A while ago I watched some Godzilla movies with some people who don’t exactly appreciate the aesthetics of suitmation / kigurumi, or, in less technical language, a guy in a rubber suit. One of the things I like best about Godzilla movies is that as soon as I glimpse Godzilla rising from the depths or appearing behind the mountains, I’m forced to suspend my disbelief.
I’m pretty sure it’s the rubber suit and that suit serves as a reminder that realism might be ascendant, but is still only an aesthetic and not suited to every genre.
I willingly admit that there are downsides to monsters played by guys in suits, but not the one my friends assert—rubber suits are “unrealistic.” I guess that means, “A giant city-devastating monster would not look like that.” My personal problems with rubber suits are encompassed by one monster: Minilla, Godzilla’s son. I don’t know how bad Minilla is in Japanese, but in English he is unbearable. With his googly eyes, hyucking laugh and hokey Davey and Goliath voice, Minilla was made to be dubbed. His anxious jiggling is the precursor to the frenetic wigglings of monsters in live action Japanese superhero shows like Ultraman, Kamen Rider and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Minilla was invented at a time when Toho had decided Godzilla appealed to children and he is patronizing in every way a corporation can conceive. He’s special friends with a latchkey kid and smoke ring blowing sidekick to Godzilla. The best thing I can say about Minilla is that he calls in to question Godzilla’s sex.
That said, it is funny when, in 2004′s Godzilla: Final Wars, Minilla’s driven around in a Japanese lorry. The scene makes me think of the possibilities of Jim Jarmusch’s Godzilla. John Lurie wouldn’t like Minilla, but he’d give him a lift because someone had to. Lurie’d end up in a conversation with Ifukube Akira at some 24 hour diner while Minilla went off to stop Godzilla destroying the greater metropolitan area.
But Minilla and his radioactive smoke rings cloud the issue. Rubber suits are not off brand computer-generated special effects, they are puppetry. Confronted with a guy in a rubber suit, I suspend my disbelief right quick in a way I don’t with computer generated monsters. Roland Emmerich’s 1998 CG Godzilla forces me to confront its artificiality over and over. Every attempt to make the monster more plausible (it’s a mutant komodo dragon), every little bit of scientific exposition (its atomizing breath is bacterial komodo breath), only kicks me out of the movie, especially since the “bad science” is part of the draw for me. I love the transparencies of Godzilla’s cells and the crazy explanations of “regenerator g-1.” Why make things less fun? Like Wittgenstein says, I like science as a manner of speaking. If you’re looking for a film with realistic aliens and plausible science, go see Contact.
Every realistic explanation about something unreal requires another and Hollywood’s Godzilla becomes all about justifying a giant monster’s plausibility. It distracts from the heart of Godzilla movies. Godzilla is not about what a monster would be like in the real world. Godzilla represents an experience. Until the occupation ended in 1952, the U.S. military censored all representations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, U.S. military footage of the cities was not released to the Japanese government, let alone the American public, until 1978. As far as I am concerned, if it’s not about annihilation, it’s not a Godzilla movie.
In Central and South America, writers used magical realism to write about terrifying political realities. Looking at Toho studio’s monsters and armies, I ponder how puppetry trumps direct representation, capturing the simultaneous intentional and impersonal nature of the bombings, deliberate and caused by humans but too totally devastating to comprehend as anything but disaster.
Until a few weeks ago, I would’ve said that CG always threw me out of the movie, at least out of movies with giant monsters traditionally played by guys in rubber suits. But then I saw Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. The CG worked fine for a slippery river monster spawned from formaldehyde dumped into Seoul’s Han River, on the orders of a U.S. military commander. What is it about it U.S. military actions that lend themselves to processing through giant monsters?
What part of that’s a guy in a suit don’t people understand? The guy in a suit is a metonym that stands for all the movie’s implausible parts. The guy in a suit reminds us that Godzilla is about something else, maybe has more in common with magical realism or medieval morality plays than science fiction cinema, if you don’t mind me going off half-cocked. If you can’t get over Godzilla being a guy in a suit in the first five minutes, then you are missing the point. Honestly, why attack a genre for its conventions?
Rising from the ashes of thermonuclear devastation, Carol Borden only breathes atomic fire when provoked.
(Originally published at The Cultural Gutter on October 10, 2006)