Godzilla: From Allegory to Myth (TexMoot 2022)

On March 26, 2022, Signum University held its annual TexMoot regional conference in Austin, TX. The conference’s theme was “How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One,” which focused on how ecological concerns, social commentaries, and more seek to define our role as stewards of our world. The script below was presented as a 15-min flash presentation. The questions at the end were taken from a 5-minute Q&A session facilitated by Shawn Marchese, co-host of The Prancing Pony Podcast. (A pdf version of the accompanying slideshow is available at the bottom of the page.)

Godzilla: From Allegory to Myth

In 1954, director Ishiro Honda released a film widely regarded as the first kaiju, or giant monster, movie in cinematic history – Gojira. The film was later re-edited and re-released in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1956. Godzilla would become one of the most famous movie monsters of all time. However, the origins and inspirations behind this creature are anything but glorious.

The roots of Godzilla lay in the socio-political and psychological trauma of post-war Japan. Fear of nuclear testing, radiation poisoning, and nuclear fallout were the driving themes of Gojira. They remained prevalent in later films, despite being sidelined by the campy and outrageous monster-fighting sequences for which Godzilla is better known. This presentation will compare the original Godzilla’s real-world inspirations and fictional origin with two contemporary iterations of Godzilla, highlighting how modern storytelling has adapted the monster from an allegorical figure to a mythological symbol of nature’s fury and divine retribution.

Ishiro Honda’s Gojira

In August 1945, the United States dropped two nuclear warheads on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII. The total recorded number of casualties is between 129,000 and 226,000, including military and civilians (who were the majority), many of whom died months later from nuclear fallout. The occupation of Japan that followed came with heavy censorship of the media. All the while, foreign nations continued developing and testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.

Then, in March 1954, two years after the occupation ended, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 fishing boat was caught in the nuclear fallout of the United States’ Castle Bravo experiment at Bikini Atoll. The newly crafted H-bomb was several magnitudes greater than the bombs used a decade earlier, and twenty-three crewmen were exposed to acute radiation levels. Water and marine life off the coast of Japan became contaminated. Six months later, the boat’s chief radioman died from radiation sickness. Fear of nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning resurfaced throughout Japan, and it was this socio-political and ethical climate that sparked the creation of Gojira.

“Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head.”

Hideto Ogata, Gojira (1954)

Protagonist Hideto Ogata spoke honestly when he said to Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane, “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head.” Imagined by Ishiro Honda as a living nuclear weapon, Godzilla possessed an indestructible body that protected against conventional weaponry and wielded its signature “atomic breath.” Its rampage on Odo Island is akin to a freak hurricane, and the devastation of Central Tokyo near the film’s end was undoubtedly evocative of post-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, in this way, Godzilla was portrayed as an aggressor.

However, the film’s production and narrative also portrayed Godzilla as a victim. Godzilla was the last of its species and was forced out of its underwater habitat by continued nuclear testing. Its actions against Japan were not done out of malice but in desperate retaliation. Furthermore, as a directorial choice, Godzilla’s skin – with its irregular bumps and deformities – was designed to be reminiscent of keloid scars found on victims of radioactive exposure. Doubtless, Godzilla’s destructive power and grotesque form would have been all too familiar to Japanese audiences in the mid-1950s.

“If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.”

Kyohei Yamane, Gojira (1954)

So, Godzilla is first introduced as the cause and casualty of Japan’s greatest fears. The original film ends with, “If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.” No doubt a chilling warning of the consequences of nuclear warfare.

Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla

Fifty-seven years later, Japan would experience a world-shattering event – the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami. On March 11th, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of Northeastern Japan, which led to a massive swell of tsunami waves between 8 – 31 feet in height. They swept thirty-seven miles inland, destroying homes and infrastructure throughout the Tohoku region. As a result, the electrical grid of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Powerplant began malfunctioning. Failure to meet standard safety practices and negligence from the Japanese government led to a faulty cooling system that failed to prevent a radiation leak in the Fukushima prefecture. 

