In a lot of ways Godzilla is a perfect topic for me to write about. “Godzilla” is a common English expression referring to something huge. We append “zilla” to another word to suggest a giant-sized version, often with comedic intent. The character has appeared in ad campaigns (outside of Japan), comic books, and American Saturday morning cartoons, but the Japanese have never bothered with an ongoing Godzilla cartoon. Gareth Edwards’ new film Godzilla, hereafter called Godzilla (2014) demonstrates that plenty of Americans get Godzilla, because this is certainly a Godzilla movie. It is not as layered and meaningful as 1954’s Gojira, but Edwards’ film follows the formula used by the majority of Godzilla movies. The plot unfolds in the same manner as older Toho-produced Godzilla movies, and preserves the most enduring weakness of the franchise: uninteresting humans. If you fear this will be a repeat of 1998’s Matthew Broderick vehicle, fear no more. This one is a real Godzilla movie. But I am not writing a review of the movie. I am here to examine why Hollywood made this movie, and not Toho Studios itself.
Godzilla was inspired by the American films King Kong and The Beast From Twenty-Thousand Fathoms. The last Japanese Godzilla film was Godzilla: Final Wars, released in 2004. Final Wars was conceived as a finale for the six films produced between 1999 and 2004. Though it may have one of the thinnest plots of any Godzilla movie, with 14 monsters, invading aliens, gunfights, motorcycle chases, martial arts brawls, and mind-control, it has more action than any other Godzilla film. Final Wars, the title notwithstanding, was never meant to be the last Godzilla film, but a breather before the franchise wore out its welcome. During the resting period, the studio would carefully come up with the best way to reintroduce Godzilla. Considering Godzilla’s roots as a reaction to the atomic bomb and WWII strategic bombing of Japan, it is ironic that Hollywood would reintroduce the character. It is even more ironic if you remember the disaster Godzilla (1998) was, both critically and commercially. But, that complete embarrassment proved the viability of the property, because response to Godzilla (1998) encouraged Toho to make their own Godzilla movie again: Godzilla 2000.
Godzilla began as a metaphor for nuclear weaponry, but he is also a metaphor for World War II wholly. The audience that watched Godzilla level Tokyo for the first time had lived through it for real and still see themselves as victims of the war. In other words, Godzilla also serves as a conceit for victimhood. Hollywood works well with victimhood because of its innate drama. Using this conceit, Gareth Edwards and Legendary Pictures produced a story in which the US becomes the victim of nuclear powered monsters, because we all feel the fear in the face of threats utterly beyond your control. Gojira takes the nuclear metaphor in an important direction: it meditates on the motives and responsibilities behind scientific work.
Why do Americans get Godzilla so well? He plays on our anxieties too. Godzilla, even when portrayed heroically as he is in Gareth Edwards’ film, represents unyielding dangers. While Americans now do not fear nuclear weapons as much as we used to, there was a time when we did. As the world has learned to fear new things, Godzilla has adapted to represent them. Godzilla (2014) presents nature in conflict; the monsters Godzilla must fight, the Mutos, appeared naturally and fed on our own power plants and radioactive waste, making them a consequence or our ignorance and carelessness. The Mutos represent nature out of balance in the guise of our present fears: global warming and pollution. Ken Watanabe’s character Dr. Serizawa explicitly states that Godzilla exists to act as a natural corrective to the Mutos (no, he never explains how he knows that), but Godzilla does not show any regard for humanity--he will step on as many buildings as he has to during his fight with rival monsters. Godzilla is protecting the Earth, not Honolulu and San Francisco. He is nature’s balance in response to the Mutos (that is, human pollution). The problem is, Godzilla does not care about us. This notion, of uncaring natural balance, is a universal notion. Not a Japanese one, not an Asian or Western one. It is not new for Godzilla either. As the dangers of nuclear weaponry faded in the 1990s, the Godzilla movies of that decade and the 2000s reflected that change. The villains were borne of thoughtless, greedy corporations (Godzilla vs King Ghidorah 1991), or nature falling out of balance (Godzilla vs Mothra 1992), even mystical threats born of poor historical memory (Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack 2001). As the villain, Godzilla represents all of our fears, but as the hero, Godzilla represents hope when all is lost. Americans get Godzilla because he is easy to understand.