Monday, July 28, 2008

State of the Godzilla Franchise

It’s been awhile since I’ve taken the time to write in the “deep and serious” territory, but it’s come to my attention that Matt Frank’s opinion is valued to a degree in the kaiju fandom. As such, I felt it a worthwhile endeavor to undertake a sort of “State of the Genre” address to be written, posted and likely forgotten since hardly anyone reads this blog (my own fault for updating once every ice age). I really do hope, however, that someone from Toho or anyone else actively important in the entertainment industry will read this and consider it for more than two heartbeats.

The kaiju genre is currently in a bizarre state of flux; Godzilla is on yet another hiatus (this one appearing quite serious), Gamera is all but dead, Ultraman is desperately clinging to his “triumphant return” certificate, South Korea is having a strange upturn of monster movies, and the first truly excellent American giant monster film since KING KONG took the world by storm earlier this year. Interestingly, our little corner of nerdom seems to gain an upsurge of randomized influences whenever our godly king of rubber suited stuntmen takes a nosedive into low box office turnout and subsequent hibernation...or that’s one way to put it. GODZILLA: FINAL WARS was perhaps the most divisive kaiju film ever released, likely because it ended the series on a series of notes equivalent to a hippo trying to conduct Carmina Burana. In fact, the fandom has recently taken to regarding the Millenium series (as a whole) with a consensual “eh”. Let’s face it: GODZILLA 2000 was smart but overall lackluster, GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS was a crazed mish-mash of good ideas and bad execution, GMK was a glorious gem but scared the hell out of the average G-Fan by being “different,” the massive fanwank known as the “Kiryu Saga” was a cacophony of pretty-but-recycled ideas and writing, and the aformentioned FINAL WARS caused epileptic seizures though a concoction of “stupid awesomeness.” Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot that the Millenium series did well, but it suffers mostly from Toho’s “Play it Safe” policy. This is derived heavily from the very Japanese notion of “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” In other words, Toho doesn’t want to take risks, especially not after the whole 1998 GODZILLA fiasco. Of course, we can hardly fault them for that. The thing is, however, that change can be a very good thing, but it’s a tricky balance. Changing something for the sake of changing it, and in the process completely altering the core concepts that made it special in the first place, is a universal slap in the face. Yet, breaking something down back into its base uniqueness and thematic elements, and THEN changing all of the other frikafrak that had built up is the ideal (and ONLY) way to intelligently improve a series or franchise, be it Godzilla, the Incredible Hulk or Lord of the Rings. But such a concept is an elusive one, apparently, and Toho seems to rather stick with what works (even on the most basic level) than take any huge risks (which is one reason why Kaneko did not return for any subsequent Godzilla films).
Thus we are brought to the topic of Suitmation. A long-standing practice, there’s little argument that it is an effective tool for filmakers. Guillermo del Toro has proven that over and over again with the HELLBOY films and PAN’S LABYRINTH, and for God’s sake, look at GAMERA 3! I find it incredible that an almost 10-year-old film set the bar so high for Japanese suitmation monster flicks that the rest of the industry is STILL struggling to reach that film’s level of technical achievement. I will advocate, however, that CGI is an extremely important tool for filmmakers to utilize, especially if Godzilla is supposed to return in 3 years or so. The all CGI-Godzilla from Toho’s ALWAYS 2 was a tasty crumb tossed at us from the massive and delicious pie of cinematic potential, BUT upon viewing clips from a small-time film on Youtube (LINK), one can clearly see that a rubber suit can still be very effective, if handled properly. If Kaneko were given the proper amount of time needed to bring GMK to its full potential, we would have likely gotten something similar, but with a much more massive budget and eye-exploding visuals.
That was the paramount problem with most of the Millenium series: a simple sense of energy and atmosphere. The fight sequences and scenery of the monsters lacked the dynamics of even the recent Ultraman incarnations and the MIKAZUKI television series. In the wake of TRANSFORMERS, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and the 2005 KING KONG, all of which are explosive computer-animated brain tumors of awesome, it’s very hard to go back and watch GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA and honestly try to gain a sense of excitement beyond the simple fact that it’s the same two characters we’ve known for decades on end, slightly redesigned and beating the hell out of each other-oh wait, they’re doing some sort of weird...fighting/hugging...thing. I’m very thankful that GODZILLA: FINAL WARS at least attempted to ramp up the action, thanks largely to the imaginative work of suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa, but the silliness and speed of the action turned a lot of fans off. This brings me to yet another point: fandom. Toho may have a lot of flaws, like any company, but neglecting the fans is not among them. Toho