DISCLAIMER: This is going to spoil a lot of plot elements for multiple Godzilla films, including the most recent two produced by Legendary Pictures and Toho Films. You have been warned.
PREAMBLE: BIG AND BEAUTIFUL
I love Godzilla films.
In general, I have a fondness for giant monster movies and daikaiju cinema, but Godzilla hits home for me. I have strong memories of watching the haunting and tragic Godzilla: 1985 when I was a child, and re-watching Godzilla versus Monster Zero (known as Invasion of the Astro Monster in Japan) an unknown number of times. I enjoyed watching him team up with other megafauna like Anguirus or Rodan in order to lay epic beat-downs on foes like Gigan, Megalon, and Mechagodzilla. I cried during Godzilla versus Mothra when Mothra died and her two babies, fresh out of the egg, had to stop the rampaging Godzilla all by themselves. I even have some level of admiration for the widely-despised Son of Godzilla, and you better believe I was a mess during that final battle against Destroyah.
There’s a lot to like about the Godzilla films, and there’s also a lot to criticize. It’s easy to write them off as dumb kid’s films where guys in rubber suits perform wrestling moves on each other, and in a way that’s what they are. There’s also the matter of the constant reboots and the nonsensical timeline connecting the films.
Many people will tell you that the franchise deviated greatly from the first film, which was about the terror of the Atomic Age and H-Bomb testing. This is largely because the films that came after were known for being a bunch of creature features where property damage was not this harrowing and human thing but part of the backdrop of giant monster wrestling matches. There was also the matter of Roland Emmerich’s clumsy Jurassic Park knock-off and Japan’s inevitable (and as ludicrous) rebuttal in 1998 which kept the franchise going until it died under the weight of its own silliness in Godzilla: Final Wars.
I would argue, though, that the film series never really stopped being about the Atomic Age. Sure, the H-Bomb metaphor was gone but Godzilla continued to be about this Pandora’s Box that we’ve opened in 1945 that we now cannot close. Ten years passed before a new Godzilla film was greenlit, and since then we ended up with two movies that were not only fun rides (as far as I’m concerned) but also spoke to some of the basic themes of the franchise while also addressing some aspect of the current zeitgeist.
I’ll get to these films in a minute, but before I do, we need to step back and see where the series has been before we see where it is now.
PART ONE: BORN OF FIRE
Any kaiju scholar worth their salt will tell you how the first Godzilla film came to be. Eight years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were baked in atomic fire and Tokyo nearly burned to the ground, Japan was in a delicate state and still reeling from the Americans’ assault. It was around this time that film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, after having been rejected from making a film about Japan’s incursions into Indonesia, started planning the film Gojira. The original film was based on Eugene Lourie’s giant monster flick The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms and the tragic fate of the Lucky Dragon 5 (AKA Daigo Fukuryu Maru), a Japanese fishing vessel which found itself on the business end of an H-bomb test.
There’s a lot to unpack with a pedigree like that. The destruction of Lucky Dragon 5 at the hands of atomic testing must have hit home for the people of Japan who were still coping with the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a grim reminder that the burning spectre of nuclear devastation was still hanging over their heads, ready to strike them down at a moment’s notice.
Then there’s Fathoms. There are a lot of similarities between Fathoms and the first Gojira, but major themes and cultural sensibilities set the two films apart. Both are movies about massive dinosaurs awoken by atomic testing who cut a swath of destruction across a major metropolitan area. Both monsters not only cause property damage and death, but their mere presence in the world hurts the people around them. In the case of the dinosaur, it’s because his scales and blood carry an unknown disease that slowly kills the people around it. In the case of Godzilla, it’s because he’s actually straight-up radioactive and being near him poisons you.
Then there are the parallels in the conclusions, and the differences in the message. In both films, these monsters are brought down by a combination of military might and scientific endeavours, but with a different set of values attached to both assaults. In Fathoms, the protagonists realize that the only way to kill the beast without releasing the virus was to fire a radioactive isotope into an old wound from a previous battle. They succeed in their attack and watch in awe as it collapses dead just before the credits roll. In Gojira, the scientist Doctor Serizawa sacrifices himself to kill Godzilla using an experimental weapon called an Oxygen Destroyer. With his death, one character – another academic – laments that unless humanity changes its ways, another Godzilla will surely rise.
The subtext here is screaming at me.
See, America was in the middle of the Cold War at this point, with the Truman Doctrine promising an end to Communist expansionism. Plus, the United States had been playing around with nuclear power since the Manhattan Project, and the first nuclear reactor to produce electricity in the U.S. was in 1951, two years before Fathoms hit the theatres. This is all, of course, to say nothing of the stockpile of nuclear weapons that was being developed to keep the Red Menace at bay.
Japan was telling a different story. There was understandable reluctance to use nuclear power after the bombings. The budget for their nuclear program didn’t get laid out until 1954, the same year Gojira aired in cinemas. Fear and panic about nuclear weaponry itself was widespread; some believed (though this was later debunked) that the atomic bomb could burn up the atmosphere, and that they were building an oxygen destroyer, as it were. With regards to the death of the chief scientist character, it’s widely considered in Japan that suicide is more an act of taking responsibility for one’s mistake. What greater mistake is there than creating a doomsday weapon?
