Godzilla (1954)

A new Godzilla movie comes crashing into our cinemas this week, and to promote the new film, a theater chain in my area hosted a special screening of the original, Japanese Godzilla from 1954. I’ve long wanted to to see the film, and though it is readily available online (from Amazon Prime, for instance), the chance to see the 150 foot tall mutated lizard on the biggest screen possible with a theater full of excited movie-goers was too good to pass up. (Watch the original, not the Rayond Burr-infused reissue.)

(I’ve realized that seeing a film in a theater carries with it a benefit besides the big screen and booming sound. A theater is a distraction-free environment. I can’t wade through my social media stream while I watch, or at least I shouldn’t. The film gets all my attention. Giving two hours of focused attention to a single idea in this day is rarer than a 150 foot tall lizard, it seems.)

I knew the original Godzilla must be a good film. After all, a film doesn’t launch twenty-eight other iterations without having some meat on its bones at the beginning. I was not expecting the original Godzilla (from this point on, I’ll simply refer to it as “Godzilla“) to be such a sad film though. I was aware of the film’s Nagasaki/Hiroshima antecedents, but I expected Godzilla to be a simple analog for atomic destruction. Godzilla, it turns out, is much more.

First of all, I understood Godzilla to be a product of nuclear testing, that is, that he was a previously normal-sized lizard grown to great size and mutated by atomic radiation. I thought Godzilla was a new terror, like the H-bombs constantly referenced by the characters in the film.

In fact, Godzilla is a very old thing brought to the surface by modern science. He is an ancient evil newly awakened. The Japanese scientists speculate that Godzilla is a Jurassic era dinosaur long contained deep in the ocean. Nuclear testing frees him from his subterranean cage. Godzilla has been mutated by atomic energy—his scales glow brightly, his breath is radioactive, and he is invulnerable to bombardment—but he was always that size, and he is very old. Godzilla is an old terror given new destructive force. So then, what old terror does he symbolize?

Godzilla is a manifestation of Japan’s communal guilt and shame in the wake of the atomic destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. As Godzilla lumbers around Japan tearing up bridges and burning cities with his atomic breath, the Japanese people are reminded of the recent war, forced to reckon with their responsibility for what has happened to them, and they argue about how they are to respond to a force as destructive as Godzilla/atomic energy.

It might seem counterintuitive that the Japanese people would feel any guilt for the destruction caused by the bombs the United States dropped on their cities. Why would they blame themselves? Shouldn’t they, instead, blame the Americans?

The Japanese prove to be a wiser people than that. Consider this quote from Japanese Marshall Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a quote that pre-dates the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by almost a year, “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy;’ it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.”

Yamamoto contends that there is no honor in attacking someone who isn’t already fighting and implies that the resulting counterattack is deserved. Aggression begets aggression, and the initial aggressor is partly at fault in the aftermath. Godzilla, more than anything else, depicts the Japanese wrestling with their culpability for Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

That’s not to say that the United States isn’t also at fault. Indeed, Godzilla is haunted by the West. Though Americans are never seen nor heard, they are omnipresent. Consider even a small moment like the one in which archeologist Yamane returns home one evening. His daughter greets him at the door, bows to him, and he removes his shoes before entering–practices all concordant with Japanese custom. However, he is wearing a Western suit, and the tea-time conversation is all about how Japanese society should respond to a world that includes the hydrogen bomb.

As I watched Godzilla and marveled at the seriousness with which the Japanese people reckon with their guilt for the destruction brought upon them in WWII, I wondered if U.S. society is capable of such humble reckoning. Could we ever admit that we are partially to blame when others have attacked us?  Would we ever feel shame for communal actions that resulted in the death of our citizens? Or will we always simply hold on to our anger, demonize our enemies, and hide from the due shame we ought to feel for the times we’ve attacked others?

The key debate in the film circles around how the Japanese people should respond to Godzilla. Should they destroy him or should they attempt to understand him? Those who want to destroy him focus on the destruction he is causing. Those who want to understand him focus on the fact that he survived a nuclear explosion.

Godzilla is a terror, no doubt. He is one hundred and fifty feet of embodied shame. He is something to fear. But as always, fear itself is hollow. Fear is the roar of the beast meant to make us run, so the beast can continue its rampage. Fear terrifies us because, like faith, it demands much of us. It demands that we be more than we are. Fear challenges us to face the beast, to understand it, its power, and its driving force. If we can master the fear, it will no longer have any power over us, and we can use that power for good.

In Godzilla, the Japanese are terrified of their shame, and their temptation is to destroy it as quickly as possible. But Godzilla’s tyranny is also an invitation to humility. If they want, the Japanese can admit their guilt and choose to focus not on the destruction they welcomed but on the fact that they survived. What they learn about their survival could form the foundation for their rebuilt society. Nuclear energy can be made into a weapon, but if harnessed, it can also be a great good.

Godzilla may be a sad film, haunted by guilt and afraid of the direction the world is heading, but I also find it immensely hopeful that a society could respond so humbly to an event that would inspire sword-rattling in less mature nations. Godzilla is a sober film, and sobriety is good and necessary when one is charting a path out of past mistakes.

I have yet to watch more Godzilla films, but based on this film’s legacy, I imagine they focus more on the physical monster and less on the metaphysical one. That’s a shame – another one we ought to reckon with, I think. The best monster movies are more about the monsters inside the audience, and they invite us to tame them and turn them into allies instead of antagonists.