Godzilla has been a global superstar for decades, so it’s appropriate that he has separate lives in different markets. Like all those American stars who do advertisements for megabucks on Japanese TV on condition they never appear back home to impact their image, Godzilla has licensed himself to US moviemaking, first with the widely panned but lucrative 1998 version by Roland Emmerich, and more recently with Gareth Edwards’ version, where he became a supersize monster for a big picture of a big city.
Edwards’ version also made shedloads of money so there’s going to be a new Edwards G-movie in 2018. Meanwhile fans of the original King of the Monsters are celebrating Toho’s announcement of a new Godzilla feature in Japan in 2016, the first since monster-versus-Elvis-impersonator epic Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004.
There was much Press and fannish discussion of all the things that were ‘wrong’ with Edwards’ Godzilla. It completely missed the point. Modern American and Japanese monster movies do different things because their audiences have different views of what monsters are for.
Look at Pacific Rim – the monsters are clearly the enemy, there to take human territory and be fought and defeated. They are finally revealed as tools of more advanced intellects, mere dumb beasts to slaughter. In all his Japanese incarnations, Godzilla has been a force of nature, a creature evolved and shaped by his circumstances, accorded the respect due to every living thing alongside the healthy and self-preserving fear of every normal human for something big enough to squash him without noticing. Godzilla is not an enemy to be fought, except in the eyes of the Americanised military – he is a big clumsy visitor to be tolerated and avoided as far as possible, but one who comes in useful when other big clumsy visitors arrive and have to be ushered off Japan’s premises with extreme prejudice.
Look back at the classic Universal monster movies and you can see this divergence in attitude, picked up from Mary Shelley’ Frankenstein, as it develops. The sane and wise and kind understand that Nature in all its forms is not our enemy but our self writ large, and so-called monsters simply the forms of ourselves we find embarrassing or difficult to deal with. Demonising them, making them something other, allows us to pretend that these appetites and rages are nothing to do with us. Godzilla reminds us that, huge or tiny, we are all part of the same life force.
Both Emmerich and Edwards, working for an audience with the fears and prejudices that make monsters alien enemies, made Godzilla something to be fought. The Toho movies make Godzilla and his fellow kaiju into something much more interesting. The monsters are ourselves writ large, and they are there to teach us how to fail, survive the failure, and grow out of defeat into something saner, wiser, kinder. We cannot defeat Nature, but we can learn to live with our monsters.