Political Monster: The Secret Messages in Godzilla Movies

The new Japanese 'Shin Godzilla' is the most politically charged kaiju flick yet.


Radioactive waves rip across the bay, tunnels collapse on innocent commuters, and massive city blocks crumble as the ferocious monster — nuclear heat vents across its torso, dorsal spikes the size of small boats along its back —stomps through Tokyo. As the world’s most populated metropolitan area is laid low by this mysterious and pissed off force of nature, Japan’s old government bureaucrats putz around, concerning themselves more with the procedural rules of their emergency meeting than with the chaos enveloping their country.

Shin Godzilla, the 29th film starring the infamous, irradiated beast, is probably the most political movie in the franchise since the original was released in 1954. Directed by Hideaki Anno, the new film has plenty of infrastructure-crushing carnage, but its true focus is on those laying the foundation for a new Japan. As Japan considers its place next to a bulked-up China and increasingly belligerent North Korea, Shin Godzilla seems designed to radiate a confidence in country’s future. The blockbuster, which was a huge hit in Japanese theaters this summer (and comes out in America on Tuesday as Godzilla Resurgence), calls for change in the face of outsized and frankly frightening obstacles. Incompetent bureaucrats are replaced by clear-eyed, young defenders of the realm, and the message is clear: The monsters of the past and present can be defeated by heroes of the future.

In effect, Shin Godzilla completes a 60-year emotional and national arc. Japan is shown developing new attitudes toward its military, its biggest ally, and its energy sector. The film doesnt provide total resolution, but it does move beyond the chaos of the 20th century in a way that seems to augur changes for both a nation and a monster.

“The film shows the divide between the old generation — who it suggests are washed up and don’t know how to handle a crisis — and the younger and more idealistic generation,” says Steve Ryfle, the author of the Godzilla encyclopedia Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star and an upcoming book about original Godzilla director Ishiro Honda. “The young people are shown to have learned from the mistakes of their forefathers and also to have a more positive, proud attitude toward their country. They are willing to do anything to save it.

For much of the original Godzilla series, which ran between 1954 and 1974, the military was largely inept, crushed over and over by the ever-increasing number of giant monsters that invaded the unlucky island nation. That began to change in the early 2000s, and Shin Godzilla represents the biggest leap in the military’s on-screen capability.

“As the filmmakers brought Godzilla back over and over again,” Ryfle says, “they have used the monster as a symbol of something happening in Japan at the time, or it would reflect the times.

That is certainly true when it comes to the military; the old failures and newer triumphs are reflective of the realities facing Japan’s real-world armed forces.

For several years, Japan’s conservative government has publically vacillated on whether or not to amend its pacifist postwar constitution. Since the 1950s, Japan has not had a standing army or a military force designed for anything beyond disaster response. Recently re-elected Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has already begun to change that with Japanese soldiers now permitted overseas, and so it’s no wonder that he has championed Shin Godzilla, which shows Japanese Self-Defense Force troops bravely staring down near-certain doom. The film’s young hero is a defiant government deputy minister who works around bureaucracy and calls the JSDF “the last fortress” against Godzilla. The movie is barely even an allegory.

Shin Godzilla does not offer an overt endorsement of re-armament — the JSDF really only plays a supporting role — but it also doesn’t shy away from inserting itself into the national conversation. That makes sense given Godzilla’s history of involvement with the Japanese debate over the consequences of militarization.

In the 1980s, Japan’s government worked to soften the way school textbooks explained the country’s aggression and culpability for World War II. Though the attempt was aborted, the debate over how much responsibility the country should take for its human rights violations continued on through the ‘90s and early 2000s. Despite its long and very campy-sounding name, the 2001 film Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, addresses that exact issue — with monsters, as always.

“Godzilla [in All-Out Attack] is the living embodiment of the Japanese war dead, and the Japanese are really trying to figure out what to do with the knowledge that even though they were victimized by the atomic bombs, they were also very a legitimate aggressor, committed numerous war crimes, and so on,” says Jason Barr, the author of The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters. “So all that is starting to trickle into the Japanese mainstream.”

