Reality, as Seen by Godzilla

Perhaps the function of Godzilla is to trouble happily ever after.

My first encounter with the monster were VHS recordings of Saturday movie marathons of the dubbed Godzilla movies of the 1960s and 1970s. Six years old, I was awed to watch giant creatures laying waste to cities and armies in slightly pastel colors. And, to child eyes, Godzilla, saurian avatar of nuclear devastation—as well as his many colorful allies and opponents: giant moths, lightning-breathing multiheaded dragons, robotic clones, even a living incarnation of pollution, among so many others—were a perfect fantasy. These monsters—commonly glossed as kaiju, a Japanese term that translates to “scary beasts” or “monsters”—seemed dangerous enough to be exciting as they destroyed everything in their path, but unreal enough not to be scary. The cities they destroyed, even for a discerning six-year-old, were clearly models, and the monster designs were often more cute than grotesque. A Godzilla movie was a chance to get lost in a fantasy of unbridled power that still winked back, letting the viewer know it was all going to be okay in the end, and no one would really get hurt, even as the monsters took apart cities like I used to take apart my Playmobil toy castle, over and over again.

What did not enter my six-year-old mind, however, was that kaiju were a stern warning against the dangers of unconstrained science and its symbiotic relationship with the military industrial complex. And yet, this was assuredly intended by the original scriptwriter of Godzilla, Shigeru Kayama. The first Godzilla film, entitled Gojira in Japan, is a sober and serious meditation on the dangers of unbridled scientific development, filmed less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, in the novellas written by the scriptwriter after the films’ success, Kayama spends precious little time actually describing Godzilla’s appearance. Instead, he focuses, repeatedly, on the “white hot” glow radiated by the monster’s body and his terrible destructive power. In Kayama’s film and in his novellas, then, the power of Godzilla as a speculative figure was precisely as a warning against the violence of nuclear science, a literalization of a metaphor.

Neither Godzilla nor humans, according to Kayama, can really succeed. The monster is repulsed, but it is never truly eliminated. Humans, meanwhile, can never stop him, only stall his destructive path through tragic sacrifices after periods of mass death and destruction.

A natural creature awakened and given terribly destructive powers by the atomic bomb, Godzilla was, for Kayama, a direct representation of science out of harmony with the earth. This makes Godzilla, in the characterization of Kayama’s recent translator, Jeffrey Angles, a “reminder that nature will fight back in ways humanity cannot possibly predict.” Kayama’s original conception of Godzilla, as speculative fiction, argues that the only path forward for harmony between humans and the world of nature is through a reevaluation of the power and purpose of science in the aftermath of destruction.

Such an idea, it is not difficult to understand, would have powerfully resonated in postwar Japan. And resonate it did. Alongside Godzilla’s thematic role as a terrifying literalization of the speculative or a somber messenger for the dangers of human overreach, the giant radioactive dinosaur was also a huge hit, leading to one of cinema’s very first mega-franchises. Tōhō Studios took advantage of the success by rapidly producing kaiju film after kaiju film, then bringing the characters together in yet more movies (an early iteration of the template that contemporary comic book movies have so keenly embraced). Meanwhile, the target audience for kaiju was shifting, too. The very fact that Kayama’s novellas were produced as the first volumes of a series intended for young adult readers points to what would become one of the defining features of Godzilla and the kaiju genre more broadly: their immense popularity with children, both in Japan and beyond it. Soon enough, Kayama’s original vision for the creature was subsumed in child-friendly spectacle.

And yet, Kayama’s more dangerous vision was not gone completely. Quite the opposite. In fact, the contemporary fluorescence of Godzilla media is so compelling in part because it has remembered the sharp edges and complex ideas with which Godzilla films began, without losing what was gained in the meantime: the colorful spectacle and kitsch undertones of the Godzilla movies that fans like me grew up with.

In this essay, three examples from the modern Godzilla mediascape are explored. This is to show how each, in its own way, offers Godzilla as a literal metaphor for the toxic world in which we live: food for thought that is always already irradiated.

I began with Jeffrey Angles’s recent translation of Kayama’s original Godzilla novellas adapting the first two Godzilla films, Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again. Next, I move to Zander Cannon’s expansive and explosive comic series, Kaijumax, which envisions kaiju as posthuman prisoners of the military industrial state. Finally, I discuss the most recent Japanese Godzilla film, Godzilla Minus One, which offers Godzilla as a haunting exploration of trauma and the nature of violence. Throughout this exploration, I orient myself with help from Steven Shaviro’s recent study on speculative fiction, Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life, to which I now turn.

