Note: This ICHF was originally published on my tumblr a few years ago. It has since been substantially revised. The original version of this ICHF is still on my tumblr for those who prefer it for whatever reason.
The 1954 classic Gojira is, in my opinion, the perfect example of an Atomic Horror story. I hold the movie in extremely high regard. It follows the formula from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (and is far from the only 1950’s monster movie to do so) and fills it out with incredible depth. Instead of having the nuclear bomb test occur in the Arctic, or the desert, or some other far, remote place, they put it in the bikini islands – right next to a fishing ship. The filmmakers did this because, shortly before Gojira went into production, this actually happened. An actual Japanese fishing ship happened to pass by the actual Bikini Island Atoll (because the Americans running the tests didn’t warn the Japanese for fear of the Soviets finding out) and got a good old dose of radioactive fallout! Some of the sailors actually died of radiation poisoning, but not before the fish they had collected was sent to market and poisoned more people! When the Japanese asked the Americans if, hey, maybe they knew why their fishermen inexplicably got radiation poisoning, Good Old Uncle Sam told the Japanese that it was none of their business and that they had better cover up this incident or they’d get a red white and blue boot up their asses.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was atomic horror based on the speculation about the nature of a nuclear disaster. Gojira is based on an actual personal history with it.
Godzilla destroys a few more ships off the coast of Japan, and the Japanese are quick to investigate. Eventually he is discovered rampaging on Odo Island in a scene that, frankly, is about as terrifying as you can get with a 1950’s kaiju flick. We don’t see much of Godzilla in his first rampage. Everything happens at night during a storm, with Godzilla’s wails mixing with the roar of the thunder and his body being mostly hidden in the gloom and rain. The small shacks and buildings on the island shake violently in the vicious wind and, eventually, under the crushing footfall of the leviathan that has wandered through them. Finally we get one brief glimpse – a “blink and you’ll miss it” shot – of Godzilla’s massive leg moving in the darkness behind a collapsed house, his scaly flesh merging so well with the trees and inky night sky behind him that you’d be forgiven for missing it – but when you see it, you realize just how horribly huge this monster is.
The destruction Godzilla causes in the original Japanese cut of Gojira is unparalleled in its scope – at least by any of the contemporary kaiju flicks of the 1950’s and 60’s. Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Beginning of the End and The Deadly Mantis and even The Giant Claw all talk about the possibility for massive destruction, and even give us a taste of it – a crushed building here, an eaten policeman there, maybe a couple of missing couples at makeout point, but they never delve into the sheer apocalyptic mass devastation that we see in Gojira. Tokyo is utterly ravaged in this film, its destruction shown in enough glorious detail and screen time to match all the rampages of those other movies put together. We see buildings fall, we see Godzilla step on fleeing mobs of people, we see a tower full of reporters collapse as the men aboard it scream towards their oncoming death, and on and on it goes still! A mother clutches her children in an alley as the fires grow brighter and Godzilla’s roars grow closer, telling her kids, “Don’t worry, we’ll be with father soon!” before flaming debris falls upon her. Godzilla’s final rampage concludes with him screaming in freakish fury amidst an eerily quiet city bathed in stark black and white flames. Only one living being is shown to escape Godzilla’s wrath on screen during this onslaught – a group of birds in an aviary.
Eventually our human heroes come up with a way to destroy Godzilla, albeit after a great deal of struggle. The movie makes it clear that this problem isn’t a simple one – Dr. Yamane, the requisite scientist (every 1950’s Atomic Horror movie needs one!) who in other films would just deliver exposition about the science of the film, passionately argues on a few occasions that Godzilla’s ability to survive the atomic bomb is nothing short of a miracle, and that mankind has much more to gain from understanding the beast than destroying it. Dr. Serizawa, the movie’s other scientist who has discovered the new super weapon capable of destroying Godzilla, is adamant against ever using it – his creation, the oxygen destroyer, is even worse than the Hydrogen bomb that destroys Godzilla, and Serizawa is certain humanity will not stop after using it once. After all, the destruction wrought by the use of atomic weapons in World War II didn’t stop humanity from making more – why would we change? The movie goes out of its way to show that killing Godzilla doesn’t truly solve the problem – the problem is the escalating cycle of violence itself, which cannot be solved with guns, or atomic bombs, and certainly not oxygen destroyers. Yet Serizawa is finally convinced to use his weapon, and Yamane is effectively silenced by the sight of the death toll left in Godzilla’s wake. Despite resistance, the cycle continues.
During the movie’s final scene, where Serizawa kills the monster, we get our first and only glimpse of Godzilla at peace in the movie with a long, lingering shot. We see how naturally he fits within this underwater environment – a world that has not been touched much by mankind. We see how serene and graceful he is, and in this moment Godzilla is more than a monster – he is a natural wonder, as beautiful and imposing as any mountain. The music is, for once, not menacing during this scene, but rather mournful. Godzilla is not presented as a monster here, but rather as another innocent victim whose true desire is peace.