As Barr points out, 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla also focused Japan’s war legacy, and a kaiju built by the government — the third Mechagodzilla — represents the danger of re-armament when it awakens and becomes uncontrollable for a time. It also suggests the dangers of science driven by warfare, a callback to the original Godzilla, which was resolved by a horrible weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer; its inventor kills himself, along with Godzilla, so that the government cannot torture him to get the plans for the device.

The American occupation of Japan formally ended in 1952 and, with it, restrictions on local media that addressed the devastation of the war and catastrophic destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki also went away. A succession of movies about nuclear assault, including one by Akira Kurosawa, were released in the following years as national grief was finally expressed publicly. Godzilla was the most successful of these movies. Inspired by both the atomic bombings and the ongoing hydrogen bomb tests the U.S. was conducting in the Pacific, it was less a monster movie than a film about human tragedy that just so happened to feature a monster.

“There’s one scene where the camera pans across this hospital with all these people who have been injured by Godzilla’s presence, and it’s just incredibly sad and the doctors are just realizing there’s nothing they can do for certain people,” says Barr. “And that is very much a reflection of the pain that the Japanese were still feeling from the atomic bomb.”

Over the years, the monsters changed and Japanese resentment of the United States was more frequently addressed in alien invasion movies. Over and over in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in films such as Invasion of the Astro-Monster and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, nefarious visitors from outer space sought to trick and conquer the Japanese. As Barr notes in his book, American pressure on the Japanese to stop trade with China during the Cold War, as well as its use of Okinawa as a base of operations for the Vietnam War, drove a national conversation about self-determination.

The 1973 movie Godzilla vs. Megalon was an expression of both anger with America and expression of Japan’s growing import on the world stage. Nuclear tests in the Pacific cause enough damage to an ancient undersea civilization that it lets loose several monsters bent on destroying the surface of the ocean. It’s only Japan, and its guardian (by the late ‘60s, Godzilla had been temporarily transformed into a protector of Japan) that stops them.

A year later, in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla hit theaters, frustration had boiled over, and the message was even more explicit. Despite the movie being considered rather cheesy, the plot was a very thinly veiled metaphor: Aliens invade Okinawa with a souped up, more dangerous version of Japan’s favorite monster. The real Godzilla gets help from King Caesar, the kaiju protector of Okinawa, and chases the aliens away. Mechagodzilla, however, came back a year later in Terror of Mechagodzilla, when the aliens blackmailed a scientist to give them an even more powerful weapon that required help from Europe to take down.

The subject of American meddling bubbled to the surface again in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, the series’ first revival after Toho gave its star kaiju a decade of rest. The film, in hindsight, marked a sort of midway point between the original and Shin Godzilla. In Return, the radioactive monster emerges to crush Tokyo, and Japan is caught in the middle of a diplomatic power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. The Russians and Americans both want to nuke the resurgent Godzilla, and each tries to show off their military might during meetings with Japanese officials.

That the nuclear missiles aimed at Tokyo were being launched from space was no accident; as Ryfle notes, this was around the time Ronald Reagan was touting his Star Wars missile defense system, which would have taken down nukes from satellites stationed around Earth’s orbit.

“Japan was sort of at the back geopolitically, with the two big people in the backyard messing around essentially,” Barr explains. “With Godzilla, he’s there, but he’s not the worst thing that’s bothering them. A lot of the film is the result of Japan saying, if they give us enough time and let us think about this and sort of put a sort of scientific eye on these problems, we’ll solve them.”

Several years later, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah served as a more direct critique of America’s Japan policy, as well as a boast of Japanese ingenuity. After opening scenes depicting Japanese soldiers bravely fighting against invading American soldiers in 1944 (they’re rescued by Godzilla’s ancestor), white people from the future travel back in time from 2204 to destroy Japan. Why? Well, Japan, in this movie’s timeline, is destined to become the world’s greatest economic superpower. That seemed like a good bet in 1991, right before the Yen bubble burst and the country became mired in the Lost Decade.

It took some time, given the economic problems and introspection of the next few decades, but Shin Godzilla is a return to that kind of confidence.

