5 Ways The New Japanese ‘Godzilla’ Reinvents Monster Movies
The monsters in monster movies have always sort of held the moral high ground. I know it sounds weird, but there's usually a lesson at the end (especially in Japanese monster movies) that boils down to "Maybe we're the monsters in this situation." The newest Godzilla movie, Shin Godzilla, is the first Japanese-made Godzilla movie to be released (though limited) in the US in quite some time ... and it flips those old moral ideas from the original movies on their charred lizard heads. For fans of the series -- and monster movies as a whole -- that is a huge deal. It's a gigantic change in tradition, and it's not just a surface level modification. This is actually a reflection of a major change in Japanese culture and politics. This is the movie that took Godzilla from creature feature to Japanese fight song.
To understand why that change is important, we have to start with what the original flicks were trying to say ...
The Monsters Have Usually Been Right
Take a look at King Kong. He was perfectly happy beating up dinosaurs, devouring any tribute that was pushed through the wall to him, and trying to make a good first impression on the blonde girl he just met. But then capitalism burst into his life, dragged him to New York, and forced him into theatre.
Idiot. Everybody knows that there's no money in theatre.
Consider Mothra. These tiny twin girls appear and basically warn people, "Maybe consider not fucking with nature so much, because Mothra HATES people who fuck with nature." But people are like, "That's cool, except we LOVE fucking with nature." So Mothra shows up and wrecks them. Usually, people have to rely on coming up with their own monster metaphors before they're able to arrive at the conclusion that bombs are bad. Mothra had actual emissaries telling people the theme of the movie they were in, and those morons still didn't listen.
They practically read the CliffsNotes out to you, and you still failed the test.
Even Rodan is better than his human co-stars. The first half of that movie is about a town that is being devoured by huge bugs. Turns out that Rodan, a giant pterosaur, is eating all of those man-eating bugs. How does man repay him? By trying to kill the crap out of him. And when two Rodans show up and one is killed, the remaining one kills itself so that it won't be lonely. I bet you feel like garbage now, huh, humans?
He jumps on the buildings because deep down, he's sad.
Finally, you have Godzilla, who debuted in 1954 as a reminder of the horrors brought into the world by rampant nuclear testing. The military is powerless before him, and only a weird, lovelorn inventor with an eye patch can create a weapon strong enough to beat him. And then the inventor kills himself, because he knows that if he stays alive, the idea for his ultra weapon will inevitably fall into the wrong hands. This is all in a movie in which a stunt man in a sweaty lizard suit bats his claws at model planes. The main character in the greatest film ever made about the dangers of atomic weapons is the one that tries to eat a train.
"I'd really like to not die, but I know that you guys are gonna screw this up somehow."
From there, Godzilla would go on to stand in for various things. He's represented how futile man's plans are in the face of nature. He's represented how man shouldn't go messing with science that they don't fully understand. And he's represented the fact that sometimes you need to put your faith in a questionable but extraordinary thing if you ever hope to survive an onslaught of space demons. That last one? Super relevant.
And throughout his series, there's always been a certain amount of reverence paid to Godzilla. Even in the infamous 1998 American film, where the lead actor's main attribute was literally "has a stupid, unpronounceable name," it was pretty clear that Godzilla was greater than all of us. The same thing goes for the 2014 American film, which bent over backwards to tell us, "No, Godzilla is a good guy. Like, a really good guy. He fights other monsters. He balances the world. He gave my son chemistry tutoring and didn't ask for payment. He's such a nice, genuine dude."
"I can drive the kids to soccer practice, Linda. It's really no problem."
The Monster That Crushes Cities Is Ethically Infallible
Japan hasn't released a Godzilla film since 2004. A lot of people probably imagine that Godzilla films usually do mega business over there, because people think of Japan as a place where you eat ramen, bone your anime body pillow, and are legally required to go to a new Godzilla film every night. But they don't. And they haven't for a long time. Their success can best be described as "remarkably uneven." Usually, the series will see diminishing returns, and they'll put the beast in hibernation for a while, until they bring him back. They get more money because people are excited to see him, but people get less excited as the movies go on. More diminishing returns. Repeat.
