“What bright flame has drawn our imaginations toward a creature that destroys lives on the other side of the sea?”
Gojira Godzilla, King of the Monsters! .
GodzillaGodzilla vs. the Smog Monster,
At one point, Hedorah wraps his gray lips around an industrial chimney and tokes. His eyes roll back and the smog creature appears giddy until quarrelsome Godzilla roars.
During the fight, Hedorah fires a snotball at Godzilla that burns his shoulder. Godzilla later repays him by punching out his eye. Godzilla then falls into a cavernous hole, into which Hedorah pours what appears to be toxic excreta.
In the film’s most bizarre scene, the young male character, Yukio, freaks out on LSD in an underground dance club. Yukio’s decked in seventies skinny peach pants and leopard shirt, moping at a table while his girlfriend dances and sings in a catsuit to a song called “Give me Back My Planet.”
Yukio stares at his girlfriend, at all the other go-go dancers, when suddenly the room spins, darkens, and everyone’s faces are replaced with fish heads. Yukio sweats, panics, screams, and the lights come back on. Then a river of Hedorah sludge descends the stairs. The party bellows, melts, or escapes, the lava lamps shining.
Having had bad acid trips, I empathize with Yukio and his vertiginous confluence of hallucination and toxic reality. It makes me wonder if the movie creators had a sadism toward teenagers, like Hollywood slasher films do. It’s unfair, berating teenagers for youth, which most of them, if my life is an indication, don’t realize their life stage and won’t appreciate it until skin begins peeling, just like the creatures Hedorah melts with his sludge.
There are other theories for the success of monster films besides awesomeness and sadism. One, of course, is that monster movies project fears that we will destroy the Earth and our guilt over doing so. Another is that Godzilla exhibits the violent catharsis that action movies always perform, and before them quest novels and Gilgamesh.
More disturbing to me is film historian Frank Dello Stritto’s arguments about the sexuality of monster stories in the book A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore: The History & Mythology of Classic Horror Films. A more-than-human interloper enters a socially oppressive atmosphere, acts on his forbidden cravings, and attempts to combat ruling norms. Monster stories, in this view, are voyeuristic, and they reward traditions that keep monsters thwarted: the Church, with its ability to stake transgressors, and the military and scientists for neutralizing radioactive beasts.
But the theory I’m more fond of comes from David Quammen in his book, Monster of God. The enduring success of beasts, from Grendel to Alien, reflects, Quammen writes, “not just our fear of homicidal monsters but also our need and desire for them . . . They allow us to recollect our limitations. They keep us company. The universe is a very big place, but as far as we know it’s mainly empty, boring, and cold.”
As a child I had an obsessive fear that I would be alone when my parents died. That I would never marry, that it would be as hard to make friends in adulthood as in childhood. Having Godzilla, the lone isolated predator, gave me a kind of kinship. Someone else, a fellow misfit.
In almost every Toho Godzilla film until the 1990s, a new suit was handcrafted. I noticed this as a child: the crocodilian look in Godzilla vs. King Kong, the buck-teeth of Godzilla Raids Again, the punched-up, acne scarring in Son of Godzilla.
Similarly, Godzilla has meant something different to me through my life, from the terror when I was six, to a voyeuristic friend when I was nine, to an amusement in my twenties, and currently a cultural curiosity.
In metaphor, Godzilla has also morphed from nuclear parable to pollution PSA in Smog Monster to a projection of Japanese nationalism in 2016’s Shin Gojira, following the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and subsequent nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. In Shin Gojira, Godzilla slithers up a canal, exploding Tokyo’s rivers, crushing boats in a gargle of foam and mud that spills onto shore. The scene recalls the myriad public-captured moments of the tsunami, when the ocean raised a battering fist and crushed the coastline.
Politicians in the movie are as inept as in 2011, lying to the public, meeting for mind-chilling hours, resolving little. Then Americans want to drop a nuke, its fourth nuclear strike. The movie advocates resistance to big-brother interference, to Americans who begot the creature. The monster isn’t Godzilla but bureaucracy thrust upon the island nation, another kind of human-natural disaster.
The original Godzilla design was a giant octopus, but producer Tomoyuki Tanaka scrapped this. He helped evolve Godzilla into a T-rex-Stegosaurus-dragon hybrid. Bamboo stakes and chicken wire with urethane and latex overlaid and copious bulky padding, a suit with zero ventilation was created.
During filming, stuntman Haruo Nakajima fainted inside the suit, crushing city miniatures before cue. The crew wrapped in August with sizzling lights. Three minutes was the max the actor could take inside Godzilla. During breaks, grips unsuited Nakajima and poured out a cup of his sweat. He lost twenty pounds during filming.
Before shooting, Nakajima worried about how to play his part. How does one portray a lumbering monster who is half dinosaur and half nuclear evolution, part myth and part human foible? How does one become a beast who, like a child, seems to crave destruction but is yet not fully responsible for his monstrousness?
For inspiration, Nakajima visited the Ueno Zoo where he sat outside bear pens and watched grizzlies lumber around. These natural monsters confined, twisted by their human habitation.
I visited this same zoo when I lived in Japan as an English teacher, and I remember the bears well. I was struck by one who paced his cage, bellowing non-stop. The size of the bear’s life rippling before my eyes snapped my brain. A part of me did not think bears were possible from watching them on televisions, they looked to be filmmaker creations.
It was because I had been conditioned since I was six by Godzilla, the films mushrooming bears into radioactive monsters and setting them loose upon my imagination. Godzilla evolved the way I look at life. Why I go to zoos and want, on some level, the animals to be bigger, to be ferocious, and why I want them to escape.
For 2016’s Shin Gojira, Toho Studios didn’t hire a sweaty man in a suit, but rather a green room and motion-capture technology. Toho abandoned stuntmen and chose a fifty-year-old Noh actor to play the beast.
Noh theatre is an 800-year-old masked theatre tradition, a slow, rhythmic, patient shifting of the limbs in yoga-like dances that can last for hours. Actor Mansai Nomura morphed Godzilla from lumbering beast to ponderous dancer cutting a methodical path through Tokyo.
In an interview, the actor said, “[Noh] isn’t even human. It’s god-like, ghost-like, even monster-like . . . [it’s] heavy and lumbering. For the role, I even used a Godzilla mask just to understand how . . . When Godzilla stomps Tokyo, I could really see him acting the Noh.” After sixty years, Nomura helped update the beast. Like any creature who survives for long, Godzilla keeps evolving. A human product born from animal impulses, lying beneath the surface but also lumbering through the art of creation.
Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is pursuing a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Hotel Amerika, and the Southwest Review.