Hey Godzilla, Why Are You Such a Giant Cultural Symbol?
Distilling the actions of Godzilla to their most basic, one finds only an overgrown playground bully. What drives our love for this thuggish brute that annihilates our cities?
Godzilla is a monster, a big screen boogieman. He has thrilled generations of moviegoers by battling both man and mutated super beast. Destroying cityscapes, he has created a line of movies unparalleled in their success. Many viewers would be tempted to dismiss the series as little more than an adolescent love for unbridled destruction. This is only partially true. Godzilla is much more than that.
The product of a Japanese culture shocked and dismayed at their defeat in the Second World War, Godzilla the movie was intended as a commentary on the horrors of nuclear war and a reason for the world to abandon its weapons of mass destruction. That this message came from the only country to ever have a nuclear weapon detonated on its soil was certainly significant; if anyone knew the terrible effects of nuclear weapons, it was the Japanese. From this, Godzilla morphed in the course of his career, from dreaded monster to an icon of Japanese pop culture. The Japanese adopted him as one of their own; he became a national hero, one might say.
But why this cultural embrace? Distilling the actions of Godzilla to their most basic, one finds only an overgrown playground bully. He destroys anything he comes across, killing civilians and destroying vast amounts of property. True, he is often provoked by overzealous military commanders, but his actions are just as often unsanctioned and unwarranted. The only time he "defends" the citizens of Japan is when another monster, be it Mothra or MechaGodzilla, crosses his path, thereby provoking a heavyweight turf-war. What ensues is much like two wild animals fighting for scraps of food.
In the end, of course, Godzilla wins and continues his rampage. Take, for example, the final sequence in Godzilla 2000. After defeating the alien creature, news reporter Yuki Ichinose (played by Naomi Nishida) asks, "Why does he keep protecting us?" As if to emphasize her question, Godzilla proceeds to spew flame into the city anew, destroying dozens of buildings and likely killing hundreds of civilians in the ensuing inferno. Is this the action of a noble hero? Certainly not. What, then, drives the Japanese' love for this thuggish brute that annihilates their cities?
Approaching the problem requires some delicacy. As an outsider, I can really only speculate on the intricacies of Japanese society and culture. In order to avoid general or unfounded statements, a logical breakdown is in order. Bullies are ugly, nasty and reprehensible. Japan likes Godzilla. Godzilla is a bully. What does this say about Japan? Japan likes to be bullied. That's one theory.
Does Godzilla represent a sort of self-loathing on the part of Japanese? Perhaps, as Godzilla is so clearly a product of post-Hiroshima society, and as such the monster in their minds rests firmly in the Japanese defeat at the hands of the US. In the postwar settlement, the US asserted a great deal of influence over Japan. This cultural manipulation continued long after the political manipulation had ceased. Today, Japan is one of the most product- and market-driven countries in the world. Could it be that the present-day Japan has unresolved tension with its sense of past? This is possible, begging the question; where does Godzilla fit in?
One possibility is that Godzilla represents a means of escape from modern society. Godzilla is the great leveler. Destroying Japanese cities is what he does. Tearing down the artificial, materialistic veneer of modern life is perhaps the secret wish of many Japanese, just as it is the secret wish of many North Americans and Europeans. From this point of view, the Japanese' love for Godzilla stems not from a sense of cultural self-loathing, but rather from a hatred of the realities of contemporary pop-culture, based as it is in hollow materialism and US-imported ideas of the consumer lifestyle.
Seen through the looking glass of cultural warfare, Godzilla is more of a naturalist warrior than a bully. He is a product of the big bang that ushered in the modern era, he alone recognizes the evil inherent in modern society. The army and government try to stop him, but just as a nuclear future appears unavoidable, so, too, does the continuing rampage of Godzilla seem unstoppable.
Godzilla is a representation of the destruction that the bombing of Hiroshima unleashed upon Japan and the world, both physically and culturally. The end of the Second World War signaled the ascendancy of the US as a guiding light to the world politically and socially; as a model to be emulated. Godzilla destroys modernity and people love him for it, because they hate the culture that 50 years of physical and social occupation has wrought.
Following this logic, Godzilla's rejection of modernity is the key to his popularity throughout the world. Godzilla's success is dependent on people's hatred of their own reality, thus, the monster's prevailing presence is far more than a mere perversion in the Japanese psyche. Perhaps then Japan's love for Godzilla does not show a disgust of their own society, but rather, a disgust toward a global culture that is dominated by the US. It is ironic, then, that Godzilla is so popular in US, the progenitor of this new global culture. Perhaps then, it is the US that feels a sense of self-loathing and not the Japanese.