The original Godzilla, or Gojira, if you prefer, was released way back in 1954 and has enjoyed not only spectacular success as the progenitor of an ongoing entertainment franchise, but has also won significant critical acclaim and interest far beyond that achieved by other creature features from the 1950s. I grew up watching the Godzilla movies, recording them on VHS from late night screenings on Channel 4, if I remember correctly. Godzilla, Anguirus, King Ghidorah and all their friends continue to entertain me, despite the glaring lack of DVDs available in the UK. Although the series does get very silly at times (talking, dancing, fighting pollution...), that first film is truly something special and deserving of any praise sent its way.
It is common knowledge that the first film was an allegory for the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It is nearly sixty years since these events and perhaps it is important to remember the context. Between the two bombs, an estimated 110,000 to 155,000 people were killed due to the immediate effects, with many more following from injuries and radiation poisoning. I don’t intend to get into the moral choices behind the use of the bomb here, but the effect that this level of death and destruction would have on a population is enormous. In the following years, continued atomic tests in the Pacific would affect Japan, causing irradiated rainfall amongst other reported incidents
And then came Godzilla.
A prehistoric dinosaur that has been living at the bottom of the ocean, Godzilla is only moved to start attacking humans after being disturbed by an atomic test. First appearing in a remote village, where he tallies with local folklore, Godzilla is depicted as an horrific fairy tale for the atomic age. He is an unstoppable force of nature, which has been unleashed by atomic weaponry, leaving a trail of radiation, making swathes of land unusable by human inhabitants. Eventually his journey leads him to Tokyo. The damage caused in his attacks is clearly reminiscent of the bombs, with entire neighbourhoods obliterated and the rest of the city left in flames. Shots of the burning city, with Godzilla silhouetted in the middle of the chaos are haunting.
Unlike in later films, here Godzilla is scary, even when watching it in 2012. He towers over the city, with the majority of shots looking up at him. He attacks at night or in storms so that, even at 150ft tall, he disappears into the darkness. The Godzilla march, his musical theme, is a militaristic, repeating motif which feels like it will keep going no matter what. On some occasions, though, the destruction is shown in eerie near silence. Also, unlike other films in the series, there are victims. Families are killed, people suffer burns and children cry.
Godzilla is a film which allows a society to look at recent painful events and to make a statement on them and how to deal with the issues raised in the future. The film is clear in its abhorrence of atomic weaponry and any weapon of that power.
Fast forward to 2012. Gareth Edwards is making a new Godzilla film and fans are rightly excited. His earlier film, Monsters, was one of the best creature features for a long time and achieved far more on its modest budget than many Hollywood juggernauts have managed. Following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, with questions once again being asked over nuclear technology, it is time, I believe, for the King of the Monsters to return to Japan.
Let us take the initial disaster. The earthquake was, according to some reports, massive enough to alter the Earth’s orbit and rotation. The following tsunami caused staggering amounts of damage and human tragedy, the likes of which it is hard to imagine sitting here on the other side of the planet. The disaster has been addressed in a number of recent films, ranging from documentaries like No Man’s Zone to films like Shion Sono’s Himizu and even anime, such as Gyo: Tokyo Attack Fish. Each of them, however, focuses on only a few aspects of the events and their repercussions. Godzilla could again stand up as a powerful cultural tool in representing the disaster. What metaphor could be better than an ancient creature brought up from the depths of the ocean to wreak havoc and destruction?
The problems with several atomic reactors have also reengaged the discussion over atomic energy, its merits and safety concerns. Again, there are areas of Japan that have been evacuated due to radiation concerns. The circumstances are different, but the arguments are very similar.
Godzilla, it seems, still has some work to do.
Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA is due for release May 16th 2014.
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