And throughout these films, the people of Japan have always been shown to be prideful, but also very humble at the same time. And the heroes of these movies are the ones who see Godzilla in the same way that filmmakers try to get audiences to see him. The good guys view him as something bigger than man's limited comprehension of him. He should be studied. He should be avoided, if possible, but he should not be killed, because he's a wonder. Think of all the cool stuff you could learn from him! Japan's people are the grandkids dropped off at their grandfather Godzilla's house, and the protagonist scientists are the parents. "If you just give him a chance, he could show you a lot of things you never knew! I know he's old and 300 feet tall, but he has some wisdom in him."
"Hop on, kiddo, and I'll tell you about the time that I represented man's destructive tendencies."
And when Godzilla heads back out to sea at the end of the film, the message is clear: We should be really glad that we didn't kill him. He taught us a lot about how rad monsters can be. He taught us a lot about how we shouldn't just throw weapons at anything we don't like. He taught us a lot about ourselves. And he taught us a lot about how to handle a Mechagodzilla. Half the city is gone, but in the end, I think our new knowledge trumps the importance of how much money it's gonna take to rebuild all this shit.
We got this moral for the better part of 50 years. Fifty years of "Listen to Godzilla. But more importantly, listen to Godzilla's heart."
Before, Japan Didn't Even Seem That Into Fighting Godzilla
After World War II, Japan was demilitarized as hell. Article 9 in the Constitution of Japan, which was put into effect in 1947, basically said that an army that could potentially go into war is not gonna fly. In an effort to maintain peace, however, they set up the Japan Self-Defense Force, which was vehemently anti-nuke. This is the climate that Godzilla was born in. And this is the climate that is displayed in many Godzilla films.
Just poppin' in to lecture us about our earthly responsibilities for a bit.
People imagine that a big part of every Godzilla film is his inevitable duel with some very crushable military hardware. And this is in a ton of Godzilla films, but there's rarely any fetishizing of it. They don't go out of their way to list the names or the specifications of the tanks, jets, and maser cannons that they deploy against whatever Anguirus or King Ghidorah that they're facing that day. Their big, and often futile, coup de grace plan (which usually amounts to "We dug a big fuckin' pit, put mines in it, and we hope Godzilla just walks straight into it"), barely gets any explanation as well.
And as I mentioned, the heroes are never the military guys or the politicians. They're the reporters or the scientists. They're the ones who understand that plans -- especially plans which involve powerful nuclear weapons -- are clumsy, stupid things. The useful plans are the ones that involve whatever weird invention a side character built prior to the movie that no one understood until now. Some dude's special, super strong invisible wire, or sonic oscillator, or something. Only the misunderstood man can defeat the misunderstood monster. The army and the government are gonna throw away lives and equipment, but what will really work is this hunk of metal that an insane person invented for previous non-Godzilla reasons.
If a monster had never come, this thing would probably be in some dude's garage.
Shin Godzilla Changes Most Everything We Know About Godzilla
Shin Godzilla, aka Shin Gojira, aka Godzilla Resurgence, is the 31st film in the series, and so far, the highest-grossing non-animated Japanese movie in 2016. It's also the highest-grossing Japanese-produced Godzilla film of all time. And when it got a limited release in America, I was super excited for it. A new Godzilla movie written and co-directed by the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion? Can I just forward my whole bank account to this movie? And even when I saw the preview images of Godzilla in which he looked like someone had forgotten that he was in the oven, I was still pumped. Because no matter how different Godzilla looked, I was primed to see some awesome Japanese Godzilla action.
And I did! Sort of!
Please don't take the rest of this the wrong way. This movie rocked my balls off.
Shin Godzilla has a ton of cool stuff in it. And the image of Godzilla, glowing red from all of the radioactivity that he has coursing through his ... other radioactivity, stomping through Tokyo at night is the best that he's ever looked. He also evolves over the course of the film, like a Pokemon, except Godzilla doesn't fit into any established Pokemon types. He's not really "Fire" or "Dragon." He's more of a "Kill Everything Thoughtlessly And Keep Moving" type. Really upsets the balance of the game.
But one of the most prominent ways that Shin Godzilla differs from the other Godzilla films is that, along with his really unique look, he doesn't have the traditional Godzilla personality. He's not an atomic nightmare vision of some piece of Japanese folklore, nor is he a crime-fighting dinosaur that wants Japan all to himself. And there's no attempt made to explain him as some creature that's worthy of significant study past "How do we murder it?" He's just a glowing hell god walking through the city. He's a freak that's just waiting for someone to create something strong enough to kick his ass.
