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Thursday, April 01, 2004

Analyzing Godzilla

Well, Happy April Fool's; I just finished watching Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. And I don't even feel like a fool for having done that.

Others have already written about what the Godzilla films mean to the Japanese; the line you hear trotted out most often is that the atomic-powered Godzilla represents the deep-seated terror of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This observation no doubt has merit, but while watching GMKG:GMAOA (even the acronym is awkward!), I considered a new wrinkle: perhaps Godzilla represents guilt as much as fear.

Consider this: whenever Godzilla appears, he rises out of the ocean, a horror of the deeps. Slowly, inexorably, he makes his way to Tokyo, the very heart of Japan, where he destroys everything in his paths, killing scores of innocent people.

Ah...but are they indeed innocent? The first Godzilla film came out in 1954, less than a decade after the end of World War II and the atomic holocaust. Bombed into submission, the Japanese were forced to take responsibility for the war in the pacific. They were then occupied and forced to institute a democracy closely patterened after the American model. And since then, the Japanese have struggled to come to grips with the deaths caused by Imperial ambitions.

Godzilla's wrath, significantly, is atomic: his radioactive breath sears deep gashes into the Japanese cityscape, and the various films of the canon are littered with atomic imagery, specifically the white flash of immolation as victims are vaporized by Godzilla's atomic beams.

In All-Out Attack, this idea is made explicit when one of the characters reveals that "the souls of all the victims of the Pacific War" are somehow trapped within Godzilla. It's a throwaway line, and at first I thought it went nowhere.

But at the end of the film, when a heroic submarine commander puts an end to the threat and Godzilla sinks, defeated, to the bottom of the sea, we're treated to one final shot...a slow pan across the ocean floor that reveals a grotestque, pulsing, beating heart. The heart is Godzilla's, of course.

Many B-films feature one last "shock" shot, meant to show that The Menace Is Not Really Gone (TM). But in this case, whether or not the filmmakers intended it, I think this throwaway shot has a second meaning: guilt is not easily dispensed with. It can't be blown away with a rocket or a hail of bullets. Such brute force can suppress it, or drive it away, but the only way to really free yourself of guilt is to deal with what you've done and resolve to do better next time.

The question of Japanese guilt is a controversial one, with some Westerners still claiming that the Japanese have never reallly taken their full share of the responsibility for World War II atrocities. I'm not one of those Westerners, but I do find it interesting that some Japanese, if we are to take their films as evidence, do harbour some guilt to this day. Maybe one day, they'll make a Godzilla film in which the beast is accepted as an intrinsic facet of Japan, and the islanders and the monsters can coexist in some kind of harmony.

Wait, I guess they already did that with those goofy Godzilla films of the 70s, in which Godzilla is a defender instead of a destroyer.

Well, there's another brilliant theory shot to hell.

On a lighter note, I found it very amusing when a group of Japanese tourists spot Baragon, one of the giant monsters featured in the film (though not in the title), and after screaming a bit, stop to pose for photographs with the approaching horror in the background.

That is all.

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