Everyone’s favorite fire-breathing reptile is turning 60 this year. No, not Joan Rivers — she’s actually turning 81. We’re talking about Godzilla, the gargantuan radioactive lizard who first graced the cinema screen in Japan in 1954 and has been a fixture of popular culture ever since.
What modern viewing audiences may not realize, however, is that whatever the big scaly guy represents to North American viewers today, he originally symbolized the unspeakable horror that Japanese civilians experienced in the aftermath of World War II. As the fictional creature’s story has been adapted for numerous cultures throughout various subsequent decades, the biting political commentary has largely been lost, and its original social context has been repeatedly altered and diluted.
What distinguishes this latest big screen ‘creature feature’ romp (Godzilla hit US theaters on Friday, May 16th) is US director Gareth Edwards’ earnest effort to recapture some of the gravity and social relevance of Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda’s original film. Honda’s classic addressed – repeatedly, and somewhat heavy-handedly – the story’s thematic underpinnings of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There’s even one scene where two commuters on the subway discuss how they themselves were survivors of the atomic bomb blasts, and they ponder, morbidly, about what the consequences would be if Godzilla were to strike in the densely populated streets of Tokyo. Later, the film shows a desperate mother huddling with her two frantic children in the streets, trying to console them and chanting, “It’s okay! Soon, we’ll be with Daddy…” as Godzilla burns through Tokyo like General Sherman through the American south.
Then there are the scenes of distraught families wounded and sobbing, all bloody and bandaged laying on cots in makeshift medical centers – victims of the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage. Consider what sort of associations this scenes would have evoked for Japanese viewing audiences within a short decade of the atomic bombs having annihilated their cities. What’s also notable is that the film doesn’t merely rely on the spectacle of the monster destroying Tokyo, but it also examines the human expense of mass destruction on this scale. It really does treat death, even the death of the monster, as something that is appropriately solemn. Additionally, Honda’s film couldn’t be any more pointed in its criticism of the burgeoning nuclear proliferation of his day.
When this first Japanese film was brought to the United States, however, it was distributed under the title Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), and featured interstitial segments that had been shot with American actor Raymond Burr. The American Hollywood release largely de-emphasized the political content of the original, opting instead to reduce the film to a mindless B-picture which, perhaps more than any other film, set the precedent for the scores of Godzilla films to be released over subsequent decades, some more flagrantly ridiculous than others, and most of which played less like poignant allegory and more like midnight movie entertainment fodder. The campier Godzilla films have enjoyed their own resurgence in recent years, thanks to websites that have made titles such as Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla or Godzilla Vs. King Ghidora streamable and available “on demand.”
In the 21st Century, the monster has taken on new significance for North American viewing audiences in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11 in New York. Witnessing civilian communities devastated (particularly in thriving and densely populated metropolitan areas) creates the sort of collective panic that popular entertainment media can (and should) help provide a coping mechanism for dealing with. Will watching a computer generated cartoon lizard devastating civilization diminish our pain entirely? Obviously, it won’t. But it can be of service to humanity, in so far as monster films like this can help to provoke important discussions, and perhaps even get us to think more critically about the human cost of warfare.
Godzilla is currently playing in Los Angeles cinemas.