Serizawa unleashes his weapon and cuts his safety rope, allowing himself to perish with Godzilla. Godzilla desperately tries to avoid his fate when the destroyer goes off, swimming to the surface to give one last agonized wail before plummeting to the depths and disintegrating. As he dies, everyone is mournful – both for the loss of Serizawa, and for the fact that the evil that created Godzilla – mankind’s devotion to creating and using more hideously powerful weapons despite the consequences – means that another of the monster’s species may yet arise to seek vengeance on mankind.
Gojira criticizes something very primal and inherent to the nature of humanity. It attacks our desire for revenge, and our belief that all violence – even violence on a colossal scale like war – can be justified under the right circumstances. There is a belief in the human race that, in certain circumstances, we can defeat evil – stop it, once and for all – by killing the right people. It’s why we have wars. No one – or at least very, very few people – goes to war because they like killing people. No, we go to war because we think that if we kill the right people, we’ll make sure no one ever hurts us again.
Yet most wars are caused by a desire for revenge – they start because we think the other side hurt us in the past, and we need payback. Then the other side attacks because we attacked, which means we will attack in the future, and on and on and on it goes in an endless cycle.
Gojira, with its science hero whose devotion to patient, rational science (the “good” science in Atomic Horror stories) is absolutely paramount, clearly states that this idea is massively stupid. Violence does not truly solve violence. You can hit your enemy hard enough to make the violence pause, yes. You can build a bomb that cows them into submission. But your display of force will invite counterattack – if not from your first enemy, then from others who are terrified of the power you showed. One atomic bomb begets another, then begets a hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen bomb begets hydrogen bomb begets dozens of hydrogen bombs begets dozens of more hydrogen bombs begets HUNDREDS of hydrogen bombs until mankind has enough of these weapons pointed at each other to wipe out the earth ten times over.
No, violence is not the answer. It only creates enemies. Unlike Western kaiju flicks, which believe that even though army weapons made the giant monsters, you can still kill them with the same weapons and have no bad consequences (…like the kaiju), Gojira argues that those violent tactics, no matter how well intended, only continue the problem. The Oxygen Destroyer did not end the threat of Godzilla… just delayed it.
One of the most important features of Gojira is the fact that it treats its monster as a character. People deride it for its less convincing special effects, ignoring the fact that “realism” in a story is mainly a western value. What mattered to Godzilla’s creators was the fact that Godzilla was emotive.
In most Western kaiju flicks, the monster is a personality-deprived force of conflict – a prop more than a character. It enters a scene when the story needs a scary moment rather than when it is motivated to do so. It attacks the heroes when the script demands it instead of when it would make sense for a creature to do so. Kaiju in these movies are just a source of conflict, nothing more.
Godzilla, though – Godzilla has motivation, and it’s even built into his design. His hide is based on an alligators, but designed to look like its scales had warped and melted together under the heat of a nuclear blast. His eyes were painted looking down (on the original suit, anyway) with large, furious eyebrows and a mouth bent in a perpetual frown so he could be looking down in righteous fury at the puny humans whose weapon had so horribly damaged him. Godzilla doesn’t attack humanity out of animal instinct or “just because” – he attacks because he’s in agony, because his home was destroyed, because he’s awoken in a world that hates him, and because humanity is the cause of all of that pain.
The story shows that Godzilla is not inherently evil. He doesn’t attack the birds, for example, because they did nothing to him – they are another group of animals who have been victimized by humans. Likewise, Yamane’s note that Godzilla’s ability to survive radiation reveals that, had humanity not (accidentally) tortured this poor creature into a vicious rage, we could have actually learned something incredibly valuable from it: a way to survive the horrible destructive power of our own weapons. By choosing the way or war and weaponry against Godzilla – and, by extension, the natural world – humanity denies itself the possibility to survive great destruction. We choose to inflict death rather than transcend it, and to oppose the world rather than coexist and learn from it.
Godzilla returned for a sequel, or at least another of his species did. And he was just as pissed in his second movie as he was in his first. With the oxygen destroyer no longer an option, the heroes of his second film were forced to find a non-fatal way to do away with him, burying him in an iceberg. Another sequel came, and another, and another, and through them all the tactics of the Japanese military changed. So too did Godzilla.
In each sequel, there is at least one other monster Godzilla faces. He wins some fights, he loses some others – his wins and losses being dependent on how friendly the monster is to humanity. Some of the kaiju he faces come from islands where they lived in harmony with native humans who, while perhaps less technologically advanced, are far more in tune with the natural world. These kaiju are protective of humanity, and they fend Godzilla off.
