I wonder sometimes if Godzilla is getting closer. I’m not talking about the rubber monster who starred in 27 movies to date, but rather Godzilla himself; the soul behind the seeming, the revelatory trauma that inspired the first Godzilla film, produced in Japan by Toho Studios in 1954 as Gojira and released to American audiences in a heavily edited form two years later as Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Gojira, like all good movies, uses metaphor to transmit an insight about the human condition. This insight was obtained through profound suffering. Its cost was high, and its value immeasurable.
Before you dismiss what I’m saying, please take a moment to consider Gojira. In Japan, Gojira started out as an art house horror movie. It made use of better cinematic techniques, a more sophisticated plotline, and better acting than any other science fiction movie of that time. On this level alone, Gojira is worth serious attention. But the movie’s true merit is the way it uses the giant monster genre to make sense of experiences burned into Japan’s collective consciousness.
Godzilla’s roar sounds like an air raid siren, and his footsteps like falling bombs. The sea of flames that Godzilla unleashes upon Tokyo resemble the infernos created by the American firebombing of Japanese cities. The aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage is a recreation of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, right down to the hospital corridors clogged with irradiated children, with the maimed, with the dead. The fishing trawler immolated by Godzilla at the beginning of the movie refers to the fate of the Lucky Dragon #5 which, one year before the movie was released, was exposed to the periphery of an American nuclear test, and returned to port covered in radioactive ash.
There are subtler parallels, too. Godzilla is a threat from the sea. Upon discovering the monster, the Japanese navy is dispatched to eliminate him. The populace and the government alike look forward to a speedy victory. To their horror, they learn that their firepower only irritates Godzilla and hastens his arrival. Seemingly oblivious to the carnage he’s causing, Godzilla lumbers through homes and over bodies, responding to annoyances with blasts of atomic fire. Is there any doubt that Godzilla, on at least one level, represents the US military?
On a deeper level, Godzilla transcends national conflicts. Godzilla’s first victims are the rural inhabitants of Odo Island. The people are fishermen untouched by industrialization until atomic testing angers and mutates an ancient kami, or elemental spirit, long recognized and respected by their religious traditions. To these people, the ocean is the sacred realm of majestic and terrible powers. They understand that atomic testing violates the ocean’s literal and metaphysical depths, ensuring ecological and spiritual retaliation. “Atomic testing” is used here as a metaphor for military-industrial arrogance, a phenomenon common to every nation involved in World War II, whether Allied or Axis.
On this level, Godzilla is industrially desecrated nature; the damage caused by the US military is only the most visible manifestation of a more fundamental catastrophe. Hollywood presented similar ecological perversities. Atomic testing played a role in creating the monster from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 film with a box office success that paved the way for Gojira. For the next decade, American monster movies continued to exploit the growing fear of nuclear technology. There was, however, a crucial difference between Gojira and the American films. Hollywood’s monsters were never more than nuisances to be banished by the proper combination of scientific ingenuity and military force.
Japanese filmmakers, informed by a more sophisticated ecological ethic and the by trauma of atomic bombardment, knew better. Once an ecosystem becomes monstrous, it can’t be pounded into submission. In the face of monstrosity, the only viable option is to regain the balance that’s been lost. Because the ethical and the ecological are intimately intertwined, both need to come back in line.
The hero of Gojira, Dr. Serizawa, accidentally creates a weapon capable of turning the ocean into acid. He tries to keep this device a secret, but fails. In the American version of the movie, he explains that he doesn’t want the weapon falling into the “wrong” hands; in the Japanese original, he makes it clear that he doesn’t want it falling into any hands he doubts anyone could be trusted with such power. The people closest to him convince him that only his weapon can stop the monster. Torn by this dilemma, Serizawa decides to burn his research; he then kills himself alongside Godzilla when he detonates the weapon’s only prototype. By accepting responsibility for the secrets he’s discovered, and by paying the required price, he restores the world’s balance.
The American version of the film ends as Raymond Burr declares that, through Serizawa’s actions, the world can live again. In the Japanese original, a more somber observation is made: since Godzilla can’t be the only one of his kind, should atomic tests continue, more monsters like him will inevitably arise. In this version, Serizawa’s actions simply buy the world a little more time, time that could easily be squandered if the world doesn’t learn from his example.
Here, then, is the hard won insight conveyed by Gojira: By desecrating the natural world, military industrial arrogance creates monsters that cause incalculable suffering. These monsters are beyond the reach of military might and scientific cunning, and will only rest when ecological and ethical balance is regained. This requires nearly universal wisdom, sacrifice, and humility. This insight seems so simple, so cliché, that we wonder if it’s worth anything at all.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush is sending his troops around the world to steal the resources needed to feed the industrial machine. The US is using its military and economic muscle to force all other nations to privatize and deregulate their industries, encouraging the plunder and pollution of global ecosystems. The Bush Administration is tearing up domestic environmental legislation, while refusing to make any concessions to the international community on such matters as the production of greenhouse gasses. To fend off the American, Godzilla-like threat, nations and private groups around the world scramble to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction.
As politicians, businessmen, and generals play their games of submission and dominance, global temperatures continue to rise. Glaciers are melting, and a recent heat wave killed tens of thousands of Europeans. Last summer, firemen in the Pacific Northwest warned that with some fires, all you can do is run away. So, is Godzilla approaching, or is he already here?
Editor’s Note: This essay, slightly modified, originally appeared in issue 72 of The Republic, a bi-weekly Vancouver newspaper