Today’s topic of discussion is the mean, green icon himself. Everybody say it together now. Gojira!!!!!
It was either this or transitional regime politics of the Arab Spring. Don’t act like you aren’t relieved. This occurs to me today owing to a trend I’ve noticed lately of making “realistic” versions of traditionally fanciful genre films. This down-to-earth deconstructionism has been applied to several niches lately; Chronicle for superheroes, Cloverfield for monster movies, etc. The conceit implicit here is that these films are subversive for portraying events in all their gritty, destructive dimensions, without varnished fantasy. I’m not trying to say that Cloverfield doesn’t do some innovative things. I’m a fan, and frankly I hope they do more of them. The notion of an ants-eye-view of apocalyptic events in the monster movie genre is hardly new though. In fact, it harkens back to the origins of the entire kaiju mythos. The granddaddy of them all. Godzilla, King of Monsters.
While its true that the U.S. has the claim to the original giant monster movies, 1933’s King Kong and 1953’s Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, it was Toho Pictures’ Godzilla in 1954 that made kaiju (怪獣, literally “strange beast”) into a genre and an institution. In contrast to the later films it spawned though, Toho’s first foray into reptilian urban rezoning was focused less on the fantastical creature of the title and more on its immediate impact. The meticulously constructed “scenery gorn” was striking for the time period, especially for a film on its budget. In this way the film presaged both the disaster films popular two decades later and the revisionist guerrilla style of monster movies we see today in works like Cloverfield and Troll Hunter. Unlike in the latter films which by and large seemed to glorify Godzilla’s appearances, in keeping with his later heroic portrayal, the original manages to infuse his presence with palpable menace. Forty years before Jurassic Park, Godzilla made thunderous footsteps into a terrifying omen. The attempts to create a blackout scene in Tokyo while working in the confines of 50’s studio lighting creates an otherworldly, almost dream-like atmosphere for Godzilla’s surreal rampages.
In many ways the film represents a distillation of Japan’s apocalyptic nightmares, and it speaks to the universality of this nightmare that Godzilla has retained such broad and iconic popularity. Godzilla is a living breathing atomic weapon laying waste to Japan not even ten years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The full extent of the cultural shockwaves surrounding these events may never be fully recorded, but discussing Japanese culture in the twentieth century is another essay. Moreover, in this film Godzilla may only be stopped by a weapon potentially even more terrible than the atomic bomb; the so-called “Oxygen Destroyer.” The accidental discovery of Daisuke Serizawa, pacifist scientist, it has the ability to completely annihilate all life in a body of water. The scientist reluctantly agrees to use the weapon to destroy Godzilla but not without burning his notes and ultimately sacrificing himself to ensure the weapon is never duplicated. The shot of Godzilla’s skeleton floating to the murky ocean floor is an eerie conclusion to the story.
The Serizawa character is interesting in that he is the hero of the narrative, a pacifist who makes the ultimate personal sacrifice to make the world safe from both Godzilla and his own creation. Contrast this with the handsome young army officer in the film. He has heroic qualities, and ultimately gets the girl, but he is completely powerless against Godzilla and lacks the chivalric nobility of the pacifist scientist. Consider again that this film was made not even a decade after the end of World War Two. In a way Godzilla is not just an allegory for nuclear holocaust, but also a repudiation of Japan’s militarist past. Serizawa’s martyrdom is symbolic of Japan’s embrace of the Yoshida Consensus, which continues to inform Japanese politics and culture to the present day.
I’ve actually been prodding at this particular piece for a couple weeks now. Things have been on the hectic side lately and it’s been tough to make the gears turn. In recompense though I promise over the next week to deliver not one, not two, not three, but four updates! I do it all for you, gentle readers! Appropriately enough, the topic of the first entry in this blogging tour-de-force is the start of an ongoing review series for the newly published comic series Godzilla: Half Century War by James Stokoe.
Kaiju and alternate history you say? You know me too well you dog…