And that makes it way easier to not root for him.
Spoiler: The helicopters do not help.
You see, in this movie, Godzilla is not a reminder for tiny humans to check themselves and realize that they should be more willing to learn that they don't control everything. Shin Godzilla is a reminder that you should try to control things better. He's a call to action. Shin Godzilla's message is that you need to get your shit together if you want to stop a problem. Unlike past movies, every air and sea and ground assault vehicle is copiously named. I say "copiously" because whenever a new one shows up, its name is emblazoned on the screen. This is a far cry from the days of Godzilla facing "wheels with a gun attached to it."
According to Godzilla movies, making laser cannons is Japan's #1 business.
And the biologists and scientists? Well, they're still there, but they mostly exist to inform the main character, a politician, about ways that he could possibly choose to take down Godzilla. Gone is the exiled but ultimately redeemed science geek who finally chooses to help out. In his place is a guy whom the rest of the Japanese scientists and military people look to, because unlike the bumbling ministers, he seems to be able to get things done.
And so it isn't a small group of outsiders that finally stops Godzilla, but all of the outsiders left alive finally acquiescing to using this politician's bitchin' plan, rather than nuke Godzilla like the Americans want to. And with nukes being a major issue in the last act of the film, you'd think that maybe we'd get a stance that nukes are bad, and if we use our equipment smartly and efficiently, we won't need to use them.
Unless we keep building stuff like a row of electrical towers. Then we'll probably have to use them.
And again, we do, sort of. We're constantly reminded of the tragedy of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the end amounts to "If Godzilla wakes back up, he's probably gonna have to be nuked, and that's just how it's gotta be, I guess." The movie ends with a dude thinkin' 'bout nukes, rather than a stern but gentle voiceover outright telling viewers, "Godzilla's beat, and nukes are very, very bad. And we should never use them, because they will lead to worse things than a Godzilla. LIKE TWO GODZILLAS."
And It Sets Up Japan, Not Godzilla, As The Hero
Recently, in the wake of the 2011 earthquake / Fukushima reactor / tsunami disaster, and with countries around them acting threatening, Article 9 was revised to allow Japan to support allies in times of war, which isn't what a lot of Japanese people wanted. And that is the climate that Shin Godzilla was born into, which causes it to almost directly counter the moral of many monster movies before it.
*metaphorical record scratch*
Godzilla films have poked fun at America before. Hell, in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, a "Godzillasaurus" saves Japanese soldiers from American soldiers in World War II. And in Final Wars, the Japanese Godzilla hastily kills the much-loathed American one in a scene which I'm sure was cool to somebody. But Shin Godzilla makes the "those wacky Americans" joke, and then makes it again a dozen more times. The U.S. is not simply a human presence in Shin Godzilla, even with the inclusion of a U.S. diplomat character. No, the U.S. hauntingly looms over everything, and Shin Godzilla is Japan saying, "Get off our fucking back for once."
For a movie with such massive stakes, there seems to be a remarkable lack of dialogue between countries. The U.S. is on its way to nuke Godzilla for what feels like four hours, so by the time a non-nuke solution stops the monster, the whole ending is a tentative sigh of relief. America, not Godzilla, is still out there, ready to nuke whatever it feels like, and most non-American countries have to find some way to prove that it's unnecessary. That's what makes the ending so goddamn powerful. Instead of a "Nukes are bad" mantra, we get Japan flexing its muscles back at the world. "Yeah, we can solve shit too. You don't need to handle our matters for us, because we got this."
The court of Who We Gonna Lay Out Next is now in session.
It's almost the cartoonish equivalent of that bully who would punch something and then say, "That's what I'd do to your face." Except it's not a bully. It's Japan, which been demilitarized for years after America blew fucking craters into it twice. And they do all of this at the expense of Godzilla, who in the span of the movie's running time, is reduced from a legend and unstoppable super monster to a huge, deadly science experiment. He is there to prove a point.
There is a lot of dumb, awesome monster movie in this awesome monster movie, but unlike most Godzilla films, which are usually remembered as "the one where he flew" or "the one where he fought a plant," this one will be remembered as "the one where he lost in a good way." He lost with Japan standing over him, lifting their middle finger to the sky. They can take Godzilla. They appreciate the "help," you nuke-happy bastards, but they don't need it.
*drops mic, crushing most of Tokyo*
Daniel has a blog.
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