What I’ve just described is the gulf between The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms and Gojira’s overall message. In Fathoms, we are treated to a pulse-pounding action sequence ending where the scientist and a marksman climb a roller-coaster to deliver the final blow to the creature they awakened. The monster’s death is treated as a victory, as American ingenuity and military might win out against impossible odds. In Gojira, the ending is more solemn, and full of human misery. There is victory, but it’s at a cost. And we are given that final warning; that threat – that promise – that says another Godzilla will rise. In Fathoms, the message is that science is great and America is great and you should support the military and your local power plant today. In Gojira, the message is that this is a cycle that we are doomed to repeat unless the arbiters of our inevitable destruction step up and end it.
PART TWO: DESTROY ALL FRANCHISES
Godzilla’s return to the Japanese pop culture scene was part of what became known as Japan’s Kaiju Boom. Despite critics lauding the film for speaking far too frankly about atomic warfare and its harrowing depictions of a ruined Tokyo, it gained a following big and sturdy enough for Tanaka and his comrades to make a sequel: Godzilla Raids Again. Raids stands out in the franchise as being the first film to feature monster-on-monster combat. The film, and the others that came after it, would feed into several decades of giant monster movies and television serials. This proved especially true with the production of giant hero series like Ultraman and its underrated predecessor Ultra-Q, both of which used re-purposed costumes from other Godzilla films.
During this period, kaiju films proved to be incredibly popular with younger audiences. As a result, many films in this particular sub-genre were designed to appeal to children. This, for many people, would be a dark period for the Godzilla IP.
Plots about alien invasions and undersea civilisations rising up to conquer Earth overtook the grim tone of the first film. Newer movies were stuffed with stock footage from other films to save time and money, with glaring inconsistencies such as Godzilla’s costume changing from shot-to-shot depending on which city he’s in or which giant monster he’s fighting. Godzilla acquired a squad of tag-team buddies and regular partners in kaiju crime, including Minilla, Godzilla’s adopted son and (possible audience stand-in, given the number of children watching these films).
This would all change in the 1980s when Tanaka produced Gojira: 1984, a darker film that returned the giant monster to his roots as a destructive force of nature. Even with the inevitable monster team-ups and kaiju slap-fights that followed, the overall tone of the franchise until Tanaka’s death was more sombre and sullen. The last film of this era, Godzilla versus Destroyah, illustrates this beautifully, with the destruction of Monster Island and Godzilla slowly being killed by that which powered him, facing off against the physical embodiment of that which once destroyed him.
Then Godzilla 2000 came out and it felt like everyone didn’t read the memo Tanaka wrote back in 1984. The films came with a bigger budget and higher production values, but that seemed to be where it ended. This was the era of films that opened with the catchphrase “There’s a little Godzilla in all of us” and ended with Godzilla: Final Wars, a big kaiju brawl akin to Destroy All Monsters but with an even more ludicrous alien invasion plot and Matrix-style fights. There were a few reboots in this period as well, including one film where Godzilla was actually an amalgamation of Japanese World War Two veterans’ souls. The original allegory for nuclear terror was gone, and replaced with goofy costumed beat-‘em-ups.
How gone was it, though?
Remember that Japan’s attitudes towards atomic power were changing during this time. People around the world were prospering from nuclear energy, and the first plant opened its doors in 1966, two years after Godzilla had been established as an anti-hero in Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster. In the following year of the plant’s opening, Godzilla’s son Minilla was introduced to the franchise and there came a long line of movies about a goofier, kid-friendly Godzilla. Godzilla changed because Japan’s attitudes towards nuclear power changed. Nuclear energy was, to be sure, this horrible death phantom that plagued Japan in the past, but now it could power whole cities and was useful in advancing the medical field.
During a lull in the franchise specifically between Terror of Mechagozilla in 1975 and Gojira: 1984, America suffered thanks to the Three Mile Island incident, when high levels of reactor coolant began leaking and caused a full-scale meltdown in a Pennsylvania-based reactor. Then, a reactor in Tsuruga, Japan spilled 16 tonnes of radioactive cooling water in the March of 1981, an incident that was covered up for forty days. Tanaka saw this as an excellent turning point, and brought Godzilla back to his original nightmarish self.
In 1986, three years before Godzilla versus Biollante was released, Chernobyl became an irradiated wasteland. In 1997 and 1999, as Godzilla: 2000 was being produced, two separate accidents happened at the Tokaimura power plant. In the year 2000, three top executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO for short) resigned after it was revealed that they had covered up cracks in several nuclear plant steam pipes. One year later, a new version of Godzilla as a manifestation of the angered souls of dead Japanese soldiers from World War Two appeared in Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, otherwise known as GMK.
What? Oh, no, my tinfoil hat is quite comfortable, thanks.
Anyway, this article ran a little long so I’m actually splitting it into two parts. In Part Two, I bring us into the modern day and take a scalpel to the films by Gareth Edwards and Hideaki Anno. Stay tuned!
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