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Just out from the Criterion Collection is the perfectly extravagant, beautifully packaged Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 — a 15-film Blu-ray set book-ended by Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla and his directorial finale, Terror of Mechagodzilla from 1975. Criterion’s 1000th release is a testament to not only the monster’s enduring legacy, but also to the importance of monsters in general in the ever-shifting landscape of cultural memory and history. Monsters stalk us from the deep, destroy our habitats, haunt architectural spaces (à la minotaurs), or appear as a result of a gate being opened (Demogorgon) and eat our brains. They predate written human history and yet their stories are very much ours. They also reflect our political anxieties and war-time traumas. After all, Godzilla, like Frankenstein, originally came into existence because of an act of scientific hubris (the atom bomb).
But very few monsters have risen to Godzilla’s stature. From nuclear rebuke and ideological object of fear to island protector, prized fighter, ringleader of beasts, and even anti-capitalist wrecking machine, Godzilla, during the Show-Era alone, enjoyed a dramatic range like no other monster. Pop icon par excellence, Godzilla has played many roles over the years, and the films’ thematic registers address such an array of fascinating socio-political themes that these movies in and of themselves are practically their own genre. It’s worth considering the various tropes that make the Godzilla sub-genre so enduring, not to mention so relevant to our current socio-political condition today.
Since the very start of the franchise, Godzilla films have held a preoccupation with the news. Questions of what to report and how to do it arise frequently within their narrative arcs. Newspaper headlines interrupt action sequences throughout Honda’s original film, as do the sounds of printing presses, news wires, and other signals relaying news. Years later, Destroy All Monsters (1968), would actually frame itself as a kind of docudrama, revealing in the end that its guiding voiceover is in fact a news reporter. In Mothra vs. Godzilla, reporters broker the alliance with the insect-monster and the Infant Island people. In fact, throughout the movie, their dialogue does a lot of the heavy-lifting concerning bigger questions. “This isn’t high art; it has to be quick,” says a journalist to the young female photographer as she’s setting up for a large format camera shot. Interestingly, this “slow” shot is what leads to the discovery of radiation in the ground.
In the original Godzilla, it’s notable that Godzilla destroys not only everything in its path but is especially destructive/vindictive towards man-made technologies — cars, bridges, trains, as well as radios and TVs. In one of the most memorable scenes Godzilla slices in half a TV and radio tower filled with photographers and reporters. They continue their live-broadcasting right up until Godzilla decimates the structure and the team plummets to its death: “There’s no time to run? Will we survive? Goodbye ladies and gentleman.” If only Brietbart, FoxNews, MSNBC, and CNN could all be taken down this way and we could start from scratch.
Islands act as another common motif in Godzilla films; they’re used as units of containment — prisons, outposts, hideouts, quarantined units — places where secrets can be kept, or spots where the “outside” or “foreign” can be contained. They appear as lush environments untouched by “civilization” until the dawn of nuclear testing, and are often rendered virtually uninhabitable (ex: Infant Island), or as remote research posts like Monsterland, which functions almost like a zoo or laboratory. Here containment devices have been installed so the monsters don’t escape.
Almost always, islands highlight issues of civilization’s relationship to contagion — whether civilization is trying to wall itself off from it (in the case of the gigantic barrier built to electrocute Godzilla in the first film), cover up the military’s use of it, or use an island to escape the metaphoric impurity of society and create a utopian vision of another world. Godzilla’s islands bring to mind other deeply political monster movies like George Romero’s 1975 Night of the Living Dead, which also deals very explicitly with barricades, contagion, and island hideaways. Watching these Show-Era Godzilla films, I found myself thinking endlessly about the island-complex: who or what is “free” to come and go, how wealth factors into that, and the systemic history of various island cultures relationship to “civilized” newcomers.
Speaking of newcomers, what the early Godzilla films teach us is that, like it or not, monsters are here to stay. The irreparable damage done to the environment via weapons of mass destruction signals a shift in human history, i.e., the appearance of humongous monsters shouldn’t come as a surprise. How do we live with this new species? How if at all we make peace with the beasts birthed in The Anthropocene? The Showa-Era films map Godzilla’s trajectory from threatening monster of unknown origin to virtual companion species: in a film like Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) some of the film’s characters cheer on Godzilla as it practically does a boogie-woogie to surfer guitar riffs while dodging missiles from fighter jets.
In this sense, of great interest is Mothra, the gigantic moth. Mothra’s possesses a distinctly symbiotic relationship with the people of Infant Island, the place where she was born as a byproduct of nuclear radiation. In addition to watching over the people of the island, Mothra is watched over by two part-human, ashtray-sized female twins who do things like sneak into a power-broker’s office to beg for her egg back and help birth the second Mothra by coaxing it out of its shell with song. Mothra reminds us that we can and should live with monsters, that sometimes doing so brings us into greater harmony with our changing ecologies.
And where do we keep monsters in our current ecologies? Quite close, clearly; in the US, we live in a society where you can purchase a Godzilla ringtone for your phone, or collect creatures in playing Pokémon Go. As this release debuts from Criterion, it’s hard not to think of Netflix’s recent release of season 3 of Stranger Things, an unapologetically nostalgic series with a penchant for Cold War monsters that is unsettlingly close to that of our current administration. Why is it we love to repeat things with our monsters, conjuring them up again and again; are we living out the next installment of a franchise? Who will assist us in the next chapter — Godzilla, Mothra?
Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 is out now from The Criterion Collection.