With the 2014 release of Godzilla, Japan's most famous monster from the beneath the sea commanded the silver screen once again - though in many ways, it was as if he’d never left. The fears represented by Godzilla, known in his homeland as Gojira, remain ever present and menacing, and when we take a look at the monster's history it is easy to see why our fascination with this mythic beast remains strong.
The first thing to understand is that the Godzilla films are just one piece of a greater genre. Godzilla taught the west the word 'kaiju,' but in Japan, these strange creatures (also called ‘kaiju eiga’) are a large part of many monster movies. Godzilla is a known as a ‘daikaiju’, that is, a monster that is an enlarged and ferocious version of a regular animal, and in many ways, this makes his role even more interesting – the name Gojira means, literally, half whale and half gorilla.
Godzilla's origins have gone through several permutations since he was created. The later Americanized versions of Godzilla resulted in an almost ridiculous beast. To Western audiences, the creature in a monster suit was hardly fearsome, especially since many of the original Japanese scenes were replaced with English speaking reporter Raymond Burr in the 1956 version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Western audiences were highly amused by the campy feel of this version, which led to increasingly comedic sequels, such as Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla vs Destroyah.
However, it has always been clear that Godzilla was a monster that was sleeping at the bottom of the ocean, who was awakened by the effects of nuclear testing. His awakening and his first subsequent rampage against the modern city of Tokyo are due specifically to the actions of people attempting to use nuclear energy and weaponry. Every indication in the plot states that without the nuclear testing, Godzilla would never have awakened in the first place.
As a daikaiju, Godzilla has always been a natural creature. There is no indication in the original that he was made by the tampering of men, the way that the story occasionally reads in modernized versions. Instead, Godzilla is a natural animal of immense power and fury whose hibernation was disturbed by men, and within the Godzilla narrative we often see this conflict between the natural world and the world of weapons created by human beings.
Given that the first Godzilla film in Japan premiered in 1954, along with the presence of obvious nuclear parallels, such as Godzilla’s radioactive breath and burned, scaly skin, there is no doubt that the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were very much on the filmmakers' minds during the movie’s creation.
The attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were devastating to Japan. Two entire towns were flattened in the nightmare of fire, and the few survivors fell ill from radiation poisoning. The effects of the two bombs dropped on Japan left an irreparable scar on the nation as a whole. In most cases, the original audience members would still have clear memories of the devastation caused by the bombs, dubbed Fat Man and Little Boy, resulting in a viewing experience fraught with traumatic reminders of the country’s recent experiences. There are echoes of the destruction of the atomic bombs in the fury and the devastation of Godzilla's attack, and it’s understood that his destruction is a result of man's mistakes.
Toho, the company that originally produced Godzilla, is rumored to be approaching the property again, and in many ways this is very timely. With the specter of global warming and faster, deadlier and even more destructive weaponry at hand, Godzilla reflects a darker side of our so-called progress. In addition, given the recent interest in the beast – El Rey network, available with Xfinity or DirecTV, has a Godzilla movie marathon running through January, for example – and the release of the 2014 US Godzilla movie, which catered heavily to special effects and a typical Hollywood-style, shallow script, it is a clear sign of Japanese movie makers finally reclaiming a diluted cultural legacy that goes back more than half a century. Hopefully, Toho’s newest rendition will return Godzilla to his previous, politically-potent state.