Monday, June 9, 2014

King of All Monsters - The Modern Mythology of Godzilla

Guest contributor Kate Voss examines Godzilla and his place in the world.

The echo of his thundering footsteps can be heard from a distance, reverberating against the terrifying sound of his roars ‒ Godzilla is back again, re-asserting his dominance over the urban landscape. A rebirth of Toho Studio’s iconic reptilian terror, this year's Godzilla has many viewers discussing the perceptual relevance of the monster king. The original Godzilla, or Gojira, as he's known in Japan, introduced the Japanese movie-monster phenomenon that in time would become an entire sub genre of its own.

When Godzilla first rose from the Sea of Japan in 1954, he was fuelled by concerns about what science and modern technology had wrought upon the world. His existence played upon very real and immediate fears of apocalyptic possibility. But over time, the allegorical messages present within the first film have been diluted, reducing Godzilla's role to that of a campy action star. While the initial Gojira feature succeeds as a straightforward morality play, wrestling with the atomic paranoia of post-war Japan, the sequels that follow are little more than comedic escapism. Yet still he lives on, a mythical monster for the modern age. Godzilla and his kaiju brethren have entered our collective psyche as figures meant to both reflect and assuage our fears of nuclear self-sabotage.

In the films in which he stars, Godzilla takes viewers to a place where fantasy and fear commingle with what we know as reality. Resembling a dinosaur, Godzilla was spawned in the radioactive flames of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A fictional, yet metaphoric, creature, he emerges from the sea as a result of irresponsible scientific experimentation. Like Frankenstein's monster, he illustrates the potential for humanity-driven destruction, and the long-lasting effects of such negligence. He became a cultural phenomenon at the time of the Cold War, when his special significance as a product of science closely resonated with audiences. He was vaulted to mythical status because a symbol was needed to connect us to the inhuman and inexplicable power of atomic warfare. Even as an irradiated monster, he was strangely comforting.

Since the 1954 release of Gojira for Japanese audiences, there have been nearly 30 Godzilla films released by Japanese and American studios.  When the original Japanese film was brought to the United States, it was distributed under the title Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), and it featured interstitial segments that had been shot with American actor Raymond Burr. The American release de-emphasized the political content of the original, and removed the anti-nuclear undertones. Over the years some of the campier kaiju films have all but fallen off the face of the earth, while others fit the "so poorly made, it’s endearing" category. Many of those have stuck around thanks to sites like Netflix, where you can stream movies like Godzilla's Revenge or Godzilla Raids Again. One film that has retained a cult following is Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah, which is often run as a direct television special, and is still popular on the midnight movie circuit.

Despite humble dinosaurian origins, Godzilla has managed to survive the Cretaceous period and avoid extinction. We may have succeeded his reptilian relatives on the evolutionary timeline, but Godzilla lives on, a reminder of the old natural order. Godzilla is at once a supervillain and a superhero – although capable of destructive rampages and prone to radioactive coughing fits, he ultimately serves as a valuable lesson revealing what happens when humans play with forces they don’t thoroughly understand.

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