If you ever come across the image of Godzilla, it’s not likely to provoke environmentalist attitudes or anti war sentiments. It’s not likely to stir up any of life’s big questions at all. Odds are you’ll be thinking about corny sci-fi movies, or even just feel a strange urge to eat a Snickers bar.
But back in the 1950s, a time that predates modern special effects and the majority of monster movies, Godzilla was actually a pretty serious production. The story of Godzilla’s metamorphosis from creative concept to campy franchise also says a lot about the way that we consume stories, and absorb the ideas behind them.
A Dragon for the Atomic Age
The original 1954 Godzilla movie was a politicized piece of work directed by Ishirō Honda. The film features the now famous reptile rising out of the ocean, eager to smash things. Man-made military machines are useless against him, and horrified scientists and army generals can only helplessly look on in terror while Godzilla goes about destroying Tokyo. At this point it’s still a fairly familiar tale. What many young people often don’t know about Godzilla, however, is that his creation was directly inspired by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Director Ishirō Honda himself said that the goal of the film was to make a creature that possessed all of the qualities of an atom bomb. Here we have our Godzilla metaphor — a giant radioactive bringer of mass-destruction capable of leveling cities and operating on a scale that renders all conventional military weapons irrelevant. The fact that Godzilla is a giant marine reptile also vaguely connects him to Japanese mythology, where dragons dwelling in large bodies of water often set the forces of nature awry if angered.
In the film, Godzilla is an ancient monster that is both awakened and strengthened by radiation from nuclear weapons being dropped as a result of World War II. To really picture how bold the metaphor was at the time, imagine if a modern sci-fi blockbuster movie took on subject matter directly inspired by the events of 9/11 less than ten years after 9/11 happened. Then imagine that instead of killing several thousand people, 9/11 had killed hundreds of thousands of people. Make no mistake, creating the original Godzilla was a profoundly gutsy move. When you consider that Godzilla is a monster who kills a lot of Japanese people, and is the result of lingering radioactivity in the environment due to nuclear warfare, an even darker side of the monster’s symbolism is revealed. It it is synonymous with the intense radiation poisoning that killed and horrifically disfigured people in Japan long after the bombs were initially dropped.
Godzilla was a warning against the power of nuclear weapons. Such a warning was intended to represent not only what horrible destructive qualities human endeavors can have on fellow humans in times of war, but also how our very environment can be utterly disfigured, maimed and mutated into something unfathomably destructive to human life if we are not careful about how we use modern technology. Like the birth defects that have harmed generations of Japanese, Godzilla too suffers from decades of disfigurement —but not the kind that he was originally intended to represent.
The Godzilla Effect
Sometimes, in an effort to make tough subjects easier to cope with, the most creative storytellers of a society embroider life’s most tragic themes with imagery so utterly endearing that we end up not only recycling it, but using it out of context. As we now know, this is exactly what happened with Godzilla. The film quickly became franchise material after its initial success in Japan. Toho, the Japanese media company that initially created and released the first Godzilla film, edited a thematically weaker version for US audiences called “Godzilla: King of The Monsters.” This began a slew of sequels, prequels, reboots, and re-imaginings of Godzilla and other giant monsters that continues all the way up to the present day. Perhaps the most absurd and hilariously shameless deviation from the original story is the 1998 American version of Godzilla where Ferris Bueller actor Matthew Broderick discovers that instead of American-made Atomic weapons, it’s the French and their reckless nuclear tests in the Caribbean that created Godzilla.
French actor Jean Reno must stop the creature from nesting
Still, formulaic elements remain. The sound of Godzilla’s roar has barely changed in 50 years. Toho has used the same theme song for decades. Even with the arrival of advanced computer graphics, Japanese versions of Godzilla continued to stick with the iconically campy tradition of putting a man in a rubber suit and having him step on fake miniature cities well into the 2000s.
Today, Godzilla remains the longest-lasting movie franchise in history, running even longer than the likes of Star Wars and James Bond. As Godzilla movies have become more common and more absurd, the general themes of the original Ishirō Honda Godzilla have been hinted at, but in a much weaker form. Nowadays, Godzilla movies more often than not involve Godzilla being the heroic defender of humanity who battles another monster to save the world — hardly how he was originally used, but certainly popular given that the 2014 edition of Godzilla made over half a billion dollars at the box office. Still, even the newer films owe their stylistic components to the early days of Godzilla moviemaking history and the Kaiju (Japanese for “strange monster”) genre that it helped birth.
Ironically, the relatively recent monster movie Pacific Rim is more consistent with the thematic undertones of the first Godzilla film than the most recent Godzilla reboot. In Pacific Rim, mankind must come together in order to produce technology that can effectively combat giant seafaring mutant monsters that are actually referred to in the film as Kaijus. They come out of an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and are able to surface and attack human cities because industrial pollution has acidified the ocean to such a great degree that it has made Earth an suitable climate for them. Given that today’s latest and greatest challenge to civilization is not preventing nuclear war, but mitigating the effects of human-induced climate change, this is a piece of work that would likely make the creators of the first Godzilla proud. At about 400 million dollars in box office sales in 2013, Pacific Rim came just short of matching Godzilla.
