Godzilla Is A Metaphor

Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla (1954) | Criterion
Toho Co. Ltd

Godzilla, the so-called King of the Monsters, stands tall as an indisputable pop culture icon around the world. The success of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla in 1954 marked the birth of the kaijū eiga (kaiju film) as a genre and launched a franchise that continues in various forms to the present day. Like Mickey Mouse, Godzilla as a recognizable figure has transcended the context of any particular film appearance. Whether you’ve seen a Godzilla movie or not, you know about Godzilla. You know he’s green, vaguely dinosaur-shaped, and possessed of atomic breath.

The story of how a radioactive, prehistoric creature from the deep became such a beloved character and reliable box office draw in the United States and Japan has been told before by enthusiasts and academics alike. Godzilla, they say, is to be taken seriously; shed your views of him as a cheesy B-movie monster. First, he’s dark gray or black, not green. (The academics will add: The misconception that Godzilla is green can be traced back to the color poster for the American cut of Honda’s Godzilla, dubbed and retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which was released stateside in 1956.) Second, have you even seen the original Godzilla? It’s a sincere drama! It’s got Atomic Age anxiety written all over it! (The academics will add: Godzilla is a sober, cautionary tale about atomic weapons that explicitly engages with the Americans’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later iterations of the monster would continue to varying degrees to speak to a variety of contemporary anxieties.) To truly understand the importance of Godzilla, they say, start with Godzilla.

I have watched Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla—the original, in Japanese with English subtitles—only twice in my life. For a long time after my first viewing, it was a personal cinematic third rail. On the surface, it’s one you’ve heard before: Godzilla painfully reminded me of an ex. But my first boyfriend introduced me to countless movies, including several that I still consider favorites. I can watch these films repeatedly, acknowledge their connection to my romantic past, and make new associations with each viewing. I was never able to do this with Godzilla, which loomed impossibly large in my emotional memory.

It would not be an overstatement to say that my high school boyfriend had a deep, abiding affection for the world’s most famous kaiju. At first, I thought his Bernese Mountain Dog was named Goji after the superfood berry, and didn’t think twice about it. We were living, after all, in a mountain ski town full of hippies and rich people pretending to be hippies. I quickly discovered that “Goji” was short for Gojira. My new boyfriend, it turned out, was a Godzilla superfan.

He had first fallen in love with Godzilla as a kid, and, while his appreciation may have grown more intellectual as he got older, the obsession did not seem to have abated by the time I met him. He bought a multi-region DVD player expressly for the purpose of watching the Japanese Godzilla movies that hadn’t gotten a U.S. release. He owned most, if not all, of the Godzilla films ever made. He had a small collection of Godzilla figurines displayed in his bedroom. After a month or two of dating, I started to understand this passion for Godzilla as a core component of his self. I’m not sure if this was an accurate appraisal; I’m not as convinced as I once was that our fandoms define us. Alas, I was 16, so of course I thought that having a lifelong fascination with Godzilla was a personality trait. Defining who you are by developing your cultural taste is part of being a teenager.

I was already well on my way to being an amateur cinephile before we dated, and our mutual interest in film drew us together. He was an aspiring filmmaker, and I simply delighted in watching movies. We both considered our interest in movies as central to our individual identities, to some extent, so it was no surprise to either of us that we spent a lot of our time together watching films.

We became close by sharing movies with each other, though the sharing was usually one-sided. He would screen his favorite movies and, occasionally, TV shows for me. I would absorb them. For the most part, I did genuinely enjoy the things we watched together. I didn’t pretend to like the films he was enthusiastic about so that he would like me. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know that I ever would have embraced monster movies or sci-fi, and I deeply love both genres to this day. He wasn’t mansplaining cinema to me. I never understood the dynamic this way, even in my most ungenerous post-breakup retellings of our relationship.

