Godzilla: The Biggest Blockbuster

Mike Ward
Godzilla in his prime

This summer's blockbusters got nothin' over the biggest, beastiest blockbuster of all...

Pop Past revists some of the best writing on PopMatters on topics in pop culture history.

This essay is one of 14 published in a special feature section on the auspicious occasion of Godzilla's 50th birthday. See more entertaining and illuminating essays on The Beast at "Godzilla at 50"

"Bring 'em on — I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around." -- Han Solo, Star Wars

In junior high school, my friends and I would sometimes take a break from pulling the wings off insects to speculate about the prowess of fictional superheroes. This speculation usually took the form of debates over who would win in wildly improbable confrontations, spanning genres, decades, and media, and they are the reason why I know that in a fair fight the Terminator would beat Robocop, an Imperial star destroyer would destroy the U.S.S. Enterprise, and Bugs Bunny would outsmart Jerry the mouse.

Of course, in hindsight it's hard to say what might constitute a "fair fight" for the purposes of such speculation. These characters and machines come from such disparate fictional environments that imagining them ever meeting, let alone fighting, requires quite a liberal flight of fancy. Fine points like this are often lost on 12-year-olds, though, and certainly never stopped us from, say, comparing the combative skills of Rocky Balboa and Bruce Lee until we'd nearly come to blows ourselves.

Fortunately, these childhood debates have given me the critical acumen needed to assert, with the aid of supporting evidence, that Toho Productions' Godzilla could whip Roland Emmerich's Godzilla back to the Jazz Age. By "Toho Productions' Godzilla", I mean the impossibly formidable Japanese original — the god-on-Earth who absorbs missile explosions as though they were mere bites from horseflies. By "Roland Emmerich's Godzilla", I mean the stripped-down, American version of the beast, which is vexed by a taxicab and eventually done in by a mere 12 conventional missiles. I know that in saying this I again invite someone to ask what constitutes a "fair fight" between critters that are the products of studios some 7,000 miles apart. But it turns out that to a grownup this question is far more interesting, anyway.

The first monster was called "Gojira", an amalgam of the Japanese word for "whale" and the English word "gorilla". In his translation, Emmerich retains some of the earlier creature's simian characteristics, but his beast is more of a pure amphibian. Where Gojira dog paddles gracelessly on his unstoppable advance toward Tokyo, Emmerich's Godzilla is an athletic swimmer who gracefully outmaneuvers torpedoes and tricks a pair of submarines into destroying each other.

The new Godzilla's spry dexterity resembles the monsters' tactics in the Alien and Jurassic Park series more than the Toho movies. Gojira didn't have to worry about maneuvering; he had the luxury of wading casually through Tokyo Bay because everything the military could dish out bounced off him, anyhow. His approach is as inexorable as the Allied Pacific offensive late in the war must have looked to the Japanese" advancing in plain sight, without guile or subterfuge, its primary protection being its assemblage of superior force. Emmerich's monster, taking after those of Spielberg and Ridley Scott, instead appropriates what's popularly understood to be the tactics of the Viet Cong. After his initial attack, he hides out in the Hudson until Manhattan is evacuated, then evades detection in the island's labyrinth of skyscrapers and its cavernous sewers and subway tunnels.

Roland Emmerich knew that to reinvent Godzilla, he would need to look at the way the original series has come to be interpreted. By now we've all heard the conventional wisdom that Godzilla personifies Japan's nuclear-age anxiety and stems directly from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Since the United States was the country to drop these bombs, it's easy to wonder whether an American spin-off of the 1954 Godzilla would insult the Japanese, who might see it as the aggressor appropriating the victim's catharsis. Emmerich's response to this looks to stem from a simplistic analogy: as Gojira is to the Japanese defeat in World War II, so Emmerich's Godzilla is to the American defeat in Vietnam. Like the VC, Emmerich's Godzilla is no match for the U.S. military in a fair fight — if only he'd come out into the open like a good sport, and let himself get bombed flat.

Hollywood has vituperated like this more than once since the Vietnam war ended. The Sands of Iwo Jima's (1949) clear line of scrimmage is muddied in the Vietnam war movie, where the wily VC isn't afraid to bite, scratch and kick to win. Vietnam war cinema typically gives us an enemy that lurks and hides in jungles, sets up scurrilous booby traps such as mines baited with dolls, and divides and conquers feckless American soldiers with judiciously executed ambushes. Many films ostensibly unrelated to the war still use these tactics: the salivating critters in Aliens (1986), for example, snuff out a cadre of Marines by striking and withdrawing, coming down from above, stalking, reorganizing, interpreting landscapes to best advantage, planning, and waiting — in short, by not fighting fair.

Lost in Emmerich's rendition is the most compelling theme of the Toho series: the splitting of the atom as an act that transcends national borders once it is committed, as a knowledge that, once learned, can't be forgotten.

As in the remake, in the original movie humans trigger the nuclear explosions, but the process by which the radiation creates the monster is never revealed. The atomic explosion is nearly a sentient thing, born out of the Manhattan project but obeying a logic and volition beyond the understanding of the physicists behind it. Perfectly intractable to reason and unyielding to any opposing force, Godzilla is finally stopped only by a weapon just as lethal as the bomb, the vaguely defined "Oxygen Destroyer", which succeeds in vanquishing Godzilla but, like Kurt Vonnegut's Ice-Nine, could also render the Earth uninhabitable. Its inventor commits suicide at the film's conclusion to keep the knowledge of the terrible weapon from proliferating.

From the outset, audiences in America have tended to speak of the Japanese monster film series in the same breath as science fiction films made stateside — a confusion prompted, at least in part, by the Raymond Burr voiceover, cut into the original film for its American release to distill its allusions to Hiroshima. This tendency has obscured some key differences between the two traditions. For example: in the American monster movies tactical knowledge is typically the key to humanity's triumph over the invaders.

In It Came From Outer Space (1953), Invaders From Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), Them! (1954) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the bad guys are turned back either when their hiding places are revealed or when it's discovered that they have some quirky but basically unremarkable weakness. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' seemingly invincible spaceships are vulnerable to an anti-magnetic beam weapon that, once invented, takes care of things in short order. H.G. Wells' Martians, as everyone knows by now, simply forgot to get flu shots before they saddled up.

Toho took a more direct route. Unlike Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' anti-magnetic beam, which has no effect on anything terrestrial (an enduring American fantasy is that its weapons only kill the guilty), the Oxygen Destroyer is potentially as destructive as the creature against whom it's directed. In the Godzilla series, technology might save us, but it can never quite redeem itself; or exorcise its own blind violence. Likewise, the first movie's Godzilla — a product of the A-bomb and so, by extension, a product of technology — knows only wholesale carnage. He refrains from diplomacy and espionage; could care less about conveying messages to humanity; and suffers from no hidden vulnerability to any seemingly harmless contagions. Godzilla is wholly surficial, in his body and in his motivations. His compulsion to destroy is like a glandular anomaly or a substance addiction, articulated beneath the threshold of rational thought. He has no interior.

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