Hiroshima/Godzilla: A Comparison
Most Japanese films released in the United States in the 1950s and 60s were altered, especially those aimed at the mass audience. They were dubbed and later they had scenes shot exclusively for the film, with different actors. Some even had completely different structures from the originals. The most classic example is Gojira (1954, Honda) and its US version Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956, Honda, Morse), in which the character of a journalist, named Steve Martin, was added, and played by Raymond Burr. Steve narrates the entire film, interrupting the more moments contemplative moments in this sci-fi tale about the discovery of a prehistoric monster that attacks boats and later Tokyo. The original uncut film was unknown to most of the West for a long time, until it popped up in home video and was later restored on DCP—it’s this version that’s will play at the Japan Society.
Another film altered and released by American distributors in 1955 is playing at the Society, and for the first time in the US in its uncut form: Hiroshima (1953, Sekigawa). The film is rarely discussed in the chronology of post-war Japanese cinema, but shouldn’t be a complete mystery to cinephiles, as some of its most harrowing sequences were used (without credit) in the opening monologue of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). The original film is a factual reenactment of the events that happened in Hiroshima before, during and after the nuclear bomb hit the city, with a particular emphasis on the bodies of the victims, as well as the fear that took root in the entire Japanese society at the time.
The two films—a historical drama and a sci-fi horror—may at first seem radically different, yet are two sides of the same spectrum, two responses to Japan’s historical wounds, particularly the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of 1945.
Both films are a response to the end of World War II, and a warning, a reminder of what happened so it doesn’t happen again, and thus a visual representation of the saying, ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Gojira, a genre film without yet any aim of building a brand and devoid of any pop culture significance, is a response to the Cold War and nuclear bomb tests, with a giant monster breathing fire as main protagonist. Hiroshima actually documents the places and people affected by the bombings. It preserves the memory for the newer generations, those who still remember the pika-don (the Japanese name given to the bomb), but are forgetting the war ideology that led to the global conflict. The fear of another war and the resurgence of nationalistic thought was what the teachers of Japanese children were trying to prevent when financing this movie.
Certain images in Hiroshima inspired Gojira: from the most ordinary to the most sensitive and heartfelt. In both films, the government meetings in reaction to the catastrophes are shot in the same manner—first showing the entire meeting and then slowly, in medium shots, showing them as tribal experiences, the figures reunited in the shape of a circle, taking turns. In such structure, no one really holds much power, and the meetings rail-off. In both films, they have the pretense of protecting the common people of Japan, but in fact are design to hide the facts.
The clearest visual cue by Honda, taken from the Sekigawa film, appears in the scenes that describe the aftermath of the first Godzilla attack. We see the crowded hospital beds and hallways, filled with the hurt, their bloody burnt faces, and the radiation tests on children—all expressed in camera travellings that move horizontally showing their faces—all the harm and sadness in the piercing cries and screams. Honda uses the same shots and movements because he understands very well that his impact lies not just in making a sci-fi horror, but instead in channeling the horror of the atomic aftermath. The monster itself represents the damage of the nuclear bomb. At the same time its visage reminds us of the aftermath: its skin charred and burnt, black and craggy. The makeup reminds us of those victims we see in Hiroshima, the monstrosity as the clearest warning against nuclear weapons.
Hiroshima’s warning is more didactic, as it was funded by Japan’s teacher association, but the performances by non-actors give it a certain edge, especially in one of the latest sequences, which show how war orphans live off tourism amidst the ruins of their city, scavenging for metal, rocks and other things they can sell, telling their survival stories. In the last scene, a young man cries, after seeing a factory that makes bullets, fearing that Japan may be once more preparing for war. Gojira ends in a similarly grim note: the main scientist, played by Takashi Shimura, warns that if experiments with H-bombs continue, more Godzilla-like monsters will appear in other parts of the world (a nod to future sequels). Rather than campy entertainment in the mold of the franchise that grew out of it, this film is instead a testament of just how much the Japanese feared that war, in the name of patriotism, may some day again prove seductive to the young.
Hirshoma plays at the Japan Society on Jan 19, at 7pm and Gojira on Feb 2, 2018 at 7pm.