The following post is the second part of a two-part analysis of the Godzilla franchise. Go read Part One here.
Spoilers for Godzilla (2014) and Shin Godzilla (2016) ahead.
PART THREE: RETURN OF THE KING
We come now to the new set of films, and the new visions of Godzilla that they bring to the table.
The first is Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla, brought to us by Gareth Edwards, a director best known for his work on the 2010 science fiction romance film Monsters, and screenwriting newcomer Max Borenstein who was drawing from a plot by Expendables scribe David Callaham. Edwards’ take on Godzilla reintroduces some elements from Monsters, namely a romance plot and some strong military imagery. This film focuses on a soldier whose scientist father discovers the presence of nuclear megafauna returning to the Earth such as Godzilla, an “alpha predator,” and the murderous MUTOs who terrorize cities and steal nuclear warheads.
Edwards’ Godzilla encapsulates some core elements of the franchise, namely the idea of Godzilla being this destructive force that battles more villainous giant monsters. This is perhaps best demonstrated when Godzilla first arrives in Hawaii to battle one of the MUTOs, his presence heralded by a tsunami that floods the city as he surfaces. This is further hammered home in the final brawl between this monster, whom we shall call Legendary Godzilla, and the MUTOs, wherein all of San Francisco is wrecked to hell for hours. Then the MUTOs are beaten, the dust clears in the morning, and Godzilla rises again before leaping back into the ocean.
Let me just say that there is this strange sense of triumph that comes with this ending. Between the swell of the music and the heavenly rays of sunlight that illuminate the scene, the whole thing almost plays out like we’re watching the Lone Ranger riding off into the sunset. Except the Lone Ranger never destroyed an entire city just to kill two cattle rustlers. I think.
Two years later, Toho films released their own film Shin Godzilla, helmed by industry veterans Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. Anno is known among anime nerds for his involvement in the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, a deeply philosophical (and also somewhat bloated and pretentious) mecha series. Higuchi also worked with Anno on Evangelion, but he’s also known for directing the live-action Attack on Titan films and serving as the special effects director for Shusuke Kaneko’s most-excellent Gamera trilogy.
As a film, Shin Godzilla is a completely different beast, largely because it’s dealing with a completely different beast. The film’s premise is simple enough: Godzilla lands in Tokyo, leaves, and then lands again, and every-time he shows up he causes massive amounts of property damage and death, and tracks lethal amounts of radiation through the city. Fearing for the lives of their citizens, the Japanese government brings together experts from every department and calls in international envoys to try and curb the damage being caused by Godzilla. Eventually, they learn that Godzilla is not only a walking nuclear reactor but also functionally immortal, and that the only way to stop his rampage is to freeze him using a special coolant.
This film brings Godzilla back to his roots, and returns to the core element of social commentary that was absent in so many other films up until this point. It’s also important to note that this Godzilla – whom we’ll call Toho Godzilla – is Legendary Godzilla’s opposite in every way. This is not a Godzilla we’re rooting for, but one to run away from. Tanaka would be proud.
Now that we know what these films are about, it’s time we dug deeper and see what these films are about, if you catch my meaning.
PART FOUR: KAIJU ANATOMY 101
Let’s start our analysis with Godzilla’s design. Legendary Godzilla is a great hybrid of bear and crocodile bursting at the CG seams with rippling muscles. Designer Andrew Baker of WETA Workshop commented that the team drew inspiration from eagles and birds of prey when designing his face, so as to make him look “noble and majestic.” His image evokes power and strength, like if Dwayne Johnson put on a skin-tight lizard suit. Even in the posters, we can see this demonstrated. The theatrical poster itself makes Godzilla look like some kind of action hero, with his back turned to the camera as marches into the ruined city.
The fact that Legendary Godzilla’s face is modeled to resemble and eagle’s is pivotal, I think, especially since the bald eagle is one of the United States’ national animals. On the one hand, it demonstrates the assimilation of a Japanese character by giving it a more relatable American identity. There’s also the idea that eagles are noble and majestic, which is not what Japanese audiences would have called Godzilla in 1954. I’m also fairly certain voles and rabbits wouldn’t call an eagle majestic, but that’s me.
Meanwhile, Toho Godzilla’s skin is scarred and raw, and his teeth are jagged and don’t quite fit in his mouth. Hi body is malformed, with giant legs and a torso that narrows out as it grows closer to the head. Plus, Godzilla’s tail is this long serpentine thing that’s almost as long as the rest of him. What strikes me the most are his hands; they are open, and their palms are facing upward. It’s a gesture that reminds me of someone begging for help, as if he’s pleading with the world for the pain and the horror to stop.
Then there’s the matter that the version of Godzilla we saw in the trailers is one of his forms, as Godzilla adapts to whatever environment he’s in. In the first act, Godzilla takes on this very lopsided and uneven shape that stumbles mindlessly through Tokyo, but quickly adjusts to be able to move on land. I was reminded of the frilled shark that turned up off the coast of Japan back in 2007, with the same vacant look, slacked jaw, and swollen gills oozing with blood, a lost and confused emissary of nature come to remind of us of the destruction we’re causing.
