Godzilla, or Gojira in the original Japanese, is giant, reptilian, atomic, monster in the Japanese film series Gojira. Godzilla is a Kaiju, which roughly translated to “large strange beast” in English. The term Kaiju can be used to describe any type of giant monster whether it be mammalian, reptilian, insect-like, etc. The original Godzilla film, Gojira, premiered October 27, 1954 and depicts him as a prehistoric monstrosity that is woken from his slumber by bomb testing and proceeds to wreak havoc on Japan. The film is used to portray the relevant fears and issues within Japan during the early years after the end of World War II. In this film and many of the future films, Godzilla represents the danger and destructive nature of nuclear weaponry, the dangers of becoming too westernized, and the issue of abandoning Japanese tradition and culture. Peter H. Brothers, in his article Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla, states that “Gojira is a film less about a giant dinosaur running amuck and more about the psychological recovery of a people trying to rebuild their cities, their culture, and their lives threatened by radioactive fallout.”(1) As time went on and culture changed, Godzilla has changed as well, often acting as a protector of Japan against outside threats such as alien invasions or even other more aggressive Kaiju. While Godzilla has been used to represent all of the things that Japan feared the most, he has also been used to represent the fighting spirit of the Japanese people and the power of their guardian spirits. One incarnation of Godzilla even has a son and their relationship is meant to be seen as wholesome and innocent. Japan, in real life, has Godzilla documented as an official citizen and he even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With the occasional deviation, Godzilla has been seen as a hero for quite some number of years but, as of 2016, tales of Godzilla have begun to turn back to the original rendition, but with the modern cultural intricacies that make him a frightening and relevant monster to today’s Japanese society. Godzilla is an excellent example of the theses explained in Cohen’s Monster Culture collection which explains how and why humans create monsters and how they change and evolve with the times.
The 1954 film Gojira was created merely two years after Japans sovereignty had been restored and United States troops were still stationed in the country. It was a time of great civil anxiety and fear. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in the minds of the Japanese people and the film did a good job picturing ruined cityscapes which brought memories of these horrors back to mind. Godzilla utilizes an attack called atomic breath where he literally spews atomic energy and radiation and even his roar was crafted to sound similar to air raid sirens. The movie begins with a fishing boat being blinded by a flash of light and then bursting into flames in a very similar fashion as a nuclear blast. This scene is also reminiscent of a Japanese fishing boat that, barely a month prior to the premier of the film, wandered into a radiation zone from the United States Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test at Bikini Atoll. The whole crew suffered from radiation sickness but recovered with the exception of its chief radioman Aikichi Kuboyama who died from compounded cirrhosis of the liver and a hepatitis C infection during his weakened state. As time moved further and further onward, the morals and symbols of the franchise shifted slightly in order to fit the new generation of viewers. One of the more recent hostile takes on Godzilla appears in the 2001 film Godzilla: Giant Monsters All Out Attack, he returns and is thought to be the angry spirits of those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki coming back to punish Japan for not honoring them properly. He is also seen as a warning against losing sight of your heritage and culture. Due to Japan becoming more and more affected culturally by the rest of the world, this message is meant to remind the Japanese audience of their history and traditions. Cohen’s Monster Culture explains in its first thesis that “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body.”(4) The monster is born from the culture of its creators. The fears and apprehensions of the times sculpt the beast. The fear and trauma caused by the nuclear strikes on Japan spawned the monster that is Godzilla. As those fears and dilemmas began to wash away, new ones came to take their place. Godzilla is also often considered a bringer of destruction and chaos. The third thesis in Cohen’s Monster Culture states that “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis.”(6) In contrast to the overwhelming destruction and evil that Godzilla represents, we have the various examples of the ideal Japanese citizen. The protagonists in these films are often hard working, selfless, and brave people that display reverence for family, culture, and identity as a citizen of Japan. The characters with these traits band together to fight against the onslaught of Godzilla and ultimately bring peace back to Japan by defeating him. Godzilla, however, is never truly defeated. He is either lulled back to sleep, trapped, or otherwise incapacitated which brings peace for a short while, but he always comes back in the next film to wreak havoc yet again and a new band of heroes must defend the nation from him. This directly correlates with thesis 2 of Monster Culture. “The Monster Always Escapes.”(4) Monsters are concepts, thus they can never truly be put away. There will always be something left behind to continue the tale. There will always be a dragon for knights to slay, vampires to fight Van Helsing, and Godzilla will always return whether it be the same old one or a brand new incarnation of him.
