Godzilla is the undisputed King of Monsters from Japan. He has reigned supreme over Japanese pop culture for over half a century and birthed modern history’s longest running monster franchise. For good reason, as Godzilla’s existence hinges upon anxieties that are still very much prevalent in modern viewer’s minds. Godzilla was first envisioned in 1954 as a physical depiction of the atomic bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Since then, he has continued to maintain his relevance to current events and disasters. He is irrevocably linked to a host of social and political issues in the Japanese consciousness throughout all his incarnations. Therefore, the atomic goliath is a categorical candidate for analysis a lá Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses). ” By utilizing
Cohen’s methodology to examine the two most recent Godzilla films: Toho’s Shin Godzilla (2016) and the American reboot Godzilla (2014) and contrast them to the original Godzilla (1954) in which the titular lizard found his genesis, we shall reveal the cultural fears of Japan that birthed the King of Monsters.
Before embarking upon our characterization of Godzilla, we must first characterize Cohen’s argument. His essay claims that examination of a given monster’s traits may yield insight into the cultures they inhabit. Cohen supports his dissertation with his seven theses, which are each complex and weighty enough to exist independently as an argument in its own right. Since seven is confusingly excessive, we shall focus upon his most relevant theses, of which there are only four. The first thesis we shall examine is Cohen’s Thesis 2, which states that a monster’s existence is based upon its indestructibility. The monster eludes our understanding and can even be invoked as a perceived connection to immediate social issues. Thereupon, the surmised threat the monster poses is through its mutability and difficulty to combat. The monster’s mutability is key as we move into Cohen’s Thesis 3, which contends that monsters are dangerous because they are “full of rebuke to traditional methods of organizing knowledge and human experience” (Cohen 7). Its challenge to our cultural understanding becomes something simultaneously discomfiting and perilous.
Similarly unnerving is the alien-ness of the monster: in Thesis 4, Cohen claims that monstrosity comes through difference in culture, which is often specified racially, economically, or sexually. True to form, the monster “threatens to erase difference in the world of its creators,” thus revealing the fragility of the established system (Cohen 11). The final Cohen thesis we will inspect is Thesis 5, which dictates that the monster serves to warn against curiosity and reminds us not to test the limits set in place by our encompassing culture. These theses individually examine various essential monstrous characteristics and determine how each monstrosity challenges the mores or understandings unique to each culture. In support of his theses, Cohen invokes a plethora of examples originating from mythology, history, wordplay, and even current day practices. He then makes his point by emphasizing the way the monster infringes upon the traditions established by its respective culture.
Although Cohen’s argument ultimately weakens because of his somewhat recursive methodology of occasionally molding his monstrous exemplars within distinctive cultural characteristics, his essay provides a fresh outlook for a reader with an interest in cultural studies. Freshly and adequately armed with Cohen’s methodology, we can now examine Godzilla against the backdrop of Japanese culture and history to find the reason for his half-century reign as King of Monsters. Godzilla was born on the heels of World War II in the 1954 self-referential film Gojira as the physical representation of the acute fear many Japanese felt after suffering the horror of the bombs that ended the war: Little Boy at Hiroshima and Fat Man at Nagasaki. Neither bomb could actually be characterized as a “little boy” due to the utter devastation they wreaked upon the Japanese cities. William M. Tsutsui, the famed “Professor Godzilla,” spoke to this dichotomy in his address at the UCLA Asia Pacific Center, where he noted that the name Gojira was “a combination of gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale)” (“Godzilla and Postwar Japan”). These two massive animals are each already terrifyingly overwhelming for the comparatively small and weak human beings.
