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Culture

The Importance of Being Godzilla

Steven Luc

Godzilla . . . is a mutable symbol, changing to suit the needs of the moment. He has become all things to all people.


Godzilla and Nixon, having a laugh.
:: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING GODZILLA
By Steven Luc

It's 1954, and the nuclear age is in full swing. "Duck and Cover" is the first line of defense for a school kid. H-bomb testing is nightly news, and Mickey Rooney makes America laugh as "the Atomic Kid". Meanwhile, across the sea . . . something rises out the depths of Tokyo Bay to stomp into the minds of Japanese audiences, and once through laying waste to Tokyo, sets its sights on America. Godzilla ("Gojira" to his homeys) King Of The Monsters has risen, and the world trembles at his passing.

In a time when it seems anything, with enough saturation, can switch from pop culture artifact to cultural icon and then become an object of ridicule even quicker (witness the Budweiser Frogs), Godzilla has endured. Most symbols of the '50s have fallen into the pigeonhole of nostalgia or camp — a reminder of a "simpler time" — but the big G has persisted and even evolved. From humble, if schizophrenic, beginnings as another "Gigantic Irradiated Thing Destroying Civilization" like many other B-movies creature feature stars, Godzilla then mutated into the first ambassador of Japanese popular culture to be embraced by the rest of the world.

Fifty years in the shadow of the "King of The Monsters", and we find Godzilla has been assimilated into the collective unconscious to a point that he is a mutable symbol, changing to suit the needs of the moment. He has become all things to all people. What sort of an impact does a 400-foot-tall, irradiated lizard make on a life? Whatever it wants to.

For the movie fan, Godzilla has a split personality. In one sense, he is the embodiment of power unchecked, the destructive power of the nuclear bomb given life. Conversely, he is the greatest Wrestler to ever walk the face of the earth. Granted, it's impressive as hell when The Rock jumps from the third turnbuckle to deliver the People's Elbow to his foe, but how many times has he done it in a manner that takes out entire city blocks and is delivered against an enemy that has three heads and fires electricity from his mouth? Modern professional wrestling could learn a few things from Godzilla movies. This cinematic split personality could be traced from the evolution of the portrayal of him in the first film and then in and subsequent sequels.

The original Gojira gives a glimpse into the thoughts of the only people to suffer a nuclear attack, and the fears this could bring to the survivors. With the classic monster movie introduction the stage is set: a small group in an isolated area (in this case a fishing boat) are the first victims of the monster, leaving only one survivor. From there, the attacks increase in frequency and scale, until at last Tokyo, the heart of Japanese society, is threatened and barely survives the assault. Interestingly enough, as in the case of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki [and echoed in later "real" '80s-era, nuclear war protest, made for TV docudramas, such as The Day After (US) and Threads (UK)] the focus of the attacks are civilian areas. Devastation, horror, and radiation sickness are all that are left in the wake of the creature, inviting comparison again to the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Finally, humanity finds a way to fend off the threat, but is left worrying if this might happen again. Additionally, the Japanese version ends with a plea to stop nuclear testing, edited from the American version. But, human nature being what it is, and as 50 years have shown, the testing continued and Godzilla would raid again, and again, and again.

Godzilla is a force of nature in the first film, a force spawned by man's actions, but unstoppable and uncontrollable. He is a reminder to humanity that with all our achievements, there are still things against which we have no power at all. With all the things that happen in the world that could serve as this reminder, it is a monster, a creature from imagination, helps us best to remember. Robert Cotton, a graphic designer from Oklahoma City, puts into personal terms where nature and Godzilla came together for him:

