I Like Ham 7: Hail to the King...of the Monsters!

Another one of my "favorite fictions" was Godzilla. I first saw Godzilla in Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster, sometime in the late 1960's or early 1970's. I would've been somewhere between five and seven years old. This would have been one of my first intimations that there was a place called "Japan". (I had watched shows like Kimba, Speed Racer and Ultraman without realizing that they were Japanese in origin.) My knowledge of Japan in those days was limited to a dim awareness that we had fought a war against them at some point, and that - at least, according to my older relatives - stuff that was "Made in Japan" was useless junk. (How times have changed!)

Anyway, in those days, there was a show on Channel 56 on Sunday nights called the Creature Feature, which showed a mixture of classic horror and sci-fi movies and the most god-awful 50's junk, usually accompanied by an episode of a Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial. One week you might see Them!, and the next week Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, and the week after that the Universal Dracula. It was hosted by a guy who called himself "The Ghoul" and dressed vaguely like a hippie, who would do little comedy bits at the breaks.

(Aside: the only Ghoul "bit" I can remember was him saying, "OK, kids, time for some calisthenics!" He did one jumping jack and said, "Well, that's enough of that." Pretty much how I've felt about calisthenics my whole life.)

Eventually, the show was moved to Saturday afternoons, and re-named the Creature Double Feature. They dropped the Ghoul and Flash, but would now show two movies. I remember, they used an ELP tune as the theme music.

Anyway, back when it was still on Sunday nights was when I saw my first kaiju eiga (i.e., Japanese monster movie). I still remember seeing the description of it in the paper's TV section, something like, "When an evil monster attacks, three friendly monsters must work together to defeat it." I remember enjoying the picture immensely, and keeping an eye out for new Japanese monster movies whenver they came on. Eventually I had seen all of the Showa Era* Godzilla movies, except for Gigantis the Fire Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla Raids Again) which, for some reason, was never shown on TV when I was a kid, and which I didn't see until I was able to pick it up on VHS, many years later. Godzilla wasn't the only monster whose adventures I watched - I saw most of the Toho monster pictures, plus all of Daiei's Gamera pictures, and oddities like Gappa and Guilala, plus Britain's Gorgo and Danish monstrosity Reptilicus. As an adult, I discovered the store out in Harvard Square that is now known as "The Tokyo Kid", where to my delight, I was able to purchase most of these old pictures - plus many I'd never heard of - on first VHS, and then later on DVD. I was even able to see the original Japanese versions of the films - many of the early ones were substantially altered for their U.S. releases. That's one thing about living in an "Information Age" - so many things are available that would have been unimaginable when I was kid.

I even found some enjoyment in the "OK-monster flick-but-so-NOT-Godzilla" Godzilla (1998) and the hard-to-follow-but-intermittently-entertaining Cloverfield.

Now, as to why I liked these movies so much when I was a kid? That's kind of a poser. Remembering your own motivations of forty years ago is harder than you might think. Certainly, I had a typical little boy's fascination with monsters. Most of the early Toho critters had good "looks". Many were dinosaur-derived - and boy howdy, did I love me some dinosaurs back then! Others were giant insects - like Mothra - or derived from recognizable mythological creatures, like King Ghidorah** or Manda. Conversely, I was less thrilled with things like Megalon or Hedorah, that I found less visually interesting.

Another thing that appealed to me was the sound of these monsters. In the Showa Era, particularly, the monsters had very interesting and distinctive cries, which you could imitate on the playground if you had a mind to. Godzilla's roar in particular was especially distinctive.

The action of the films also appealed to me - there was always some good scenes of mass property damage, and in "monster vs. monster" films, there would be some good battle scenes. The "human" action wasn't so much of a draw for me, at the time I felt the "human" scenes existed to fill time between monster fights. In retrospect, I can see that some of these films had fairly good "human" stories in between the carnage, and the Godzilla films, at least, were largely free of the obnoxious kid "sidekicks" that littered most of the Showa Era Gamera pictures.

The music was usually quite good - especially in the films scored by the late, great Akira Ifukube. His music - much of it derived from the patriotic marches of his youth - really added to the tone of the pictures. It pleases me a great deal that much of the music form those films is now available on CD.

The production values varied alot - even when I was a kid, I could see that the later pictures re-used footage from the earlier films. It was only much later that I learned that this had become necessary as the Japanese film industry was in something of a slump in the 1970's, and the money just wasn't there. But some of the earlier pictures - Godzilla (1954) and Ghidrah spring to mind - were quite well-made.

Now - as to why do I like to watch these movies now? The same reasons as the above, really, and, of course, "recapturing childhood memories" as well. Also, as an adult, and as one that's acquired a little knowledge of Japanese culture, I have a little more understanding of the different ways that Godzilla has been presented (metaphor for atomic war, kiddy super-hero, stoic anti-hero, and so on) and why.

Plus, after forty-odd years of watching these pictures, I still find them fun!

So, to quote another of my favorite ficitons: "Hail to the king, baby!"

*When an Emperor of Japan assumes the Imperium, he takes a "reign name". Emperor Hirihito took "Showa" as his reign name. Thus, in Japanese sources, you will see Hirohito referred to as "The Showa Emperor" or "Emperor Showa". Thus, the first set of Godzilla movies, from Godzilla (1954) through Terror of Mechagodzilla are often referred to as the "Showa Era" pictures, to differentiate them from the "Heisei Era" pictures ("Heisei" being the reign name of emperor Akihito), which included Godzilla (1984) through Godzilla vs. Destroyah and the "Millennium" pictures, which included Godzilla 2000 through Godzilla: Final Wars.

**Never was sure where Ghidorah was "King" of. Belgium, perhaps.

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Comment by The Baron on September 10, 2009 at 7:13am
To answer TurningPoint - I agree, if you can see the original versions, they are generally much better. Several of the early pictures - Godzilla Raid Again and King Kong vs. Godzilla, particularly, were really butchered when they were "Americanized".

I don't mind subtitles at all, but I do know some folks who really can't stand watching subtitled pictures.
Comment by The Baron on September 10, 2009 at 6:48am
To answer Figs - I liked the later movies - the effects were a touch better than the old ones. My favorites of the new films were Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Destroyah and Godzilla: Final Wars, all of which are out on disk if you wanted to take a look at them.
Comment by Figserello on September 9, 2009 at 10:43pm
I haven't watched enough of these monster movies, although Godzilla himself roxks!

They say the more recent Godzilla movies, (maybe from 1984 on) are quite good. Well made, strong stories etc

What say you?
Comment by Doctor Hmmm? on September 9, 2009 at 10:34pm
Your analysis of why Godzilla et al. appealed to the L'il Baron doesn't just match my own (misty, watercolored) memories of those days. It's dead on with Action Lad's reaction to the Big G. Giant, dinosaur-like monsters roaring their brains out, knocking each other around and causing massive property damage. What little boy wouldn't like that?


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