the same time. A low brooding theme used for Godzilla's first appearance in Osaka Bay, a twice-repeated romantic cue, and the moment where Hidemi stares out at the destruction are also effective. However, Sato's contributions for the monster battles left me wanting more. The moment where Godzilla and Anguirus tumble into the water—a well-staged shot begging for crescendo—receives no lifting help from the soundtrack; the music used for the second half of the battle is too dim and monotonous to generate any additional excitement—it might as well have been silent. Overall, Sato's score certainly boasts some solid moments and promise for the great work to come, but it's not a highlight in his career.

Let us now tackle the film's notorious American re-edit, originally titled Gigantis the Fire Monster. To put it bluntly, it is every bit as wretched as its reputation would indicate. The stuff that tends to enrage the fans—rechristening our favorite fire-breathing monster as 'Gigantis,' frequently swapping his original menacing roar with that of Anguirus—is actually the least of its offenses. The major problems start with a ceaselessly annoying narration, which is written more like a radio program than a feature film voiceover. The voiceover describes every scene even as we observe it, telling us how to feel instead of letting the images communicate the emotions and visceral effects. (Film, I remind you, is supposed to be a visual medium.) Once-great moments lose every ounce of their impact thanks to that dismal narration. It never shuts up or lends a real purpose; it's just noise. In fact, the whole American cut is essentially just 79 minutes of noise—nonstop voiceover, nonstop music, nonstop additional sound effects—and a truly egregious dub! Every line ("Ooh! My factory!" "Ah! Banana oil!" "So…a new book came out, and we learned so much.") is enunciated as if the cast intended to make the dialogue sound worse than it already was. Clumsily inserted stock footage (further tainted with that horrendous narration) slows the narrative down even further. Most of Sato's score was wiped away in favor of ill-fitted stock music, with only two bits of improvement—the shot of monsters tumbling into the sea and the second half of the final battle are improved thanks to louder, more dynamic cues. A side question: whose idea was it to replace the original sound effect for Godzilla's heat ray with what sounded like a spray can? In brief, Gigantis the Fire Monster is a nauseating, virtually unwatchable mess that leaves the viewer cringing with embarrassment.

Having said that, it goes without saying that I regard the original Japanese version, flawed though it may be, as a vastly superior cut.

In totality, is Godzilla Raids Again worth seeing for any reason other than its status as the first sequel in a beloved film franchise? I would say yes. Even with the underwritten human elements and sometimes sluggish narrative, what the movie has to say and stand for actually does strike with some small resonance. In that sense, screenwriters Takeo Murata and Shigeaki Hidaka are marginally successful. I believe they were more invested in the subject than most of the people around them were; sometimes, even understated passion is passionate enough for me.