Why Americans just don’t get Godzilla
There are so many different titles I could give this article. So I settled on two. By the end of this article you should know why I say those two things. First up, let’s look at the Godzilla films and the others of its genre. The most important thing to know about these films is when they were made and where the Japanese psyche was at. They were made in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Otherwise known as post war Japan. A time when the Japanese people were rebuilding their nation after a defeat so crushing that crushing doesn’t actually cover it. A complete and utter defeat. They also found themselves without an army right next to two large famously aggressive communist blocks and an ally swearing to protect them that had only just destroyed their nation killing millions and levelling several cities. Sound familiar? It should, it happened recently enough that people who experienced it are still alive. It should also sound familiar if you know your Godzilla.
Let’s look at the Godzilla premise. A giant nuclear power unfeeling monstrosity that just comes in and crushes the shit out of everything. The Japanese army are always depicted as being totally useless against it. The creature mindlessly destroys regardless of threat posed. Now you may say something about how Godzilla is just traveling to its birthing place but that’s an American add-on. It’s not in the original. Godzilla comes in and just wrecks the place. The creature comes from an island of similarly nuclear powered monsters. It comes to Japan after some Japanese people first visit this island. Pearl Harbour much? The first half of all of these films is reliving the destruction of Japan at the hands of America. Yes, that’s right, Godzilla is America. Which is why I say that Americans don’t get Godzilla. There is also always a tipping point. This tipping point usually came right after a scene involving children in some way, often times them singing as a choir. The most innocent people you can get in a war. The Monster then becomes the defender against some other monster. Which is where post war Japan comes in. The other monsters are China and the Soviet Union and right in the middle of the fight is innocent Japan full of singing children and old people. These movies are both an enactment of Japan’s worst fears at the time; World War 3 with their nation as the battle ground; and coming to grips with having to rely on the nation responsible for dropping two nuclear bombs on them as well as completely burning Tokyo to the ground as their possible saviour in times of crisis. Note Godzilla always swims off into the sunset at the end. While Japan rebuilds itself from the ruins.
Fast forward to now. This story isn’t relevant to Japanese people anymore. Or I should say it served its purpose. It helped facilitate social recovery. Through it Japan was able to express its fears and doubts for the future and build an economic power house. Interestingly enough the prospect of World War 3 has risen again. There is a lot of discussion in Japan about a possible China versus the US war and the same fears are rising again that Japan will be right in the middle of it. In this climate you’d think that perhaps a Godzilla film would be just the ticket except that the complete destruction of a city is a distant memory. Something you learn in school. A place you visit with a museum that is incredibly depressing, awesome but incredibly depressing. Godzilla is not the monster / hero Japan wants right now.
Given all this it really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone American made homages to this genre aren’t popular in Japan. Why would they be? Remember the US is Godzilla. Think about that. That means Godzilla is making Godzilla movies. Sounds like the singularity. Now think about how completely insensitive that is. It’s basically rubbing it in.
‘Hey, remember that time when my nation preferred the idea of civilians dying horrible deaths to soldiers dying so we dropped more bombs on your people than any other nation in history and used the most horrible weapon humanity has ever made on you twice. Then you dealt with it by making an entire movie genre about monsters using Japan as a warzone as a metaphor for the inevitable war between the US and China or the Soviet Union, or both. Yeah, I made a film paying homage to that genre. Hope you like it.’
When the west first saw Godzilla they saw it as a good ol’ monster romp. When Japan first saw it they saw a replay of the past thirty years compressed into a bit over an hour. No wonder an entire genre spawned from it.
Now let’s look at how the metaphor holds up. In the American versions of Godzilla emphasis was placed on this event happening because the monster is female and wants to raise its young in the nation. Remember the metaphor, Godzilla is the US. By giving the monsters this motivation the writers unwittingly changed the core concept. The US is Godzilla metaphor holds true but it becomes kind of funny and really creepy. It makes the World War 3 metaphor about who gets to have young in Japan. Given current trends in white people coming to Japan and dating Japanese people the metaphor may very well be spot on.
What about the other recent homage to the genre, Pacific Rim? There should be even less surprise that this was unpopular in Japan. For one thing it’s a terrible homage. The person responsible for it either had no grasp of the metaphor or was incredibly aware of it. After all it was called Pacific Rim a direct link to World War 2. The metaphor completely falls apart in this film. The monsters in that film don’t become the defenders. Remember the monsters are other nations. So in this version other nations are irredeemable. In typical American movie style the military saves the day by building massive robots, something that actually Japan is far more likely to do. Have already done so actually. So on the one hand you could say that this movie is very empowering to Japan. Putting their fate in their own hands fighting off the monstrous other using their superior technology. Except the film wasn’t made by Japanese people therefore the empowerment is lost. It’s still about America saving the day. It’s just that they’ve made America squeaky clean. America is no longer another monster. They’ve removed the fact that America destroyed Japan. Typical of America rewriting history. Of course there is still plenty of city destroying in the film but America is no longer responsible for it.
The world has moved on since Godzilla. There was no World War 3 and Japan became a leading economic powerhouse. World War 3 didn’t happen and the US and Japan became friends. The Godzilla films are no longer relevant and don’t touch the same nerve that they once did which is the real reason the Japanese don’t care about Godzilla movies anymore no matter how accurate to the source material they are. The Godzilla remakes tells far more about the American psyche. Interestingly enough America wants to keep on reliving the glory of World War 2. It was the moment that redefined their nation and turned them into the war machine they are today. Of course they want to keep on making movies about it. So while I say Americans don’t get Godzilla, perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps they get Godzilla too much. After all they are Godzilla.