“If we continue to test nuclear weapons, another Godzilla may arise.” The closing line of Honda’s Godzilla, emphasised by a prolonged close-up of the speaker’s face, is proudly overt in its political overtones. Produced in the wake of the 1945 bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Godzilla’s use of an indestructible, prehistoric creature as a metaphor for nuclear warfare is deliberate and sustained throughout. The film follows the awakening of a deep-sea reptile after its habitat is disturbed by nuclear warfare and its subsequent destruction of Japanese cities. When it becomes apparent that the creature is invulnerable to any attacks from traditional or nuclear weapons, a young scientist named Serizawa realises that his own invention, an ‘Oxygen Destroyer’ capable of wiping out an entire coastline’s worth of wildlife, is the only weapon capable of stopping Godzilla. Serizawa struggles over the moral implications of using his invention, knowing that once its existence is known there will always be the potential for its falling into corrupt hands. He finally decides to use his weapon a single time to kill Godzilla, sacrificing himself in the process so his knowledge can never be misused. (189 words)
The Kaiju Genre
Godzilla is the first and best known of the Japanese kaiju films, a genre of disaster movies featuring enormous, violent monsters which terrorise cities. As a response to the nuclear attacks of World War II, the kaiju genre developed as a way of illustrating humanity’s inability to control the devastating forces uncovered in recent science. A kaiju (literally meaning ‘strange creature’) typically uses an enhanced and demonic recreation of a real creature culturally regarded as unpleasant or dangerous – this emphasises the horrified response of the viewer. Godzilla, a mythical dinosaur-like creature, is used to represent man-made weaponry. The grotesque appearance of the monster, mutated and misshapen, points towards the idea of science ‘gone wrong,’ while the fantastical element of Godzilla suggests there is no real part of nature that can compare to the horror of human warfare. However, the kaiju genre, through its use of an unstoppable natural force, inevitably raises issues of humanity’s struggle against natural disasters. While the original intention of Godzilla is to ensure its monster is seen as a representative of the H-Bomb, it’s difficult today to watch the repeated scenes of Godzilla emerging from the water and heading inland without thinking of the Japanese tsunami in 2011.
Animal Presences in the Film
The link between Godzilla and nuclear weaponry is made long before we see the monster itself. While investigating the disappearance of several ships, scientists investigate a deep recess in the beach which has appeared overnight and discover it is irradiated. As the shot pans out, the viewer discovers that this recess is an unfathomably huge footprint – in this breathtaking moment, Honda entwines the sheer magnitude of Godzilla with the realisation that it is also immune to radiation. Not only is this creature larger than anything anyone has ever seen, but it carries with it an invulnerability to the most destructive force in humanity’s arsenal. By representing nuclear energy as a living thing, Godzilla highlights the impossibility of controlling it. A slight mistake made in nuclear testing can result in catastrophic results, and nuclear weapons, when used, are capable of wiping out entire cities and rendering the countryside uninhabitable for decades.
Godzilla is shown rising from the deep sea, where it has lived only as a myth until nuclear testing disturbed its habitat. This is a nod towards the catastrophes that may arise from unregulated nuclear testing – with this, the film predicts real life events such as the Chernobyl disaster. There is also a prediction of the devastation of tsunamis in Japan: because of its position on a fault line, Japan is exposed to tsunamis often, but the mangrove swamps of the coastline were able to act as a buffer to the surge and prevent immense devastation inland. Once these mangrove forests were removed to make space for shrimp farms, this natural protection was lost. Godzilla therefore also acts as a precursory warning for the effects of tampering too heavily with the natural world. The actual visual style of the monster’s emergence from the water heightens the sense of foreboding this film creates. The sea does not appear natural, but is dark and eerily still, and when the monster rises from beneath it is with a slow but unstoppable certainty – its head rises painstakingly from the water and it arches it back, as if nonchalantly, before making its way towards the shore. This footage is recycled several times throughout the film, every time Godzilla strikes, but while this may appear jarring to a modern audience used to highly produced cinema, it does create sense of impending doom through its repetition.
The use of a sea creature adds to the terror of the first section of the film, before the monster is presented in the flesh – the concept of an enormous underwater monster terrorising sailors has been used in folklore all over the world, playing on our ingrained fear of the unknown and ‘what lurks beneath’. The use of a sea creature also makes ties with the science fictional element of the film. In one scene, the scientists gather to talk about the possibility of this deep-sea menace being a prehistoric dinosaur, using comparisons with real fossils to heighten the believability. (Admittedly, this particular scene does appear far-fetched to a modern audience – their estimate of the trilobite’s age is 300 million years out of date.)
However, where the film really illustrates its argument against the use of nuclear weaponry is with Godzilla’s attack on the cities. Honda takes the old myth of a giant underwater monster and makes it all the more terrifying by bringing it into our own living space. If there is a reason given for the creature’s attack, it is not vocalised: as a reptile, it does not carry the emotive connotations of more ‘human-like’ monsters such as King Kong. It does not appear angry, or afraid, but continues to tear down pylons and crush fleeing civilians underfoot with unblinking eyes and seemingly no purpose. The audience is left wondering if Godzilla is taking revenge upon humanity for destroying its habitat, yet it is impossible to find a conclusive answer as the monster is completely devoid of any indication of enjoyment in what it does. Its cumbersome movements, though a product of technical limitations with animatronics in 1954, actually heighten this effect. There is no urgency or vengeance to his attack, but the monster continues to plough on through the city regardless of the Japanese army’s attempts to prevent him. The image of this enormous creature barely reacting as it is engulfed in explosions provides an excellent centre-piece for the argument against nuclear warfare; it is a form of warfare unlike any other – it cannot be combated, but is widespread, complete destruction without discrimination or any regard for civilian life.