“In the first film, the legislators are afraid to confront the United States and, in this new film, we see an idealized version of Japan that is more than willing to push back and defy the United States,” Ryfle says. “The United States in Shin Godzilla comes across as this overbearing giant bully telling Japan what to do, saying, ‘You’re going to have to evacuate Tokyo and we’re going to nuke Godzilla with a hydrogen bomb.’ Young people find an alternative solution and show defiance of the United States.”

The 1971 film Godzilla vs. Hedorah, was called Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster in the United States, and with good reason: Hedorah grows from a small alien microbe into a gigantic sentient blob of malignant waste matter, a living embodiment of “massive industrial advances coming home to roost,” Ryfle says.

Indeed, during a decade of furious production, overworked Japanese factories dumped voluminous amounts of toxic waste into rivers and open land. Godzilla became a champion of the burgeoning environmentalist movement, as he literally tore the Smog Monster apart.

The perils of nuclear energy did come up in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, which introduced the biggest, angriest kaiju the series had seen up to that point. Godzilla stood no chance against Destoroyah until Godzilla’s internal nuclear reactor began to overheat and melt down, pumping it full of short-term strength and fury. In that film, Ryfle suggests, Godzilla is a stand-in for events like Chernobyl — and what would happen domestically over a decade later in Fukushima. As Godzilla melts down and dies after the battle, Tokyo is in ruins, and things seem somber, until a new kaiju successor rises from the ashes of its predecessor.

Shin Godzilla is a spiritual successor to that film, using the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor as its subtext. Godzilla is extra-radioactive in this film, leaving a trail of poison in the air wherever it goes. Then it freezes in Tokyo mid-film to recharge its nuclear core after a particularly violent tantrum.

“It’s standing like a giant statue in the middle of a destroyed city,” Ryfle says, “a parallel to the destroyed remains of the Fukushima reactor, which is still standing there and cant be removed.”

The goal in the movie isn’t to destroy Godzilla so much as disable and limit the pain that it causes going forward. There is no great solution, only damage control, with some human suffering inevitable.

The country’s economic might has been reflected in Godzilla films that run the gamut from cautionary satires to muscle-flexing tributes to Japanese ingenuity. By the early 1960s, the country’s economy was once again booming, and consumer culture blossomed as the Japanese middle class raced to buy appliances and electronics.

It was a sign of the times that 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla was a “satire on the banality of early Japanese television,” Ryfle explains. Sure, the battles are campy and the monster suits hardly threatening, but the underlying story is far sharper: a TV show sponsor wants to broadcast King Kong and Godzilla’s deadly battle live, in hopes of goosing ratings, damage be damned.

In 1969’s All Monsters Attack, seems even cheesier: a young kid dreams about befriending Godzilla’s very ugly young son, Minya, and overcoming bullies at school. But even that film, which was something like an Afterschool Special, had critical undertones about Japan’s direction.

“In order to keep up with the economy, some of the middle class families had to have two-parent incomes, so you had more and more latchkey kids,” Ryfle says. “They had to come home from school, and mom wasn’t there, and they had to occupy themselves. That was a huge change in the Japanese life.”

As time marches forward, the monster will return again, to embody the next national concern. Today, Godzilla represents the threats of nuclear meltdown and global political irrelevancy, and was defeated by confidence in Japan’s future. There will be an animated movie next year, which is less likely to have political undertones. What serious issues Godzilla aims its atomic breath at in the next live-action film depends in part on domestic politics and the course of Japanese society.

There is no shortage of options: While Shin Godzilla looked at both Japan and the U.S., China and North Korea are still looming over Tokyo; if Anno stays with the franchise, having Godzilla stand in for one of those two countries might be an obvious second act. There are also societal concerns, from the aging population to the ongoing debate about Abe’s flailing economic plans, that could fuel plenty of kaiju freak-outs.

This new Godzilla was the least self-aware and most deadly version of the monster yet, making it unlikely that it will suddenly become the country’s protector, as was the case in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. If those who took from Shin Godzilla that the country should be more heavily armed get their wish, Japan may not need the help of a giant temperamental monster anyway.

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