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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Godzilla’s Back - The Monster as a Metaphor

Nine years after the United States dropped two atomic warheads on Japanese civilians, director Ishiro Honda created a rampaging, reptilian manifestation of the country's nuclear fears. With the premiere of the film in 1954, Godzilla launched a film franchise that would eventually spawn 30 sequels. Over the years, as the power dynamics between the US and Japan shifted, his image was diluted and the kaiju films took on less-serious undertones, becoming camp fodder throughout the 70’s and 80’s. But this May, Godzilla, or “Gojira” as he’s known in Japan, is back with a vengeance, and while he remains a work of fiction, the “socially-conscious monster” still has the capacity to shed light on very real issues facing today’s audiences.

            Although he was inspired by other monster films of the era, such as King-Kong and the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla’s terrifying majesty was of a different kind. A monster born from the depths of the ocean, “Gojira” is a Japanese portmanteau meaning both “gorilla” and “whale.” Capable of blanketing Japan with his thermonuclear breath, Godzilla managed to capture Japanese culture in the wake of WWII-era nuclear hysteria. As he awakened from his lair beneath the sea, his physical presence — a scaly body covered with keloid scars, as was the case for many radiation victims — revealed him to be the angry offspring of the A-bomb. An uncontrollable and unpredictable threat, he was capable of levelling Tokyo in two swift and overwhelming attacks. By the end of the film he had been vanquished, but his death came at a terrible price.

            By the 1960’s, as his image was revised time and again in various sequels and spin-offs, Godzilla was transformed. The darkness and the humanity of the original film was lost, traded in in favor of silly alien attacks and countless monster mash-ups. Godzilla changed just as Japan’s relationship with America did; the “monster” gradually shifting from Japan’s destroyer to her protector. It was decided that Godzilla should be good, and save the earth from various enemy attacks. Japan’s economy regained its strength in the 1960’s, and Godzilla’s image was tweaked to give younger generations a more optimistic view of their country.

            With the seriousness of the earlier films removed, Godzilla became a more heroic and less destructive version of his former self. He became cuter, too: his skin smoothed, his fangs disappeared, and his eyes went “manga.” And he seemed to take more and more cues from American entertainment wrestling in increasingly comedic, stylised battle scenes. By the 1970’s, it was clear that the Japan no longer needed a reminder of the atomic horror unleashed two decades prior. Even now, in a relatively peaceful time, Godzilla is still immensely popular. Data from the Tweet tracker Viral Heat indicates that fans are thrilled to see the latest Godzilla film:

Now, after 60 years, as Classic Films re-releases the original 1954 Godzilla, the latest “Godzilla” movie is also slated to reach theaters. The 30th of its kind, how will this 2014 Godzilla be different from the rest?

For one, Godzilla is bigger, at around 360 feet tall. Godzilla’s increased size has drawn early criticism from Japanese viewers of the new film. And, as this is 2014, he will be seen in the latest digital special effects as well as in 3-D. Yet as the original film proves, it isn’t only Godzilla’s terrifying size and shape that lures viewers to the box office. Godzilla’s resonance is also inseparable from something that once defined the best monster films - a sense of compassion for the same beasts that haunt us, an appreciation for the things that reveal to us our darker sides.

Movie monsters have always been both feared and loved, both maligned and embraced for their superpowers, intelligence, and capacity for suffering. Here’s hoping that the newest installment does the first, and arguably the best, Godzilla justice.

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