does have an admirable quality of insuring that Godzilla is treated with the utmost respect, as they seem to have their finger on at least some faint pulse near the fandom’s foot or something. However, trying too hard to impress a collective of like-minded people leads to the incredibly destructive problem of stagnation; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it...but don’t improve it, either. Just keep it the same and nobody will complain (or as little as the average fan can manage without going insane). BUT, and I’m loath to admit this, but the general and casual public needs to be “let in,” so to speak. The franchise has become SO enamored with “fans first” that the general public, and by extension a larger audience, has been viciously shut out. Yet if CLOVERFIELD proved anything, it’s that the non-kaiju-fan public has a huge say in what constitutes a successful film, and any major franchise film should be approached with the idea of really drawing people in with something genuinely exciting to everyone, not just the same fans repeated ad nauseam.
The Showa series (the bar which the entire rest of the franchise is measured against) is a strange mix of honest artistry and retro-riffic wackiness, whereas the Heisei series was a massive, balls-to-the-wall step up in technical prowess and divide in cinematography when compared to the low-tech Showa days. True, the Heisei saga runs together after awhile for its manly sort of swagger and the seriousness it takes itself, but it never outstays its welcome because it’s such a leap in aesthetic from the Showa days. The Millenium series (GMK and FINAL WARS notwithstanding) runs together but with a “boring realism” sort of way, rather than the Heisei saga’s “explosive action film” approach to life. But enough fanwanking over that shallow-but-completely-BADASS septuplogy (is that even a word?) and back to the matter at hand.
We have the problem; the Godzilla series has stagnated. What’s the solution? Well, if Toho stays the course and rushes out another lackluster “revival film,” the series will fall flat on its face again and we’ll not see another Gojira flick for decades. The proper and profitable solution is, firstly, to take TIME with a new Godzilla film. Really put a huge amount of money, effort and promotion into it. Tout it as a true “next generation,” rather than the “return to form” that is so often thrown in our face with hopes at placating a rabid fanbase with tired homages and recycled material. Japanese films are not known for having big budgets but just look at what CAN be done (Gamera, AGAIN, not to mention low-budget films like CLOVERFIELD) with a modest budget. It’s about effort, more than anything.
But what should the new film be about? I think it needs to go one of two ways: either something cool, flashy and new, with all sorts of bells and whistles, like THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. And something original, for the love of Primus, not Mothra, Ghidorah and MechaGodzilla again. If TOKYO S.O.S. taught us anything, it’s that audiences are tired of the same monsters and same scenarios over and over again. What about the Crystal Incursion from GODZILLA: UNLEASHED? True, not a perfect game and the story mode is fractured to say the least, but the concept is a cool and refreshing one. And Krystalak, despite a frequent victim of the usual fan-reaction “Oh God something that isn’t a redesigned Battra!” is a unique foe that would be perfect, and throw Obsidius in for good measure. The revived Gotengo could provide human-level drama, bring in Space Godzilla as a pseudo-sequel to the Heisei series and you’re golden!
The other possibility? Remake GOJIRA. The Back-to-Showa kick is major in Japan right now, and the possibilities were touched on in ALWAYS 2, and if teamed with a major US production company, it could be the sort of “Godzilla means something” film that fans have been wanting and needing desperately since GODZILLA 1985. Heck...take a damn risk and let an American studio make the darn thing! I really don’t think GINO will happen again, honestly, as that film alone stands as a huge warning beacon to all of Hollywood as “How NOT to revive a franchise.” There are tons of directors and scriptwriters out there who are just ITCHING to take their own crack at Godzilla...why not let them?
Well, this may all just be pointless, desperate wailing from a frustrated fan who thinks he’s enlightened or something, but it’s still a valid point if Toho wants their flagship series to be profitable again. So, Mr. Toho Representative, if you could kindly take these ideas, feel free to remove my name from the credits, and present it to the big guys upstairs in the head office building, maybe they’d stop trying to sue sandwich companies over completely legal parodies and make something out of this series. Oh, and GO GET KANEKO BACK. At least he knows what he’s doing.
Alright, that’s that then. I suppose it’s more of a “State of Godzilla” address than of the genre, but everyone knows how it’s doing, more or less. CLOVERFIELD incited an honest resurgence of interest in giant monsters, Ultraman is actually healthier than initially noted (despite it never, EVER will be relevant in the United States), and life really isn’t so bad, once you stop complaining and look at all the beautiful women around you...sorry, where was I? Oh yes. Go forth my fellow fans. Go forth and...write letter to Toho? Just consider the possibilities, I suppose. At least we have MONSTERPOCALYPSE to tide us over ;)