Clip from Pacific Rim
But as moviemakers know, and as you and I know, most people don’t regularly go see movies (especially high budget sci-fi movies) for socially complex themes, but for raw entertainment. It doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate a thoughtful story, but the truth of the matter is that a mediocre movie with strong brand awareness will often outperform a good one that isn’t as well known. This isn’t always a bad thing, but the result is normally a slew of ever-campier creations that depend more on viewer nostalgia than they do on quality content. Perhaps the original creation was so impactful that even a poorly-rendered reminder of its greatness is more powerful in our minds than a freshly minted story. This is the nature of the Godzilla effect: when a creative idea maintains profitability by recycling its key parts so many times that the themes within the original concept are lost.
Art vs. Irony
This is how James Cameron’s Terminator movies about the dangers of artificial intelligence give way to modern day Terminator movies focused primarily on explosions and Schwarzenegger slogans. It’s how Jurassic Park evolved into Jurassic World. It’s why every other movie in theaters is now a superhero movie. The Godzilla effect can also be applied to music. It’s arguably how nameless black blues musicians in the American South enabled the fame of white rock n’ roll stars (and later on Spinal Tap). It’s how the style of dancehall reggae performers from the Caribbean inspired the bright outfits and meticulous twerking of many modern pop stars. It’s also what gets you from the turntables of warehouse raves from the 80s and 90s to the laptop-dependent decks of modern EDM festivals.
None of this is exactly new. There have always been endearingly silly movie classics, laughably bad pop songs, or absurdly memorable television moments. But in today’s society we’ve taken an embrace of the ironic to another level. Something once seen as edgy like pop art, a 20th century art movement examining how symbols lose their meaning through image repetition and commercialized caricaturization, has lost a lot of it’s own validity through that very same process. Even pointing out meaninglessness can begin to feel rather meaningless if done in the same style over and over. But this is how money is made. The fusing of commoditized creativity with our own nostalgic impulses to be constantly amused (be it a through a movie, a song, or a style of art) can result in creations that are disorienting and depressing to say the least. We will reproduce and reinterpret a creative work or style so many times over such a long period of years that its original intent can become unrecognizable to us. Some artists have built entire careers off extrapolating upon this utterly overly-extrapolated process, such as the witty juxtapositions of America’s Kaws or the piercing pontifications of Britain’s Banksy.
Banksy often ironically depicts doomed children
On the more ruthless and invasive side of things, you have hipster ironies, rehashed jokes, T-shirts that say YOLO on them, and social media posts from friends and family where cats wear sunglasses and cookie-loving Sesame Street characters engage in drug use.
Family Guy couldn’t resist making a crackhead out of Cookie Monster
There is an artistically savvy way of interacting with such a proudly jaded world. Content creators know it’s best to take franchises and make them ironically self-aware of their own corniness rather than sell themselves as seriously cool if they don’t want to appear to be pandering after a certain number of re-releases. This is how comedic characters like Chris Pratt end up getting cast as light-hearted raptor trainers. It’s also why the most recent Mission Impossible movies have taken on a much more comical tone, while still staying thematically loyal to the viewer. Unlike Godzilla, Mission Impossible didn’t start out with some seriously dark themes, so this makes such a transition easier. But even self-aware irony has its limits. Sooner or later, new ideas are necessary.
It’s easy to feel like a snob if we disapprove of the ways that money, marketing, and movie sequels habitually mix with original ideas, especially when many original ideas have important and thoughtful perspectives to offer. There really are very few originals out there, and they are naturally very dear to us. But boasting about how cultured you are because you know the backstory of the first Godzilla, or claiming you now hate your favorite artist because they “sold out,” is not a way of preserving any kind of creative originality within society. Ideas often get Godzilla’d because they’re losing relevance anyway. Although commercializing art often takes a kernel of imagination and sells it to death, it can also help valuable ideas permeate at the time when they are most important, such was the case when the original Godzilla first criticized nuclear warfare. Today’s world doesn’t take Godzilla seriously but it does take nuclear war very seriously. We no longer need Godzilla for his original purpose. In today’s times it’s probably best that we have a host of reasons not to use nukes that don’t depend on a story about a giant radioactive lizard.
On the behavioral side of things, endless rehashing of ideas is only able to occur because we partly want it to happen. We’re very receptive of nostalgic symbols and revel in the irony of overdoing our favorite bits from them. Additionally, we love to buy re-imaginings of old ideas, and we are hesitant to accept new ones — traits that affect far larger parts of our lives than our consumption of media can exemplify. As far as the Godzilla effect is concerned, it’s a good thing to understand because it makes us appreciate the complexity of how both evocative entertainment and social commentary can originate and spread. It also keeps us open-minded about how the meanings behind symbols can have their own unique life cycles. There is no reason an image or an archetype shouldn’t have different meanings to a variety of people as time passes. Most important of all, over-attaching oneself to the old meanings of old symbols can make a person oblivious to new concepts and new metaphors that are raising attention to important ideas.
When it’s all said and done, if you come up with a story that can inspire people to think twice about nuclear war and sell Snickers bars at the same time, go right on ahead and tell it.