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IS GODZILLA A METAPHOR FOR AMERICA?
A few years ago Hollywood attempted to bring the legendary Japanese monster Godzilla to the shores of America (specifically, to the streets of Manhattan), but the movie bombed despite some impressive special effects and a multi-million dollar advertising blitz (demonstrating once more that lots of money and state-of-the-art effects cannot save a lame story). What caught me by surprise was not the response of the American movie-going public to the movie, but those of the Japanese. It seems that Hollywood hit a nerve with our Asian allies by daring to remake their monster in our image. So incensed were they by this obvious affront to what has become a Japanese movie legend, in fact, that they did their own remake whichnot surprisinglyalso bombed.
But what I found
most curious is why the Japanese felt it necessary to make their own remake
in the first place. After all, Godzilla was hardly an award winning movie when
it premiered in 1954, and the numerous sequels it spawned have been increasingly
bad ever since, so why would the Japanese care if we unwisely burrowed their
unlikely zoological monstrosity and let it chew on New York instead of Tokyo
for a change? It seems their response hardly matched the heinousness of the
"crime" Hollywood committed in daring to reintroduce the tired old
beast to a new generation of apathetic teens.
Was there more to this monster than meets the eye? Is there something about it that speaks to the Japanese psyche we do not appreciate? Obviously, there is, and I think I know what it is.
For those not versed on the Japanese epic, Godzilla was a fire breathing, 400-foot tall radioactive reptile that was supposedly either released or created as a result of American hydrogen bomb testing. It appears quite suddenly (and, some might surmise, unexpectedly) off the coast of Japan one day, wades ashore without invitation, and generally lies waste to the Japanese countryside. It especially enjoys crunching citiesparticularly Tokyoand leaves in his wake burning buildings, toppled electrical towers, and melted tanks wherever it ventures. Of course, the fledgling Japanese Air Force and Army tries to stop the beast repeatedly, but despite going through a years worth of ordinance in a few minutes, nothing seems to even faze the beast. In the end, after finishing its attempts at urban renewal, the creature finally lumbers back into the Pacific and vanishes beneath its churning waters, a poignant reminder of the danger that science represents, at least insofar as atomic testing and oversized lizards are concerned.
Now there are several elements of the story that I find curious. First of all, the creature, despite being a mere animal, is impervious to everything the Japanese throw at it. Missiles, artillery, machine gun fire, even strafing by fighter jets proves ineffective in stopping this bad boy. In fact, weapons don't even seem to injure it; all they do is apparently make it madder. Second, it burns entire cities to the ground (unlike most Hollywood monsters of the genre, who simply knock things over and generally make a nuisance of themselves) leaving behind smoldering ruins that resemble nothing so much as the burned out cities seen in both Japan and Germany in the aftermath of WWII . And, thirdand even more significantthe creature is radioactive; those it doesnt kill by incinerating or crushing, it kills with radiation poisoning, not unlike what happened in a couple of Japanese cities in August of 1945.
Obviously, Godzilla is no mere animal. Instead, it is a super, irresistible, almost God-like entity capable of and intent on wanton, wide-spread death and destruction. Now ask yourself, what enemy has Japan faced in its long history comparable to Godzilla? What entity came from the sea to level its cities and appeared impervious to the best efforts of the Japanese military to stop it? Does anything come to mind?
How about the
United States Army Air Corps, circa 1945?
Clearly Godzilla is a metaphor for the B-29s that brought so much death, misery, and destruction to the island nation. Curtis Lemays bombers managed to, in the course of just a few months, level most of Japans cities (killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process) and even introduced the horror of the atomic bomb and the resultant radiation poisoning it brought with it. It was a horror so overwhelming in scope that the Japanese to this day remain traumatized by it (as I imagine any people would be if similarly afflicted). Godzilla, then, in being the only thing capable of such carnage on a comparable scale, is the perfect metaphor not only for the United States Army Air Corps, but for the overwhelming strength of the United States itself. Godzilla is America, at least to the Japanese psyche.
Nonsense, some will claim. Godzilla is simply an imaginary movie monster; a product of the fertile imagination of some Japanese writers and directors and realized in the guise of a guy in a goofy rubber suit stomping on model cities and battling toy tanks and planes. To read anything more than that into it is unwarranted.
Really? Then why is Japan the only country on Earth to suffer widespread destruction from both American air power and from a mythological dragon-beast? Why is Japan the only nation to suffer the ravages of the atomic bomb as well as the radioactive-induced destruction meted out by Godzilla? To not see the parallels is to not pay attention. They are everywhere and easily seen by even the most casual observer.
Need further proof? Okayconsider these points:
What is especially
telling is that in the later sequels made off the original monster, Godzilla
changes just as Japans relationship with America does. It was a gradual
shift to be sure, but to anyone who followed the Godzilla epics and their many
excruciatingly bad sequels, it is apparent the monster began to change from
being Japans destroyer to her protector. Instead of setting out to lay
waste to Japans cities, Godzilla eventually shifted his (or herGodzilla's
gender is never made quite clear) efforts toward fighting off other horrific
beasts that threatened the Japanese homeland (Rodan, Mothra, and King Kong to
name a few)creatures I believe represented the other regional superpowers
(the Soviet Union, Communist China) that threatened Japan at the time (or, in
the case of the Smog Monster, represented her own insecurities about her rapid
industrialization and the pollution that resulted). Did Godzilla then come to
represent the only forceAmericapowerful enough to ensure her ultimate
safety? Its something to consider.
Its interesting to note that in one of the sequels made in 1968 (Destroy All Monsters) Godzilla, after defeating or driving off her foes, was provided an island upon which the beast could live in relatively safetyat least until the next time it was needed. Could this be a metaphor for Japan keeping her protectorAmericaon hand but at bay? It certainly appears that Japan wants us around, though not too close and, hopefully, not directly on her property if at all possible (perhaps monster island was a metaphor for Okinawa, the only substantial piece of Japanese real estate with a still significant American military presence. Recall that at the time of the movie, it was still American occupied territory, and remained so until 1972.) In fact, in some of the final scenes in the movie, Godzilla even seems to wave at the Japanese helicopter circling the island as though perceiving it as some genial toy. What a better metaphor for Americas and Japans relationship at the time: a radioactive monster kept on a short leash, but one that might even be looked upon somewhat fondly by its former victims. Notice that the helicopter doesnt fly too close to the monster, nor does anyone attempt to pat it on the head; it is, after all, still a dangerous creature and not entirely trustworthy, but at least its now on their side. What a more appropriate way for the Japanese to describe the country that once decimated it and brought it to ruin but now counts it amongst its closest allies? How else could they see it?
Of course, things have changed since the Godzilla movies first came out. Japan is no longer a beaten foe, but an economic juggernaut and growing regional power. It no longer fears America as it once did, but competes against her, which is perhaps the reason the Godzilla genre died out. (Though they do continue to produce silly spin-offs, the genre has nowhere near the attraction it had forty years ago.) Japan has outgrown its need for a metaphorical monster to placate and look to for protection. It no longer fears Godzilla, and without that fear, Godzilla could not survive. In the end it died of natural causes. Fortunately.
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