Speaking of new incarnations, Shin Godzilla premiered July 26, 2016 and brought fear back into the heart of Japan with its horrifying new rendition of Godzilla. The Japanese prefix “Shin” is used to denote something as true, sacred, new, but can also mean evil or dark. This film retells Japans first encounter with the monster but in the modern era. The Godzilla in this film retains the nuclear metaphor of the series, however, this Godzilla was crafted to bring the nuclear disaster of Fukushima to the mind of its viewers. In March 2011, an earthquake hit Japan causing a massive tsunami which destroyed cities and left 15,000 dead. The disaster also caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima which sent radiation over fifty miles in all directions. Shin Godzilla uses the monster and the scenes of destruction he leaves behind to remind Japan of the dangers of working with nuclear energy even when not utilizing it as a weapon. Humans have the power to use nuclear energy, but do the risks outweigh the benefits. In the wise words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Godzilla is first discovered swimming off the coast in a fully aquatic state. Higher ups in the Japanese government are advised to evacuate citizens and prepare to attack the monster, but they ultimately decide to simply focus on studying him because they believe that he is an aquatic creature that cannot make landfall and become a threat. Turns out that they were wrong, as Godzilla rapidly evolves from his aquatic form and slithers through the city of Kamakura heading towards Tokyo. His new evolved form spews blood and other fluids as it crawls through the city, creating a highly disturbing scene and setting the tone for the rest of the film. Its almost embryotic visage gives it the appearance of some sort of abomination. Once again, the Godzilla franchise is being used to make political statements and to act as a reminder of tragedies of the past. The government’s unwillingness to pay heed to warnings and the imagery of flooded streets and decimated buildings pays homage to the horrendous scenes of destruction from the Fukushima incident. Gavin J. Blair, in his article on Shin Godzilla, points out that “The images of destruction wreaked by the monster are eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the tsunami, while government ministers don overalls in the movie, as they did during the real nuclear crisis.” Once he reaches Tokyo, he evolves into his final form which looks most like the Godzilla that we are used to, however, this form is still alien and terrifying enough that we know that he is not a benevolent kaiju this time around. He almost appears zombie-like with his scorched black skin and visible muscle tissue. His teeth appear soaked in blood and his mouth oozes red fluid. His tail is covered in skeleton like protrusions and is tipped with what looks like a massive skull. His eyes are small and beady and convey little to no emotion at all which makes him seem even more like an unfeeling agent of chaos. This is also the largest Godzilla to date. The original Godzilla stands at 50 meters tall while the new Shin Godzilla is more than twice that, standing at 118.5 meters. As cities became more modern and buildings grew taller, it became necessary to increase Godzilla’s size so that he wouldn’t become dwarfed by the new sky scrapers. After he arrives in Tokyo, the military attacks him with all they’ve got, however, all attempts by them are rendered useless against Godzilla and merely push him over the edge, sending him into an enraged fury. His jaws open and split like the Predators from the movie Predator and superheated purple lasers blast from his maw. The spines along his back and the tip of his tail now also emit these hyper destructive lasers, creating a fury of fire and destruction that brings the city to its knees. In the end, the Japanese military succeed in freezing Godzilla into a dormant state, however, the skeletal protrusions on his tail begin to morph and move and take on horrifying humanoid forms. This final scene gives the most disturbing revelation of the abilities of the new Godzilla. This is not your grandpas Godzilla, he is chaos and destruction incarnate and the extent of his abilities will shock and horrify you to the very end.
Godzilla is known and loved by fans all over the world. Even though some of the underlying messages for the intended Japanese audience are not relevant to everyone, the message of the dangers of nuclear weapons and energy will be a worldwide topic for the foreseeable future. The U.S currently has a running Godzilla film franchise as well. As you may expect, the theme of nuclear energy is prevalent, but this time it is shown from the opposite end of the spectrum since the U.S was responsible for the utilization of the nuclear bombs during WWII. Just like with other monsters, Godzilla is changed to more aptly fit an American audience in these films. The general American love for “The Hero” in fiction led to this incarnation of Godzilla taking on a more heroic stance and instead of exclusively appearing in Japan, he pays the U.S a visit. Monsters are of our own making. The culture telling the tale will spin it in ways that make it relevant for them and Godzilla is a prime example of this “Monster Theory.”
Suzuki, C.J. “Godzilla.” The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Ashgate Publishing, 1st edition, 2014. Credo Reference, https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/ashgtmonster/godzilla/0?institutionId=5312. Accessed 17 Jul. 2018.
I’m going to use this article because it delves into the history behind Godzilla. It describes the symbolisms that the films use for nuclear weapons and the roles of Japanese men and women in their society.
Brothers, Peter H. “Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla.” Cineaste, vol. 36, no. 3, Summer2011, p. 36. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=60962846&site=ehost-live.
This article talks about the mindset of the early post World War II Japanese person. It explains what they feared and held dear and how that was interpreted in the Godzilla franchise.
Gojira. Directed by Ishirō Honda, performances by Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Haruo Nakajima, 1954.
This is the very first film starring the giant lizard. I am going to study the movie and write about what Godzilla meant to the people of Japan during the era of its conception.
Godzilla, Directed by Gareth Edwards, performances by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, 2014.
There are many differences between the versions of Godzilla in the original film and this one. I’ll be briefly going over this movie in the essay.
Martin, T. (2018). Godzilla: why the Japanese original is no joke. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10788996/Godzilla-why-the-Japanese-original-is-no-joke.html [Accessed 17 Jul. 2018].
This article gives more information about the theme of Godzilla representing the failures and punishments of mankind. It talks about Godzilla representing nuclear weapons, angry souls, and later as a defender.
Shin Godzilla, Directed by Hideaki Anno, performances by Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara, 2016.
In this essay I’m discussing the nuclear and cultural symbolisms in the first Godzilla movie and how those symbolisms evolved and changed with the most recent live action Godzilla.
Blair, G. (2018). ‘Godzilla Resurgence’: Five Things to Know About Toho’s Monster Reboot. [online] The Hollywood Reporter. Available at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/godzilla-resurgence-five-things-know-918617 [Accessed 26 Jul. 2018].
This article goes over some details of Godzilla’s design in Shin Godzilla and also makes comparisons between film and the Fukushima disaster.