When I learned that the British filmmaker Gareth Edwards was going to make another Western adaptation of Godzilla, I felt excited but cautious in my optimism. I remember how my heart had been broken in 1998. When I had first heard in 1994 that TriStar was going to make an American adaptation of Godzilla with a planned budget of $40 million, I was thrilled. Finally the excellent cultural sensibilities of the Japanese series would be done justice by having a high-tech, high-budget makeover by Americans. But the more I read interviews of the cast and crew of the TriStar project, the more worried I became. Actor Hank Azaria (most famous for his voices on The Simpsons) and especially the special effects technician Volker Engel were repeatedly quoted denigrating the original series. They even looked down on the first movie. Then, when I saw the final product, it was horrifyingly disappointing.
More Than Just a Big Lizard in a City
The creature in the film did not even behave like Godzilla. To most people unacquainted with the series, that sounds like an odd assessment to make. The assumption is that if there is a giant reptilian creature let loose in the city, that automatically makes it Godzilla. Actually, Godzilla is very distinct from the reptilian creatures that have been loose in cities in Western films (think Gorgo or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms).
First, Godzilla is very much like a dragon. (Interestingly, he looks more like a traditional European dragon than an Asian one.) He shoots a radioactive blast of “fire” from his mouth — “fire” so hot that it’s blue. The 1998 TriStar ‘Zilla didn’t do that.
Secondly, the whole appeal of Godzilla is that he indestructible. No conventional weapon of man’s can destroy him. I mean, really, that is the entire source of suspense in the first movie — that the humans try everything, and it seems they cannot stop him. By the end of the first movie, the only invention of man’s that could work against him was a weapon of mass destruction that, just like Godzilla himself, symbolized atomic bombs. The 1998 TriStar ‘Zilla — spoilers! — got tied up in the wiring of the Brooklyn Bridge and was brought down by a measly six missiles from a single fighter jet. Missiles from fighter jets have never even so much as annoyed the real Godzilla. Making an adaption in which “Godzilla” is killed so easily is like making an adaptation of Superman in which Superman, with all of his powers, can be brought down by a single prick of a pin (a normal pin, not a Kryptonite one).
Thirdly, the real Godzilla never backs down from a fight. Over the past fifty years of his career, I cannot think of a single time when he retreated from a battle. The reason he doesn’t retreat is that he doesn’t have to. He’s invincible, remember? In the 1998 TriStar version, the creature’s immediate response, upon seeing a fighter jet, was running away and hiding. That, right there, is forfeiting the entire essence of Godzilla.
To assume that you have Godzilla just because you have a giant reptile in a city, is wrong. He is an individual with distinctive behavioral traits — even a distinctive personality. And that is what I hope that Gareth Edwards understands as he makes his new Godzilla adaptation.
Is there evidence that Mr. Edwards does understand this? There are some good signs. In contrast to the makers of the 1998 TriStar version, Mr. Edwards identifies himself as a genuine fan of the film series. He says he is aware of the weaknesses of the TriStar version and that that wasn’t the real Godzilla that fans have come to know. He has stated that his Godzilla will shoot flame and will even fight another creature of equal size. All of that sounds promising.
That sounds substantially better than what the 1998 TriStar team offered. Even here, though, there is a chance that Gareth Edwards’s film might lack the quality that I most appreciate about Godzilla. To me, for Edwards to get Godzilla right would mean that he understand that Godzilla is emphatically not just some large animal. Rather, Godzilla is more like a pagan deity, and his having anthropomorphic qualities is actually part of his charm.
No, He Doesn’t Have the Traits of a Real Animal: Is That So Bad?
Ever since I was a little boy, I appreciated Godzilla. And I have gotten a lot of flack for this, even in elementary school, middle school, and high school. I would hang out in the art room, populated by “fan boys” obsessed with anime and X-Men. You would think that they would be sympathetic to my own personal fandom, right? Exactly the opposite. Because I had my own personal tastes, and did not conform to what they liked, they denigrated me and my interests. They told me that all of the movies were cheap and fake and dumb, and that I deserved their ridicule. Evidently, my having my own interests indicated that I didn’t deserve to live.
One might criticize Godzilla movies for their unrealism. Let us put aside that, due to physical laws like gravitation, a creature of Godzilla’s size would not be able to have body parts in the same proportions that he does. Godzilla is not actually shown to have a life cycle. With the exception of just one movie (1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah), it is presented as if Godzilla always looked the way he did and was always that size. Only the series of movies from the 1990s makes it explicit that Godzilla would not have been so gigantic if he were not mutated by radioactivity.
You never see Godzilla’s parents or any siblings, and thus his age is actually not clear. If he actually survived since the time of the dinosaurs, that implies that he was already immortal long before being mutated by nuclear weapons. By contrast, if it is assumed that Godzilla’s life began in the twentieth century (which is what is implied in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah), then it stands to reason that in the 1950s there must have been an entire family of Godzillasaurs like himself. But they are never shown; Godzilla is always alone.