Together, the “Great East Japan Earthquake” and Fukushima nuclear disaster led to the death of an estimated 20,000 individuals, with around 2,500 reported missing, 6,500 people injured, the displacement of over 220,000 residents, and a sudden outbreak of thyroid cancer. These events inspired Hideaki Anno, creator of the critically acclaimed Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, to write and direct 2016’s Shin Godzilla.

This iteration of Godzilla was imagined as an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown all rolled into one. Its landfall was preceded by a minor quake in Tokyo Bay, followed by Godzilla’s crawling through the city streets, dragging vehicles and shattered debris like a living tsunami wave. Like the 2011 events, Godzilla was an ever-evolving problem – literally and figuratively – as its ability to quickly evolve (and the government’s ineptitude at handling the situation) made it incredibly unpredictable and dangerous. As it continued to grow, Godzilla began emitting dangerously high levels of radiation, and that was before it used its atomic breath to raze Tokyo Bay to the ground. Furthermore, Godzilla possessed a natural cooling system in its blood to prevent its body from entering a state of nuclear meltdown, a direct callback to the Fukushima powerplant.

Yet, Godzilla’s most horrifying feature came at the film’s end and was only shown to the audience. After its defeat and confinement, it was revealed that Godzilla was preparing to enter a new stage of evolution. As the camera zooms in on Godzilla’s tail, mutated Godzilla-humanoid hybrids can be seen frozen in their attempts to escape. This final inclusion is undoubtedly evocative of the victims of radiation exposure during the Fukushima disaster and the ever-present memory of the atomic bombings in 1945.

And thus, we see once again how Japan’s suffering and fears are embodied by a nuclear lizard of destruction.

“The Planet Monster” trilogy

Finally, we come to Japan’s most recent cinematic depiction of Godzilla. Unlike those previously mentioned, this Godzilla was not inspired by historical events – inspiration instead came from environmental philosophy. The “Planet Monster Trilogy,” as I will be calling it, centers on mankind’s relationship with nature. By introducing conservational ethics, human impact, religion, and themes of warfare, the narrative portrays Mother Nature as a conscious force that can and will retaliate against its aggressors. That tool of retaliation is, of course, Godzilla.

As theorized in the trilogy, Godzilla was an aberration in nature, born in response to rampant climate change, nuclear waste disposal, pollution, and environmental degradation. Its birth led to the near extinction of humanity and the terraforming of Earth in Godzilla’s own image. Thus, it dominated the planet as the proverbial “lord of all creation” by the start of the first film. The Houtua people believed it to be a god of destruction who commands the very essence of nature, calling it “the Burning Mountain.” However, Godzilla is better defined as a world tree at the center of a global ecosystem.

Trees are the most widespread organisms on the planet, accounting for 31% of Earth’s land area. They need very little to grow and survive, have developed numerous survival adaptations, and play a massive role in maintaining Earth’s biosphere. The atmosphere, climate, global ecosystems, and more are all supported by trees and other types of vegetation. Moreover, we know that nature has a tendency – a desire, Boethius would say – to reclaim those parts of the world abandoned or harmed by humanity – like the New World Mall in Bangkok or the abandoned powerplant in Brussels. 

(Top) New World Mall in Bangkok, Thailand
(Bottom) Powerplant IM in Brussels, Belgium

All these characteristics are applied to this version of Godzilla. In addition, its physical design and morphology are reminiscent of trees in several ways: a deep green color palette, dorsal fins that look like giant leaves, and even tree bark-like skin.

Furthermore, Godzilla’s role in the trilogy is as an agent sent by Mother Nature to reclaim the planet – its goal being to give the Earth a fresh start by washing away man and their sins, much like the Biblical Flood. This idea is encapsulated in this quote from the first film, upon Godzilla’s reawakening:

“When those fleeting lives destined to die, forget their humbleness and sing praises of their own narcissistic glory, such will shake the very heavens and split the Earth. They shall know the wrath of the divine.”

