The Godzilla movies are based around the same plot; giant prehistoric beast emerges and trashes a convenient metropolis, yet, over the years, this plot has been inscribed with various meanings that embody a fear of modern science, ranging from nuclear war to eco-calamity. This occurs because the original Japanese films that this analysis is based on, were made in three Eras, the Showa, the Heisei and Millennium. Together they represent an evolving reaction to the emergence of post WWII Japan as a Westernised, industrial power, a development many Japanese saw as alien to an idealised traditional Japan in harmony with nature.
In the first Era Godzilla is an enemy of Earth for the first four movies and a defender against similar monsters in films 5-15 of the Showa Era. Films 5 to 13 are addressed to a child rather than adult audience, whereas films 14 and 15 recalibrate the movies to court adults. This movement is continued in the second Era. The Heisei Era forms a coherent series, each one building on the previous film, whilst the Millennium Era consists of independent films, each one of which takes off from the original defeat of Godzilla.
I’ll pick out a few themes from this corpus to comment on the relationship with science and culture.
Godzilla 1954 reflects WWII and post WWII tensions with America. The film opens with an American nuclear test that catches a fishing boat in its range, as befell a Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon No 5 in 1954. This either liberates or creates Godzilla and the radioactive-like fire it uses to inflame Tokyo. This would look like a reference to nuclear weapons, except Godzilla’s attack is protracted, not brief. It resembles the 1945 American incendiary raid on Tokyo, Operation Meeting House, that killed 80,000 to 100,000 people, more than the c66,000 dead of Hiroshima.
A widow, whose husband was presumably killed in WWII, tries to shelter her child but can only say we’ll met father in heaven. The anti-American slant of the fishing-boat and widow scenes were cut by the export version. There is an unexpected subtext of reassurance. Godzilla is inexplicably immune to all the most lethal weapons of modern warfare until a final self-sacrificial attack with a Japanese miracle weapon. Though the destruction is rendered realistically, no scientific attempt is made to explain how Godzilla can generate heat-ray breath. Many animals have absorbed high levels of radioactivity in the wake of Chernobyl. None can breathe fire. Moreover Godzilla roars. Reptiles hiss…
Despite being set amidst the child-orientated films of the Showa Era, Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971) has a prescient theme. The film begins showing documentary footage of pollution in Japan. From this emerges Hedorah, the Smog Monster, capable of destroying all life on earth through toxic contamination, until smashed by Godzilla. The film ends with Godzilla looking reprovingly at the audience, transferring the duty to combat pollution to them.
The Heisei Era has become aware of DNA and the fear of genetic modification, expressed in a characteristically bizarre and exaggerated form. In Godzilla vs Biollante (1989) a mad scientist merges genetic material from his daughter, a rose and Godzilla, to produce this:
This is not scientifically likely but it leads to a sequel. Some of the genetic material thrown into space during battle spontaneously become SpaceGodzilla, through yet another process unknown to science, in Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994).
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991) has a confusing plot because of contradictions it cannot resolve. In 1944 a dinosaur-sized Godzillasaurus saves a Japanese military unit from American attack. It is wounded and sinks out of sight. At this point it seems to represent Japanese military pride and capacity. In the future the wounded dinosaur gets irradiated and mutates into the gigantic Godzilla. The impossibility of instant mutation does not worry the film, instead it stages the expected attack on Tokyo. At the climax, Godzilla comes face-to-face with Shindo, the officer saved by the Godzillasurus but blasts him with heat ray. At this point the message seems to be that modern technology makes war suicidal. However, Godzilla is required to destroy King Ghidorah before King Ghidorah destroys Tokyo and then King Ghidorah has to be remade as a cyborg to defeat Godzilla, leaving messages about war and destruction confused.
The third Era Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) is slightly clearer on this point. Here Godzilla ‘has come back to destroy Japan in revenge for all the souls lost in the Pacific War’, as the DVD blurb summarises. This does not explain why Godzilla’s first target should be an American nuclear submarine but it continues the Eras’ distrust of nuclear power. Despite this twist, Japan is not saved by apology or reparation but by Godzilla being defeated by the ‘All-out Attack’ of ‘Giant Monsters’. These are supposedly ‘Guardian monsters’ but their defence of Japan actually reveals Japan’s geological vulnerability. Baragon, a burrowing dinosaur, can cause earthquakes, Mothra, a giant moth, can generate hurricanes whilst Godzilla fighting King Ghidorah underwater, creates a tsunami.
Mechagodzilla epitomises this ambiguous attitude to science and nature in the mythos. In its first appearance it is an alien artefact disguised as Godzilla to frame Godzilla (Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, 1974). In later films like Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) it is constructed by humans to beat Godzilla. In the interest of sequels, the result is always a draw but, in deeper terms it reveals a more distinctively Japanese concern. Which is more dangerous a ‘natural’ force like Godzilla or a technical device like Mechagodzilla?
Distrust of the civil application of nuclear power is shadowed in the last film of the Heisei Era Godzilla vs Destoroyah (1995). This film shows Godzilla powered by an internal nuclear reactor burning out of control. This echoes the fears aroused by the disasters of Long Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) and foreshadows the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011. The threat is averted by a coat of ice rather than cement and by Godzilla Junior absorbing the radiation of dying Godzilla and becoming prematurely mature.
This Era ends on a downbeat note. Godzilla is a dangerous and destructive being whose power cannot be contained as long as nuclear power continues in the world, for even as Godzilla dies, Junior arises, filled with lethal energy. The end of the Millennium Era, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), is more aggressive. Aware that Godzilla has been one of the most profitable Japanese exports, the movie recapitulates well-known plots and monsters from the previous Eras but treats the American Godzilla of 1998 with particular contempt. Referred to as ‘Zilla’ ‘a pathetic tuna-eating monster’, this beast is easily despatched as Japan reasserts its rights to the franchise and the anxieties it contains.
There is an odd concession. There is an American hero but he wields a samurai sword and looks like Stalin:
He is a local example of the tensions between patriotism and internationalism, war and peace, eco-harmony and destruction that informs the Godzilla Eras, keeping them unpredictably predictable, creatively unstable and bewilderingly watchable. In these conflicts, science is always the first casualty…
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