Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Big Old Stomp That Rocked My World

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On
The following originally appeared in G-Fan magazine, issue #70, Winter 2005

One evening in the late 1960s, in the small town of Martinsville, Virginia, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Rainey took an evening out for dinner and bridge, as was their occasional habit, leaving my little brother and me in the care of a teenage babysitter (a fine young gentleman named Mike Combs; in later years it would be his sister Sherry, with whom I would fall madly in love…but that’s another story). On this particular night, it just so happened that Godzilla, King of the Monsters was playing on TV, and Mike could not have been a better choice of sitter for us because he was something of a dinosaur and daikaiju enthusiast. By age eight, I had already seen Godzilla three or four times, Gigantis at least twice, and Godzilla vs. the Thing once; I had already hit a few mileposts on the road to becoming a diehard. Mike, on the other hand, though a monster movie buff, was still a layman, and like most, looked to me to provide background information that would help him understand the movie.

“What the heck is a HEELIE-copter?”

“That’s just Perry Mason’s way of saying ‘helicopter,’ Mike.”


Now, before you throw up your hands, I have to tell you…yes, I had been baiting him, for I knew that Perry Mason was a fictional character portrayed by Raymond Burr. Sadly, by not correcting my intentional gaffe, Mike proved himself unworthy of being called a true Godzilla fan. Still, I had to admit he offered lots of spirited advice to the fleeing citizens of Tokyo (“Run to the side, you idiots, not straight in front of him!”), and anyone who could get so worked up over a Godzilla movie was okay in my book.

The movie ended at eight o’ clock, and a critical discussion immediately ensued.

“Yes, his eyes were made of plastic!”

“No, they were actually marbles painted to look like eyes.”

“Who told you that?”

“None of your bees’ wax.”

“You’re a moron.”

“No, you are.”

“No, you.”

In the middle of all this, I thought I heard a roll of thunder. What a cool coincidence; on the screen, Godzilla had first shown up during a raging storm. But then the light fixture began to sway, and the windowpanes behind the couch took to rattling. This was no ordinary thunder! By now, Mike’s eyes looked a lot like painted marbles popping out of his skull, and my little brother, who had the audacity to sleep through the movie, began to plaintively scream and holler.

After about thirty seconds, the rumbling stopped. But Mike and I were charged up. We spent the rest of the evening peering out windows, surveying the neighborhood from the front porch, even braving the spooky stairs to the attic because the upper windows afforded a panoramic view (even if it was pitch dark outside). I bitterly rued the fact that, at the time, I didn’t own a tape recorder so I could leave behind some kind of verbal record for Mr. George Lawrence, United World News, Chicago, USA, should the worst happen.

Only when my parents came home around ten o’ clock did I learn that Martinsville, Virginia, had experienced its first sizable earth tremor in over 150 years. Now, to most, an earthquake might have been a stimulating spot of news; to me, however, it was anticlimax exemplified because, for a little while there, I had completely repented of my heretical hypothesis that Godzilla’s eyes might be made of plastic. As far as I was concerned, his eyes—as well as all the rest of him—were far more real than plate tectonics.

That incident might not have been the beginning of my love affair with Godzilla, but it was certainly the one to most impress an impressionable young lad. (Some will say I’ve hardly changed; that again is another story.) To this day, the booming footsteps and roars at the beginning of Godzilla inspire a twinge of excitement unlike any other. If I hear Raymond Burr’s voice in some other show or movie—be it Perry Mason, Ironside, Rear Window, you name it—lines from the original Godzilla inevitably flood my memory. Of all the tape-recorded monster movie soundtracks I memorized word-for-word during my teens (I bet some of you reading this did the same thing), the English-language soundtrack to Godzilla, King of the Monsters is easily the one I recall best.

I imagine I was around ten years old when the fact that I had always seen an “Americanized” version of Godzilla truly began to dawn on me. And at that moment, the original 1954 Japanese version hit number one on the “must-see-before-I-croak” list. On subsequent viewings of Godzilla, I scrutinized every frame of film, assiduously looking for telltale signs of tampering with the original material. Suddenly, my eyes were opened. Holy cows—that wasn’t Dr. Yamane, but a look-alike, and not a particularly convincing one. And looky here! “Emiko,” whose back seemed to be her most prominent side, was dressed a tad differently from camera angle to camera angle. How could I have ever missed such blatant cinematic blunders?

Anyway…I spent a good portion of my adolescence convinced that American audiences had been robbed, and that the perpetrators deserved to be punished with extreme prejudice—sans the benefit of a Perry Mason defense. Without having seen a frame of the original, unadulterated Japanese movie, I became one of the most vociferous detractors of the American version in the western hemisphere.

Of course, all it took was one more viewing of the American release, somewhere around age 13, to convince me that, well, maybe Raymond Burr in Tokyo wasn’t really that big a stretch. Hey, it was still Godzilla. And Godzilla…good. (Fire is our friend, and all that.)