But Godzilla is not merely a portmanteau. He is the pure black of the aggressive and intimidating lowlands gorilla. He submerges with the unseen threat of capsizing Japanese fishing vessels much like a whale, and very much analogous to the very real radioactive contamination of the ill-fated Lucky Dragon in 1954 which spurred national outcry. The terror of Godzilla is compounded by his physical hybridization of the already threatening gorilla and whale. Cohen’s Thesis 3 speaks to the danger posed by a monster’s ability to evade commonsensical understanding: “they are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions” (Cohen 6). Indeed, Godzilla’s sheer bulk enables him to smash his way through Japan simply ambling through with the hulking gorilla’s clumsy gait. When he surfaces as a whale might, he sends tsunamis crashing to the shores. Although Godzilla may have been inspired by the 1952 success of King Kong, his menacing tidal threat is a distinctly Japanese worry peculiar to an island nation. In this vein, the recent 2014 American remake of Godzilla nailed the monster perfectly.
Godzilla is characterized as an ancient force of nature throughout the movie and in fact only appears on screen in all his monstrous glory for a grand total of 11 minutes and 16 seconds (Screenjunkies). Once again, Godzilla characterizes the unseen and unknowable threat from beneath the ocean’s surface. If it is difficult to forget the media that has “scarred everyone’s minds,” it is even harder for the Japanese survivors of the bombings to forget the scars left upon their very skin. As the only nation in the world that has suffered atomic bombings, the Japanese public was painfully aware of the nuclear threat Godzilla posed. Although the war had ended, the United States continued to conduct nuclear tests in the Pacific Rim through 1954. Chon A. Noriega writes that in 1952, “the United States exploded its first H-bomb, a ten-megaton weapon one thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, on a Pacific Island near Japan. The island evaporated” (Noriega 57). Thusly, Godzilla is always a physical manifestation of forces far beyond humanity’s reach, forces that cruelly and unremorsefully devastate our cultures and societies time and time again.
This then begs the question of whether such forces as the atom and nuclear bombs ought to be beyond humanity’s reach. Cohen’s Thesis 5 comes into play through his declaration that “from its position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes” (Cohen 12). At the turn of the 20th century, the discovery of the special theory of relativity by Albert Einstein threw open the floodgates for a bright new era of human innovation and betterment. Einstein’s theory of relativity promised to upend every known definition of our physical world, where simple and small amounts of matter could contain vast and seemingly endless reserves of energy. The world held its breath in unison because it was both thoroughly enraptured by the promise in Einstein’s discovery and utterly confused by his complete deconstruction of common understanding.
What began as a foray into a redefinition of our structured world ended in the misused and maligned research of Robert Oppenheimer. As the foremost victim of technological misuse, Japan is the first in line to malign Oppenheimer’s most famous piece of work. Tsutsui provides a quick synopsis of the first Godzilla where he notes that a driving plot mechanic comes in scientist Serizawa’s invention of a powerful weapon capable of neutralizing Godzilla. Serizawa agonizes over using the weapon out of fear that such technology, once unleashed, may well fall into the wrong hands and be misused for evil. The scientist uses his fearsome weapon to neutralize Godzilla and purposefully perishes with the beast to keep the secret of his weapon from humankind. Tsutsui notes that “some commentators have read the self-congratulatory celebrations at the end of the film as a symbolic and therapeutic rewriting of the end of World War II, with Japan emerging triumphant this time around” (“Godzilla”). Notably, this version of Japan’s victory hinges upon the codependent destructions of powerful weapon and undeniably catastrophic monster. Japan hosts a strong undercurrent of belief in the impossibility for humankind to handle such an awesome power in its weaponized form; their fear of the unknown technologies that comprise the devastating weapons even extends to the peaceful and originally intended usages for the technology.
Quite frankly, the technology of atomization and harnessing nuclear energy was discovered and toiled upon with the intention of providing unlimited clean energy for society’s usage. Here, too, Japan’s perception of technology has unfortunately suffered through circumstance. Where the rest of the world experienced the horrifying 2011 tsunami that devastated the entirety of Southeast Asia as a reminder of the insignificance of human ability in the face of the forces of nature, Japan experienced this terror twofold when the tsunami triggered the Fukushima reactor meltdown that quickly became a national crisis meriting evacuation of the entire region. This double assault from both nature and technology manifests in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, wherein Godzilla returns to the Toho studio and the Japanese movie industry. Once again, Godzilla hearkens to the audience’s deepest fears in order to evoke gut-wrenching terror, except that the new horror was a technology that was intentioned for the betterment of society. Japan was again reminded that even well-intentioned technology can be turned upon its handlers at any moment.