". . . . last year a tornado passed very close to my house. The television station alerted us that they themselves were taking cover, and then the power went out. Not wanting to cower uselessly in a closet, I moved to my only north-facing window and looked toward the TV station, only two miles away, and could see the massive funnel when the lightning flashed. Buildings a half-mile away were dwarfed. Television towers, each about 4,000 feet tall gave scale to the tornado and I could see airborne debris in the strobe-flashes of lightning. Nothing else came to mind except Godzilla to describe it. Huge, dark, hulking and mindlessly destructive. I've seen more than my fair share of war movies. I've seen natural disaster movies. I've seen horror and monster movies. I'd even felt the ground shake when the Murrah Building was bombed and watched the 24 hour news coverage of the events of 9-11. Why didn't those come to mind? Why is Godzilla so pervasive in my psyche that none of the other disasters I have witnessed been brought to mind at such a frightening and helpless moment in time?" (from an email conversation, 17 February 2004)

But this idea of Godzilla would give way to the more well known one of campy wrestling movies with men in rubber suits. After Toho Studios realized they had a hit and possibly a burgeoning genre on their hands, they came out with numerous gigantic opponents for Godzilla to fight against; Rodan, Mothra, and Ghidrah being the most well-known. As these films were geared more towards a children's market, they were more simplistic in their portrayal of Godzilla, moving him from the "huge, dark, hulking, mindless" force, nonpartisan in his chaos, to a more benevolent force of nature . . . thereby harnessing the tornado, as it were.

The films throughout the '60s and '70s fit into a pattern of "Gigantic Threat appears, Godzilla appears to fight Threat, Humanity gets caught in the middle and much property is destroyed as giant monsters clash, and then Godzilla Saves The Day." In an ironic twist, the one-time force of nature spawned by humanity's "meddling in forces we don't understand" would come to our aid to put the smack down on other gigantic threats, also spawned by our foolishness. This is most blatantly obvious in Godzilla versus the Smog Monster (1972). These are the Godzilla-movie offsprings that usually would make the rounds on Mystery Science Theater 3000 to be lampooned.

After 1975 things went quiet, and it seemed that the kiddie-fare Godzilla would be the Godzilla committed to memory. Then Return of Godzilla 1985 was released. This was a return to the darker vision of Godzilla, and the anti-nuclear message was brought back. Even the nostalgia-inspired addition of Raymond Burr to the American release did not distract from the subtext that once again, nuclear power was something that mankind barely understood, let alone controlled. The sequels following Godzilla 1985 show that rather than coming full circle, Godzilla has instead spiraled up to a new level of interpretation. He has come from symbol of the destruction unleashed by atomic testing, to the clownish, over-sized protector of humanity, and then to the embodiment of a true force of nature, outside of human control, but who's actions occasionally benefit us.

With such a large presence in the cinema, it's only natural that Godzilla's influence would spill over into other parts of popular culture. Comic books, toys and even rock songs all felt his impact — for example Blue Oyster Cult immortalized the original idea of Godzilla as destructive force of nature with their 1977 song, "Godzilla". Godzilla could be seen as Japan's first modern cultural ambassador, showing many that there was more to Japan than Samurai, Geisha or even "That country Grandpa fought in the War". With the popularity of his films, other Japanese science fiction and fantasy characters were introduced: Toho Monster Movies were released with some of Godzilla's foes/companions starring, such as Mothra and Rodan. Competitor studio Daiei unleashed Gamera The Invincible on Earth, a monster who later became the "friend to all children". On television, Japanese shows like Ultraman, Starman, and Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot began to get airtime, showing the giant robot heroes fighting against Godzilla-sized creatures. The success of these shows would lay the foundation for the Super Sentai series that would later gain America's attention when repackaged and released as The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

At the same time, Anime rode the wake of Godzilla's entry into America. Television shows such as Astroboy and Speed Racer brought a new style of animation to children. Japanese toys also started to be on the wish list of kids growing up in the '70s and 80s. In the author's opinion, one of the coolest toys on Earth for a 7-year-old was the Shogun Warriors; two-foot-tall plastic robots modeled after various giant robot characters from anime shows, later including Godzilla and Rodan. The Christmas village under our tree was the site of my own Godzilla movie the year I got two Shogun Warriors: "Godzilla versus Great Mazinga for The Power Of Christmas!" Somewhere I still have the "publicity stills" I shot with my parent's Instamatic camera.

