Culture

Hey Godzilla, Why Are You Such a Giant Cultural Symbol?

Mark Pyzyk

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?


America in Awe
:: HEY GODZILLA, WHY ARE YOU SUCH A GIANT CULTURAL SYMBOL?
By Mark Pyzyk

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.