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 ;)


Anonymous said...

Amen to all of that. Just look at how successful TRANSFORMERS was as a film. Yeah there are fans who whine about how they looked and stuff, but when I watch it I forget the robots are CGI because they emote so well.

My favorite Goji series is the Heisei, especially GvsMGII with BabyGodzilla. I'm a female fan and think Godzilla looks kinda cute in the heisei era, but he's so emotive too. The scene where he first meets BabyG is probably one of the most soft and touching Godzilla moments outside of his grieving Junior in Destroyah.

I'd DIG a Toho movie where scientists go study Godzilla in his natural environment rather than shooting at him. Maybe something goes wrong but for awhile, why not show us what Godzilla is like when he's left alone? I like to think he's actually very docile.

Blah, I'm rambling, but I think I made my point ^^;

James Gannon said...

From a fan's standpoint, I agree with your essay about the Godzilla series needing a fresh approach. But from a business standpoint, I'm afraid I'm going to have to side with Toho's desire to work with proven formulas. They may produce films we love, but we also have to keep in mind that they're a business. If they don't make money, then they can't make films period.

Example: Godzilla vs. Biollante. My favorite kaiju film, and probably one of the very best overall. It featured an original kaiju, but what happened to the box office compared to The Return of Godzilla? The the sequel to Biollante pitted Godzilla against a reinvented Showa kaiju. What was the box office take on that one? Here are the numbers from the Japanese box office from the first four Godzilla Heisei films:
The Return of Godzilla- ¥2,550,000,000.
Godzilla vs. Original Monster (Biollante)- ¥1,040,000,000. Godzilla vs. Recycled Monster (Ghidorah)- ¥1,450,000,000. Godzilla vs. Recycled Monster and Slightly Original Monster (Mothra and Battra)- ¥2,220,000,000. Godzilla vs. Yet Another Recycled Monster (Mechagodzilla)- ¥1,870,000,000.
All these movies were fantastic, but how come the one pitting Godzilla against a non-Showa kaiju earned the least?

Now let's examine the Japanese box office numbers for the first three films of the Millennium series.
Godzilla 2000- ¥1,650,000,000.
Godzilla vs. Mostly Original Monster (Megaguirus)- ¥1,200,000,000.
Godzilla vs. Two ReRecycled Monsters and One Recycled Monster- ¥2,710,000,000. Again, do you see why Toho would stick to making rehashes when the new stuff flounders?

If you were an adviser at Toho, what would you tell them if they made a string of "Godzilla vs. Original Kaiju" movies, and they each had declining box office totals? Would you tell them to keep at it, or tell them to revive a classic kaiju adversary with proven numbers? I think there's still room for the likes of Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla, as long as the stories they are involved with are fresh. The reason why the Millennium era Mechagodzilla films were boring was because it offered nothing new. I take that back. The one new element to this Mechagodzilla was that he was built from the bones of the first Godzilla. When I first saw Kiryu go berserk and start attacking the city, I thought the film was going to have an intriguing element. But sadly, it only happened once... unless you count the conclusion of S.O.S. The potential was there: we've already been subjected to MechaG under the control of aliens and humans. What would it have been like to have a MechaG who acted on his own free will? A wild, rampaging Godzilla cyborg wreaking havoc, with Godzilla trying to take down his ancestor, and the Japanese Special Defense Force tasked with destroying their "Frankenstein"?

Godzilla will never be popular in the United States outside of the established fandom. When a non-kaiju fan hears "Godzilla", they always think of "men in rubber suits fighting over cardboard buildings" while Japanese actors shout in badly dubbed English. Look at the box office figures of Godzilla '98 and Godzilla 2000 in the States. $136,314,294 (98) vs. $10,037,390 (2K). You can say that G2K's numbers were so low because it was a lackluster film, as well as less promotion and amount of theaters it was screened in, but us kaiju fans are used to these situations. The fact that it was Godzilla's return to form should have been enough to get us in the theaters. And it did. It just didn't grab non-G fans. We're not enough for Toho to profit off of. The reason why Cloverfield was so successful was because no one has ever heard of it before, and it had quite an effective viral campaign. Nobody really knew what to expect. As for giving us Americans another crack at making our own Godzilla film, we most certainly did not learn any lessons since then about how not to revive a franchise. Remember The Honeymooners movie, which came seven years afterward? If I could choose a man to make an American G flick, it'd be Tim Burton, another lifelong Godzilla fan.

While I'm also on the "please be more original" bandwagon who was a little underwhelmed by the Millennium series, keep in mind that we alone can't keep the numbers up. If original ideas crash and recycled ideas prosper, what do you think Toho will stick to? I'd bet that if the next series featured Godzilla vs. Bagan and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla that the latter would rake in the most cash.

I'd also wager that Toho had people thinking about the next Godzilla series ever since it began its hibernation. Maybe his CGI appearance in Always 2 was "testing the waters". If I had my say, the first film would just feature Godzilla destroying a major city in the vein of the first Showa and Heisei films, showing us what a bad ass we know he is. I think Godzilla would do great in CGI if done correctly, but I foresee a great backlash if the suit-mation technique is wholly abandoned. Didn't you see the debacle that was caused when it was revealed that the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie would do away with costumes in favor of CGI, as well as a lack of Shredder? I loved all four films, but there are a great many who would swear off any franchise if they were dominated by computer effects after its predecessors were created with more traditional techniques.

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