Last Friday, the latest Godzilla crushed box offices across the country. Updated for the post-9/11, tsunami-prone era, this latest reboot from Monsters director and relative newcomer Gareth Evans brings epic mayhem to our beloved City by the Bay. Godzilla has lurked beneath our seas for ages, surfacing now and again to wreak havoc, punishing us for our sins, reminding us that we are not the ones in charge. We keep rebooting Godzilla, inviting him back to rampage again and again, like a soured affair we can’t break off. We like it that way; we get satisfaction from feeling guilt.
Victim fantasy and guilt has played a role in monster movies since the beginning. In 1954, director Ishirō Honda devised a monster to represent the dangers of the atomic age by making “radiation visible.” Named Gojira, Honda’s creation turned into a Toho Studios franchise, destroying Tokyo again and again. Honda’s more generalized meaning notwithstanding, Gojira’s decimation of fishing vessels and attacks on Tokyo can only be inferred as U.S. actions (intentional and unintentional) against Japan.
The nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 marked the shocking start of the Atomic Age. Lesser known is that in 1954, during the U.S.’ Operation Castle program, the most powerful thermonuclear warhead to date was detonated at Bikini Atoll on March 1. Due to miscalculations, the bomb was bigger than expected. Significant radioactive fallout ash was blown well beyond the declared safety zone, snowing down upon nearby islands and a Japanese tuna boat, Daigo Fukuryū Maru, or “Lucky Dragon.” The ship’s crew was morbidly contaminated, and some members died later that year. The U.S. tried to cover up involvement; Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss accused the Lucky Dragon of spying for the Soviet Union. During this same time, in a secret hearing, Strauss was muckraking the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, to ruin. Then as now, secrets were federal currency, and Evan’s opening credits sequence in the new Godzilla cleverly illustrates this with a motif of redacted documents.
Toho Studios’ producer read about the Lucky Dragon incident in the news, and set out to make a monster movie. Originally octopus-like, Gojira’s reptilian design was derived from the successful 1953 Hollywood flick The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a monster closer to the realm of the anthropomorphic. The Tyrannosaurus Rex-like Beast, imagined by Ray Bradbury and designed by Ray Harryhausen, was thawed from arctic hibernation by a nuclear blast and traveled underwater seeking vengeance along the eastern seaboard. Gojira would trade stop motion, for a man in a rubber suit, trudging with a different kind of menace. Rising from the depths of Tokyo Bay, his arms flail in the waves as if mere presence is his enemy, the cause of his anger. When asked if there is a way to kill Gojira, Professor Yamane responds, “Instead, we should focus on why he is still alive.”
Scientific and political events awaken Godzilla from his slumber, and he is psychically compelled to act out our fantasies of self destruction, magnetically attracted to our guilt. Do we deserve this or want this? Our desires rage inside of us, and our guilt lays waste to our psyche, destabilizing our sense of place. We raze the natural world to inhabit an edifice, and we are gratified to see that edifice subject to disaster; yet even disaster must be personified.
Godzilla is a figuration of the nuclear blast, a visible rendering of radiation, uniting all peoples against a common threat. Godzilla is exponentially reptilian, a subconscious horror escalated. By contrast, King Kong is primal instinct; he takes what he wants, kidnapping the beautiful Ann Darrow while rampaging through New York City. It is the savage world taking revenge on civilization, punishing our desire for mapping the unknown, revealing our guilt for violating virgin wilderness.
The victimized urban citizens of Japan and the U.S., repeatedly attacked by monsters, clearly live in a dangerous world; that we are alternately attacked and defended by the same monster throughout the franchise shows us to be victims in a perverse relationship, emblematic of the struggle between desire and guilt. Darren Aronofsky’s bold, if misguided, Noah recently updated the flood parable. Through this common myth, we learn a lesson: our ancestors were bad, they soiled the Earth, and a vengeful god cleansed that which was unclean. Geologic evidence may exist for global flooding events, but the myth’s persistence is explained differently. Ultimately, a major event, destructive and natural, is to be read as punishment for man’s evil ways. And so our iconic cities from Tokyo to San Francisco are regularly offered up for sacrifice.
The Godzilla franchise is fiction, but that doesn’t make our memories of it less real. Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller, profiled in last week’s New Yorker, explains that realized memory is “what you are now, not what you think you were in the past. When you change the story you created, you change your life.” Memory is changed, updated by our experience, and Hollywood strives for nothing short of creating experience. Godzilla exists in our memories, individual and shared, by tapping into an exploitable resource — the overwhelming emotions we experienced watching the spectacles of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and tsunamis in Asia.
And what spectacles they make on-screen. All throughout Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, “AMERICA UNDER ATTACK” and similar headlines emblazon across the ubiquitous flatscreens. Godzilla travels by tsunami, inundating the cities he’s saving. He tail-whips a flying Muto, who crashes into a building which looks like a shorter Twin Tower. F-15s fall from the sky, while aircraft carriers rise up out of the sea. Building after building comes down; one ultimately collapses on Godzilla. But, if history is any indication, he will rise again.