When I say that the sharing was one-sided, I don’t mean that I could never share my favorite movies with him. He wanted to know what films I liked, and he wanted me to share. When I showed him a favorite of mine, though, it was never as smooth. He didn’t seem as receptive to the things I liked that we didn’t already jointly appreciate. He didn’t like the period pieces or romances that lit my teenage soul on fire, or the movie musicals that I cherished because my mom had shared them with me when I was growing up. It’s not that I necessarily expected him to embrace these movies, and I certainly had my own hang ups about the worthiness of “feminine” film genres. I probably deprecated most of the films I chose before we watched them. I was never eager to share my favorite things with him, because I couldn’t really bear the thought that he’d hate them—even though I had already convinced myself that he would think anything I chose was stupid before I’d actually chosen anything

It was easier to let him pick. He seemed so confident in the objective correctness of his taste, which mostly aligned with cinebro orthodoxy. The movies he liked were generally accepted as good by young, white men—the default universal audience. He wasn’t going against the norm when he asserted that Children of Men is a brilliant film and that I should see it. It’s not as though the movies and genres I loved didn’t have their defenders, but I hadn’t found the film writers and critics that spoke to me yet. In the face of my boyfriend’s perceived indifference and sometimes derision toward the more romantic or emotionally sincere films that moved me, I felt susceptible to his judgement in a way I didn’t like, and I didn’t have backup to “legitimize” my taste the way he did. I didn’t have the experience or the hindsight to articulate it this way at the time, but I sensed the imbalance.

His confidence faltered when it came to Godzilla. I could tell because he wouldn’t show me any of his Japanese Godzilla movies. After a couple of months, I started to take this reticence personally. To share a Godzilla movie with me would be for him to put himself in the same sensitive position that I didn’t like to find myself in; Godzilla and its sequels are not part of the canon of great cinema, at least as teenage boys know it. Godzilla had significance for him, and his attachment was unironic. He would be taking a risk to share the films with me, opening himself up to the possibility that I might not like something that he found special.

I wanted him to share a Godzilla movie with me precisely because Godzilla meant so much to him. I found myself pushing him to let me watch one, which likely wasn’t the right way to approach the subject. I should have let him organically share the movies with me when he felt like it, if ever. But after a while, his hesitance to show me a Godzilla film had started to feel like a rebuff. Although I never would have put it this way to him (or myself), I needed him to show me a Godzilla film to prove that he loved me.

He eventually agreed to watch the 1954 Godzilla with me—on one condition. He had at some point given me a book to read about the history of Godzilla. (I believe it was Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters by William Tsutsui.) He told me that when I finished the book, we could watch the film that started it all. I felt like I had been assigned homework to prepare for a test.

In the United States, Godzilla is typically associated with B-movie schlock. This is because in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, American distributors would pick up the Japanese movies and cheaply repackage them for domestic audiences by quickly re-cutting the films and dubbing in English dialogue. These American versions of the Godzilla movies were schlocky. In Japan, however, the Godzilla films were mainstream studio productions. The tone, budget, and target audience for each picture varied as the decades went on, but the Godzilla films and their spin-offs consistently remained a staple for Toho, one of the largest Japanese film studios. 

The split between the Japanese movies and their “Americanized” versions can be traced to the very beginning of the franchise. Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla is a serious drama where Godzilla functions as a metaphor for both the consequences of past atomic detonations and the threat of future ones. The version released in the United States, 1956’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, is a substantially different film, despite being at its core a re-edited version of Godzilla. Godzilla: King of the Monsters! is an action-adventure flick with an American reporter (played by Raymond Burr, who filmed new scenes that got spliced into the original movie) as the lead. The themes of Atomic Age anxiety are toned down, and the film’s specificity with regard to Japan’s unique and horrific history as the target of American atomic bombs is lost.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters! was a smash hit in the United States and abroad. This U.S. version of the film got wider distribution than the original Japanese cut ever did, and it obscured the legacy of Ishiro Honda’s much more serious-minded film. Honda’s Godzilla was not widely seen in the United States until 2004, when the film was given an art-house theatrical release for its 50th anniversary. By reinstating Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla as the urtext of the series, the stage was set for a reexamination of the Godzilla franchise as worthy of serious study and admiration—beyond merely citing its popularity. 

In ensuing years, all of the original Japanese cuts of the Showa-era Godzilla films received home video releases in the West. Last year, the Criterion Collection released all 15 Showa films in a collector’s set. While we were, at the time, still nine years away from the Criterion box set, it made sense that my boyfriend wanted to show me Godzilla first. Following the lead of Godzilla fans and scholars everywhere, I think he chose Godzilla because he wanted me to know that the King of the Monsters isn’t silly.

Godzilla begins when two Japanese cargo ships go missing near Odo Island. When a government-sponsored party goes out to the island to investigate the disappearances, they discover that a giant monster, a mythical sea creature called Godzilla by the village elders, has caused the cargo ships to go missing. Distressingly, it appears that the monster is radioactive. Upon returning to Tokyo, the lead scientist from the expedition reports that Godzilla is likely a descendent of ancient dinosaurs who was disturbed from his underwater hibernation by hydrogen bomb testing in the area. The government and frightened citizens agree that Godzilla must be killed, but nothing seems to do any damage to the monster. When Godzilla arrives in Tokyo Bay, the need for his destruction becomes critical.

