Godzilla Vs. Hollywood
I took a film analysis class for my GE’s last quarter on East Asian cinema. For one of the assignments, we had to watch the original Godzilla and then compare it to the version that got released a month and a half ago. I figure it’s been long enough for the hype to wear off, so nobody will care. That’s why I’m posting this now. Enjoy.
Godzilla Vs. Hollywood
Gojira is undoubtedly to the Nuclear Age what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was to the dawn of the Industrial and Electric Age. The creature Godzilla has since its debut sixty years ago stood as a symbol of how human folly begets perils and horrors beyond our capability to manage. Despite, or maybe because of its commodity fetishizement and franchisement, it is a symbol not likely to go away. That does not mean the original film’s meaning survives largely intact, as the most recent appropriation by an American director has shown. It’s important to get some sense of that original meaning not merely to say ‘How dare you bastardize this’ but to see what the one leaves out from the original and also adds to it. When one sees those quantities removed and added, it’s important to ask why such decisions were taken and try to see in what context they were taken. That discussion about why certain things are presented or not presented in a film is the discussion I feel is important.
In 1954, a little less than a decade after the searing hell of atomic fire that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ishiro Honda’s classic science fiction film Gojira was released. Honda, a friend and collaborator with Akira Kurosawa, sets forth a story about a creature stirred from Cyclopean depths by a nuclear explosion. The creature, Godzilla, repeatedly ravages coastal cities and retreats to his home in the depths while a scientist, Serizawa, struggles with the knowledge of a weapon that could counter the beast but which may prove to be more dangerous than it. After all other attempts fail to destroy or deter Godzilla, Serizawa comes to a decision to use his device, which collapses oxygen atoms in a more deadly reaction than atomic fission, on Godzilla. Serizawa burns all the research which lead to his weapon. Once he dives underwater and deploys the device that successfully kills Godzilla, he cuts off his oxygen supply and drowns, taking the last of the knowledge of his weapon to the grave. The film ends with the survivors warning that another atomic explosion could awaken another beast like Godzilla. Implied by that statement would be the need for another deterrent against another Godzilla. The creator of such a future deterrent might not be willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent mankind from having it. The film’s message, therefore, is that horrors such as atomic weapons beget horrors that multiply and escalate in response to each other. It is therefore a very anti-aggression, anti-nuclear, pacifist message.
Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards and released in this year of 2014, is an American reboot of the film. The film follows a Navy explosives disposal expert called Ford, whose father Joe was a technician at a Japanese nuclear power plant until an earthquake-triggered catastrophe a la Fukushima killed his wife. Joe became obsessed with the accident that killed his wife, details not adding up, and when he is arrested for trespassing near the site of his old job, his son Ford is summoned and they are whisked away to a secret organization where Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai fame, playing the namesake of Serizawa, explains that the cause of the nuclear plant’s failure was of course Godzilla and other monsters. The atomic tests in the Pacific after the Second World War were actually attempts at killing or suppressing the beasts, which are primordial titans who feasted on the energy of an earlier more radioactive earth. Watanabe’s Serizawa then spends the rest of the film begging Ford and the U.S. Government to stop chasing the beasts around with nuclear weapons as they feed of of the energy and instead let Godzilla take care of the other monsters. They eventually decide to let Godzilla clash with the other beasts and the King of Monsters, emerging victorious, slumps back into the briny depths to the cheers of people who call him their savior. The film’s message is not so clear, though in a later bit of text I’ll try to give an interpretation.
Of course the most obvious difference between the films is in the behavior of the people. Serizawa of the original film sacrifices himself to keep knowledge worse than Godzilla out of human hands, which obviously can’t handle it because they with their nuclear weapons were responsible for Godzilla in the first place. No matter what other reactions he has, like refusing to deploy the weapon against Godzilla because his ex-fiancee begs him to use it after she just revealed her love for another man, the fact that the weapon is horrible and he doesn’t want to use it remains at the core of his motivations. That isn’t to say other factors are excluded, but it is the lynchpin. Compare that to the American version, where everything the non-Watanabe leads do is about family. Ford wants to protect his wife and kid and Joe wants to have retribution for his wife and throughout the film it’s as if that’s the most important thing. It’s been my experience with this film and with many contemporary American films that this seems to be a requirement; that the main characters, especially the white ones, have to have their family as the primal motivation for everything they do. It’s as if in Hollywood the idea of responsibility to society isn’t something natural or logical but something that’s noble and difficult to give; that it has to be done consciously because we don’t normally think about society as a whole.