What if speculative narrative was taken “as literally, and as fully, as possible”? So asks philosopher Steven Shaviro in his recent study of science fiction, Extreme Fabulations: Science Fictions of Life, by analyzing a carefully curated selection of class and contemporary science fiction texts.

The future, for Shaviro, is fundamentally unknowable. Speculative fiction (spec fic or even just spec) provides a means of navigating this unknowability. This is because, as “fiction,” spec fic is not limited by what can be known; rather, it can instead imagine what could be known, understood, or experienced. “In this way,” Shaviro writes, “science fiction is counterfactual, or … counter-actual: it offers a provisional and impossible resolution, suspended in potentiality, of dilemmas and difficulties that are, themselves, all too real.” What Shaviro is arguing is that we can use the very imaginary quality of science fiction to imagine resolutions to problems that seem impossible to address in the fraught realities of the “real” world.

Thus, spec fic can be a tool for us to imagine otherwise, not only toward different or better futures, but also toward resolving problems in the current world that seem impossible in the present. Shaviro’s examples are effective; yet they are drawn primarily from the “harder” edge of science fiction, stories of outer space exploration and computer simulations. And such authors seem already engaged in a science fiction of the immediate—or at least, proximately possible. How does that fit with something so far from the immediate as Godzilla?

At first blush, it is true, Godzilla seems worlds away from the sobriety of Shaviro’s examples, almost all of which extend feasible scientific ideas and principles just slightly to arrive at a fictional world. After all, it is hard to imagine a feasible scientific explanation for how nuclear radiation would create Godzilla, a giant dinosaur with “atomic breath,” or Megalon, an Atlantean giant cockroach god, or Gigan, an alien monstrosity with a saw-blade stomach and scythe arms. Besides, kaiju stories are best known in the United States, especially, for a certain degree of kitsch: including colorful monster battles staged with rubber suits and toy models. As such, they are especially not to be taken too seriously. The notion of giant radiated monsters fighting one another in toyetic combat might seem worlds away from the serious and sober science fiction discussed by Shaviro and, indeed, the very notion of speculative fiction as a “respectable” genre.

And yet, the kaiju fit Shaviro’s definition even as they unsettle it. Silly as they might seem, the best kaiju media grapple with the “impossible” resolution that, for Shaviro, empowers speculative fiction. More specifically, kaiju media can do something specific and powerful in relation to the notion that science fiction can provide us “resolution” at all.

That is to say, it is the possibility of resolution itself that kaiju challenge. As such, kaiju are a most troublesome genre of speculative fiction indeed, and a most serious one, despite (and sometimes because) of all the bright colors and flashing death rays.

Take Jeffrey Angles’s translation of Shigeru Kayama’s novella-length adaptions of the first two Godzilla films, Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again. Each troubles the idea that speculative fiction can provide even provisional resolutions to the dilemmas of the world(s) in which we live.

As Angles chronicles in the afterword to his translations, Kayama was not the sole author of the films. Still, he developed their scenarios, and, most impressively he fulfilled Tōhō producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s desire to make a film to mimic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, even while incorporating it with a specific and direct antinuclear message all his own. And, ultimately, it was Kayama’s script that would become 1954’s Godzilla. In the development of that film’s rapid sequel, 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, he was likewise asked to take a similar role in development.

Shortly thereafter, in 1955, Kayama published two novellas, drawn from his original scripts but adding important nuances perhaps lost from the films themselves. Almost like a director’s cut today, these novellas—Angles argues—can be seen as the purest distillation of the original creator’s own vision for Godzilla.

The novellas follow the films in their broad plotting but differ in specific details. In the novella of Godzilla, American postwar atomic tests have awakened, and, somehow, irradiated, a previously unknown species of dinosaur. This monster now rampages across metropolitan Tokyo, before being killed by a newly developed scientific weapon: an “oxygen destroyer,” whose creator sacrifices his own life in the process so that his research cannot be replicated and thereby misused. The novel ends with a stark warning: “if the hydrogen bomb tests were to continue,” maybe more of Godzilla’s “kind might appear somewhere on earth.”

To feel affection for the monster is, after all, to love our own destruction, and the scientific folly that makes it seem so inevitable.