The human element of Godzilla films has been notoriously hard to pin down, especially since the first one did such an excellent job of it. Legendary’s Godzilla had an excellent opportunity to tap that with the presence of Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston’s characters, but shoved them aside to focus on a stock jarhead character. This is the core problem with Edwards’ film, I find. While the trajectory of the film is fine, the fact that our focal character is yet another dime-a-dozen military man who wants to be reunited with his family but is pulled away by his duty to his country (nay, the WORLD) like we’ve seen in countless other films makes Edwards’ Godzilla sink.
Conversely, the human element of Shin Godzilla is more incidental than anything else. I was reminded of the characterization in the original Law and Order, where everything we know about our protagonists is told in passing. We get little snippets here and there, with one character’s lock screen being a picture of his family, or the blunt rapid-fire comments of ministry biologist Ogashira and how they contradict with how carefully she pours tea for herself. That’s because who these characters are is and isn’t that important. While I would have liked to have seen some of the more important characters in the film get a bit more exposition as to how they got to where they were and what made them that way, I also recognize that the film doesn’t need it.
What these films both share, however, is something of a nationalistic bend. Edwards’ Godzilla has the kaiju king being supported by the American military in the final act of the film, with the jarheads heroically trying to fend off the giant monsters and later helping destroy the MUTO nest. There is even a moment where Godzilla and Ford collapse near each other and they seem to lock eyes, with the subtext being that Ford and Godzilla both having a moment where they realize that they’re fighting for a common cause.
Shin Godzilla, meanwhile, takes time to satirize the Japanese government by depicting it as bungling and weighed down by its need to follow protocol while also patting it on the back. This is hammered home with these almost pornographic shots of the Self Defense Forces rolling their tanks through the streets and setting their copters loose, complete with loving close-ups of all their artillery firing rounds at the kaiju’s face. In the end, though, the world is saved because the Japanese government pulls together and hashes out a plan to freeze Godzilla in place thanks to the mobilization of every department they can think of, from public works to the Tokyo transit system itself.
Lastly, we must ask ourselves what both of these films set out to discuss. With Edwards’ film, that’s pretty obvious. His Godzilla is basically the kaiju equivalent to a modern-day superhero, swooping in to stop evil by smashing up large metropolitan areas. This is a Godzilla similar to Zack Snyder’s Superman or Christopher Nolan’s Batman, one that goes about endangering peoples’ safety in order to make the world a better place. Much like his caped counterparts, he is at first reviled and feared by authority figures shortly before garnering their support as an even bigger threat looms. In essence, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a by-product of American disaster cinema and big-budget action films.
Shin Godzilla, meanwhile, is straight-up about Fukushima. Much of the destructive imagery is drawn from the flooding and destruction caused by the tsunami, and the radiation Godzilla tracks through Tokyo is very reminiscent of what happened when the reactors leaked. Moreover, this film is about how badly the Japanese government mishandled the 3/11 disaster. I recommend watching Al Jazeera’s piece on the people living close to the blast zone and how it’s slowly killing them to see what I mean. In the film, the government’s first reaction to this monster on their doorstep is to jump from conference room to conference room trying to find ways to put the public at ease and save face. Everyone in a position to do something trips over themselves to slap together a quick fix as the creature is causing more and more damage.
In both cases, the original Gojira’s atomic spirit is still attached to the franchise, but in the end the directors of both of these films have different attitudes about these creatures and what we need to do about them. Edwards’ Godzilla is the destructive anti-hero humanity tells itself it needs, a beefy alpha predator that destroys whole city blocks for a good cause. This makes sense for an American audience because they’ve never been on the business end of a nuclear holocaust before. Anno’s Godzilla is a Godzilla that gorged itself on radioactive waste we left buried behind and washed ashore as a mangled and mutated mess. It is a monster that stumbles madly through the streets indifferent to our presence like the earthquake and tsunami that would trigger the Fukushima disaster.
Both directors know that Godzilla cannot be destroyed, not without destroying part of ourselves in the process. Edwards proposes that Godzilla be embraced and praised as king of the monsters. Anno suggests freezing it in place before it destroys us all. Either way, both films make it clear that we can’t run from Godzilla. He’s still out there, waiting for us to slip up yet again, or waiting for another monster to fight.
Godzilla is something we are forced to live with
FINAL WORD: SIC SEMPER TYRRANOSAURUS
I hope you can all see how apparent it is that something else is at work with these films. Even during the 60s and 70s, when Toho’s big-wigs were probably thinking of ways to design and market toys to children and obsessive weirdoes, the spirit of the original Gojira continued to haunt the franchise. I’m surprised that the American films didn’t touch on the number of nuclear accidents happening within their own borders, but the U.S. has rarely felt fragile in the same way the countries they’ve victimized have. Having a stockpile of nuclear warheads ready to drop on anyone who looks at them funny probably had something to do with that as well.
I repeated myself a lot in this post, but I maintain that this is a point that bears repeating. I’ve seen so many people in the kaiju fandom argue that Godzilla films are ultimately about dumb guys in suits rolling around through cardboard cities. Seeing the timeline of the films paired up with the rise of nuclear energy in the world tells me a different story.
Each film is a séance that conjures Gojira’s vengeful spirit from the Pacific. No matter how goofy Godzilla becomes, no matter how many monsters he punches through high-rises, and no matter how many forms he takes, he’s still going to be this grim reminder of humanity’s most dangerous decision. No matter what happens, Doctor Yamane’s warning from the end of the very first film in this franchise becomes truer and truer:
“If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.”
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