Originally, Godzilla embodied the fear and apprehensions of nuclear weapons, of full-on nuclear war: a massive dinosaur rising out of the depths to vomit forth atomic fire upon a helpless populace. What better nation to depict this than Japan, still suffering its own psychological woes from the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere nine years before, or the ongoing firebomb campaigns before that. Being the only nation to have suffered an atomic strike has become a major focal point of post-war Japanese identity. And there’s really a lot to analyze when you look at it.
That theme of “monsters = stand-ins for our atomic fears and horrible cultural experience of living through nuclear attack” continued on to the second movie, as well as Toho’s similar visions of horror and feeble humanity in films like Rodan. But starting with King Kong Versus Godzilla, that started to change, and the series became less existential horror and more commercial, more camp. The bleakness of the original, the themes of human frailty and Japanese self-sacrifice gave way to more monsters, space aliens, and secret agents. Through the 1960s and ’70s, Godzilla got campy, more of a kid’s property when it existed as a way to boost childrens’ confidence; Godzilla stands up to bullying, and so should you. Later, Godzilla films added in mecha robots and sentai teams.
Then it was re-interpreted in the ’80s, starting off a chain that tried to blend the kaiju genre with the original’s fears of something more powerful than humanity, melding it with environmental worries and an ever-growing assortment of more powerful space kaiju. Apparently they kept making Godzilla movies into the 2000s, none of which I’ve seen. I won’t go into the 1998 American Godzilla film, since it was neither a Godzilla movie nor a kaiju film but a popcorn action flick. A really shitty popcorn flick. In contrast, you can see Cloverfield and Pacific Rim going “No, this is how you make a fucking American kaiju film. Do it right next time.”
The new movie is taking it in yet another direction: Godzilla, as depicted in the trailer, is a sign of nature’s power, something that we mere mortals have little hope of understanding and even less chance of restraining. It’s a Lovecraftian vision of humanity as the mere motes of dust, specks in the eye of something greater, vermin trampled underfoot by the real movers and shakers in a large and uncaring universe. Godzilla is the punishment for our pollution and petty warfare, the cosmic, karmic punishment we deserve. Instead of something we created through the arrogance of our nuclear tests, it’s something we tried to stop with atomic bombs. And those bombs failed.
That growing scope of nature’s rage unleashed in the form of a radioactive dinosaur may be why Big G’s had yet another size increase:
And while that shows how our cultural fears have changed in the ensuing half-decade, to me it also makes Godzilla a bit scarier, bringing the kaiju genre back to its roots of the original Toho movies in the ’50s: the stark horror of our civilization and technological weaponry impotent against nature red in fang and claw. I think we might finally see the American Godzilla movie that respects its source material as something more than just a license to print money.