And, indeed, another Godzilla does soon appear in the next novella. In Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla emerges almost casually near Osaka; but he does so in order to do battle with a second kaiju named Anguirus, modeled after an ankylosaurus. In the first novella, conventional military attacks did nothing at all to Godzilla. But now, in its sequel, the rampaging monster is ultimately entombed by Japanese fighter pilots in an arctic avalanche, although after his victory over his kaiju rival.

Tōhō’s film series continued from that point, releasing Godzilla from his icy prison to battle first King Kong, in one of film’s earliest international crossovers, and then a whole host of different giant monsters. While Godzilla remained intimately associated with nuclear radiation in these films, famed for defeating his enemies with his “atomic breath,” the kaiju he encountered became increasingly fantastical: from alien dragons controlled by invaders from Planet X to mythological gods revived through explicitly mystical means.

But before these fantastical sequels, Kayama had stopped working on Godzilla material completely. Once the novellas were finished, Kayama stepped away. His decision, Angles notes, stemmed precisely from Godzilla’s popularity: “In [Kayama’s] eyes, allowing the monster to live represented a tacit approval of the hydrogen bomb. Plus, he admits, even he started to feel affectionate towards Godzilla.”

And yet this posed a conundrum to Kayama, for whom Godzilla isn’t a creature that can be loved. To feel affection for the monster is, after all, to love our own destruction, and the scientific folly that makes it seem so inevitable. As a literal metaphor of nuclear death, there was no place for Godzilla to grow or transform. But, like any good science fiction creature of the nuclear age, Godzilla mutated anyway.

Over time—and many, many more movies—the affection that concerned Kayama became the dominant affect of the world of kaiju. The monsters became beloved, as fantasy objects aimed increasingly at children. And this meant that his serious attempts at developing Godzilla stories as counterfactual means of engaging the violence of nuclear militarism faded away, replaced by the DayGlo landscape of childhood Saturday morning monster movies.

It is this childhood landscape of destructive wonder that Zander Cannon draws on in his Kaijumax comics. Wielding an encyclopedic knowledge of kaiju movies and TV series, Cannon envisions a world in which every different kaiju exists simultaneously, from the mythological to the scientific. Each monster is carefully managed, constrained, and (most typically, overtly) imprisoned by human overseers. In so doing, these humans take on fantastic powers, transforming themselves through mysterious technology into giant soldier-heroes. These mimic Tsuburaya Productions’ many Ultra television series, in which alien-empowered humans protect the world from typically equally alien-derived kaiju (whose costumes were often left over from the more expensive Godzilla films).

Kaijumax is set primarily in the titular “kaijumax”: an island prison complex in which giant monsters are held in perpetuity “for the good of humanity,” unless they can accede to the terms of domesticated subservience to humans. The stories explore the lives of the prison inmates and the guards, riffing on conventional prison media tropes such as prison gangs, prisoner abuse, drug sales, and warden corruption, all through the lens of kaiju aesthetics and premises. The narrative is violent and often upsetting, with the brutality of the prison-industrial complex on full display. But, simultaneously, it is also bathed in the kitsch gleefulness of giant monster movie fandoms, with a depth of visual and linguistic references to different kaiju movies that is, frankly, astounding. It is, in a rather wonderful synthesis, at once profoundly serious and profoundly silly.

Unlike Kayama’s novellas or the Ultra series, then, Kaijumax is written for an adult audience, using the landscape of childhood post-human fantasy to tell an often brutal story of prison dynamics, corruption, and hypocrisy. It envisions a world of complex hybridity, in which humans have become other in order to manage (or perhaps better, dominate) all the other modes of life that have come to exist, in DayGlo and vibrant comic book colors.

The core problem that Kayama posed remains, perhaps, the same for Cannon. The whole reason that there even exists a kaijumax prison in Cannon’s narrative, after all, is that humans can no longer control the forces of their own creation. The ethics at stake in this problem, however, have shifted from Kayama’s concern with responsible science in the nuclear age. Now, the creators offer a more complex meditation on what it means to live in a transformed world, in which humans really aren’t the only power at work anymore.

