Cultural Catharsis and The King of the Monsters: A Godzilla Retrospective


The original Godzilla (known is its native Japan as Gojira, or ゴジラ; a portmanteau of the Japanese words for gorilla, ゴリラ, and whale,  鯨 クジラ ) was released in 1954 by Toho Studios and instantly became a cultural icon for the disillusioned people of Japan. Despite nowadays being more commonly known for kicking seven bells out of fellow Kaiju (giant monsters) like an enormous moth – named, uh, Mothra – or the multi-headed dragon King Ghidorah, or even a mechanical robot version of itself from outer space (Mechagodzilla… really), Godzilla’s own introduction is considerably bleaker, darker, and laden with subtext than many presume.

The film was first unleased on audiences in November, but in March 1954 Japan faced a horrific reminder of events from its past. A fishing boat known as ‘Daigo Fukuruyu Maru’ (ironically, ‘Lucky Dragon 5′) caught sight of a great white light in the ocean – their world exploded, and the ship was subjected to horrifying amounts of nuclear radiation. One of their crew members died as the ship limped back to shore, where all of the men aboard exhibited severe signs of radiation poisoning. The ship had accidentally sailed into the path of a secret nuclear testing facility of the Americans’, and suffered because of it. Irradiated tuna even made it onto the Japanese market, and national newspapers of the time referred to it as ‘the latest nuclear bombing of Japan’. With the terrible events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fresh in the minds of the general public, nuclear panic was still understandably rife.

And so, enter, Godzilla. The 1954 classic opens up on a small fishing boat, the ‘Eiko-Maru’, sailing out at sea – happy sailors playing cards and drinking, when they catch sight of a great white light in the ocean; their world explodes, and every man on the ship dies.

To Japanese audiences this made the film’s point abundantly clear. Released just two years after the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan, following its surrender after World War II, the film dealt heavily in themes of anti-Americanism and anti-nuclear sentiments. Themes of national pride, of the use of violence against violence, show up time and again. The final line of the film spoken by an aging paleotologist with sad eyes, occurs as the heroes celebrate the use of a new weapon to defeat the monster: “I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear in the world again.”

Godzilla himself is the walking, all-destroying allegory for Japan’s suffering; a giant radioactive lizard awoken by nuclear tests, with a flaming breath, skin like an atomic burns victim, and a force of nature who wreaks unstoppable havoc on the people of Tokyo. When Godzilla strikes, as Professor William M. Tsutsui puts it, “the destruction is depicted vividly and in very human terms … in scenes that were certainly intended to bring to mind memories of World War II, the firebombings of Tokyo, and, of course, the atomic attacks.”

These human-terms, scenes of over-worked, overflowing hospitals, children burned by radiation, and streets streaming with fire and littered with ash and debris, made the horror incredibly real for Eastern audiences, especially those who had lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Toho producer Tomoyuki Tamaka put it: “Mankind had created The Bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind”.

Subtle the original Godzilla was not, but then why was it such a hit? Just nine years after the inhuman atomic attacks on the country, how could Japanese audiences not simply bear to watch a fictionalised interpretation of the events, but lap it up?

The answer lies within the concept of ‘pop-culture catharsis’. As Libby Brooks writes in her article Zombies, vampires, ghouls: the stuff of cultural catharsis: “Fright flicks have traditionally flourished during periods of upheaval and uncertainty. The gothic fantasies of Dracula and Frankenstein offered cinema-goers in 1930s America an escape from the grinding realities of the Great Depression. Post-World War II, (western) monster blockbusters provided audiences with a means of assuaging the collective guilt of nuclear attack, by recasting the human race as a force for good against an otherworldly destructive imperative.”

This sense of cultural realignment, of using pop-culture to better cope with the anxieties and horrors of the age, was nothing new. But Godzilla represents a special kind of catharsis. It was Japan’s way of recontextualising the nuclear attacks, and in a narrative in which they ‘win’. Despite how bleak and effective Godzilla (1954) is as a Kaiju horror film, it’s surprisingly optimistic in its message – that there is still time to change, that there is still a way to make things right.

As Brooks points out, this cultural catharsis isn’t limited to simply the East, and there’s a lot to be learned from comparing monster movies across eras.

1915’s The Birth of a Nation is regarded by many as the birth of American cinema as we traditionally know it, and was racist propaganda for the KKK. As Lindsay Ellis points out in her video essay My Monster Boyfriend: “Birth of a Nation is a significant movie in many regards … Gus, played by a white man in black face, chases a white woman into the hills with the intent of raping her. She would rather die, and she jumps to her death to escape. In response to this, the ‘heroic’ KKK hunts Gus down and lynches him. This is framed in the film as good and heroic.”

“And of course the ‘monster’ … very much exemplifies the anxieties of white America at the beginning of the 20th Century. A super under-discussed element of [Birth of a Nation] is the way that it would eventually lead to the coding of monsters in monster movies, and the way monsters relate to women as symbols of purity – to white women.”

Flash forward to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon then, and this coding is still present. The creature, other and different, is something to be feared and attacked. It is up to the strapping white male heroes to save the lead woman in her (for the time) skimpy bathing suit from the fearsome monster.

There is a significant difference, however, between coding and allegory. The ‘gill-man’ from Creature is never allegorically representative of other races, but the coding (the technical way monstrousness is presented on film) from Birth of a Nation is still there. In spite of this, Creature clearly shows a changing sense of sociological ideals – with conversations of protecting the ‘gill-man’ and not attacking it, which is a rule broken by a brash, staunchly-capitalist American.

The further humanity gets from 20th Century fears of otherness, the more sympathy we begin to feel for our monsters. 1954’s Godzilla may have gotten the jump on Western audiences’ “Man is the true enemy” theme, but that’s not to say it was never present – screen siren Marilyn Monroe’s character in The Seven Year Itch (1955) says of the ‘gill-man’ that “he wasn’t really all bad. I think he just craved a little affection, you know? A sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”

Nowadays, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, to 2018’s Best Picture The Shape of Water (which was directly influenced by director Guillermo del Toro’s love of Creature from the Black Lagoon) the ‘monsters’ in these films are objects of affection, creatures of empathy and compassion, with white men standing in as allegorical representations of the status quo (Gaston, and Agent Strickland respectively).

The character of Godzilla went through a similar change, as the monster became more ubiquitous in popular culture his themes diminished. As Professor Tsutsui states: “in the decades when Japan’s economy was booming. In the Sixties and Seventies, when Japan was growing at 10 per cent a year, the monster became a sort of happy monster, a protective monster, a goofy monster, not a threatening one.”

This recontextualisation of Godzilla as a symbol of Japan came full circle with 2016’s Shin Godzilla, the first true Japanese reboot of the franchise since the original. Godzilla was a symbol of horror again, a force of nature, and it was the ineptitude of politicians who enabled him. The film is a political satire, criticising Japan’s government for its response to the 3-11 earthquakes, and like the original 1954 classic Shin Godzilla doesn’t shy away from this allegory. From the familiar political gridlock, to the scenes of overflowing hospitals covered in brick dust, to even the specific boom-trucks used to put out fires after the earthquakes. Godzilla is catharsis once more.

As the world once again ruminates within the mirk of uncertainty, some monsters will return to stoke our generation’s fears. But the King of Monsters is, and always will be, Godzilla.

Long may he reign.


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