Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Godzilla Raids Again (English Version)

Ah, banana oil! I was desperate and worried and anxious.  I'm not brave at all.

While I get my fair share of guilty pleasure from watching Japanese monster movies, I must admit that I haven't seen all that many of them.  I've only ever seen the Gamera movies through episodes of Mystery Science Theater, and that's just about the only way I'll ever watch them.  Much of the fun of watching these movies comes from making fun of them, especially when we're talking about the American versions.  I've seen even fewer dubbed versions of these movies, because A.) I know they're all almost exclusively terrible and B.) up until recently, they were a bit hard to find.  Well there's a snowstorm, I'm stuck inside with nothing but Netflix to comfort me, so by God, it's time I started watching some Godzilla movies to pass the time.

I love the original Godzilla movie.  I love it unironically.  It's a dated movie, but also an endlessly interesting one, both for reasons that are present in the film (the nuclear holocaust subtext) and for its enormous impact on pop culture both in Japan and in the U.S.  When it premiered in 1954, its box office success was so tremendous that Toho immediately made a sequel.  When I say immediately, I mean like Godzilla was released in November and Godzilla Raids Again was released in April.  The American cut of the first film was a pretty successful as well, which of course meant that U.S. would get a special version of the sequel as well.  A very special version.

I'd normally say you should never watch an American dub of a Japanese monster movie without having seen the original first, but I've realized now that going into the butchered version blind can be a very strange and enjoyable experience.  The original title of the film was Gigantis: The Fire Monster. You might think that title refers to the Ankylosaurus-looking beast in the poster, but oh no. Gigantis is the big lizard that looks like Godzilla.  What's so baffling about the American dub of Godzilla Raids Again is that it presents itself as a new movie that has nothing to do with Godzilla.  That's just astonishing.  The first film is even referenced through stock footage as if it's a different movie, where "Gigantis" devastated a city and is still on the loose! Was this done to avoid continuity issues, since Godzilla dies in the first film and then shows up here without explanation?  I really don't know, but it sure is weird watching a Godzilla film that refers to Godzilla by a different name.  In fact, I'm pretty sure the characters call him Anguirus a few times by accident.  This caused title issues down the line when it came to home video releases.  Apparently Toho had the video distributors change the title to Godzilla Raids Again despite the dubbing remaining inaccurate, which is made only more hilarious by the ultra-cheesy title graphic that zooms in at the beginning of the movie.  You know when you can just tell when something is a cheap '80s graphic?  Like "middle school home economics instructional video" cheap?  That is the very first thing you see in this movie, and I wouldn't have it open any other way.

Unlike the first film, whose American version included newly-shot footage and an added character for the English-speaking audience, Godzilla Raids Again is almost exclusively dubbed-over footage of the original actors.  Dubbing an animated film is difficult to do well, but it can be done.  However, dubbing a live-action film convincingly is just not possible.  Not now, and especially not in 1957. The dubbing for Raids is actually really good, all things considered.  But really good Godzilla dubbing is still really bad dubbing, and it just cannot be helped.  The dialogue is stilted and the actors are emotionally inert, rendering any non-action scenes hopelessly boring. I give them massive amounts of credit for making a lot of the lip movement match what the English actors are saying, but sometimes they say things that can't help but make you laugh. Also, characters and story?  They just aren't present here in any shape or form.  The original Godzilla had a thin story and characters to be sure, and while I can't speak for the Japanese version yet, this sequel has absolutely nothing going for it to keep the audience invested.

It hardly feels like a real movie at all; it opens with newsreel-style exposition dumps and hurries through scenes at light speed, with forced lengthy bits of voice-over by the main character Shoichi (Hiroshi Koizumi).  It's fascinating that the dub has the same problem that many children's anime dubs have; they fill atmosphere-building silence with dialogue, jokes, and needless explanations for things that are happening onscreen.  Except Raids adds no jokes, at least not intentional ones.  The only moments of silence we get are during the monster fight scenes, which thank God, are at least sort of fun to watch.

The "plot" involves Shoichi, a Japanese pilot, discovers an icy island where Gigantis and another creature known as Anguirus (Godzilla's first VS. matchup).  Then the two monsters find their way to Osaka and brawl their way through model buildings until one comes out on top.  A fellow pilot and friend of Shoichi, Kobyashi (Minoru Chiaki) must survive the monster attack, even though all hope seems lost.  I should also note that George Takei (yes, really) is one of the voice actors in the dub.  That's just... amazing.

I did admire that the film at least tries to recapture the horror-movie tone of the first film. I'm sure it's even more present in the Japanese version, but the little darkness that bled through the American dub's netting was much appreciated (it also helps that the film was shot in black and white).  It references the atomic bomb metaphor that Godzilla symbolizes enough to resonate, but not enough to make up for the emptiness of the rest of the film.  Never mind that the dubbing puts a wall between the audience and what's happening because of the uncanny valley effect, the characters simply have no personalities and the story is not focused.  There's an entire scene devoted to prisoners escaping from a holding truck that has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, for instance.  Why couldn't the movie have been about them!?

Even though the fight scenes are the only spots where there's any kind of attempt to let the picture speak for itself, I still can't call them great.  In the first film, there was an attempt to make Godzilla seem larger than life; big, slow movements and a grand presence.  Raids has a tendency to speed up the film during fight scenes, giving the creatures' movements a stop-motion quality that purposefully emulates King Kong.  It's jerky, awkward, and shatters any illusion that what you're watching is anything other than two men in bulky costumes wrestling with each other.  Hastily assembled as it was, at least the model work remains nicely detailed.  It's not filmed convincingly most of the time, but there was clearly much attention paid to the design.  However, some dinosaur puppets in a certain flashback scene are bizarrely conceived, and definitely provide some good laughs.  I'm not nuts about Godzilla's foe here; Anguirus leaves something to be desired, although my heart goes out to the poor suit actor.  It must be hard enough playing the upright Godzilla, so I can't even imagine doing the same thing as a quadruped.

So the American dub of Godzilla Raids Again is pretty terrible.  I do look forward to watching the original cut, but in all honesty, I can predict that it won't be anywhere near as good as the first film.  I'd actually be surprised if I come across any Godzilla films that actually are, which I don't necessarily mind so long as the fights are creative and the energy is up.  Raids has its fair share of ironically hilarious moments, and the dark themes of the original are trying to claw their way to the surface, but there's ultimately not much value in the film at all.   Calling Godzilla "Gigantis" was a huge mistake, as was changing his signature roar, but the way it's been covered up in the current version is positively hilarious.  The American dub is wall to wall exposition and no character, painstakingly dubbed in vain, and completely lacking the soul of the original.  A strange experience to be sure, but not a very rewarding one.  If you're a huge tokusatsu fan, you've probably already seen this movie and have made up your mind.  If you're just looking for a good movie, or even just a fun monster brawl, you have plenty of other options to choose from.