It can be stated that Godzilla has had two children — Minilla/Minya in the 1960s and Baby/Little/Junior Godzilla in the mid-1990s. Even in their cases, though, there is not direct proof of Godzilla being their genetic parent. Minilla does not even look like he is of the same species. Baby/Little/Junior Godzilla does appear to be of the same species, but there is no proof of Godzilla being the parent. It may simply be the case that Godzilla adopted Minilla and Baby Godzilla.
Also unlike a real animal, Godzilla does not eat. From 1984 onward, the film series goes as far as making it explicit that he does not eat. Rather, he absorbs radioactive energy through his skin and stores it in his dorsal plates. Moreover, it is never explained how he is able to spend years underwater without resurfacing. He isn’t any more like a large animal than Superman is like a real human.
TriStar’s Fraudzilla from 1998 certainly behaved much more like a real animal with a life cycle. It was the known parent of an entire brood of offspring. The makers of that movie considered it an “improvement,” thus displaying a poverty of understanding of why the Godzilla legend thrives.
Godzilla even has attributes that are very human and decidedly unlike that of a reptile or even a dinosaur. The Tyrannosaurus Rex, as well as all other carnosaurus, walked hunch-backed with their tails never touching the ground. Not only does Godzilla drag his tail, but he walks upright like a man. Unlike any dinosaur (even unlike any non-human primate), he possesses opposable thumbs, which he uses to grab objects and other monsters in battle. And he sometimes conveys human emotions. In Godzilla: Final Wars of 2004, it looks like he practices a form of forgiveness. In Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster and Godzilla vs. Gigant/Godzilla on Monster Island respectively, he is depicted having conversations in Monster-ese.
Many critics can cite Godzilla’s dissimilarities from a real animal as being glaring scientific inaccuracies. They can consider Godzilla’s non-animalistic attributes to be a flaw of the franchise. I disagree. It never bothered me that Godzilla behaves very differently from a real animal, nor did it bother me that he has humanlike traits. It doesn’t bother me that, in many respects, he seems to act like a supernatural, immortal creature — hence the God in Godzilla. The reason is that, except for when Tomoyuki Tanaka first got his idea for the movie, Godzilla was not really intended to be seen as just a large animal. Though only one movie states this explicitly — and that movie is not even considered “canonical” to the storylines of the others — the implication has always been that Godzilla is a pagan deity. And when you see hm in that light, many aspects of the movie series, that previously seemed inexplicable, actually make perfect sense.
Pagan Deity for the Nuclear Age
There are certain pagan deities that have animalistic physical traits, but also behave in a manner markedly different from an animal. And often these pagan deities have personality traits more comparable to that of humans. Consider the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. This mythical entity actually holds various commonalities with Godzilla. Quetzalcoatl is large and reptilian, but has traits that go beyond those seen in normal reptiles. Quetzalcoatl has a humanlike wisdom. He is also capable of wreaking great devastation on mankind, however, and that is why, in fear, Aztecs made sacrifices to him.
When you think of Godzilla, not as a large animal, but as a pagan deity, then it’s not such a big deal that the rules that normally apply to animals do not apply to him any more than they do to Quetzalcoatl (or Superman, for that matter). Being an animal would preclude Godzilla from having so many anthropomorphic traits, such as his having a type of sapience in the 1960s and ’70s. But his being a pagan deity would not preclude it.
Also consider that pagan deities would battle one another. Aries had fights against Athene (and he consistently lost to her). Thor battled Loki. Likewise, Godzilla battles Mothra and King Ghidorah. Mothra has always been worshiped as a pagan deity. And one movie — Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack — even states explicitly that each of the titular monsters has supernatural powers. I do think that the movie went too far, though, in doing so; I never had a problem when it was just subtext that the monsters were pagan deities.
People always ridicule Godzilla movies for the monsters looking rubbery and for the cities obviously being collections of miniatures (from the 1950s to 1960s, the miniatures were actually very detailed, and this craftsmanship deserves far more respect than it is given). To me, what matters much more than that is the symbolism of the story. Godzilla and the other monsters are pagan deities that reemerge in modern times. They should not be merely large animals, because they are epic and grand — larger than life. They have that godly quality to them. To me, this means that even as human technology has advanced, many people are still, psychologically, stuck in the same mindsets as they were in pre-civilized times. Godzilla brings out the same fear in men that Quetzalcoatl did the Aztecs. Getting that part of the story right trumps the other considerations for me.
