Creative Director - Los Angeles Arts Society
When I learned that the Japanese American National Museum would be holding an outdoor screening of Godzilla (or Gojira, in its original Japanese), I had already pitched the idea of doing our own screening of the monster movie classic to Alex, my friend and LA Arts Society’s Founding Director. Coming off the heels of our screening of the Elvira’s Movie Macabre presentation of House on Haunted Hill, I thought Godzilla was a good follow-up in that it had a similar cult appeal yet was different enough from Elvira that it would feel fresh, perhaps even pleasantly surprising to potential viewers. I expected it to be a tough sell, but Alex accepted it with enthusiasm and the next thing I knew, we were not only drawing up Godzilla plans but also on our way up to LA to see the Museum’s own screening.
In another funny coincidence, just days before the event, I had reached out to Steve Ryfle, one of the co-authors of Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, to see if he would be interested in appearing at our screening. Imagine my surprise and delight when the event staff announced that he would be introducing the movie and, lo and behold, he stepped up and began discussing the context in which the movie was made. He didn’t speak for very long, but he got a lot in within the few minutes he was up there and, impressively, drew attention to parts of the film that modern viewers usually overlook.
No, not the political subtext of atomic testing and radiation poisoning (over which countless articles and commentaries have pored over), but rather, the abysmal living conditions that the Japanese people endured during and after World War II. Sure, there are plenty of indications that Tokyo is a modern city teeming with life and culture such as electric locomotives, neon signs, and young people partying, but there’s also towering firestorms, military men mobilizing, and civilians dead or dying, shadows of the war that a handful of men dragged Japan into and made its people pay for. It’s difficult not only for viewers watching the movie over 60 years later but for American viewers especially to appreciate these aspects of the film, yet it’s necessary to understand the place it was coming from.
Regarding the presentation of the film, it looked pretty darn solid, or at least as solid as a 50’s Japanese film that wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa could. My suspicion is that they used the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, which uses what is almost certainly the best print of the film available. Non-fans would do well to know that this is a major improvement over the presentation offered by the videotapes that I, like many others, grew up watching Godzilla (or rather, the American edit Godzilla: King of the Monsters!) on. Pillarboxing (or reverse letterboxing) was in full effect but this was necessitated by the film’s original aspect ratio of 1:37:1, a long-standardized format that had started on its way out when the project was shot.
On the audio front, the movie sounded great, playing out over speakers flanking the screen. It was loud and clear enough that I was able to tell what was going on even as Alex and I chatted with Mr. Ryfle off to the side of the event. There was a bit of competition in the form of cars, helicopters, and, at one point, a yelling homeless man, but the film was subtitled anyway and we had no trouble hearing Akira Ifukube’s masterful score or Godzilla’s foreboding roars and footsteps.
Being an outdoor screening, there wasn’t a snack bar or proper concessions area. There was, however, a taco truck, parked towards the periphery of the museum grounds so as to minimize distraction from the film. Although I didn’t get anything, I appreciated that the option was there even as there was any number of restaurants and shops already in the area. It showed proactive thinking on the part of the organizers and a willingness to go beyond the bare minimum of planning and running an event to make it a fuller, more memorable experience.
The crowd was pretty diverse and largely respectful of the film. Someone chuckled at a few moments like the jet miniatures and female lead Momoko Kochi’s crying, but everyone else was mostly silent and responsive to the different emotional beats that director Ishiro Honda tried to hit. There was a kid who kept asking questions throughout the show, but he wasn’t too loud and in any case I suppose I should be happy that he was expressing interest in what he was seeing. For what it’s worth, my parents weren’t in the habit of taking me to see black-and-white Japanese movies when I was that age, so I can hardly imagine that I’d conduct myself nearly as well as he did.
There was only one real shortcoming that night and it, funnily enough, was Alex and I’s fault rather than anyone involved with the event. Originally, we were planning to catch the museum’s Kaiju vs. Heroes exhibition before the show but time and traffic conspired to get us there right as the movie was about to start. I was kind of bummed because I was looking forward to checking out all the vintage toys and action figures on display, but with better planning we’ll be able to catch it another day.
With any luck, we’ll also be back to the Japanese American National Museum for more screenings like this one. There’s a whole sub-genre of Japanese cinema for them to dive into, maybe even create a series around (Tokusatsu Tuesdays, anyone?) Not only that, but the laid-back nature of the event and the smoothness with which it was run inspires confidence in the ability of the planners to hold similar ones in the future. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for more like it, that’s for sure.
The views expressed in this review are those of the author’s and not necessarily the views of LA Arts Society. Let us know what you think of it in the comments section below. For more reviews, events, and other news from LA Arts Society, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. If you’d like to book an event, volunteer with LA Arts Society, or have any other questions, feel free to reach us on our Contact page.