Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ring Form Opportunity No. 4: Gojira is a Ring

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I have now all but decided that Gojira is a ring form text. It took a bit of work to sort through the film once again, but I spotted a temporal anomaly, as in two other cases, Tezuka’s Metropolis and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and that pretty much confirmed it for me.

I think the best way to proceed at this point is to begin with the general story, then to look at the central sequence. After that I’ll consider the whole film.

Gojira: Characters and Story

The film has two plots, the monster plot and a love story. The same characters are central to both plots, though Gojira’s role in the love story would seem to be rather peripheral. The characters:
Gojira: An ancient creature apparently brought from its niche under water by recent atomic testing.

Professor Kyohei Yamane: Zoologist who is an expert on whatever and who identifies what Gojira is. He wants to keep Gojira alive so it can be studied.

Emiko Yamane: Yamane’s daughter, who was betrothed to one man (Serizawa) since childhood but who is in love with another (Ogata).

Hideto Ogata: A diver with the salvage company called to find the remains of first ship Gojira destroyed.

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa: A brilliant young scientist who was betrothed to Emiko in childhood. His research has produced a weapon that could kill Gojira.
The monster plot is simple. Gojira destroys two boats at sea and then attacks Odo Island, where there’s a small fishing village. Hearings are held, decisions are made, and defenses constructed. They fail. Gojira attacks Tokyo twice and destroys much of it. A secret force is unveiled and made into a weapon to kill Gojira. The brilliant young scientist commits suicide in the course of killing Gojira with the weapon he had created. End of story.

The love plot is simple as well. Boy and girl are in love. But the girl is betrothed to another man. Attempts by both the boy and the girl to inform the father of their love, and their intention to marry, fail because everyone is distracted by this monster, Gojira, that’s threatening to destroy the world as we know it. The girl’s betrothed dies while killing Gojira. The end.

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The Central Sequence

By this point in the film, roughly a third of the way in, Gojira has sunk two ships and destroyed a fishing village. Emiko and Ogata are discussing their relationship together and her relationship to Serizawa. They are interrupted by a reporter who wants her to introduce him to the eminent Dr. Serizawa. The reporter has heard that Serizawa had been working of research that might be useful in the current crisis. She agrees, and also indicates to Ogata that she’ll tell Serizawa about them.

Serizawa denies that he’s doing any relevant research and the reporter leaves. Emiko then asks Serizawa just what he HAS been working on. He takes her down to his laboratory and shows her a large fish tank full of fish. He then places something into the tank, with the camera on him and Emiko, who is standing next to him. She watches, horrified, screams, and clings to him.

The scene ends. We know she saw something terrible, but we don’t know what. Serizawa swears her to secrecy. She agrees, of course. But she doesn’t say anything about her relationship with Ogata.

That set of events started about 39 minutes into the film, which has a total running time of about 96 minutes (which puts the midpoint at about 48 minutes).

Things happen, including Gojira’s near destruction of Tokyo, to which the film devotes over 10 minutes, that is, a bit over 10% of its running time. Starting at about an hour and 11 minutes – well past the temporal middle – Emiko decides that she has to break her promise to Serizawa and reveal his secret research. So she tells Ogata, the man whom she wants to marry.

But she doesn’t simply tell him that Serizawa knows how to build a weapon that would kill Gojira. First she tells him that she must break a promise she had made to Serizawa. Then she starts telling him what happened the day she visited Serizawa’s laboratory. As she does so the camera moves in on her face in a close-up and there’s a cross dissolve to that day in the laboratory when Serizawa revealed his secret.

This time we see and hear what happened inside the tank: the water frothed and foamed and the flesh melted off the skeletons of the fish. Now WE know what so horrified her, but we also know why that information is important. We also see the conversation she had with Serizawa about the implications of his discovery and why he wants to keep it secret.

Now I suppose one could argue that, strictly speaking, this flashback isn’t a temporal anomaly. However, what happened in the film’s present at that point was not a trip back into the past. Emiko was simply telling a story. But don’t see her telling the story nor do we hear her words. Rather, we go back in time and don’t rejoin the present until after Emiko has made her promise: “I won’t tell anyone, not even my own father.”

