When most people hear the name Godzilla, the first thing that comes to mind is sheer pulp entertainment. The series is among the most beloved in cinema, perfectly encapsulating what many look for in escapist entertainment. In many ways this is an unfair assessment of the series as hidden amongst the monster battles and cheesy dialogue are tales with a deep social consciousness and emotional depth. At its finest, the Godzilla series has been more than entertainment. It has been potent, provocative, and important.
The Unlucky Dragon
Science fiction and fantasy stories often serve as allegory for the issues of their times, which is why it makes perfect sense for Godzilla to have first appeared in Japan. Nuclear weapons have only been used once in warfare, and that was in Japan at the end of World War II. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deeply traumatized the country, and left many eternally fearful that should another war begin, the bombs would fall once more.
This fear was revitalized by the tragedy of Lucky Dragon 5. In 1954, Lucky Dragon 5, a fishing vessel, strayed too close to atomic testing at Bikini Atoll. The crew was subsequently exposed to radioactive fallout, killing one, and leaving the remaining crew with lingering symptoms for the rest of their lives. This incident reopened wounds that had scarcely begun to heal in Japan, and served as the basis for the original 1954 Godzilla. The original Godzilla s ship not unlike the Lucky Dragon caught off guard when the ocean around them bursts into flames. It is but the first of many examples of destruction in the film, and it also shows something not seen in many of the following sequels of the Showa Era.
Many Godzilla films are ripe with destruction, but we’re only allowed to see it at a distance with no human victims. The original film allows us to see the destruction up close, along with everyone impacted by it. In one especially heartbreaking moment, a mother comforts her two children by telling them they’ll be joining their father soon. It’s implied that the father died during the atomic bombings, a fate they will all soon share with him. Like the bomb itself, Godzilla continues claiming victims even after he departs from a ruined Tokyo. In another heartbreaking scene, leading lady Emiko is assisting a doctor in taking radiation readings from a young boy. When finished, the pair exchange a knowing glance.
More than mere allegory, weapons of mass destruction serve as the main plot for Godzilla. Dr. Serizawa, the film’s hero and a devoted scientist, discovers the means to destroy Godzilla, in a chemical compound capable of destroying oxygen in water. Though surely enough to defeat Godzilla, Serizawa is hesitant to share his knowledge for fear it will be used in war. His speech offered a chilling preview of the decades to come and the birth of the Cold War. He only agrees once he destroys his notes and eventually himself, taking his secret, and the oxygen destroyer, to the grave.
The original Godzilla is a somber, downbeat film that, while it possesses genuine thrills, still takes the material very seriously. While some of the effects are dated, the film contains a raw power that makes the few shots that don’t quite work irrelevant. Honda’s film is nothing short of a masterpiece, and unlike most of its sequels, rises above the series’ reputation as merely fun pulp. The series’ reputation is not entirely earned, as there are plenty of sequels that are just as powerful and nuanced as the 54 original. One such film updated the original’s anxieties about the atomic bomb for the modern era, bringing Godzilla to the forefront of the Cold War.
The Atomic Nightmare Returns
After decades of more lighthearted Godzilla films, 1984’s Return of Godzilla was a refreshing change of pace. Bringing the character back to his roots, the film took Japan’s fears of the atomic bomb into the modern era with this chilling allegory for the Cold War.
A major worry during the Cold War was that nuclear war would start due to an accident or a misunderstanding. This is how Return of Godzilla begins. Early in the film, a Soviet Submarine is mysteriously destroyed by an unseen horror. The destruction of the submarine serves as a major plot point, elevating tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, eventually leading to Godzilla’s landfall on Tokyo.
This new Godzilla is a more frightening beast than even the original. Double the size and immeasurably more powerful, he makes short work of the highly advanced Tokyo. All the while, the United States and Soviet Union implore Japan’s Prime Minister to allow use of nuclear weapons to eliminate the threat, even going so far as to have missiles aimed at the Japanese mainland. One of these missiles proves a critical plot point later in the film, and brings the allegory home.
