Written by: Beth Kelly on January 19th, 2015
Can a “monster movie” effectively serve as relevant political commentary? Toho Studios, following the 1954 release of Gojira, ignited international interest in the story of the enormous atomic reptile. A superficial review of the Godzilla series conjures clichéd images of a man in a rubber dinosaur suit, wreaking havoc while crowds of onlookers scream and point. However, a more in-depth examination reveals the presentation of a theme that continues to dominate modern academia. Over 60 years since he first debuted onscreen, Godzilla still serves as a relevant harbinger of the devastating consequences of human warfare and destruction.
The original Japanese picture prominently featured the horrors of nuclear devastation. A dormant prehistoric beast awakened by H-bomb testing, Godzilla rampaged through the countryside and onward to Tokyo, breathing atomic flames, destroying both lives and infrastructure, leaving radioactive footprints in his wake. The brutal realities of seeing villages instantly turned to ash and witnessing children being diagnosed with radiation poisoning strongly resonated with Japanese audiences, less than a decade removed from the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Fearing public backlash, editors softened the themes of nuclear annihilation when introducing Godzilla to the United States in 1956. The English language version Americanized the title – Godzilla: King of the Monsters – cut footage to exclude implications of the atomic bombs dropped during World War II, and added Raymond Burr’s character to better connect with audiences. The changes distort the focus from an observation on the effects of nuclear war to a simple “monster” movie about a beast on the loose.
Subsequent Godzilla productions strayed further from the original, emphasizing the eradication of Godzilla as a creature, rather than rectifying the reasons for his emergence. Subsequent remakes by both Japanese and American filmmakers were of varying quality, with some films, such as Son of Godzilla, being almost impossible to sit through. Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, however, revel in their inherently campy nature. Many Godzilla films have disappeared down the pop culture wormhole, but many others are still widely available for streaming (see this website). The irradiated reptile continues to live on in late-night cable infamy.
The popularity of Godzilla as an action-filled monster franchise sometimes overshadows the pertinence of the original theme to current social and cultural anxieties. As the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looms, the full extent of damage incurred by the two atomic bombs remains uncertain as data on long-term radiation related illnesses continues to emerge. Fears regarding nuclear disasters persist, with concerns ranging from future warfare to meltdowns such as the Fukushima tragedy. At a broader level, environmental topics such as climate change, overpopulation, clean water depletion, and forest plundering all relate to the premise purported in “Gojira;” human arrogance towards the earth may ultimately result in catastrophe for the planet and mankind.
An opportunity to recapture the true essence of the first film exists as Toho Studios recently announced plans for an update of the movie, premiering in 2016. State-of-the-art computer generated animation and updated cinematography techniques will lure younger generations of viewers who perhaps dismiss the early Toho productions as a kitsch genre with outdated special effects. However, the true value of a Japanese remake lies in revisiting the powerful issue of war and human conceit that initially captivated the world, thus once again allowing Gojira to be a symbol of political debate.