Reclaiming the Legend: Godzilla Goes Home
Bad Subjects, Issue #49, April 2000
When Godzilla first appeared in Japanese theatres in 1954, the political messages built into the script were obvious. A monster was created as the result of American atomic activity during World War II. This huge, clumsy, yet unstoppable monster then proceeded to crush huge portions of Japan and kill large numbers of the population. The beast waddled through large cities flattening buildings in the process, not necessarily out of malicious intent, but simply because he was extremely large and those buildings happened to be in the way. The message was less than subtle; Godzilla represented America in both the scope of power that the beast possessed, and the damage that it inflicted on the country. The film tapped directly into deep-seated fears and the feeling of helplessness facing many in post-war Japan. The impact and success of the film on its Japanese audience is understandable considering the time period. However, 1998 saw the release of an updated American version of the monster tale, and more recently Toho, the Japanese production company, has released Godzilla 2000 in Japan. What relevance can an icon of post-war resistance offer to present-day audiences? As one would expect, both the image and the message behind the films have been radically altered due to 50 years of evolution. The present incarnation is not as easily read as the original. Clearly Godzilla originated as a symbolic indictment of America, but that was in 1954, and despite the prehistoric impression that the creature gives, it has evolved quite rapidly as a vehicle for political ideas and metaphors. Through the course of 24 films, several animated incarnations and countless parodies and spin-offs, Godzilla has built up a personal history and metaphoric value that is often contradictory when individual films are compared with each other. At times the creature has been the destroyer, at other times the protector, but until the creation of the American film, the metaphor had remained constant in one important way...Godzilla was the United States. Now that narrative control of the beast has flipped from one side of the Pacific to the other twice in as many years, Godzilla needs to be reconsidered as a symbol.
The 1998 release of Godzilla as a Hollywood production was a commercial and critical horror story by far more intimidating than the film. The film was backed by Toho, but it lacked the charm of the Japanese series. It was written and directed by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, but lacked the bravado of their Independence Day. More interesting than the box-office failure of the Hollywood production is how the legend and the metaphors were reworked in this version. In the first Godzilla film (Gojira, 1954), the monster was the result of American atomic activity. Appropriately, the film was laced with comments about the ravages of war, while the images of destroyed homes and buildings recalled those from Japan's then-recent wartime history. A children's anti-war song from the era figured prominently in the film, adapted as a prayer for victims of the monster. As a clear condemnation of the suffering caused by the atomic strikes, this fodder was unacceptable for a popular U.S. audience, and as a result, such touches were removed from the American release of the same film (Godzilla, King of Monsters, 1956). In its place was an awkwardly reworked script and film segments featuring Raymond Burr supposedly speaking to Japanese characters who were always conveniently off-screen or had their backs to the camera. 1998's Godzilla eerily continued the revisionist tradition that was established in the American adaptation of the first film. In order to avoid domestic blame for the carnage that would ensue, the nuclear onus is shifted to France. In this version, Godzilla's mutation resulted from the nuclear tests that France conducted in the Pacific ocean from September 1995 to January 1996. However, this translated more into a vehicle for comic relief throughout the film than a serious threat.
More relevant to the reading of Godzilla in America (or the American Godzilla) is that the original productions are from Japan. Godzilla films have most often been consumed in the U.S. as campy, dubbed movies with similar associations to samurai films for those who watched them. The fact that they are Japanese has always contributed to the consumption and readings of these films. Godzilla comes from Japan. This is the fact that everyone knew before watching the American film. This was so much a part of the mass consciousness that the film necessarily included an initial sighting of the monster by a Japanese fisherman and an explanation of how Godzilla passed from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic (he went through Panama like everyone else).
While the atomic origins of the monster established Godzilla's symbolic value in Japan, the filmic origins direct the reading for western audiences. With this in mind, the first obvious change in the American film when compared to its Japanese predecessors is the monster's physical image. The huge, pot-bellied creature of 1954 is no longer. That unstoppable, singular vehicle of destruction represented the kind of fear that post-war Japan felt of America, but the threat that the American public feels from Japan requires a different physical form. The beast is replaced with a thin, swift reptile that is capable taking sharp corners and hiding inside buildings. Moreover, the major threat in the film is not from the beast itself, but from the hundreds of hatchlings that were spawned and quickly spread throughout the city. They are small enough to hide, but big enough to kill. While the first Godzilla films were symbols of America's awesome military power, the new Hollywood contribution was a symbol of Japan's market infiltration. It is an invisible fear, and the existence of live hatchlings at the end of the film signaled not only an opening for a sequel, but also the fear of not knowing where a threat is, or how it is working. The hatchlings were born within the buildings of New York and will live their entire lives there, but will be hunted down in future sequels as outsiders to be eliminated for the safety of society. The xenophobic undercurrent in this version echoes the nationalist and rightist tendencies that were more obvious in Emmerich and Devlin's Independence Day.
