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There’s a new Godzilla game on the market, and although its reception was mixed, it does one thing better than any other Godzilla game in history: it’s as accurate as a giant lizard’s mouth-laser, down to the tiniest details.
In 1984, stuntman Kenpachiro Satsuma became Toho Studio’s in-suit Godzilla actor. The film in which he began his decade-long stint, Return of Godzilla, featured a suit that weighed 242 pounds and was built for a taller actor who quit before production. Satsuma could barely move the sculpted concoction of foam, rubber and latex.
Four years later, Satsuma’s return to the role in Godzilla vs. Biollante was greeted with a suit built for his frame and mercifully scaled down to 180 pounds of girth. “I felt that the Godzilla costume in Godzilla  controlled me, but that I controlled the one used in Godzilla vs. Biollante,” Satsuma told vintage magazine Cult Movies, according to the 1998 book Japan’s Favorite Mon-star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G”.
It’s an important distinction. Because Godzilla is played by someone inside of a claustrophobic practical special effect, the creature moves a certain way on camera. Each actor in the role—Satsuma, Haruo Nakajima, and Tsutomu Kitagawa being the famous trio—has their flair. Satsuma’s performance uses a signature walk, thighs whipping at a slight angle, snapping the bulk of the feet forward. His shoulders and upper arms seem pinned to the body; forearms then lash out as needed. Fingers routinely crunch into a fist to indicate animalistic aggression.
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Bandai Namco’s plainly named Godzilla video game, released in July of 2015, could have been motion captured by Satsuma himself; the differences would be negligible. It’s digitally modeled perfection.
DUST RISES, BALSA WOOD FALLS
There is more to Japanese “Tokusatsu”—special effect films or television—than suits and wires. Miniature buildings (not cardboard but intricately layered balsa wood) explode in specific ways. Windows first light up indicating the ignition of interior pyrotechnic lines. Excessive sparks fly in a storm of hand-crafted showmanship lost in this era of computer generated spectacle. Dust rises, balsa wood falls. The new Godzilla videogame is accurate here as well.
The game has a clear understanding of the craftsmanship of these films. At an intended 100 to 300 feet tall, Godzilla lumbers through Tokyo. He does not freely leap (not most of the time, anyway) as in his appearance on Nintendo’s 1988 game Godzilla: Monster of Monsters. Ever so rarely does he even sprint at a measurably speedy velocity, like he did in Pipeworks Software’s inaccurate if enjoyable Xbox and PlayStation 2 game Destroy All Monsters Melee.
The new Godzilla game may pay tribute to monster’s more eclectic forms—like flying backwards on a jet of radioactive breath—but only as quirky optionals. They’re historical anecdotes.
Concessions must often be made in the interactive medium of video games in order to preserve the basic tenets of daikaiju (giant monster) films. Concepts of fluidity and responsiveness are often cut because, just like in the films, speed must be slowed to accentuate size. The games simulate why Japanese filmmakers relied on high speed cinematography to build weight and scale to their images: so large objects would appear to move slowly. It’s natural.
The actors’ suits moved and bent not like flesh but foam, rubber, or even thin bamboo. Buildings appeared somewhat plain; painting intricate detail on hundreds—thousands even—of models went against reasonable budget restraints.
Godzilla is the first game to reach for this level of authenticity. The monster is slow. The “suit” looks restrictive and controls as such. Building facades are flat. Properly licensed, respected maestro Akira Ifukube’s iconic score then fills the soundtrack with a military march if tensions reach a certain point—a dazzling showcase of source material perfectionism.
GAMING A GOD
Maybe Godzilla is not a “good” video game in traditional senses, but it’s a voraciously accurate one. It’s respectful to and knowledgeable of a dying art form—a realistic simulation of the cinema’s fictional moving images. It’s paying tribute to cultural legacy, even if it replaced the creature’s harrowing nuclear origins with a story involving superfluous “G-Energy.”
Godzilla understands the Eastern reverence for what is not only a licensed movie character, but something with great symbolism within Japan’s greater historical context. Japan is a country with bronzed statues and a hotel dedicated to the monster. The alteration of Godzilla’s Hiroshima/Nagasaki legacy is distressing (the 2014 American Godzilla film is guilty too), yet what remains is distinctively Japanese.
It’s respectful, proud even, of a nation’s personality and their resourcefulness in mastering their peculiar special effects form. Godzilla regards the character’s identity and invention as sacred even if these necessary changes are uncomfortable to accepted norms.
Critics of this game easily focused on the character’s sluggishness and its bland graphics, rather than deciphering why those things are the way they are. And Western critics of Godzilla films complained similarly in the past. “The dubbing is bad,” they’d say, ignoring that mainstream audiences will not tolerate subtitled films, or “The effects are cheesy,” feigning ignorance against the torrent of American films which did the same (if worse), like 1976’s Academy Award-winning King Kong, a just-as-chintzy-looking man-in-a-suit-with-miniatures remake.
Godzilla is a special video game that, for the most part, will not be recognized as such. In many ways, it’s a series of firsts: the first game to accurately depict Godzilla’s screen persona, the first to consistently allow a camera positioned low for a sense of scale, the first to appreciate the simplicity of Godzilla’s radioactive breath—the glow, jittery motion, and flaring impact must be precise. And crucially, it is the first interactive tribute to a misunderstood, idiosyncratic form of foreign filmmaking.
Godzilla earns the name. I think Satsuma would be proud.
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