Here, the form of the kaiju come into play, as there is no real creature that is fully capable of creating this level of awe and horror – only a fictional creature is able to represent the incomprehensible enormity of the destruction caused by nuclear warfare. Godzilla takes elements from real-life and mythical creatures that the audience finds terrifying and exaggerates them – we are presented with the appearance of an enormous dinosaur or crocodiles combined with the mystery and terror of a deep sea giant such as a squid or whale. There are also hints of folklore, as Godzilla breathes fire like a dragon and is described by a village elder as an ancient beast that demands virgin sacrifices to appease it. This combination and exaggeration of animal traits makes Godzilla appear less animal, more sheer force. The usual empathy that viewers feel for animals in film is gone with Godzilla; its hard to pity the beast as it is is finally destroyed by Serizawa, as it does not have any of the implied emotional connections that we may feel for a ‘real’ animal. There is no sense of it doing what it must to survive, only a continuous, mechanic destruction, without any desire to feed or protect itself. In this way, the kaiju film is able to use an animal presence as an abstract political symbol, without invoking concerns over the depiction of wiping out the last of a species.
Representation of Animals in the Film
Because Godzilla cannot be seen as a ‘true’ living creature with vulnerabilities, desires and needs, its representation as an animal presence is unlike many other representations of animals in films. Godzilla does not focus on the morality of human-animal interactions, but uses the threat of a destructive animal to discuss the morality of inter-human relations. For example, we are not invited to pity Godzilla for the destruction of his habitat, as the creature is not imbued with enough human-like characteristics to induce the empathy viewers often feel with animals in film. The animal presence is used only as a representation of the destructive forces of science and nature. As a modern viewer, the comparisons that can be drawn between Godzilla and the tsunami of 2011 are particularly intriguing. As an unstoppable force that comes inland as a result of disturbances underwater, Godzilla can be seen as a representative not only of warfare but of natural disasters too. In this case, the experimentation of mankind leads to natural disasters which may otherwise have been prevented. Referring back to the destruction of mangrove swamps reducing Japan’s resistance against the sea, the film’s depiction of the havoc wreaked by Godzilla is actually reminiscent of scenes seen in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami:
The animal presence in this film, therefore, can be seen not only to represent the moral issues of man’s experiments with nuclear warfare, but also the unstoppable power of nature over humanity when we intervene and the natural balance is disrupted.
Links with other Animal Films
The film featuring animals which Godzilla is most often compared to is King Kong. The similarities are easily seen – both films feature an enormous, never-before-seen creature attacking a city. For me, the comparisons end there. The character of ‘Kong’ is highly emotional, and has a clear animalistic purpose in its destruction: his desire to possess the beautiful woman is an exaggeration of a male creature’s violent determination to breed. Godzilla, as said, shows no emotion in its destruction, has no animalistic desires, and no vulnerabilities. I feel King Kong is much more a film about animal-human relationships, whereas Godzilla uses an animal to illustrate flaws in humanity. A film which correlates more with the scientific themes of Godzilla is Jurassic Park. Spielberg addresses the same issues of unchecked scientific experimentation and advancement, and, like Honda, depicts the destructive force of enormous prehistoric creatures to emphasize the lack of control man has over nature. Though Jurassic Park’s visuals are significantly more advanced than Godzilla’s, certain scenes are reminiscent of the horror tactics used by Honda. Jurassic Park plays with the idea of haplessness and claustrophobia when two children are stuck in a sinking car while a T. Rex is trying to get at them: a similar scene is seen in Godzilla, where the monster seizes a train carriage and destroys it with the passengers still in it. Godzilla’s portrayal of the utter defenceless of the human race is so effective at inducing fear in the audience that its visual style has been emulated in other kaiju and disaster films ever since.
The visuals of these particular two scenes differ in the emotion they create in the audience, however. When the characters of Jurassic Park are threatened by T. Rex, we see close-ups of their faces, their hands desperately grasping for escape, a shot of the dinosaur’s teeth from the children’s viewpoint – this focus on the characters themselves ensures that we fear for the safety of them as individuals. In Godzilla, there is a distancing effect in his destruction. When he destroys the train, the size of the crowd and the distance of the camera from the action means that we do not actually know the identities of the characters killed, and therefore feel less empathy. The result of this is a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt, where the audience witnesses horror with a surreal detachment and is therefore able to analyse the symbolism of a scene without the bias of emotion. This is employed successfully in Godzilla, as the film’s intention is to politically engage the audience.
Godzilla. Dir. Ishirō Honda.Toho, 1954
King Kong. Dir. Merian C. Cooper. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933
Jurassic Park. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 1993
Suggestions for Further Reading
 Godzilla director Gareth Edwards explains the symbolism of kaiju <https://io9.com/godzilla-director-gareth-edwards-explains-the-symbolism-902734240> [accessed November 27th, 2013.]Gojira: The Art of Stomping <https://www.cultreviews.com/horror-101/gojira/> [accessed November 27th, 2013.]
 Kaiju Conversations: An Interview with Godzilla: Hauro Nakajima <https://www.historyvortex.org/NakajimaInterview.html > [accessed November 27th, 2013.]