Rather than deal with Godzilla via conventional warfare, Japan instead employs a new hover vehicle called the Super X. This sophisticated, non nuclear device employs such tools as poison tipped missiles to deal with Godzilla, and it does work. Unfortunately, with the Cold War in full swing, Godzilla doesn’t stay dead for long. As a result of his rampage, a soviet missile is accidentally launched towards Tokyo. It is eventually intercepted by an American missile which destroys it in the atmosphere above the city, but the damage is done. The radioactive storm that follows revives the King of the Monsters to begin his rampage anew, leading to one final confrontation between him and the people of Japan.
A highly underrated entry in the series, Return of Godzilla is perhaps the sequel that most clearly encapsulates the fears of the original classic, and serves as a perfect companion piece to Honda’s film. Godzilla is more than a pop culture icon. He’s a symbol. As a symbol, atomic warfare is but one of the many things Godzilla has represented over his long career. Godzilla has served as a standi in for everything from Japan’s national pride, the nation’s guilt for the second World War, the might of nature itself, and in the case of the following film, death.
Godzilla as Grim Reaper
A common theme in the above two films is that Godzilla doesn’t fight another monster, serving as the film’s sole antagonist. Surely Godzilla fighting another monster would negate any strong allegory. Believe it or not there are ways to balance monster action with greater food for thought, as was done in the film immediately following Return of Godzilla. Godzilla vs. Biollante is once more a much darker film than most in the series, and this time it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Instead the film tells a uniquely personal story of grief and loss.
The main character of the film, Dr. Shiragami, is a geneticist working to engineer new kinds of plants for food production. His pride and joy is his daughter Erika, who is sadly killed in a bombing while aiding in his work. Shiragami, mad with grief and unable to let go, splices Erika’s cells with that of a rose to keep at least one part of her alive. Eventually, following Godzilla’s 1984 rampage, Shiragami is tasked with studying the cells of Godzilla himself. When the rose containing Erika’s cells starts to die, Shiragami once more refuses to let go, splicing Godzilla’s cells with the rose, which grows into the monstrous Biollante.
Shiragami’s grief is central to Biollante’s story. Grief corrupts our memories of those we love, and in his grief, Shiragami’s refusal to let go transforms all that’s left of Erika into an increasingly grotesque horror that is perhaps one of the most horrifying monsters Godzilla has ever faced. So what role does Godzilla play here? He of course fight’s Biollante, but no longer as a metaphor for atomic weapons. Here, Godzilla is instead something natural. Here, Godzilla is the Grim Reaper.
In this film, Godzilla acts as a metaphor for death, come to claim what’s left of Erika. To live beyond death is an unnatural thing, and Shiragami keeps Erika alive via very unnatural means. Godzilla’s eventual defeat of Biollante is less him defeating a film’s villain and more of him releasing Erika from the prison of her father’s grief. Biollante’s defeat is shown not as an ugly death, but rather as a liberation for both her and Erika, both of them bidding the world farewell before fading away.
Godzilla vs. Biollante is perhaps one of the best aged in the series. There isn’t a single effects shot that fails to convince, and it gave rise to perhaps Godzilla’s signature look. The film provided both exciting monster action as well as a uniquely personal story of grief and how not letting go can harm those we’re trying to hold onto. The film received rave reviews in Japan, but sadly stalled at the box office. This lead to subsequent films more closely emulating the feel of the Showa movies. While the following films are highly entertaining classics, I’ve always been a little disappointed that the feel and depth of these first two films in the Heisei era didn’t carry over for the rest of the series. Both are still amongst the King’s best.
There are two kinds of Godzilla movies, those simply trying to have fun, and those with something a little more sophisticated to say. I’ve always been a fan of the former, with the endearingly colorful Showa movies serving as my introduction to Godzilla. Growing older, I do sometimes want something more. People often dismiss criticisms of Godzilla films with a ‘what did you expect’ attitude. This ignores that Godzilla films absolutely have the power to be nuanced works of art, as illustrated by these and other examples throughout the series’ rich history. The Godzilla series is long and diverse enough that there is plenty of room for films that offer the audience more food for thought. It’s not a bad ambition to have.
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