The film then cross dissolves back into the present where we see Emiko’s face in the same position on the screen it had when the flashback began. The first thing she says to Ogata? “I had to break my promise.” And the two visit Serizawa to convince him to use his oxygen destroyed – that’s what it’s called – to defeat Gojira.

In between these two scenes Gojira has attacked Tokyo twice. The scene I’ve nominated to be the central one takes place between those two attacks.

When Emiko had taken the reporter to see Serizawa, she had also wanted to bring up her relationship with Ogata, but failed to do so. That conversation got displaced by Serizawa’s demonstration of his research. When Ogata approached Yamane about his relationship with Emiko, that conversation too got displaced, by a disagreement over Gojira. That is in these two instances a conversation in the love plot was derailed by conversations in the monster plot. These derailments are woven in with Gojira’s attacks on Tokyo.

Here’s our central sequence (the timings are approximate and are for the beginning of the scene):
[38:46] Emiko visits Serizawa to tell about her relationship with Ogata. Instead, he shows her his research, but the AUDIENCE doesn’t see it. All we know is that it is terrible.
[43:58] Gojira attacks Tokyo for the first time. He retreats and the country makes elaborate defense plans.
[50:49] Ogata and Yamane have a falling out over Gojira and Ogata is kicked out of the house.
[53:31] Gojira attacks again. This attack is much worse.
[1:10:45] Emiko tells Ogata what she learned about Serizawa’s research. We get a flashback in which we see what happened in the lab that day that so horrified her. [ends at 1:15:45]
That much is a well-formed ring, and it spans roughly 37 minutes that straddle the middle of the film.

The two attacks by Gojira are obviously parallel to one another, and they “enclose” the center point scene. What, one might ask, would have happened if Ogata HAD been able to bring up his relationship with Emiko? Given that Yamane was the kind of man who had arranged for this marriage, would the result have been any different–Ogata being banished from the household? The two attacks, in turn, are framed by a revelation and a promise to keep it secret and then later that promise is broken and the revelation is now shared with others and, well, with the audience of the film.

The Wider Ring

That a 37 minute sequence more or less in the middle of a film that runs a bit over an hour and a half has a ring form, that is interesting. But it is not itself sufficient to make a ring of the whole film. Is the material before and after that sequence symmetrically deployed?

The action in that middle sequence takes place mostly on land, in Tokyo. Much of the action before and after takes place on or in the sea. The film opens at sea with the mysterious destruction of first one, then a second ship. The film also ends at sea, with Gojira’s destruction and Serizawa’s suicide. The settings are thus symmetrical and we can argue for symmetry in the events as well. Gojira emerges as a destructive force at the beginning. Gojira is itself destroyed at the end. That certainly gives us closure.

But what of Serizawa’s suicide? What, if anything, does it balance? That’s a complicated question.

Serizawa himself, in conversation with Emiko and Ogata, noted that he wanted to keep his invention secret because he was afraid of what would happen if politicians got ahold of it and used it for destructive ends. He noted that, even if he destroyed his notes, he would remain and he was worried that he might be forced into creating weapons. That concern would explain why he decided to sacrifice himself. But that doesn’t quite set it in balance with anything Gojira has done.

So consider this: Prof. Yamane argued that Gojira has appeared because atomic testing has destroyed his normal source of food. So he’s looking for new sources of food, and in the process is blundering into and killing humans. Humans have upset the balance of nature. In order for that balance to be restored, the humans have to give up something. There must be a sacrifice. Serizawa is that sacrifice.

One could counter that by pointing out that Gojira killed hundreds and thousands of people and destroyed a great deal of property. Isn’t that sacrifice? No. It’s unfortunate, but it is not sacrifice. Remember, we’re not dealing in logic; we’re dealing in myth. What makes Serizawa’s suicide a sacrifice is that fact that he dies willingly and does so in order to remove dangerous knowledge from the world forever, and it is dangerous knowledge that created the imbalance in the first place. To be sure, the dangerous knowledge that Serizawa’s suicide destroys is not the dangerous knowledge that caused the problem. But it will have to do – myth logic.

