Foreign Film Friday: The Legacy of Godzilla
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To say that the kaiju movies started in Japan, depending who you ask, is something of a sticking point.
To many people these started with the first Godzilla in 1954 (released as Gojira in Japan, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters in the United States). However, this was more than twenty years after the release of RKO’s King Kong (1933). Since this is not a Japanese production, many have dismissed Kong’s kaiju status as a misuse of the term, yet he continues to appear in listicles alongside Japanese monsters of the same ilk. The kaiju movies really start with Godzilla though, because it is not simply a case of having a big ol’ beastie roar and smash some stuff (with full respect to King Kong, which is far more than just that). Kaiju movies follow a certain plotline, laced with political and moral commentary, that is similar but also distinct from the classic American monster movies.
Godzilla was released in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought World War Two to the most horrifying of conclusions. The subsequent American occupation of Japan saw many of its citizens try to forget this. A mixture of fears, regrets and anger resurfaced though in 1953 when a Japanese fishing boat was contaminated by radioactive fallout following a US nuclear bomb test in the North Pacific - the Lucky Dragon incident. Fish were contaminated, and the crew were poisoned. It was amidst this public furore that Godzilla was released.
Godzilla laid out the foundations for what kaiju movies became. Stories of immense monsters hundreds of feet tall destroying everything in sight that are finally brought down not by military prowess, but through scientific breakthroughs and intelligence. An irony is to be found there, since advancements in science were what often brought these creatures to the surface in the first place. This is true of Godzilla in the first film, awoken by nuclear bomb tests off the Japanese coast. The special effects are primitive, even considering it is 64 years old now, but look beyond that, and this is a creature that has shaped motion picture history.
Watching Godzilla, it is strange to see many people, rather than running in terror, simply accept their fear and their death as it makes its way towards them. The ending also features a reference to the Japanese kamikaze pilots of WWII. This apparent acceptance is very different from what American monster movies from the same era typically had onlookers do at the sight of a behemoth being - namely scream and run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.
This has triggered all kinds of discussions and analyses of the film arguing that the creature Godzilla is not only an analogy for the atomic bombing of Japan, but at the same time a way of expressing Japan’s guilt at its own wartime atrocities and the acceptance of due fate. This is not an undisputed interpretation, but one that - like Godzilla - resurfaces again and again. Unsurprisingly then, this is not a light-hearted film, nor one that encourages you to sympathise with the monster. This is as happy-go-lucky as a funeral in the rain, and Godzilla is seen as nothing more than a raging force of evil.
The impact of this film in Japan was profound, and Godzilla’s rampage still reverberates in the ears of Japanese movie executives. Toho Studios, who released Godzilla, turned this gloomy post-war monster mash into the longest continuously running franchise in film history. The next film after this was Godzilla Raids Again (1955), which like its predecessor was heavily re-edited and re-released under a different name across the Pacific. Over the next 63 years, Toho released 29 more Godzilla movies, most recently an anime trilogy in association with Netflix. Plans are already in place to take the franchise far into the next decade. The years have seen Godzilla square up against many other imaginative monsters, some of which are set to take a starring role in the very near future.
Godzilla is a creature who has made the long journey across the ocean to Hollywood as well, with the first American-produced film arriving in 1998. A disappointment even for a first attempt, it has no legacy beyond a guaranteed weekend slot on Channel 5. Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla however was a vast improvement. It did not forget its roots in the nuclear paranoia following unprecedented disaster, but adapted the references for an American audience. Nuclear bombs were not the latent fear - nuclear power was, with Godzilla now representing an uncontrollable nuclear force and references included to past nuclear disasters. Japan, while not the main focus, still plays a prominent role in the story. The echoes of the old beast still make themselves heard.
Perhaps in the grand history of cinema King Kong has that greater influence, but Godzilla’s legacy is more specific and distinct. It kickstarted an entire genre, gave birth to one of the greatest film franchises in history, and continues to stomp and roar today. Underestimate this monster at your peril, for to do so is to underestimate history.