The Godzilla Within
A group of scientists, military personnel, and press representatives watch Godzilla wrestle with the latest menace to humanity, a 60-million-year-old space rock-cum-flying saucer. Yuki, a newspaper photographer (Naomi Nishida), uses the serene moment to reflect on Godzilla’s meaning and purpose, wondering aloud why he persists in protecting the human race even though humans have long been bent on killing him. She concludes that maybe it’s because “Godzilla is inside each one of us.” It’s a little tough to figure out exactly what Yuki means by this horseshit, but we can be charitable and assume that the cascade of smoking rubble and flaming debris falling all around her has thrown off her concentration. So, just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Godzilla really is inside each one of us. Coming at the tail end of a franchise nearly a half century old, there’s a banality about Godzilla 2000‘s radioactive beast that does almost place him inside the movie’s human characters in the same way that shopping for groceries or filing our tax returns is a part of us, or at least an element of everyday life.
Which is to say that by now, Godzilla has become such a familiar institution that even for the characters in his movies, defending the Tokyo skyline against him has become a bit of a routine chore. For instance, some of the Godzilla movies of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s feature universities that offer advanced degrees in something called “Godzilla studies,” and Godzilla 2000 opens as members of the “Godzilla Prediction Network” stake him out somewhere along Japan’s coast. The existence of the GPN as it’s known to the in-crowd tags Godzilla as a part of everyday life while allowing him to keep a bit of his mystery. He’s been around long enough for a body of knowledge to be compiled around him, but figuring out where he’ll strike next is still a little dicey. Thus he is unpredictable in the same way tornadoes and earthquakes are, so as he heads to a nuclear reactor for some irradiated libation, the GPN dogs him Twister-style in a special GPN-mobile that’s been outfitted with blinky gizmos designed to track him down by measuring fluctuations in the Earth’s plasma.
As often happens in this movie, the pseudo-science here gets complicated and overwrought. Still, you know what to think when you see the intrepid members of the GPN in a less-than-elegant process shot, barreling down the highway like tornado-chasers as Godzilla blots the sun over them on the horizon. Yes, at this particular moment Godzilla is hungry for nuclear energy, indulging his kinship with the splitting of the atom, but these days he’s really more like a wild storm than an atomic blast. So if he isn’t inside each one of us, he is at least more terrestrial as a disaster he has gradually transformed into more of an act of nature than he was back when he stood in for that most unnatural of catastrophes, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a way, shifting Godzilla from atomic metaphor to natural disaster is just smart marketing. In a series that has come to be known for its campy, low-brow humor, evocations of Hiroshima’s grim tragedy could well seem out of place. Indeed, this has been true from the get-go. Even in the original film, the more pointed nods to Hiroshima shots of civilians dying of radiation sickness in the giant monster’s wake, shots that distinctly resemble newsreel footage of Hiroshima’s aftermath were bowdlerized for the movie’s U.S. release.
But the conventional wisdom that associates Godzilla with the atomic bomb has never quite summed up the behemoth monster’s impenetrable symbolism, anyway. Godzilla formulaically and methodically conquers the Japanese mainland in about the same way in every Toho movie. First he knocks out a town or island on the country’s periphery, then turns up in Tokyo Bay before smashing the nation’s capital city to rubble. For right now, forget about the single, silvery B-29 buzzing over Hiroshima on a clear and sunny day, because Godzilla’s gambit really looks more like the massive Allied advance through the South Pacific and the hypothetical American invasion of mainland Japan relentless, obvious, and unstoppable despite the best efforts of the Japanese military.
Over the past half century of sequels, prequels, and remakes, Godzilla’s association with these several sorts of cataclysms the atomic bomb, the peril of having a capital city situated on a fault line, and the horrors of conventional war has lost much of its coherence and nearly all of its original gravity. For one thing, Godzilla has generally been a defender of humanity since Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster was put out back in 1965. His troubled stewardship over Japan he regularly repels other-worldly foes bent on the country’s destruction, but usually smashes Tokyo anyway, sorta by accident actually makes him more like a puzzling stand-in for a post-occupation General MacArthur, or a perverse anthropomorphism of the Marshall Plan. But really, it just makes him noisy, incoherent; the several metaphors that attended his inception are still present, but they have receded and the series often gives us details that contradict them. Godzilla’s rugged durability, for instance, is attributed in Godzilla 2000 to a phenomenon known as “Regenerator G-1,” which makes him able to reform and recover damaged cells at a prodigious rate. Never mind what this might possibly have to do with Godzilla’s birth by radiation, or how atomic poisoning has managed in this one instance to regenerate cells when most of us learned in school that it explicitly tears them down. Two scientists investigating the phenomenon watch through a microscope as a damaged sample of Godzilla’s tissue springs back almost immediately whole again. When one exclaims, “It’s like watching the process of creation,” it’s easy to wonder if maybe this new Godzilla the one inside each of us, the one that implacably evokes conception and the book of Genesis and a cornucopia of other metaphysical idiocy you’re probably going to have to get your inner Godzilla to figure out for you just isn’t about the atomic bomb at all anymore.
This makes it easier to laugh at Godzilla 2000, and the movie helps you along in this by taking itself awful lightly. Still, the atomic metaphor hasn’t vanished altogether. Mainly it manifests in Godzilla’s notorious invulnerability to penetration, the opaqueness to conventional means of attack he has inherited from his ideological parents, the two halves of the split atom. His lack of interior makes him the perfect phallus, but it also makes him a recursion of whatever mystery had been solved when the atom was smashed to begin with what the hell is in there?
This mystery turns up even more pointedly when the outer-space contender for Godzilla’s title shows up: an amorphous flying saucer as silvery as a B-29’s shell, which looms over landmark city skyscrapers like an invader from Independence Day and sucks the data out of their computer systems. As it flies over Tokyo, its mirrory underbelly reflects the city’s streets as seen from above like the creepy killer in Peeping Tom, it shows its victim nothing but an image of what it is about to destroy. Thus it repels not only physical attack but also simple attempts to see what’s inside of it, and the fact that it opens up to reveal a great, dark, vaginal cavity only makes the mystery more urgent. Lethal beams of light, like Godzilla’s firebreath, shoot from the cavity and hasten Tokyo’s destruction. So don’t let Yuki’s psychobabble fool you. For all of Godzilla 2000‘s noisy, confused symbolism, its central message is as clear and simple as it was when the series first got underway: what’s inside can kill.