How I Came to Love Godzilla; or, A Chronicle of Heroes and Villains in the Gojira Series

How I Came to Love Godzilla; or, A Chronicle of Heroes and Villains in the Gojira Series

Godzilla was the megaton elephant in the room of my
marriage.

I married my husband because we liked all the same things. I
know some people talk up the idea that “opposites attract,” but since books and
film and food are about 90 percent of my life, it seemed like I had better
marry somebody with a brain as much like mine as I could get, without any
cloning involved. But there was this one small thing I thought we’d deal with
later, the way most couples deal with different opinions on having kids or how
to spend and save. That one small thing was Godzilla.

Chris was really into the Godzilla family of films, and I
would rather have eaten live worms than have watched these movies with
him.  Everyone has some idea about these
movies,, right? The big dopey-looking guy in the worn-out suit, stomping on
poorly-made miniatures and fighting some outlandish other monster suit, like
a giant lobster
or a weird
thing with a buzz saw in its chest
. I just didn’t see the point. And I
didn’t understand how someone as smart as my husband could enjoy these films so
much.

But then, worn down, I finally agreed to watch the original 1954
film, Godzilla, or Gojira. And I was impressed. Not only by the
film itself, which—thanks to the direction of Ishiro Honda, the now-classic score
by Akira Ifukube, and especially the masterful special effects direction of Eiji Tsuburaya—rose above
the traditional sci-fi/monster flick trappings to become a genuinely beautiful,
visually impressive, and deeply moving film. I was also impressed by the fact
that a film originally planned as a Japanese King
Kong
or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms became so serious, moral, and
terrifying.

The monster in Toho’s film was more like the Beast than Kong—less humanized, more an unstoppable force. But unlike the Beast, Godzilla was
a sympathetic figure: his end is as tragic as his beginning. Of course, I
shouldn’t have been surprised that a movie about an atomic-age monster would be
imminently sadder and more impactful in the hands of the Japanese post-World
War II. And certainly the most striking images of the movie are as moving as
they are dreadful, reminders of what we did to Japan: a hospital full of burned
people; a group of children singing in the face of disaster; city block after
city block on fire; a group of sailors attacked with great ruthlessness at sea,
clearly influenced by the then-recent incident where a Japanese fishing boat
was caught in the fallout from the Bikini Atoll test.  It was a movie that resonated absolutely at
that time with audiences around the world—even with Americans, after a well-meaning
but clumsy American cut was mad
e that included American actor Raymond Burr
as a Tokyo reporter named Steve Martin.  

So after watching, and being blown away by the first film, I
was curious now to see the other films. Did they continue to preach the dangers
of nuclear warfare? It seemed they must, since that’s what Godzilla was—a nuclear horror—and yet, it
seemed unlikely that the films could sustain that same message, especially
through five decades.

And that is the
crux of what’s so interesting about the Gojira
series, despite its rather serious flaws. I have now watched all of the films,
some many times, and yes, I’ve come to love Godzilla, too. And not just because
I fell in love with the first film, which was the perfect film for its time,
and certainly the only one of the films that could be considered “great.” The
other Gojira movies, whether they are
great or terrible (and there is a wide range), are movies of their moment: that
is to say, rather than being about giant monsters and scrappy humans, these are
ultimately films about heroes and villains—and who they are says everything
about the time in which these movies were made. And by the way, that means that
sometimes the movies are deeply serious, and other times, deeply silly. As
Keith Phipps at the
Dissolve
pointed out recently, “Sometimes a monster is a metaphor for all
that’s troubling about a certain time and place; at other times, it’s just a
guy in a rubber suit smashing a bunch of miniatures.”

There can be no more fascinating series to watch, for a fan
of cultural and film history in the 20th century. Only the James
Bond series comes close, but even that is much more limited in its scope and
its necessarily static hero. The Gojira
films, on the othe handr, vary wildly in plot, character, tone, audience and
cinematography. Even the title character goes from hero to villain to symbol to
something in between.

The films can be roughly split into
three periods.
The classic or Showa series, spanning
1954-1975; the Heisei series, spanning 1984-1995; and the Millennium series,
spanning 1999-2004.  In the first part of
the classic series, the two films made in the fifties, doctors and scientists
are in ample supply as heroes, and the films wrestle with important subjects –
nature, and the monsters that supply it, are villains, though human-made.