Even if Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla is viewed as an anomaly, independent of the series of Toho films that preceded it, there is no denying that subsequent readings of Japan's productions will be colored by its existence. There are a large number of Godzilla fans in Japan, and an even larger number of people who do not necessarily watch the films, but associate them with feelings of nostalgia related to their childhood, or notions of pride connected to the international proliferation of a pop icon from Japan. This resulted in mixed-emotions concerning the release of an American version of their beloved monster. When the film turned out to be a bust, the predominant sentiment seemed to be that Hollywood just didn't understand Godzilla well enough. Pressure built to reclaim the monster and Toho quickly followed with the announcement of production on a new Japanese Godzilla.
This was quite a reversal for Toho who had previously stated that Godzilla would no longer be appearing in their films. Indeed the last such production had been 1995's Godzilla vs. Destroyah in which Godzilla finally died in a fiery blaze when the nuclear reactor in his belly suffered a meltdown. Godzilla was scheduled for a December release, as was tradition for Toho's series, and when the posters hit the theatres, they boasted the silhouette of the pot-bellied beast that we all know and love. Theatre souvenir shops and toy stores stocked the shelves with new toys including a collector's box set that included eight different versions of the monster, each in a slightly different form so as to reflect evolution throughout the different films. As for the lanky lizard of the American film?... it was nowhere to be seen outside of the grab-bags and bargain bins of unsold toys.
By any external indication, the American movie had been excluded from the timeline and is therefore inconsequential to the development of Toho's subsequent films. Godzilla could, by that logic once again be read as a metaphor for U.S. interference in Japan. In films following the 1954 release, Godzilla had been a protector to Japan from outside forces on several occasions (as the troops still stationed in Japan might be observed as doing), but with a tendency to do almost as much damage as good (a metaphor that I don't need to expand on). Any change in the demeanor of the monster could once again be contributed to this association. However, just as the American audience entered the theatre to watch Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla while knowing that "Godzilla is Japanese", the Japanese audience entered the theatre this year thinking "Godzilla is Japanese again". This is a significant shift in perception for the Toho films. As a domestic product, Godzilla had simply been consumed as kaiju, a genre of monster films peculiar to Japan but not generally associated with nationalist sentiment for the viewing audience. More likely would be the perception that they are simply children's films or unsophisticated productions based on eye-candy and predictable plots. While the audience was obviously aware that the films were Japanese, the weight of meaning behind that understanding has been altered.
The major battle in Godzilla 2000 is between Godzilla and an alien force that is planning to take over the world and, of course, destroy humanity. Like Godzilla, the giant silver UFO emerges first from the ocean. It then alights atop a large building in Tokyo's Shinjuku area where it begins to hack the world's computer systems, the first step towards destroying the planet. Of course, all of this is eventually resolved through a traditional kaiju punch-out in which Godzilla secures the future of the planet by saving our computers. Rather than an imperialist threat of any kind, be it military or economic, this is a fairly transparent attempt to tap into fears once generated by the anticipated Y2K computer bug. The political implications of earlier Godzilla films are conspicuously absent, although there is a nod towards Godzilla's nuclear implications as he goes on a stomp through the nuclear power facility in Tokai Mura. Just as post cold-war 007 films have needed to switch from battling Russian villainy to battling corporate greed, Godzilla has found a new adversary in postindustrial technology.
Of course, the Y2K bug can only pose a threat once, so subsequent films will be instrumental in shaping Godzilla's new image. In an era where the creature of the Godzilla films represents Japan as much in the domestic market as it does in the American market, it will be interesting to see what scenarios are contrived. Perhaps most telling in this film is that Godzilla was not driven back to the ocean at the end. Instead, after ridding the world of the UFO's threat, he continued to lay waste to downtown Tokyo as the credits rolled. The destruction may continue indefinitely, but it will be done in the tradition of Toho's Godzilla movies and by the big guy himself, not by a silver spaceship from outer space or computer graphics designers in Hollywood. Welcome home Godzilla.
Robert Hamilton is a Canadian artist presently living and working in Japan.