Nice monster! New 'Godzilla' fuses American and Japanese beasts

How a monster spawned by a nuclear blast in the depths came to enthrall a nation.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
A scene from the film 'Godzilla.'

So now Americans are treated to a new Godzilla that they grew up to fear and see as malevolent – but that Japanese mostly grew up to appreciate and admire.

With a $93 million dollar first weekend gross, and a Godzilla 2 and 3 on the way, the new Gareth Edwards-directed monster, whose scaly back looks on the big screen like a mountain range, and whose name is a combination of “whale” and “gorilla,” is going to get even more familiar.

In many ways, the new Godzilla is a fusion of both American and Japanese depictions of the beast.

For Americans of a certain generation, Godzilla was spoon-fed as a fearsome radioactive lizard who emerged in grainy black and white from deep beneath the Bikini Islands after a mushroom cloud nuclear test – and who spent much of his free time slicing and dicing Tokyo clock towers and the main American military PX downtown in the Ginza area, at a time when US forces occupied Japan.

Yet in Japan Godzilla was more complex and ambiguous, even a romantic creature, a misunderstood Frankenstein of the Far East, and his life and identity were wrapped up with nature and history. The Tokyo Godzilla franchise is nearly 60 years old with more than 24 films (between 1984 and 2005 a new Godzilla movie came every year) and his persona and image evolved over time. Many Japanese politely laugh at the Hollywood digital Godzilla who invaded New York City a few years ago, a beast one fan in Japan described as little more than a “big T-Rex.”

But Godzilla is now back and he’s, at the same time, bigger, badder, and beneficently “better” than ever. 

“I never thought [spoiler alert] that Godzilla could be a protector” a close friend who grew up in the 60s texted from San Francisco last weekend, the city where the new Godzilla carries out an epic struggle with two nuclear loving moth-monsters that are physically on a par with Godzilla.

The Japanese consul general in Boston, Akira Muto, at the Monitor offices this week to explain Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new ideas about national self-defense, noted in a personable moment that he grew up in the 1960s with Godzilla as a “hero” who challenged conventions and the status quo. 

The new Godzilla is utterly fearsome. He is a post-9/11, post-Fukushima, post- "rise of China" version of Godzilla that is truly monstrous in size, and capable of emitting a shiny liquid plasma blast when he gets very ticked-off.

But he is also around to “balance nature,” as the Japanese scientist-sage played by Ken Watanabe (of “The Last Samurai" fame) tells an American admiral played by David Straithairn. And in the new film he even indirectly seems to champion family values.

The new Godzilla rage in America has a long and storied history in Japan, unbeknownst in the States. 

In 2004, the 50th anniversary of Godzilla's conception, a retrospective titled "Since Godzilla" appeared at the Taro Okamoto Museum in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki.

The exhibit was flooded with more than a thousand people a day in a curated show that put Godzilla on the analyst's couch for clues to the nation's psyche. In Japan, there are often fewer walls between high art and pop culture; both are interpreted through a different lens than found in the West.  

In Japan, the original 1954 Godzilla film did horrify audiences, starting with the amalgamation of the words "whale" and "gorilla" – which struck fear. A glowing beast rose from the ocean to wander the country, smashing cities and flattening cars with a mammoth four-toed tread.

"Godzilla started as representing our anger toward war and nuclear weapons," said museum curator Hiroshi Osugi, who spent five years categorizing the periods of Godzilla's screen life.

The mutant, rampaging dinosaur who invades Japan was conceived by a Japanese screenwriter shortly after 24 local fishermen died from the fallout of a hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Island Atoll – and nine year's after Hiroshima's mushroom cloud. (The new Godzilla is not a disfigured product of nuclear fusion but is a primordial hold-over from the planetary age of dinosaurs.) 

Yet Japanese grew to love their monster: "I see every movie," 37-year-old Yuuta Suzuki, a computer-system engineer, told the Monitor. "It is one of those annual events, like the cherry-blossom-viewing parties. I am a bit of a maniac about it."

Over time, an intimate relationship developed between Godzilla and the Japanese. In early days, he was a symbol of the island's postwar fragility and vulnerability. In the late 1950s, as in the US, Japanese families dreamed of prosperity in the shape of washing machines, stoves, and stainless steel toasters. The result was a Japanese version of "Leave it to Beaver," with Godzilla in the backyard.

But the beast evolved: During the US-Soviet space race in the '60s, a star-gazing Godzilla mixed it up with King Ghidra, a three-headed space dragon. He even took the Japanese side occasionally, fighting off giant lobsters or arachnids that could harm civilians. By the '70s, as Tokyo was industrializing and confronting dense pollution, Godzilla got the better of Hedora, The Smog Monster – a shape-shifting blob of mercury and cadmium.

"I never thought Godzilla was fearful," says Haruhiko Yoshizaki, who grew up with a Godzilla that breathed sparks. "I've been thinking Godzilla is almost a lovable character."

For a pacifist nation, Godzilla is also a figure to be lived through vicariously. "He is physically strong, but also sentimental," says Enomoto Noriaki, who came to the exhibit with his wife. "I like the fact he can go wherever he wants. He won't lose a fight."

When Japanese small-car exports dominated world markets in the early '80s, Godzilla, much to Japanese delight, pulverized the gleaming new skyscrapers of Tokyo's famous Shinjuku neighborhood. (Many Japanese say it is a status symbol to be from an area Godzilla feels important enough to bust up.) Later came an "Info-tech Godzilla" who rampages around during the 2000 millennium. A "post-9/11 Godzilla" came in 2006. 

"We wanted to look back on Japanese society ... show the changes in character of Godzilla ... and the empathy felt toward Godzilla and how people accepted Godzilla," Mr. Osugi said of his efforts to examine the scaly-beast.

Again, the 1998 high-tech "Made-in-USA" Godzilla starring  Matthew Broderick was not so readily embraced. Hollywood's version seemed characterless, impressive only in brute force – an impostor Godzilla that satisfied a need for cheap thrills. The American lizard, in fact, reinforced some stereotypes in Japan about the world superpower – summed up ironically by the 1998 ad campaign, "Size matters."

"The American Godzilla is just a large T-Rex," says Kono Naoki, a Godzilla aficionado. "There is nothing we like about him. We like a monster who is played by a human in a rubber suit."

Japan's beloved Godzilla is a low-tech lizard, a confused figure, a tormented soul who can't get his bearings straight. Hey, he didn't ask to be here, one Japanese fan says. In some backstories he's an unwitting product of nuclear fission. He gets wrapped up in power lines and "acts out" from an orientation disfunction that naturally causes him to chew on buildings and chase rice farmers. Pity the beast!

The early Godzilla films do contain many anti-American messages. In the early 1960s he takes on King Kong, seen as a way to thumb the nose at American occupation.

Yet the anti-American messages didn't last. By the mid-'60s, Godzilla was a universal-protector of the Earth, again from the forces of King Ghidra. In 1968, he knocked down the United Nations. But a year later, a softer Godzilla was back, sporting a Barney-like child, the Son of Godzilla, famous for bouncing on Godzilla's tail.

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