This is important. The movies are offering up the idea that mankind does not need to live in a state of war. Humans don’t need to be conquerors and warriors. Humanity can, in fact, survive much better by coexisting with others.
Eventually Godzilla faces a kaiju that is even beyond the scope of his rage – one whose hatred has become so virulent and malevolent that it extends to all life in the universe. Godzilla fights this foe and, for the first time, is not attacked by humanity for it. His stance begins to change towards humanity after this, and, likewise, so does humanity’s stance on him.
Some critics – even some that are otherwise very intelligent – assert that Godzilla’s turn from villain to hero in the original movie series came out of nowhere and was a bad idea. I – and more than a few other critics of the series – argue instead that it was a natural development, one that finally gives a solution to the seemingly unsolvable problem presented in the first movie. Slowly, over the course of several sequels, the humans in this universe learn that these giant personified forces of nature aren’t inherently opposed to humanity. They are powerful, yes, and we have to tread lightly with them, but they do not have an inherent desire to destroy us. They learn hatred, and if we instead treat them with kindness, they can be turned into our protectors.
Humanity slowly stops reacting to Godzilla with violence in the series, and Godzilla, in kind, stops retaliating. The human solutions to the Godzilla problem turn from “attack it with our feeble planes” to “lure him to some island where he’s away from us but able to live in peace on his own,” and, unsurprisingly, Godzilla ends up being fully in favor of the latter plan. By the end of the Godzilla series, Godzilla and his fellow monsters are living in relative peace on an island far off the coast of Japan, never attacking humanity because they are content. They only lash out when alien invaders attack the planet- races who have consumed all their own resources and armed themselves with the vicious war-like kaiju they have subjugated and turned into living Weapons of Mass Destruction. The last few foes from the original Showa Godzilla series are the dark future humanity narrowly avoided, and, rather than become an intergalactic scourge, humanity gets to watch as their titanic reptilian protector fends off their enemies instead.
Yes, most of Godzilla’s movies are campy as all hell. They are silly Atomic era popcorn movies with implausible science and special effects that are more similar to muppets than anything convincing – which is to say they made expressive characters instead of realistic looking ones. The camp is part of the charm, as is the sillyness. But there is also something very strong in the themes of these stories – something very consistent and inspiring, if you’re willing to give it a chance.
A story can be silly and smart, enjoyable and artistic, even cheesy and serious, at the same time. The Godzilla movies are all those things, and I think they deserve a look.
One thing more: Godzilla is one of the most well developed monster characters in the history of long form horror stories. Let me explain why.
Most horror stories begin as standalone tales. Often they get sequels, which becomes a problem when most of the cast tends to die by the end of the first story. Often the only character who gets brought back for the sequel is the monster – the villain of the piece, if you will. Thus the monster becomes the single consistent element of the series. Generally the consistent element of a series is the protagonist and, as a result, the monster generally becomes the de facto protagonist over the course of the series. We’re “just here for Godzilla,” in other words.
Now, I have this theory that the Horror Genre is actually based on a fraction of another genre – the hero myth. The first part of a hero myth is very similar to a whole horror story: life is normal, something strange happens, a monster appears and kills a lot of people, and eventually the normal people catch on to what’s going on. Horror stories then take the remaining two thirds of the hero myth – the part where a hero rises and conquers the monster – and either cut it altogether, or shorten it to, oh, say the last ten minutes. The monster runs amok and then, at the last minute, the day is saved.
Because the horror is this stunted, half formed version of the hero myth, it follows the pattern of that myth when it gets its unexpected sequel. Heroes tend to be unusual – they are different from normal people, and different in a way that makes them superior. So too are monsters, and if the monster becomes the sole character to go from one entry of the story to the next, well… isn’t it a lot like the hero?
This is why people talk about how they’re rooting for the monster – with the absence of a hero, the monster is next most interesting and effective character in the story, and thus the most compelling. Why should we care about Bobby Noname Canonfodder in A Nightmare on Friday the 13th Part 7 when we know he’s a personality deprived cypher who’s just there to up the body count? Why not root for the big spookum who’s killing these stupid clods in bold and visually interesting ways?
While other horror stories try not to directly acknowledge the fact that their monsters become their heroes, keeping up the pretense that we should care about the stupid bland heroes, the Godzilla series embraces this change and does it on purpose. If Godzilla was going to become a hero, then dammit, it would be on purpose! It would be built up to. We would see the change.
And see it we did.
Godzilla is one of the most well-known and beloved monsters ever created, right up there with other icons like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. And he is this way because he is a character – a character who, like Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, has motives, feelings, personal quirks, and an actual goddamn character arc! He’s more than just some big lizard – he is the true King of the Monsters, a beast with a brain and a heart. Long live the King!