“I'm afraid my Japanese is a little rusty.”
~ Raymond Burr, Godzilla, King of Monsters
Sixty years on, is it still possible to care about Godzilla? Anyone who has consented to suffer through the latest defibrillation of the Godzilla franchise should set aside a few minutes to ponder the ongoing relevance of the venerable reptilian revenant. The prognosis is grim: for me, about the only thing that still registered a few days after seeing the new offering was a vague sense of satisfaction that San Francisco had been returned to a pre-gentrified state, and that Las Vegas would likely have to be given up as a total loss. As with robots and comic books, what do the Japanese know that we don't?
Back in 1954, Godzilla – or Gojira, to go by the original Japanese name, a portmanteau of gorira (‘gorilla') and kujira (‘whale') – was the most expensive film ever made in Japan. It was also an ad hoc idea shot on a tight timeline because Toho Studios needed to fill a hole in its production pipeline. Its popularity took everyone by surprise, becoming the eighth-most attended film in Japan that year. And yet, to this day Godzilla remains a poignant work of filmmaking. Enduring questions of science, technology and society are raised. A gently compelling love triangle moves gradually from subplot to the fore, and a quiet feat of self-sacrifice guarantees Tokyo's (temporary) redemption. The monster itself possesses an inscrutable rage, and, towards the end of the film, an inescapable air of melancholy, if not outright pathos.
It's common knowledge that the Godzilla myth was predicated upon several apocalyptic events. The first, of course, is the 1945 detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing fire, destruction and especially irradiation. The second, which explicitly inspired the film, was the detonation of the first H-bomb in the Marshall Islands on March 1st, 1954. The fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) was caught up in fallout created by a detonation that was two to three times larger than expected, but the ship returned to port and distributed its catch of tuna before being quarantined, only to have one of its crew died of radiation exposure in the following months. The death, as well as the poisoned fish that had entered the food supply, fueled Japan's anxiety towards nuclear weapons and especially of the Americans handling them. In fact, the first ship to be lost in the opening minutes of Godzilla is a fishing boat off the coast of Tokyo, a direct reference to the Lucky Dragon.
So it seems that the lynchpin of the film is the Ursprung of anxiety and the form that that anxiety actually takes. The unbridled nature of the aquatic lizard, and the arbitrary destruction it wreaks by virtue of that nature, are inseparable from the mystery of its existence. While the sea of flame that engulfs Tokyo was meant to directly invoke the preceding war (and not necessarily the nuclear subgenre per se), Godzilla asks for nothing, wants nothing, and has no discernible purpose or end. Unlike subsequent films, it is not seeking food or a mate; nor is it battling rivals or attempting to reach a spot that Tokyo just happens to be occupying. It is a sole remnant of a lost ecosystem that, at its acme, did not include humanity. So if it is so foreign, what does Godzilla really represent? The question is made clearer by contrasting Godzilla with the further development of the franchise, or rather by what is lost in that development.
Following the success of the 1954 original, Jewell Enterprises stepped in to create an early example of what would become a time-honored tradition – the dumbed-down American remake. In the new film, titled Godzilla, King of Monsters and released in 1956, a horrified-yet-stoic Raymond Burr plays a reporter whose good luck finds him passing through Tokyo at the moment Godzilla emerges from the sea. He is also the film's narrator, which forces us to regard not just Godzilla but also Japanese society through an American lens (OK, Burr was Canadian, but let's not nit-pick here). The shooting with Burr lasted five days, and was spliced into the original with varying degrees of clumsiness. And while much of the original Godzilla footage was retained, even with the new scenes the film was shortened from 96 to a more digestible 80 minutes. Unfortunately, this is the version with which most people are familiar.
The gravest loss incurred in this remake was Godzilla's very creation myth. In the original it is made abundantly clear that Godzilla is somehow re-awakened through the detonation of hydrogen bomb testing. This is almost entirely omitted in the remake, which is sensible, given the Americans' nuclear visitation a mere dozen years earlier. (More ironic is the fact that the new film was also released in Japan the following year, and to great popularity). But once the Rosebud of radiation is removed, we have to ask, wherefore art thou, Godzilla?
I suppose it didn't much matter, if you were at the drive-in in 1956 looking for an easy make-out session. If you are tickled by large beasties rampaging around cities, too, the back story is irrelevant to the task at hand – a task amplified today by computer graphics, to the point where it is surprising that a plot is at all necessary. But for those of us who believe film is a tracer gun that, when fired, illuminates some truths that we like to tell about ourselves as a society, the absence is telling.
The last lines delivered in each film perfectly characterize this lapse. In the remake, a Murrow-like Burr intones the anodyne words, “The menace was gone…But the whole world could wake up and live again.” The original sees Dr. Yamane, the renowned paleontologist who first identified radiation as the causus belli, muttering to himself “I can't believe that Godzilla was the last of its species. If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.” In the Americanized version, the monster is yet another force to be conquered, whereas in the original, its defeat is provisional: it is nature that is inscrutable, the monster only a representation.