Other than human relationships, the cause and effect of and solutions to the monsters are radically different. In the Japanese film, humans caused the beast to awaken with our atomic fire and we sent it back with a weapon even worse. In the American film, we again do cause the beast to awaken with atomic fire and in fact it releases not only one monster, but three. The heroes chase after the monsters, a failed nuclear solution is almost tried again, but in the end the Oriental wisdom of Ken Watanabe’s character wins out and the heroes let Godzilla kill off the other monsters and he of course politely goes away. So in the end the American Godzilla negates an anti-nuclear message by saying that “Yes, well, these dangerous things we made caused monsters to spawn, but they sorted themselves out on their own.” Compare that to “These dangerous things we made caused monsters to spawn and we need to risk unleashing even worse weapons on the world to stop them.”
There lie the significant differences between the films. What is now left is to ask why they are as they are. The reasons the Japanese film was made are quite clear and quite obvious. So my focus is to ask why the American version was made in this way at this time. This is an open question, but it’s one I urge people to think about. What will follow below is my personal assessment. To state again and hopefully a bit more simply, the American film leaves out the anti-nuclear and pacifist message about the consequences of such obscenely deadly weapons. The American film also throws in other monsters for Godzilla to fight before peacefully returning to where he came from, thereby absolving ourselves of repercussions for nuclear weapons by the lesson that the consequences work themselves out.
My assessment of the American film is obviously not a favorable one. My position is that no one has the right to nuclear weapons and their presence breeds escalation of a grave threat to all of human life. I base this on evidence too staggering to be practically described here. If you’re curious, look up the history of barely averted nuclear holocausts even from the early 1990s onwards. The figures from between Russia and the United States alone are horrifying. The Fukushima disaster and Chernobyl are damning evidence enough. Gojira made a very powerful and valid point and it is completely overwritten by this new film. Why make such a film in such a way at such a time? Obama is now advocating for more nuclear power plants, for one, which I think plays into this. Appropriating the most culturally pervasive anti-nuclear statement of the twentieth century, which happens by no coincidence to be Japanese, is not just a gross insult to the culture and history of that place and also the victims of that history, but it is in my eyes a purposeful and forceful sentiment. The aura around this film before its release, with its red Kanji on inkwash painting-like movie posters was that it was making Godzilla “the right way.” As few details were given as possible first to shroud it in mystery and second as a barrier to criticism preempting the film’s power. It’s just supposed to tower over you and awe you with Godzilla walking into the sea a hero. To me, Godzilla looked a bit like Saddam or the Shah or Pinochet or anyone else the American government has backed over the years: bloated on our toxic weapons and pushing smaller monsters around for us, never mind the people under foot. I think one thing would have redeemed the film. Godzilla should have turned around in the last minute of the film and gone back to the city to rampage and everyone should have realized that they couldn’t do anything about it. I would have made that the last minute of the film and ended it there abruptly. That would’ve been the Lovecraftian way of getting the original film’s message out, but obviously Hollywood isn’t going to let that happen. Of course, what we get is a message about how our actions as a species do have consequences, but they magically work themselves out without us having to really change our behavior. In an age of dire threat to our species from nuclear annihilation and looming climate catastrophe, I think that kind of propaganda is bordering on criminally irresponsible.
Now, I’ve been harsh on the film and maybe you readers liked it. I’d like you to take my opinion as just that: one opinion. What I’d hope you do, however, is compare for yourself what the differences between the films are and ask yourself why such differences exist. You might find something completely different than what I’m saying, but it’s important to ask. The issues we face today are dire and require a lot of thought to engage. I think writing such a big budget film off as pure escapism is bankrupt. We have to engage these things because whether we see it or not, I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they’re trying to engage us.