Godzilla the Rebellious Individualist
What always appealed to me is that, if you see Godzilla in an anthropomorphic light, his relationship with human civilization is comparable to a rebellious iconoclast’s friction with his own society. I should explain this. The explicit philosophy of the movies is markedly different from my own. When Tomoyuki Tanaka got his idea for the first movie, he really did intend for the monster to just be a big faceless organism without an individual personality, similar to the Blob. As originally conceived, the first movie is a typical Frankenstein story about how arrogant man — specifically, American man — fills himself with hubris as he uses his technology to seek mastery over the non-human wilderness. As the Frankenstein story always goes, man’s hubristic use of technology creates a monster that punishes him. In the case of this particular monster, Godzilla is nature’s revenge against arrogant humanity for the sins of the American-allied scientists who sired the atomic bomb. Environmentalist, anti-capitalist propaganda repeatedly imposes itself throughout the entire series.
As Godzilla was born of technology created in the United States, Godzilla has also been something of an implicit symbol of the country. When Japan still held a grudge against the USA in the aftermath of World War Two, Godzilla was a threat to Japan. But, throughout the 1960s, Japan’s opinion of the United States warmed as it traded with the country and came to see it as Japan’s protector against far more dangerous threats like Russia. Likewise, in this same decade, Godzilla eventually became Japan’s unofficial protector against far more sinister monsters, like King Ghidorah and Ebirah. To Japan, both Godzilla and the USA could be thought of as having mythic qualities — of being superheroes.
As the 1980s went on, though, Japan became ambivalent about the United States. Certainly the USA was no longer considered militarily an enemy to Japan, but the Japanese were frightened of a nuclear showdown between the USA and the Soviet Union. As Japan’s economy grew and as it traded with the USA, there were still emotional tensions between Americans and the Japanese. Increasingly, the Japanese thought that although the USA did not mean Japan any harm, the USA was going to do whatever it wanted to do, whether Japan liked it or not, and Japan might bear negative consequences from this. Likewise, from the 1980s onward, Godzilla similarly became that neutralist force: he did not hate Japan or consciously want to destroy people, but he was going to do whatever it was he was going to do, whether anyone liked it or not. This is how Japan came to perceive U.S. foreign policy.
When I was a boy and could not verbalize my reasons, I initially became attracted to Godzilla because of his 1970s superhero incarnation. Many science-fiction critics — even most of Godzilla’s biggest fans — consider Godzilla’s superhero years to be the nadir of the film series. But everything I like about Godzilla’s behavior is still in the 1970s movies. Even though he often saves Japan from threats at this point, he remains supremely selfish. He saves the world from King Ghidorah because it is in his own interest to do so — King Ghidorah represents a danger to him as well.
As a little boy, I could relate to Godzilla. I liked to spend time alone on my artwork; my artwork was what I considered my superpowers. Godzilla’s superpowers included his atomic breath; mine included my ability to tell stories. This did not actually win me many friends, however. That I spent time alone on my art, and my dressing and looking as I chose, caused many classmates to see me as some sort of existential threat. For that reason, they ridiculed me and laughed at me. Many people would interpret this as an example of the bullies picking on me for being weaker than they. I saw it as the opposite — I felt that I was being persecuted for my strength. It made me think of how petty little humans perceived Godzilla as an existential threat, and thus came after him with their petty little tanks, which which they would shoot at his feet. Neither Godzilla nor I fit into conventional human society. But that was OK, because we each had ourselves. Classmates wanted me to conform to be as they were, but I refused. I was an individualist who would peaceably live by his own rules. Godzilla, too, was an individualist who lived by his own rules . . . but not so peaceably.
The monster outcast figure is often a symbol of an individualist who does not conform to society’s rules, and is actually an outcast, not because he is looked down upon as weak, but because he is feared for his great abilities. And among outcast monsters, Godzilla is the king. I was not familiar with the term at the time, but I saw him as a perfect Nietzschean ubermensch.
Japan, of course, is not known for individualism. If a young Japanese man says that the rules of society hold hardly any meaning for him, and that he prides himself on being a loner who peaceably lives by his own rules, a lot of Japanese people would consider that perverse. But as Godzilla is not a human but a pagan deity, he gets a free pass — “He’s a giant monster, not a man, so what can you do about it? Nothing.”
Of course, when I was a little boy, I did not know that one could still live in a relatively-free society and still peaceably do so by one’s own rules. Reading The Fountainhead showed me what a more rational, cultivated individualism looked like; one did not have to put on physical combat against conventional society in the manner that a Frankenstein monster, Phantom of the Opera, or Godzilla did.
I suspect that a lot of Godzilla’s young fans feel something similar — they admire that he, unlike they, doesn’t have to surrender his will to adult authority figures. He does what he wants. When someone behaves that way literally, the results are not so pleasant. But Godzilla makes for a compelling symbol of individualistic strength — one who does not retreat in the face of adversity.
For all of the philosophic flaws of the men who made his movies, Godzilla will always hold a place in my heart. The legend works for me not because Godzilla is some large animal, but because he is a pagan deity — and an individualistic one at that. If that part of the legend survives in Gareth Edwards’s telling of the story, I will think he has done right by the Big G. 🙂