Unlike today's movies, whose ominous final words are exclusively designed to create the expectation of a sequel, these were really meant to be just that – an admonishment. And yet the success of the 1954 original begat not only the Raymond Burr version, but also an increasingly silly pop-culture cavalcade of jig-dancing Godzillas, Mechagodzillas, sons-of-Godzilla, etc. For the sake of brevity and good taste, we shall pass over these in silence. But it is worth mentioning that, except for the occasional remake, Toho Studios never leased the rights to another studio to make a Godzilla film until the 1990s. This was obviously a good idea, since the even more risible 1998 American “reimagining” of the franchise as a hermaphroditic Tyrannosaurus Rex again point out a gap in our ability to conceive of Godzilla – or rather what Godzilla represents – in a way that is culturally commensurate with the original. Sure, the nuclear narrative is there; except for the 1956 remake, it's been fairly ubiquitous. But, as with most of the original's successors, what makes this Godzilla less effective is the introduction of explicit purpose.
Compare this with a few other horror/action genres that may serve to represent the current palette of American anxieties: films about aliens, zombies and germs. (I'm excluding dystopian films, which are overwhelmingly about class. The idea of us always being concerned about class only in the future is fascinating and worthy of a separate essay). These are all examples of invasion, or, stated more explicitly, immigration (consider that even the virus in Contagion originated in China). It wouldn't be unfair to say that the sum of American fears described in film concerns territorial integrity or, better yet, race. Godzilla can be considered in a very similar sense, and there is, to me, little coincidence that in both the 1998 and 2014 American films, the monsters have as their purpose the unwanted reproduction of their invasive species on our soil.
The result, however, is simply the eternal return of having successfully defended our borders, whether from giant lizards spawned in the Philippines, or from Philippinos. But the antagonists' goals were clear, and they were rebuffed, however great the cost. This is not at all what the original Godzilla intended, and recognizing the difference matters a great deal.
The Americans' failure is to confuse Godzilla's lack of purpose with a lack of meaning. Consider the way the monster manifests: in the original film, Godzilla's approach is presaged by a giant typhoon. It – literally – deposits living trilobites in its footsteps. It is further enraged by artificial light, as Dr. Yamane tries to warn the Army. Godzilla is a force of nature, distilled into an unimaginably concentrated essence. But most importantly, Godzilla is also a consequence of human activity – it is created by, composed of, and an instrument ofradiation. It is nature, but it is a particular nature provoked into being by ourselves. This is why it does not – cannot – want anything, or have a purpose. Its message is that we need to contend with ourselves, as Yamane does when he cautions against the continued testing of nuclear weapons.
Precedents for this in the Japanese psyche go well beyond the horrors of World War II. The country's geography is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. Unsurprisingly, the forces of nature take on animistic qualities as a result. Much of the basis of Japan's most pervasive religion, Shintō, is animistic, and the claim that all natural objects possess a divinity or sacred essence (kami) would be something well known to Japanese audiences even today. By contrast, disrespect of this essence and its carriers leads to significant consequences:
Those who fail to take into account the feelings of other people and kami will only attract ruin for themselves. The worst expression of such an attitude is the taking of another's life for personal advances and enjoyments. Those killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold urami, literally a grudge, and become aragami, a powerful and evilkami that seeks revenge.
Not only does this provide the foundation for much of Japan's rich tradition of ghost stories, but it is also a vein that continues to be mined in contemporary Japanese culture. It is one of the principal themes of Hayao Miyazake' 1997 anime Princess Mononoke, which depicts the battle of nature and civilization in a way that would make Thomas Hardy cower under a table.
However, Godzilla remains the consummate aragami. He is the irradiation of the environment literally made flesh, and as such seeks to take revenge on us. The terms of our expiation remain unclear, because this is not a negotiation that is being brokered by God. There is no scripture to guide us here. In Shintō, divinity is everywhere, and therefore we are always accountable to everything. Vengeance is only brought upon us by ourselves, and there is no “deal” to be made, because there is no authority outside of the world with which to make it. Simply killing the monster does not bring the world back into alignment. What opportunity, then, would bring such a conception of Godzilla – an avatar of nature, indifferently avenging itself upon us – into more relevant focus for us today? A Godzilla for our time, as it were?
For my part, I'd like to see it rudely awoken from a million-year sleep by the melting of Antarctica's ice sheets. And it wouldn't quit until its atomic breath melted enough ice to inundate every coastal city around the globe. I think that would go straight to the heart of my anxiety, and a few other people's. As an otherwise slack-jawed Ken Watanabe says in the latest Godzilla film, “The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in our control.” Even anodyne words can contain truth.