Aside from my utter and complete adoration of the daikaiju genre, it may come as a shock to you to learn I do indeed enjoy other types of films. I like to pride myself in saying my taste in viewing is varied and far-reaching, but another niche genre I’ve loved for a while now and keep returning to is Italy’s “spaghetti-western”. In exploring this extraordinary genre, I’ve long thought that a fair and sizable comparison could be made between Japan’s daikaiju-eiga genre and Italy’s spaghetti-western phenomenon. To begin this comparison, it is only fair to start at the very beginning…
Naturally both of these genres are inspired by and spun-off from their American counterparts - the “classic Hollywood” western and the giant monster movie. In understanding this, one must look at the two seminal films of the daikaiju and spaghetti-western genres - Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and Ishiro Honda’s GODZILLA. GODZILLA in particular draws its inspiration from Merian C. Cooper’s KING KONG and Eugène Lourié THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, whereas FISTFUL borrows elements from such classic westerns as George Stevens’ SHANE and John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Of course, neither the western nor the monster movie is native to Italy or Japan, respectively, but both nations adopted and nurtured the genres, and created something of their own.
How then does a nation adopt and subvert a genre into something new, then? Just as Italy subverted the tropes of the classic Hollywood western and threw it back in its face, Japan injected a unique and indisputably Japanese element into the giant monster movie. Japan’s adoption of the giant monster movie, its transformation into the daikaiju genre, and its final comparison with Western-world counterparts is best summed up by Steve Ryfle in his article “Godzilla’s Footprint”, found in the booklet accompanying Classic Media’s 2006 DVD release of GODZILLA:
“And because they were uniquely Japanese, Godzilla flicks possessed an alluring and mysterious quality that made Hollywood’s vintage giant monsters just plain dull by comparison.”
This is a sentiment I heartily concur with. Having recently revisited THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, I was left with the unfortunate aftertaste that, aside from Ray Harryhausen’s iconic special effects work, there really isn’t much to it. It’s a run-of-the-mill and often dull monster film. On the other hand, Honda’s GODZILLA is an incredibly powerful anti-nuclear statement and a thrilling yet sombre monster picture. The same principle could quite easily be adapted to an understanding of the spaghetti-western in comparison to its classic Hollywood counterpart.
The most striking example I can think of is in a comparison between the title theme songs to Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Enzo Barboni’s THEY CALL ME TRINITY. The former is a traditional masculine ballad inspired by countless American folk songs, whereas the latter is an upbeat techno-pop extravaganza with pithy vocals, and is just plain cool. This comparison echoes Ryfle’s statement that the Western-world counterparts are left in the eyes of the viewer “just plain dull by comparison.”
Though neither of these films are the first in their respective genres (FISTFUL was preceded by a dozen or so Italian-made - but perhaps not strictly “spaghetti” - westerns, whereas two 1930s Japanese King Kong features predate GODZILLA), but it is imperative to understand both of these films as the absolutely seminal work in their respective genres. By now you must understand that I not only prefer the daikaiju and spaghetti-western to their American counterparts, but also consider them vastly superior cinematic movements. Both GODZILLA and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS - though not the first examples of - shaped their respective genres as we know them today, and in their own ways, changed the face of genre cinema forever.