Godzilla or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Ah, Godzilla! These days, any mention of the King of the Monsters usually brings a smile and images of a rubber suited man stomping on miniature cardboard and plastic cities adorned with toy cars while being fired upon by a proportionately scaled toy army. The suited man wears the latest incarnation of the Godzilla look while there is sure to be another suited figure guised as one of Godzilla’s many foes lurking somewhere in the background. Thus is the legacy of the numerous Godzilla movies, twenty-eight and counting, since he first made his appearance on the big screen in 1954.

But one would be fooled if they believed that the cliche city stomping and giant monster fights are all that Godzilla represents. Indeed, it was the somber specter of nuclear war that first gave rise to Japan’s Toho studios famous creature. The original Japanese version, Gojira, was no laughing light fare. The opening sequence of that first movie in which Godzilla strikes a unsuspecting fishing vessel was a reference to the real life story of a fishing vessel, the Fukuryu Maru, caught in the fallout of a Hydrogen bomb test in the pacific by US forces. While it was well known in Japan, the event was largely unpublicized here. Even before the event, the Japanese, being the only population subjected to nuclear bombs mere years earlier, were highly sensitive to the consequences of nuclear powers. The original Godzilla represented a thinly veiled representation of those nuclear forces and the movie made quite an impact to Japanese audiences. The success of the movie was such that a US distributor acquired the rights for North America, and re-shot sequences of the movie with Raymond Burr and dubbing the Japanese segments. Not surprisingly, the controversial opening sequence with the fishing vessel were discarded and some of the more gory scenes of death and destruction were toned down.

But over the years the Godzilla mythos took a decidedly intellectually lighthearted path. The once terror inducing creature became a matinee idol around the world, catering to younger and younger audiences, degrading along the way into a mere caricature of his former glory. Instead of being the menace, he became a hero battling whatever next giant monster came along, usually to stomp on Tokyo. To be sure, there were some higher points along they way, such as defeating the Smog Monster (Hedorah) in the 70’s, a fitting socio-environmental menace at the time. But there were some dismal lows as well, like the battle against a glassy eyed King Kong, which was pretty silly even as I watched it as a kid. (Seriously, in order to net Kong, they get him drunk!).

In order to temper our relationship with Godzilla and not overexpose him, Toho has staggered his appearances in the movies, having him slumber into semi-retirement every few years until enough time has passed before resurrecting him for yet another series of movies. These definitive eras are the Showa series (1954–1975), the Heisei series (1984–1995), and finally the Millennium (or Shinsei) series (1999–2004) when he last graced the screen in “Godzilla: Final Wars”.

But these days, Japan finds itself in it’s darkest moment since those first nuclear strikes in World War II. The large earthquake and ensuing catastrophic tsunami in March of this year not only caused immense death and destruction of the north east coast, but plundered the country in a nuclear crisis.

As it so happens, all this coincided the same month that IDW premiered their new Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters comic. Written before the real life dramatic events, it was with great irony that I read the story in which officials had to decide whether or not to unleash those nuclear forces in an attempt to halt Godzilla. Deciding to take the risks the failed attempt results in Godzilla becoming even stronger.

I’m not going to condom or condemn nuclear power here. It is controversial to say the least, but some of the alternatives are debateably just as bleak. Suffice it to say, that once a again, Godzilla teaches us that a nuclear solution poses risks. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. While he may appear as a villain at the moment, he has come to the rescue of Japan before.

And god knows, Japan could use a bolstered Godzilla to save them now.

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