Even video games have felt the impact of Godzilla, the most recent being "Godzilla Destroy All Monsters Melee!" (Gamecube, 2002, Xbox 2003). You can give out your favorite Godzilla movie fight scenes on all the major video game platforms. Thanks in part to Godzilla's long-lasting appeal, Japan and America trade popular culture back and forth freely . . . remixing and reinterpreting each other's ideas (once the rights are settled by the legal teams) often times successfully but sometimes not, like the 1998 American-ized Godzilla. Now let's never speak of that film again.

Godzilla's 50-year reign in popular culture has given him time to become part of our collective symbolic language. While he is mostly known as the filmic icon of either nuclear destruction or campy MST3k-style fun (that's Mystery Science Theatre 3000), or as the forerunner of Japan's tidal wave of cultural export, like all good symbols, Godzilla can also be open to a more personal interpretation. In a conversation soaked in beer and nostalgia, Kevin Ely, an old friend now working as a videographer in Oklahoma City, reminded me how "Godzilla" was the nickname Grace Jenq, his high school girlfriend, had for her grandmother. Grandma Jenq's victorian-era philosophies on dating gave her license to be intrusive and as overbearing as possible whenever Kevin came over to visit.

Godzilla can also be an apt symbol for sibling rivalry and natural disasters. The three are intertwined for my colleague Barbara Vibbert, a manager of technical editors from Carrollton, Texas. During a smoke break at work, she told me that her parents were stationed in Hokkaido in the early '70s, and the same month they arrived a hurricane struck. A few months later, David, her younger brother was born. As Barb put it, "So in the quantum logic of children, Japan is the place of hurricanes, Godzilla attacks, and where annoying younger brothers appear."

For myself, Godzilla is the touchstone of the relationship for me and my younger brother, August. Born when I was 19 and away in college, relationship with my little brother was rather distant. Like most four-year-olds at the time, Gus was maniacal about Barney and demanded that the TV be turned to that show regardless of what else was on. Something had to be done. I was fanatical about Mystery Science Theater and was trying evangelize it to everyone I could, including my parents. I suppose mine was similar behavior to Gus's, but at least my obsession was funnier. One evening, while inflicting MST3k's episode for "Godzilla versus Megalon" on my parents and cracking up to Joel and The Bots riffing on Godzilla and Megalon duking it out, Gus wandered into the room. As Godzilla and Jet Jaguar tag-teamed against Megalon, Gus stood transfixed, watching the Big G mop the floor with the giant beetle.

"Who's that?" he asked, the awe in his voice was apparent.

"That's Godzilla, Gus." I said. Gus tore himself away from the TV screen for a minute to look back at me, amazed that I would have knowledge of such wondrous things and keep them from him.

"Gawjilla", he echoed. Gus turned back to the screen to watch the rest of the battle, totally absorbed. The spell of Barney had successfully been broken. Soon after I bought Gus a vinyl Godzilla figure at a local comic books shop for his 5th birthday, which I'm told was the hit of Show and Tell at preschool that week. We now argue frequently as to who is a better monster, Godzilla or Gamera, but when we play "Godzilla King of Monsters Melee", we're pretty evenly matched.

As a movie icon, Godzilla has gone through several permutations, and continues to change. The most recent film has made Godzilla an embodiment of the war dead of Japan; the monster is now a symbol of remembrance. In popular culture, he has been instrumental in bringing Japanese popular culture to American shores, and therefore it could be said, you could blame Godzilla for Pikachu — or thank him for it, depending on your feelings about Pokemon.

Indeed, Godzilla is a symbol for many different things for so many people. But why does Godzilla continue to endure so? Perhaps it is that all cultures have had some sort of dragon — a lizard-like creature of power in the local mythology, sometimes benevolent, sometimes malignant. For our emerging global culture, trying to find a common language from the various societies involved, Godzilla has also taken on the role of interpreter. He's a monster for all seasons.

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