Even the original Godzilla film pays a brief homage to atomic technology’s intended purpose and ultimate usurping through one Professor Yamane, who “proposes instead a rescue mission to save the monster, noting that Godzilla is in fact a victim of man-made nuclear technology. Yamane also suggests that examining the monster might lead to discoveries that could help human beings survive nuclear war” (Inuhiko). Yamane is shouted down from the panic of a government and public scrambling to defend itself from the invading behemoth. In a sense, Godzilla is both monster and victim. As monster, he represents the threats that time and time again encroach upon Japan’s shores; as victim, he is Japan in its attempts to create a better society through adopting new technologies, attempts that may seem to unanimously backfire. It appears then that the real monster is not Godzilla himself but rather the authoritative governing body. At his very heart, buried beneath radioactive scales and atomic breath, Godzilla is the national pride of a population that holds a deep-seated hatred for authority and an acquired taste for xenophobia.
We now step into Cohen’s final thesis: Thesis 4 states that monstrosity is created by difference and champions the vilification of the “other.” In the new Shin Godzilla, the government’s painfully slow response to the Fukushima meltdown is cast in satirical slant when the authority in charge of the region “downplayed the meltdown and suppressed reports of high radiation levels” much like the reality of 2011 (Rath). Furthermore, there are entire scenes of blaming and finger pointing as the fat cats of the government try to retain their cushy positions and minimize political fallout at the cost of radioactive fallout. The true heroes of the situation are the local everyman workers who “risked their lives laboring round-the-clock to stabilize the crippled No.1 nuclear plant” much like the Fukushima 50 (Schilling). The nationalistic pride of Japanese people is on sharp display in the 2016 Shin Godzilla reboot, which was suspiciously released two years after the successful American reboot. Perhaps for good reason, as the American version essentially whisked the Japanese national symbol off to San Francisco to become the hero of the American west.
The new Shin Godzilla places this nationalism on surprisingly acerbic display with the inclusion of a Japanese-American. Racism unfortunately comes part and parcel with Godzilla’s origin story, as he was born from the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In combination with Japanese vacillatory attitude towards modernism, this racism is bolstered into hatred for western gender progressivism; verily, it is a hatred for any sort of western progressivism. Even today, the older generation of Japan is culturally strongly resilient to the social liberties taken by younger Japanese who have been exposed to global awareness. While Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture” is not applicable to every piece of monster literature, thesis one and five do shed light on the purpose of monsters. Monsters are there to remind us what happened and more importantly, warn us on matters pertaining society and morality.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster theory: reading culture. Mineapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1996. 3-25. Print.
Inuhiko, Yomota. “The Menace from the South Seas .” Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts. Ed.
Noriega, Chon A. “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S.” Hibakusha cinema:
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the nuclear image in Japanese film. Ed. Mick Broderick. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2009. 54-74. Print.
Rath, Robert. “Godzilla Resurgence is actually a biting political satire.” ZAM. ZAM, n.d. Web. 27 Apr 2017.
Sacks, Ethan. “New ‘Godzilla’ reflects our fears of nuclear and natural disasters.” NY Daily News.
Schilling, Mark. “‘Shin Godzilla’: The metaphorical monster returns.” The Japan Times, 3 Aug. 2016.
Screenjunkies. “Honest Trailers – Godzilla (2014).” YouTube. YouTube, 09 Sept. 2014. Web. 08 May 2017.
“Godzilla Returns to Japan.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 14 May 2016. Web. 27 Apr.
“Godzilla and Postwar Japan.” UCLA Asia Pacific Center. N.p., 26 May 2005. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer. New York: Routledge, 2007. 102-11. Print.
2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
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