In the sixties, the movies veer away
from the original message. As Jim Knipfel writes at Den
of Geek
: “Early in the franchise and often
under the guidance of director Ishiro Honda, when things just got really
fucking weird, when images straight out of Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, or Luis
Buñuel were inserted into the reality of the Toho universe, and none of the
human characters really batted much of an eye about it.” A distrust of
corporations went along with the weirdness: in King
Kong vs Godzilla
and Mothra vs. Godzilla,
it’s the corporate types who are trying to make money off of exploiting the
monsters – they become laughing stocks and goofy villains by trying to beat
nature at her own game, while the monsters become more sympathetic. In Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,
a princess runs from assassins while possessed by the spirit of aliens – and
the series takes a turn for the wacked-out science-fiction quality which has become
a hallmark of the series ever since. The films seem less about nuclear war than
they do about the fear of invasion. In these later sixties films, Godzilla
becomes a world hero, saving the earth from alien invaders and monsters from
other planets.

By the 1970s, the films seem to be largely
for and about children – with the powerful exception of Godzilla vs. Hedorah (more on that in a minute.) Bullies and scary
criminals are villains, and absentee parents and latchkey kids abound. Godzilla
suddenly has ‘friends,’ and the monsters are become cute, hi-fiving,
kid-helping pro-wrestlers of sorts. In some of the films, the monsters live
together on an island (like
Monster Island)
and come to the rescue when needed. If the kids aren’t the heroes, they’re
still central to the story. These movies are pretty much the worst of the
series, often liberally making use of stock footage from past films and
featuring monsters so cartoonish they’re slapstick.

(Godzilla vs Hedorah,
of course, from 1971, is an exception that is also very much of its time – it’s
a strange, bleak look at the environmental havoc caused by pollution, which
comes to life in the form of a giant smog monster. It’s a serious film, despite
its odd psychedelic dance sequences, one that shows people and animals literally
being burned alive by Hedorah.)

The Heisei series of the eighties and
nineties is more uniform in tone, though the stories vary wildly. From a
rip-off of Indiana Jones that turns into an environmental message where the real bad guys are the corporation pushing
for deforestation; to a recurring character named Miki who has a psychic
connection with Godzilla, to a mutant Godzilla clone from space; these films
usually hold up humans as the bad guys, while another group of humans works
with Godzilla or other monsters to save the planet. During the eighties,
Godzilla would become a villain once again – only to morph into a hero by the
mid-nineties. I should also point out that at this point in the series,
Godzilla once more faces some of his classic foes, in an attempt to revive the
popularity of the series. Most of these films were not released in American
theaters, including
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah,
a fascinating film that features a pre-atomic Godzilla-saurus ravaging American
troops and saving Japanese soldiers during WWII. (It also features
time-traveling humans from the future called Futurians, tiny adorable Ghidorah
babies, and a Terminator-like android named M-11.)

The Millennium series is the most
unwatchable group of Godzilla films (in my opinion), despite a higher production budget. The
stories are unmemorable, and the heroes are usually military characters,
admirable and steel-jawed, given little to do or say other than climb into a
giant robot or shoot “mazers.” Godzilla is, at least, fierce and very much the
harbinger of real, deeply felt terror. A dark and modern tone fills the films –
even the palette has shifted from the bright colors of the 80s and 90s films to
a dark mix of steely greens and grays. An odd quirk of this series: each one is
pitched as a separate sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla (with one exception
centering on Mechagodzilla.) The movies are all pretty grim, and some seem
close to the spirit of the original film: for instance, in Godzilla,
Mothra, and King Ghidorah, Giant Monsters All Out Attack
, Godzilla is an
ancient beast from hell who’s formed of the tormented souls of the dead of
World War II.

Having watched, many times, this
evolution of culture reflected in the evolution of the Gojira films, I (and of course, my husband) are fascinated to see
what the
American
film
(I’m not even bothering to count the
1998 garbage fest) will be. It certainly promises to be dark, serious,
well-acted, and – perhaps in the troubled, pessimistic spirit of our times, Godzilla
will be the metaphor, more than the guy in the suit.

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.

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