“Godzilla doesn’t run. He LUMBERS.”
So said NPR’s Glenn Weldon, outlining one of many reasons that hardcore Godzilla fans were disgusted with Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of the monster—it RAN. Emmerich’s Godzilla more closely resembled the stampeding T-rex from Jurassic Park, not the slow-moving, building-stomping creature that fans knew and loved. It was such a departure that Toho Studios eventually renamed it “Zilla” to avoid confusion.
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla most definitely lumbers. Watching the monster move with agonizing slowness, huge chunks of architecture ripped apart in slow motion as he carelessly swings an arm or stomps a foot, I realized how important that deliberate, foot-dragging gait is, and how it sets Godzilla apart from countless imitations.
Because Godzilla, first and foremost, is sad. Angry, yes, destructive, definitely, but also tragic. The creature from the original film has long since become a joke, a plastic toy or cartoon who stomps on fake-looking sets and utters high-pitched roars. “Zilla” is a suffix attached to anyone or anything without impulse control. But the original 1954 Gojira film was produced in a Japan still reeling from the effects of World War II. Godzilla himself was an emblem of the destructive power of the atom bomb. Producer Tanaka Tomoyuki said that “the theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Music director Ifukube Akira said that Godzilla was “like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war.”
I saw the original 1954 film for the first time a few years ago, and I was surprised that it didn’t have much B-movie flavor to it. There are the shots of terrified people running from the monster, but they feel quite genuine (at one point someone even rolls their eyes at the thought that they’ll have to take cover in bomb shelters “again”). The fear of a fantastical monster is mixed with the very real fear of war and the suffering that comes with it.
Godzilla himself is, of course, a man in a rubber suit (I love the picture below, from William Tsutsui’s wonderful Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of the Monsters.) But even if he’s a guy in a suit, Godzilla feels different from the countless other kaiju that populated Japanese movies throughout the 1960s. He’s filmed in stark black and white. His attacks frequently take place in darkness. His face is eternally grim. And even if his slow, lumbering steps were a side effect of the heaviness of that suit and the actor’s inability to move quickly in it, the result is a monster that feels more physically imposing–and occasionally more vulnerable. Gojira 1954 is a monster movie, but a deeply tragic one—in the end we lose both Godzilla and a self-sacrificing scientist, and we’re not quite sure who we should mourn more strongly.
Gojira inspired plenty of sequels in Japan, with the monster becoming steadily kid-friendlier as time went on. Igarashi Yoshikuni sees a parallel between this “banalization” of Godzilla and Japan’s gradual loss of war memory:
“This shift in the targeted audience confirms the banalization of the monster in the series, the effects immediately discernible even in the quality of production. Godzilla comes to faithfully reproduce human ways: it begins to act like a human and even becomes a ‘mother’ in 1967. The son, Minilla, even speaks Japanese—the ultimate domestication of monstrosity. In 1960s Japan, a place overflowing with optimism inspired by economic growth, the monsters could not find a place other than as caricatures. The darkness that prevailed in the first two films of the mid-1950s had vanished from the screen and Japanese society.”
So what does Godzilla mean in 2014? Especially when he’s been brought back to life by a director whose previous film (2010’s Monsters) used an alien invasion as an allegory for (among other things) U.S.-Mexico immigration issues?
I adored Monsters, so I was excited to see Edwards’ take on Godzilla, even if reviews were a bit mixed. I was also wary of what a talented, make-the-effects-on-his-home-computer director would do when given a huge chunk of cash—maybe play to his strengths, or maybe get carried away with the CGI.
I agreed with a lot of the criticisms—Edwards’ Godzilla has some silly dialogue that isn’t always silly enough to be funny, plus paper-thin characters—but I still loved it. First and foremost, it’s a real thrill to see a Godzilla movie in a Tokyo theatre, to see the first full shot of Godzilla’s massive body and hear that ear-splitting roar. The visuals gave me the shivers more than a few times.
Like zombies and vampires and really any movie monster or malady, I realized, Godzilla can mean whatever you want him to mean. In 1954 he may have been the terror of the bomb and the aftereffects of nuclear radiation. This time, I felt a chill at the much-talked about opening scene, which features a graphic image of a nuclear plant imploding, and another chill at a scene that recalled the 2011 tsunami. From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, firebombing to unstoppable waves, Godzilla embodies the fear of the moment.
But Godzilla is also a savior, albeit the kind of savior who has to destroy half the city in order to destroy the much worse monster that always seems to be lurking at the movie’s midpoint. Watching Godzilla and a sort of uber-Mothra duke it out in the middle of a cityscape, casually leveling entire skyscrapers with a single turn of their bodies, that feeling of sadness came back in spades. There’s a resigned, mournful quality to Godzilla’s fighting, as if he knows this is his job, but he’d really rather not be there.
When Godzilla finally lumbers, slowly and morosely, out into the ocean, there are no cheers or swells of triumphant music. Godzilla wins—Godzilla always wins—but everything is in ruins. Victory at any cost, even if the cost essentially negates the victory. In a present where it’s hard to rank the urgency of the ongoing catastrophes taking place across the globe, and where the purported saviors often end up doing just as much damage as whoever they’re fighting against, the image of Godzilla the destroyer-savior seems just a little too apt.