Metphies, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

The Arrogance of Man

Thus, in a trilogy that is as much science fiction as it is “science-fact,” we can begin to understand how the interpretation of Godzilla has evolved since 1954. No longer is Godzilla just a folkloric creature symbolizing Japan and its history. Today, Godzilla has come to represent all of creation. Godzilla is a humble reminder of mankind’s place in the universe and that, while we can achieve greatness, we may also bring about our own destruction due to foolishness and pride. Should that ever happen, it may very well be a monster like Godzilla that is sent to deliver God’s wrath to Man.  

Thank you so much for your time this morning. Godzilla is a massive franchise, and there are so many topics that I could not cram into today’s presentation. So, I encourage you to take time and sit down to watch some Godzilla films. Sure, many are ridiculous, but several are truly unique thought experiments. That is my charge to you, and I hope we get to discuss them in the future. 

5-minute Q&A session

What do you feel is the “call to action,” for us as human beings, that is conveyed through the main Godzilla film (Gojira) and then, of course, Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla?

Gojira and Shin Godzilla are unique films in the franchise because they are so steeped in history. And I would also add one more movie to that list – Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (GMK). In that film, Godzilla embodies the malicious spirits of those who died in the Pacific Theater during WWII. It attacks Japan because the angry spirits believed the modern Japanese populous to have forgotten or actively denied their past sins (particularly during the 1940s). And many Japanese audiences felt, in a way, for a time, that they deserved what had happened to them in WWII. One Japanese movie critic, in fact, saw Godzilla attacking Japan (in the original Gojira) as the Japanese people attacking themselves. It was a very self-reflective interpretation of the film. GMK was released on December 15, 2001, almost 60 years exactly after the Attack on Pearl Harbor, which I doubt was pure coincidence.

Shin Godzilla, on the flip side, is a satirical film. It’s a commentary on the lack of initiative and strong decision-making on the part of the Japanese government and how trying to pass responsibility is selfish and can lead to catastrophic results. So, I would say that all three of these films seem to highlight a particular lack of self-care on Japan’s part and that they are willing to invite disasters. However, these films are cautionary tales. In that way, I think it’s apparent that they warn against the continued development of nuclear weapons and atomic energy that could have potentially world-ending results for humanity.

What are your thoughts on the 1998 American Godzilla film – how does it fit into your mythological conception of Godzilla, the meaning of the egg at the end of the film – and how does it align with your thesis?

Firstly, I think the 1998 Godzilla film is a great giant monster movie, just not a great Godzilla film. Nevertheless, the film does pay homage to its predecessors in critical parts of the story – unless I’m wrong, this Godzilla is one of two or three that existed as a “normal” animal before it mutated due to radiation exposure. But that’s the lesson right there, isn’t it? In the film, humans brought about a birth of a new species that had the potential to become the dominant species on the planet. Once again, we were thoughtless and careless and, in the end, killed a new lifeform simply for having been born by our own immorality. And the egg that survives the film, which grows up to be another Godzilla in the film’s animated sequel kid’s show, that creature then becomes embroiled in new ethical and zoological problems. The government tries to use it as a weapon to fight other kaiju mutated by radiation exposure. And aliens come and try to use it to destroy humans. Only Nick Tatopoulus sees Godzilla for what it truly is, just an animal trying to exist. So, I think the 1998 Godzilla still fits as a Godzilla film, as a movie that tries to warn us against unethical practices that could harm ourselves, as a species, and the rest of the world.

If you would suggest one Godzilla film to novices, which would it be?

I would like to say Gojira, but it’s a film from the 1950s with graphics and storytelling of that era. So, it might not be so palatable to modern audiences trying to get into the franchise. Instead, I would suggest the 2014 Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, which started Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse. This iteration of Godzilla takes a more naturalistic view of Godzilla and the other kaiju. They are prehistoric creatures that exist as a natural part of Earth’s global biosphere – they affect Earth’s environments and ecosystems the same as any other animal in our world does. And the moral of these films, as I see it, is that humanity needs to learn to coexist with nature or risk being removed from the equation.

Godzilla: From Allegory to Myth (Powerpoint)

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