Cannon’s primary audience, one suspects, are people like me who grew up with kaiju movies as a space of wonder. Yet he mixes stern Anthropocenic warnings with the immense and putatively post-human space of imagination and possibility that these child-kaiju movies presented. Take one of the series’ early subplots: a corrupt prison guard who is trafficking in uranium stolen from the bodies of monsters. This invokes, at once, the horror of nuclear mutation, the traditional tropes of prison narratives, and the specific properties of kaiju bodies.

Cannon’s tapestry-like approach features dozens of characters, a distinctive slang developed from winking references to classic kaiju movies and shows, and intricate, HBO-style plotting. And yet all this lacks, to my mind, the simplicity and clarity of focus of Kayama’s writing. It’s an atomic explosion in its own right. Still, while it doesn’t at first glance look like “serious” science fiction, it is the best kind of literal metaphor: engaging our own world with creativity, humor, and intelligence.

Cannon’s characters—both kaiju and human—live in a complex, posthuman world in which it is not always clear how ecological and social worlds will transform and species mutate. The real danger for the characters is not human science out of control but rather human politics, as the prison administrators and the broader society they represent come to echo profoundly contemporary concerns with fascism, the militarized policing of difference, the false illusion of control, and the power of fear.

All this is Anthropocenic fiction not as warning. Instead, this is fiction of the world in which we already live in, give or take the dinosaur-shaped rubber suits.

And, finally, Godzilla Minus One. The most recent Japanese Godzilla film is at once old and new. In one sense, it is a carefully considered tribute to the original film (particularly in its black-and-white “Minus Color” release), replicating many of its most famous shots and adopting a similar post–World War II setting. At the same time, Minus One is direct and frank in its writing, unlike any previous kaiju film of which I am aware.

Its rendition of Godzilla is monstruous, arbitrary, an incomprehensible force of sheer, seemingly motivationless destruction. All this is worlds away from the cuddly Godzilla I grew up with. For former pilot Shikishima, the film’s protagonist, Godzilla is an unhealed wound: the literalization of the trauma of war and his own perceived cowardice as a kamikaze bomber, who fled from mandatory suicide at the end of the war.


Would that the Earth Could Stop Us

By Anna Krauthamer

As such, for Minus One’s characters to defeat Godzilla, they must overcome their own guilt at “failing” in war. More than this, remarkably, they must reject war itself, as it is the mass violence of war and its calculus of human sacrifice that Godzilla incarnates.

But as Takashi Yamazaki, the film’s director, makes clear in the film’s final images, it is not enough to understand or even embrace the rejection of war and sacrifice. Like the main character’s wrenching episodes of PTSD, the violence that Minus One’s Godzilla represents festers, hiding itself beneath the surface, and remains always at risk of reemergence. Even peace is not, in this story, a happily ever after.

Indeed, perhaps the function of Godzilla is to trouble happily ever after. The power of most speculative fiction, according to Shaviro, is to help us see imaginary resolutions for real problems (or maybe real resolutions for imaginary problems). If he is right, then kaiju remind us that some problems linger, even after we imagine that we’ve solved them.

So too, kaiju movies are full of their own contradictions, their peculiar alchemy of delight and destruction. This made Godzilla itself unsustainable for Shigeru Kayama, one of his original authors, who felt he had to abandon engaging with Godzilla and his fellow scary beasts, so delightful to the very children whose future they menaced. For Zander Cannon, it means repurposing that very delight as the basis for a more mature way of seeing the world. What Cannon offers is a vision of not a posthuman future, but, perhaps, one that is perihuman: sacrificing the specificity of the nuclear kaiju for the power to tell a story that speaks directly to the political present. For Takashi Yamazaki, the impossibility of ever fully resolving a Godzilla story is precisely the point; it is the very haunting qualities of kaiju, the ways they stay with us, under the ocean, under the skin, that make them such powerful—and powerfully literal—metaphors.

For me, I can’t imagine abandoning the wonder of Godzilla, or the horror. There’s something ineffable to a genre of stories in which something as silly as giant rubber-suited dinosaurs destroying model cities can exist simultaneously with—can be one with—the deepest horrors of Anthropocenic technoscience, the traumas of war, and the continuing, cruel realities of violence. There’s something wonderful and terrible to that.

Godzilla is that which we can’t resolve, at once divine and ridiculous. That’s why, for 70 years, we’ve needed to keep retelling its story. icon

This article was commissioned by Matthew Wolf-Meyer.

Featured image: Promotional image from Godzilla Raids Again. (2012). Photograph from Toho Company Ltd. / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)