Imperial Monsters: A Political Analysis of Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Daikaiju Sogougeki

[7 May 2004]

By Michael Nenonen


The monster’s heart still beats.
:: IMPERIAL MONSTERS: A Political Analysis of Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Daikaiju Sogougeki
By Michael Nenonen

Sound the air-raid sirens: Godzilla is mutating. This beloved metaphor for nature’s response to military-industrial arrogance is undergoing a spiritual transformation, a transformation that may be an omen of bad things to come in the land of the Rising Sun. The most recent Godzilla movie to hit Western shores is Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Daikaiju Sogougeki (2001), or GMKG:DS, produced by acclaimed director, Shusuke Kaneko. This film is now available in a few video rental outlets, most notably Blockbuster. It’s an improvement over the series’ previous releases. The storyline is inventive, the acting is solid, the special effects are impressive for a film with a budget of well under $10 million, and the DVD offers the original Japanese soundtrack, accompanied by English subtitles.

GMKG:DS is a direct sequel to the original Gojira (1954), eliminating the other 23 sequels from the timeline. According to the back-story, Godzilla hasn’t been seen since he decimated Tokyo in ‘54. Since that time, the story of his defeat has been the only source of pride available to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). The JSDF long ago took credit for Godzilla’s demise, even though he was actually defeated by a prototype weapon created by a non-military scientist named Dr. Serizawa. Serizawa destroyed his notes before using the weapon, and after activating it he committed suicide. Thus, when Godzilla shows up in 2001, the JSDF is nearly helpless against him.

The JSDF is portrayed as an under-funded, misunderstood, and extremely noble military force. These soldiers, personified in the character of the brave Admiral Taizo Tachibana, are called “warriors”. Their only interest is in protecting Japan’s “freedom”. Whereas the original Gojira warned against militarism, this movie goes out of its way to celebrate it.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Godzilla is possessed by the spirits of all the people who died during the Pacific Conflict. As the admiral’s daughter, Yuri, points out, since most of these people were killed by the Japanese, Godzilla is driven by an unrelenting hatred of Japan. The introduction of this supernatural element is a significant departure from the monster’s previous incarnations, and the subtext it introduces alters Godzilla’s thematic meaning on a profound level. The Godzilla costume used in this movie is appropriate for this new role: with ash-gray skin and pure-white eyes, Godzilla has never looked so cruel.

In response to Godzilla’s return, a mysterious old man awakens three “Guardian Monsters”, supernatural creatures pledged to protect the Japanese “homeland”. Their costumes emphasize their benevolence: these are the cutest beasts Godzilla’s ever faced. To understand the appeal of the Guardian Monsters to the Japanese psyche, it’s important to remember that they’re rooted in Shinto mythology. These creatures are closely related to the “kami”, the spiritual incarnations of the natural forces central to Shinto belief. In their first appearances, the Guardian Monsters kill two groups of Japanese youths whose debauchery and disobedience are intended to offend the audience’s sensibilities.

Unfortunately, the Guardian Monsters simply aren’t a match for Godzilla, who brutally dispatches each of them. In the end, it’s up to Admiral Tachibana, aided by the souls of the slain creatures, to save the day. He pilots a submersible straight down Godzilla’s throat and into his stomach, where he fires a missile equipped with a rotating drill bit that burrows through Godzilla’s chest. When the missile detonates, it causes Godzilla’s atomic heart to overheat, which disintegrates the monster’s body. The admiral survives and makes it to shore, where his daughter welcomes him. He tells her that he didn’t do this alone; the victory was brought about by the efforts of the entire JSDF, along with the help of the Guardian Monsters. As the admiral and his daughter salute these agents of Japan’s salvation, the camera cuts to the ocean floor, where Godzilla’s disembodied heart continues to beat.

The subtext is a chilling one. We’re asked to applaud twice in this movie: first, when the supernatural protectors of the “homeland” punish the young for their lack of militaristic virtue; and, second, when the Japanese military allies itself with these inherently religious entities to subdue the nation’s feelings of remorse for victims of its imperial adventures. Since Godzilla is such an important cinematic institution in Japan, GMKG:DS suggests that the Japanese psyche is making a hard political swing to the right. The examples of this swing are many and troubling, according to David McNeill in a recent article for The Independent “Japan throws off pacifist cloak and once again hoists nationalist flag of militarism” (18 February 2004).

Since 1999, the playing of the Japanese anthem, “His Majesty’s Reign”, and the flying of the Rising Sun flag — symbols long associated with Japan’s imperial past — have been compulsory at Japanese school ceremonies. Many teachers in the public school system, as well as leftists throughout Japan, have opposed this policy. In “Japan throws off pacifist cloak and once again hoists nationalist flag of militarism”, by David McNeill,) McNeill quotes Civics teacher Kazuhisa Suzuki: “It’s as though Germany brought back the Nazi swastika and forced teachers to stand for it. If teachers don’t fight it, who will?” (The Independent, 18 February 2004)

In line with this resurrected patriotic fervor, the JSDF is contributing troops to the coalition forces in Iraq, in apparent violation of Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits the JSDF from possessing offensive capability. To address this contradiction, calls are being made for the article’s repeal. Former subjects of the Japanese Empire, such as Korea, have reason to be concerned about this, especially since the volume of racist rhetoric has been increasing among Japanese pundits . In “Mori’s ‘gaffes’ point to a revival of right-wing Japanese nationalism” (World Wide Socialist Web, 13 June 2000), Peter Symonds draws attention to statements made in May 2000 by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Echoing the rhetoric of the wartime regime, Mori referred to Japan as “a divine nation headed by an emperor.” Symonds states that on 3 June 2000, Mori used the term “kokutai”, a phrase used in wartime propaganda to describe Japan as a nation-state unified under the rule of a divine emperor. Symonds goes on to report that in an April 2000 speech to the JSDF, long-time Liberal Democratic Party politician Shintaro Ishihara used the derogatory word “sangokujin” to refer to immigrant Koreans and Chinese, saying “Atrocious crimes have been committed again and again by sangokujin and other foreigners. We can expect them to riot in the event of a disastrous earthquake . . . Police have their limits. I hope that you will not only fight against disasters, but also maintainpublic security on such occasions.” Ishihara was referring to the aftermath of a massive earthquake that struck Japan in 1923. Immediately following the disaster, right-wing gangs, with the assistance of the police, murdered several thousand ethnic Koreans.

Japan’s history of military nationalism, its economic clout, its technological advantages, the encouragement of the United States, and the collapse of the Soviet threat provide the preconditions for the transformation of this nation of Cold War pacifists into a new military juggernaut. According to McNeill, Japan already has the second-best-equipped military in the world, and, given its many nuclear facilities, it could develop a nuclear arsenal within months.

The original Gojira was a warning about the catastrophic consequences of military nationalism in the nuclear age. As the mysterious old man of GMKG:DS tells us, the people of Japan are choosing to forget the painful lessons of the last century. Keep this article in mind when watching GMKG:DS. Enjoy the film, but don’t expect a good night’s sleep after it’s done. Godzilla’s heart is indeed beating, and, as his movies demonstrate so well, he never stays dead for long.

Editor’s Note: This essay, slightly modified and titled “Godzilla Alert Number Two”, originally appeared in issue 83 of The Republic, a bi-weekly Vancouver newspaper.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/5nenonen/