At the center of the film is a love triangle involving the lead scientist’s daughter (Emiko), her fiancé (Dr. Serizawa), and her true love (Ogata). Dr. Serizawa has been working on a top-secret experiment, the details of which he divulges only to Emiko, who promises not to share what she knows. As Godzilla mounts a series of attacks on Tokyo, Emiko realizes that Serizawa’s discovery is Japan’s only hope against Godzilla. She breaks down and tells Ogata about Serizawa’s invention: the Oxygen Destroyer. The Oxygen Destroyer instantly kills underwater life by splitting water molecules and dissolving the oxygen atoms. 

Emiko and Ogata confront Serizawa about using his research to win the day against the monster raining down destruction on the capital. Serizawa, concerned that his invention could be used for evil, burns his papers before agreeing to go public and use the Oxygen Destroyer against Godzilla. The device successfully kills the monster, and the trio saves the day; but the movie does not end on a happy note. In the extremely grim ending, Serizawa kills himself along with Godzilla, committing suicide to make sure there is no one else left on Earth who knows how to make another Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa’s tremendous sacrifice tempers any sense of easy victory.

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a letdown when we finally watched Godzilla together. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the movie; I quite liked it. The required reading had piqued my curiosity in an academic sort of way, and it had prepared me to see the film as important cinema rather than a B-movie classic. I knew about the production. I knew about the painstaking process of creating the miniature sets required for the scenes of Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo. I knew about the movie’s rescued reputation in the West. But I didn’t feel any closer to knowing why my boyfriend, specifically, loved Godzilla.

Providing me with 256 pages of context for the movie had a sort of distancing effect, the opposite of what I had initially wanted when I asked him to show me a Godzilla movie in the first place. He didn’t pick his favorite one or the one he thought I’d like the most. He picked the most critically respected one, the one he thought I couldn’t make fun of him for enjoying. And then he gave me a book to read about the cultural importance of Godzilla rather than share with me the personal importance Godzilla had to him.

It felt awful; it hurt that he didn’t trust me enough to show me something he loved without having to prove the rightness of his taste with sources. To be fair, I don’t think that was his intention, but it felt that way to me at the time.

We both put a lot of stock in our shared taste in movies. Neither one of us was very emotionally open. He shielded himself in a layer of sarcasm and a cutting, self-deprecating sense of humor. I preferred to act aloof and smother my own feelings. Films were the only things we really shared.

I always felt like our relationship was lopsided, like there was too much of him and not enough of me. I always attributed it to being young and not yet knowing who I was. I think, though, that the odd terms of our relationship were always in his favor. We bonded over his tastes, not mine, even if I did sincerely share many of his cinematic predilections. Godzilla was the exception, and the experience of watching Godzilla with him laid bare the imbalances in our relationship in a way that I didn’t comprehend until later.

The most fervent Godzilla fans justify their enthusiasm for the films on a spectrum of behavior. One approach is to fearlessly embrace that a lot of the Godzilla movies are fun. The appeal of a movie like Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is watching Toho’s kaiju lineup of Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan team up to defeat Ghidorah and engage in a big ol’ monster battle. At the opposite end of the gamut are those who say that Godzilla is consistently a metaphor. These fans assert that, following Honda’s lead, Godzilla usually represents either explicitly or implicitly the anxieties of the age, even in his silliest movie appearances. Godzilla is important because he tells us something about ourselves and the culture that we live in.

For me, Godzilla will always be a metaphor. “Godzilla” is my personal shorthand for a feeling. It’s the fear you feel when you show someone a flawed movie that you nevertheless love. It’s the pressure you feel when you’re watching your best friend’s favorite movie with them for the first time, and they keep looking at you to see how you’re reacting. It’s the rush you get when you find other people who share your fandoms. It’s the sting you feel when someone you thought was cool trashes a film you treasure. It’s the conviction that your taste in media reveals an essential part of yourself.

There was too much Godzilla in my first relationship. We substituted Godzilla for real communication, vulnerability, and connection, and it didn’t end well. Don’t get me wrong—Godzilla is fun, but Godzilla alone can’t truly bring two people together in a meaningful way.