Beyond that there is the fact that the whole end sequence is draped in the trappings of ritual, as I argued in my original review of the film. Serizawa arrives at his decision while he, Emiko, and Ogata are watching a children’s choir singing a hymn of peace on television.

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That same hymn reappears in the sound track at the very end, after both Gojira and Serizawa are dead. The instrumental accompaniment to the hymn accompanies Ogata and Serizawa when they descend into the ocean to deliver the oxygen destroyer. When Serizawa finally delivers the oxygen destroyer, he holds it up to Gojira as though making an offering at an altar:

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But then, that’s the point isn’t it? Gojira is something of a god and even as he is being killed, he must also be propitiated. Serizawa is the agent of Gojira’s death and his own death is a propitiatory act.

Looked at in this way there is one obvious and very radical difference between the first third of the film, before Serizawa reveals his secret to Emiko, and the last third, after Emiko has betrayed the secret to Ogata and together they have convinced Serizawa to use the oxygen destroyer against Gojira.

From that point to the end, everything goes according to plan. Yamane, Serizawa, Emiko, and Ogata all board the ship, along with many others; the ship goes out to sea with the fleet; Gojira is located; and he is destroyed. To be sure Serizawa is the only one who knew what he was going to do – though, I rather suspect, many in the audience did, but that’s irrelevant. The humans formulated a plan and executed it, and the monster.

The opening third was quite different. First one ship then another is destroyed. People are panicked. Meetings held, the navy attempts to destroy Gojira with depth charges, and they fail. Nothing works.

So, the first and last sections of the film take place largely at sea or, in the first third, on an island at sea. The first third is chaotic while the last third is ordered. And now things get even more interesting. We know about the relationship between Ogata and Emiko from very early in the film, less than five minutes in, immediately after the first boat was destroyed and before the second one was destroyed.

We don’t know about her betrothal to Serizawa until the end of that first third. The conflict between her betrothal and her love gets worked out in the middle third, when Gojira wreaks havoc in Tokyo, and remains resolved in the last third. Serizawa doesn’t commit suicide (by cutting air line to his diving suit) until it is apparent that Gojira has been destroyed. Serizawa’s speaks his last words through an intercom to Ogata, who is now at the surface: “Ogata, it worked! Both of you, be happy. Good-bye . . . farewell!” When it becomes evident that Serizawa too is gone, Yamane doffs his cap to the man who can no longer be his son-in-law and utters his name, “Serizawa.”

So, yes, the first and last sections of Gojira are in symmetrical balance with one another and the middle section is itself a ring. The film, this film about a monster from the deep, has a well-formed ring structure.

* * * * *

There’s a lot more I could say about Gojira, but those remarks are of a more interpretive nature and this post is about form. Those remarks will have to wait. I simply want to point out that this isn’t the first time that a monster and radiation played large in Japanese popular culture. Dinosaurs and radiation played significant roles in Osamu Tezuka’s science-fiction trilogy, as did a scientist who gave lectures on evolution (like Yamane did): Lost World, Metropolis, and Nextworld. One of those, Metropolis, is a ring form text as well. That trilogy appeared several years before Gojira. How much did it contribute to the cultural atmosphere that greeted Gojira?

Addendum: Odo Island

In my desire to get through this post, I all but neglected something that’s very important: Odo Island. That’s the small island off the coast where Gojira made his third attack. It’s the Odo Islanders that had a name for the monster. They knew about him, and even had a ritual in which they’d formerly sacrificed virgins to him. They reenact the ritual (though without the sacrifice):

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Thus we have a Gojira ritual within the first third of the film that parallels the overall ritual feel of the last third.

The Odo Islanders also offer an explicit contrast to the urbanites of Tokyo. They make their living by fishing and, unlike the folks from Tokyo, they wear traditional dress. They’re the Japanese equivalents of country bumpkins.

In a way, what the middle third of the film does is take this “primitive” ritual by a relatively isolated group of people and magnify and transform it into a world-scale ritual enacted by the most sophisticated folks using the most sophisticated science.

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