Godzilla, cinema’s beloved nuclear-age monster, is struggling to fit into Hollywood re-imaginings

The franchise has certainly come a long way from when Ishiro Honda directed a man in a Godzilla suit to kick around a miniature set. However, where it seems to be headed raises some questions

March 29, 2024 05:59 pm | Updated 05:59 pm IST

Godzilla from Takashi Yamazaki’s ‘Godzilla: Minus One’

Godzilla from Takashi Yamazaki’s ‘Godzilla: Minus One’ | Photo Credit: @Godzilla_Toho/X

In its 70 years of existence Godzilla has never lost. At least not to humans. Its skirmishes with other monsters are a different business altogether. A reptilian mega-monster, it first emerged as the world itself entered the nuclear age. And though the concept of a nuclear emergency may not be as novel or unknown now, the world keeps a wary, and constant, eye on it.

When Ishiro Honda first brought this creature to our screens, it signaled many things, and eventually came to stand for a particular moment in history. Awakened by the barrage of nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, the monster made its way across Tokyo in 1954, rampaging everything in sight and demonstrating the futility of a militarized response. Our excesses of science had reached a point, created a situation, birthed a monster that was irreversible. This was until a scientist, who bore the injuries of the second World War, used his own scientific invention – the Oxygen Destroyer – to seemingly annihilate the monster forever.

A still from Ishiro Honda’s ‘Gojira’ (1954)

A still from Ishiro Honda’s ‘Gojira’ (1954) | Photo Credit: @Godzilla_Toho/X

The film closes off with a poignant line speculating about Godzilla’s solitary existence, as it is emphasizes, “if we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear...somewhere in the world, again.” Besides encompassing the primary political argument of the script, this also allowed the industry to leave the door open for possible sequels. And we got 32 more films in Japanese and four more in English, with a fifth one now in theatres. Godzilla also went on to win its very first Oscar, awarded for its visual effects.

The franchise has certainly come a long way from when Honda directed a man in a Godzilla suit to kick around a miniature set. However, where it seems to be headed raises some questions.

It was not long before the grave seriousness of the first film gave way to light-hearted silliness. By 1962, the creators of the Japanese film series could no longer ignore Godzilla’s potential as a brand, a commodity that if moulded for inconsequential entertainment could allow them to tap into a new market: children’s media. So, in 1962, Godzilla faced off against King Kong, but unlike his previous iterations, it leaned into human emotions and confusions. Over the years Godzilla fielded off some more monsters, sometimes an alien or two, while increasingly becoming more human to the point where he went on adventures with…his son. It was as though a ‘defeat’ in the 1954 film allowed the Japanese cinema to then view the creature as tame-able. Across the ocean in America, while dubbed versions of Godzilla films found a casual audience, it was in 1998 that an American studio tried to conjure up Godzilla from scratch. This was not a successful venture, sadly, as Matthew Broderick fended off a newly designed Godzilla across New York.

Americans did not return to Godzilla until 16 years later in 2014, and it took the Japanese at least 12 years since their last Godzilla film to confront the monster. Both these films were again triggered by the threat of a nuclear catastrophe.

A monster for the nuclear age

The focus of the Godzilla films in 1954, and six decades later in 2014 and 2016, was marked by a distinctly human plot.

The 1954 release served a multi-fold purpose as Japan decided to make Godzilla a stand-in for lessons of a nuclear-led war. From its experience, Japan relied on the painful memories, and reenacted newsreels, wartime air raid sirens, and anti-occupation songs in the film to conjure up a palpable fear, conveying not only what it had experienced but also what could become. It gave an invisible threat a tangible form. On the other hand, Japan was also at the crossroads of redefining the country post-war after being defeated and emerging from under an occupation. The atomic bombing, that came disproportionately and heavily at a civilian cost, made the island a victim of the war. Though the resulting decade also turned its focus on a rather filtered view of Imperial Japan’s historical and complex role in the war.

The first film opens with heavy references to the 1954 ‘Castle Bravo’ nuclear testing by the United States, which led to a Japanese fishing boat crew being affected by the radiation fallout. The near total destruction of Tokyo at the hands of Godzilla is also a not-so-subtle nod to how Japan came to view United States’ actions and the unchecked selfish progress of scientific innovation. An entity whose basis is nuclear can only actively survive and establish its dominance at the cost of human lives.    

Three years after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, America regenerated the franchise, as the world became overrun by monsters stirred in the aftermath of the disaster. In the film they were lying dormant at a nuclear reactor site in Japan, and the government in fact had knowledge of their existence.

In 2014, as in 1954, though we get plenty of shots of scientists scratching their heads in futility as Godzilla perseveres, it is an unwilling human with little knowledge of, or interest in, the monster, who is presented as the protagonist. Whether it is Hideto and Emiko whose lives hang in the balance until the monster is eliminated, or U.S. Naval officer Ford Brody who is trying to get back to his family but repeatedly finds himself in Godzilla’s path. These scripts attempt to centre the experiences of those that find themselves facing the consequences of nuclear policies, and they more often than not happen to be those who didn’t have much of a hand in it.

A still from ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ (2019)

A still from ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ (2019) | Photo Credit: @Monsterverse/X

While Japan then moved on to Shin Godzilla in 2016 – a movie that drew heavily from the fallout of the 2011 disaster and satirised the political decision-making – America stayed firmly on its path towards the present slate of films about a possibly “hollow earth”.

The difference, as American critic Roger Ebert pointed out in his review for the 1998 film, is that the Japanese films “embrace dreck instead of condescending to it”, as the English instalments do. It has even become increasingly blatant that modern American versions, while providing loads of kaiju action cannot seem to find the beating heart of why these monsters are doing what they do. Their attempts at elaborating on the action give us some half-baked theories on environmental crises that they cannot dismiss fast enough in cliché dialogues to get to the next fight scene between Kong and Godzilla. It is not that these films should embrace a higher meaning for Godzilla, but they can at least try to make their human characters worthy of the screentime they are hogging.  

Godzilla, by its very origin and how it has been interpreted in our culture, has been made almost divine, nearly immortal, and wholly fantastical. It embodies what Susan Sontag wrote of science fiction films in 1965 in her essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’. Sontag describes science fiction films as “one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings…we are merely spectators. We watch.”

The Monsterverse films, as they are billed, try to have a spectacle while also poorly assigning some deeper consequences to it. Its failed attempts underline one thing for now: Godzilla —made to be something either awakened by or born from needlessly cruel and selfish human acts — burdens the cinema with its existence. It is colossal in its meaning and we are struggling to find its place in a modern cinema.

At best, we return to its roots as a nuclear being as seen in the latest Godzilla Minus One (2023), at worst we get an extremist human extinction fantasy that decides that we have ruined this world enough for Godzilla and other monsters to simply stomp us off.

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