What could lead a young man to become infatuated with an obscure, often poorly produced film genre from a faraway land? The short answer would be “childhood indoctrination, admiration for practical SFX and a lust for wanton destruction”. The longer answer may well be more interesting. Disaster movies have become increasingly common, going in and out of fashion for the past few decades. But there is something alluring about centring such a calamity on an identifiable aggressor. Humans don’t always excel at thinking in the abstract, but we’re rather good with empathy, so there is a clear advantage to making the damage personal. We are not just the victims of happenstance, but the targets of some malevolent force. But beyond the artistic merit of daikaiju movies, there is another pertinent fact: Monsters are cool, more monsters are cooler, and getting those monsters to throw down in major cities is the coolest. Grow all this to gigantic size and the cool is cubed.
Our story begins in the dying days of the 20th Century, when mobile phones were a seldom-seen luxury and YouTube and Facebook were the digital dream of a prophetic madman. My first exposure to Godzilla, beyond the ingrained cultural custom of labelling anything massive with the suffix “-zilla”, was Hanna Barbera’s The Godzilla Power Hour on Cartoon Network. CN held a special event called “Green Day” (Hey, I just got that!) featuring their most verdant characters, which for some reason I had recorded on VHS. For the younglings in the audience, a VHS was a boxy DVD that would occasionally unravel and destroy itself. This was to become one of my entertainment staples, and Godzilla featured prominently. Being that Godzilla is grey and not green, his involvement is questionable, but the episodic adventures of a gigantic and ill-tempered reptile thoroughly intrigued me. None of Toho’s other kaiju could be featured in the cartoon (bloody copyright laws) so Hanna Barbera were forced to create a myriad of odd creatures for the Big G to battle. My memory isn’t what it once was, but one beastie that sticks in my mind was an enormous, translucent caterpillar that attacked the US Mint to attempt to sate its hunger for coinage. Insert your own banker joke here. Despite some weirdness – Godzilla’s atomic breath was replaced with flame, and he gained the ability to shoot laser beams from his eyes – the show was a lot of fun, and introduced me to Godzilla as a heroic, if grumpy, figure.
Thus, in my naive little mind, Godzilla was a big, scaly superhero. If I had stuck to his 70s adventures, I’d have had my delusions bolstered, but instead I went back to the beginning, to the 1954 original. We’ve discussed that masterpiece on a previous podcast, but I never did state what a wake-up call that film was. My animated hero became an engine of destruction, indiscriminately leveling an entire city. And nobody was cheering. There is no happy ending with pointless devastation on this scale. In hindsight, it’s almost perverse that such a dark character would become so iconic and beloved by children. But having seen the two extremes of Godzilla, it becomes clear that the character is more complex than simple good or bad.
I have since seen most – shamefully not all – of Godzilla’s films, and the evolution of the character is clear. From terrifying symbol of nuclear fire to blockbuster movie star, by way of marketable merchandising machine and vehicle for image experimentation, Godzilla has many masks. But for me, he’s at his best when he’s a simple force of nature, neither actively malevolent nor mawkishly benevolent. Sometimes we humans commit the Ancient Greeks’ favourite sin, hubris, and then over the hill comes a bloody great reptile. Oftentimes this is interpreted by the human characters as a judgement on polluting or bellicose action, but this is to overanalyse. Godzilla simply shows us the simple fact that, powerful as we are, nature is factually more powerful than we are. Even the tenderest action by a 50,000 tonne creature would cause tremendous damage. And while humans are often the cause of great problems, we are also excellent at solutions, and nothing unites humanity like a formidable opponent. Searching for meaning in the mere existence of Godzilla is futile. Rather, we need to accept that if we’re going to share the world with such powerful and destructive elements, we need to band together and figure out some living arrangements. What such arrangements might entail, I cannot say, but there are many schools of thought, and all of them are interesting and worth looking into.
This is why I love Godzilla, both as a character and a concept. Not only are his movies very entertaining and delightfully cheesy in places, but they allow us to see the best and worst of humankind in the face of overwhelming adversity. For this reason, I hope that the upcoming Legendary Godzilla does not take the form of a simple morality play, but rather accepts human culpability while focussing more on what we need to do to survive and save lives. Every disaster, natural or man-made, shows us images of unimaginable sadness and suffering, and we should never attempt to mitigate or dismiss these because of some positive consequences. But we also see the most incredible human decency and strength, and that deserves to be acknowledged and honoured too. Ultimately, Godzilla brings us together in many ways, whether we’re fighting for our lives or enjoying a damn fine piece of film-making.
[Reposted from Podzilla! – The King of the Podcasts.]