A Kinder, Gentler Godzilla

Tobias Peterson

Certainly, for me, Godzilla was a buddy . . . not unlike a favorite teddy bear.

Little Toby and his buddy, Godzilla.
By Tobias Peterson

I don't have any memories of Godzilla before I got the toy. It was about a foot-and-a-half in height, rolled on wheels hidden under green, scaly feet, and had a plastic, flaming tongue that was activated by a lever in the back of the monster's head. The best thing about this miniaturized menace, however, was that its right hand, curled into a clawed fist, would shoot off at the press of a button in the tail, wrecking countless sand-lot forts constructed in vain by my younger brother — forts he hoped would spare his various G.I. Joe and Transformer figures from my marauding green giant.

So enamored with Godzilla was I that, in second grade, I choose my Godzilla-on-wheels as my favorite toy for picture day. The students of my school were allowed one toy to pose with for pictures, and I don't remember hesitating when I dragged the monster out of my toy box, onto the school bus, and sat him proudly on my knee for the camera — my own toothless grin mirroring the beast's fanged maw.

Years later, as I look back at the picture, it's more than nostalgia that surfaces in my recollections of Godzilla. There was something almost loveable about this figure, once a Japanese symbol for the horrors of nuclear energy, shrunk down to miniature and packaged for consumption by American school children. Somehow, Godzilla was not the supernatural menace I would only later see on television, rising out of the sea to wreak havoc on humanity. He was, instead, a companion — not unlike a favorite teddy bear or doll. He was and adventuring partner that would be equally at home tramping through the woods behind my house as sleeping at the foot of my bed.

I see that toy now as a kind of culmination in the monster's evolution. Initially, for movie audiences, Godzilla was a colossal bogeyman, an unstoppable avatar of death and destruction. When he wasn't gnawing on commuter trains, he was stepping on warehouses, knocking over power lines, and crushing tanks. Given the monster's first film appearance in 1954, just nine years after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it's not hard to appreciate the kind of horror he evoked for Japanese film- goers.

Later, however, Godzilla's persona changed. He took on other monsters like King Ghidorah (a three-headed monster), Ebirah (a crab-like sea monster), and Hedorah (the smog monster) in an increasingly heroic role. Son of Godzilla, which had the bigger 'zilla rescue a cuter, smaller version of himself, further changed his image from uncontrollable, destructive beast to a sympathetic, if aloof, defender of the downtrodden.

Enter the toy. Approximately 30 years after the monster's debut, I found myself paling around with a figure once designed to evoke the horrors of nuclear war. How did this come to pass? Clearly there is something to Godzilla's image that lends him a certain kind of sympathetic air. No longer a fearsome force of destruction, Godzilla has been transformed into a defender of mankind and a reptilian father figure. Even in the latest American release, starring Matthew Broderick, Godzilla manages to turn Madison Square Garden into a nursery for little Godzillas while as he destroys the city around his nest. The nest — and the monster's — subsequent destruction are bittersweet for the audience. Their demise is not something to be wildly cheered.

Just like the foot-and-a-half tall action figure, Godzilla's image has been packaged and, quite successfully, sold and consumed. From comic books, to cartoons, to fast-food tie-ins, Godzilla has been softened and made more accessible than Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, or the Wolfman ever could be.

Perhaps this "softening" indicates a disconnect in cultural reception. The monster could never represent the kind of destruction for an American kid born in the '70s that it could for a Japanese person who survived the horrors of World War II. By this same token, Godzilla's popularity and lack of menace continues to this day as a kind of kitschy attraction. Americans only see a guy in a goofy monster suit stomping around a poorly constructed model of a city. How can anything this corny be dangerous?

Certainly, for me, Godzilla was a buddy. Perhaps the biggest threat he posed was the occasional fist-firing miscue, which then would only strike my brother rather than its intended target. But that was a kind of collateral damage I was prepared to accept. Looking back at the picture of me with my childhood friend, I wonder at the ways in which Godzilla's image came to suit me; my kinder, gentler monster, resting comfortably in the cradle of my lap.

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