And finally…almost twenty years after the earthquake that loosed Godzilla upon Martinsville, Virginia…I got my chance to cross number one off the must-see list. Mid-1980s, Chicago, USA. A few years earlier, I had moved to the Windy City so that I might reside near Japanese Giants co-editors Ed Godziszewski and Bill Gudmundson (not to mention the main office of United World News). As some of you may recall, the technological toy of the day was the laser disc player. Ed had one; I had one; and one day, we struck gold. Ed obtained a catalog where we could order original Japanese laser discs.

Toho discs.

Godzilla discs.

THE Godzilla disc.

In those novel days, region coding was still an unrealized bit of idiocy; and through Ed’s ingenuity, we obtained an English script of the movie.

I don’t think the excitement of an earthquake surpassed the excitement of sitting down in Ed’s living room to watch the 1954 Godzilla, complete with a typed English translation (which was admittedly a little more inconvenient than reading subtitles). But moly hoses. A gorgeous print on a flawless LD system…it just didn’t get much better.

Ed pushed the start button.

My initial impression was that the movie moved faster than what I was accustomed to (the opening scenes of Tokyo’s devastation in the American version notwithstanding). The absence of Raymond Burr and his somber narration, which extended each individual scene, seemed almost disconcerting. Perhaps the most jarring aspect in the first half hour of the movie was that, on Odo Island, Steve Martin and Tomo did not go out among the natives.

However, a new fire exuded from the Japanese cast; especially during the conference at the Diet Building, where Dr. Yamane dramatically testified that Strontium-90 had been discovered in Godzilla’s wake. Dr. Serizawa had more screen time—meaningful screen time. The triangle between him, Emiko, and Ogata took on an entirely new poignancy. Godzilla’s rampage, shown as it would have actually progressed through the streets of Tokyo, seemed somehow grimmer. And Serizawa’s final sacrifice, shown in its deeper context, hit home with far more power.

After Godzilla was over, I knew I had seen, not just a different version of the movie, but a different movie altogether. Certainly a better movie. A movie whose heart and soul did not revolve around the monster, but around its characters. For years, I had considered Godzilla, King of the Monsters and King Kong of roughly equal stature in the grand scheme of monster movies. No longer. Godzilla had left old Kong in the dust.

For many years afterward, I would occasionally watch Godzilla—even without the script, for I had come to know it inside and out; perhaps not as intimately as the American version, but certainly well enough to recall key dialogue. And Godzilla…well, he spoke a language in which I was already fluent.

But as well-acquainted with Godzilla as I considered myself, its well had far from run dry. In the 80s, with the laser disc and English translation in front of me, I had wondered how it might get any better. In 2001, I attended G-Fest, where Godzilla appeared on the big screen (at the Woodfield Mall Cinema, Schaumburg, Illinois—my old stomping grounds), and now I was in a real theater surrounded by a horde of honest-to-god, diehard G fans. There was a time—and trust me, it doesn’t seem all that long ago—that the very idea would have seemed too fantastic to be believed. All my young life, I was the sole Godzilla fan among many casual observers; even as an avid reader of The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal, and later as editor (and then co editor) of Japanese Giants, which exposed me to lots of like-minded individuals, I was a fan in a near-vacuum. But in the last years of the 20th century, things had changed, and now going into the 21st…

The environment at G-Fest could not have been more conducive to a meaningful viewing of the original classic. Here I was, sitting next to my old friends Ed and Bill—and new one, Robert Scott Field; the screen lit up, and the booming footsteps and roars began. Just as expected. But something was different. I had seen this version of this movie countless times, and yet I felt as if I were about to witness something wholly new and remarkable.

And so I was. The big screen; the fact that there were no obnoxious kiddies to distract one’s attention; the absolute silence during the long, solemn passages where the characters absorbed and reflected on the events as they happened…these things came together to create nothing less than a transcendent experience. As the girls’ choir sang their prayer following Godzilla’s stroll through Tokyo, I actually discovered my eyes burning. Never in my 42 years had I been moved to tears during a monster movie. Especially not one I had seen an average of twice a year for well over a decade.


There are times nowadays, when I think it would be mighty sweet if, one day, while watching my favorite movie in the world, the earth started shaking…and this time it wasn’t just an earthquake.

And his eyes would not be made of plastic.


Going with the flow said...

Your love for the Godzilla movies certainly did capture your imagination. I still recall how much I enjoyed watching you sketch pen and ink drawings of the beast in high school.
One day you brought me home, and brought me into your basement to show me the miniature model of a metropolis that you hand-crafted to use in making a film. In your bedroom, from a shelf, you pulled down a fair sized model of friend of the goliath, complete with flexible wings. My admiration for you grew to a new level
I really enjoyed your friendship in my high school years. Thank you for just being a special friend in that part of my life.

Stephen Mark Rainey said...

An old friend has a few of my old drawings from back then, and sent me images. Here's one.

"Varan, the Unbelievable," circa 1978

Nowhere near as good as I thought they surely were in those days, but they sure were fun to do. :)