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By Conrad Goeringer
June, 1998

Our fascination with the disaster genre mirrors an unsteady world. Despite the demise of the cold war, we are again on the nuclear edge as we approach the millennium.

Our favorite monster is back. Godzilla, that invented creature of Japanese horror cinema which has been a mainstay of Saturday afternoon television re-runs, has once again stormed in American movie theaters, all towering, 300-plus feet of him. Unlike his big screen predecessors, though, Godzilla circa 1998 is fit, buffed and more than ready to take on the nightlife of New York City as he wreaks havoc on Times Square and makes mincemeat of the Big Apple. This is no actor in a baggy lizard outfit; today’s Godzilla ripples with musculature and sinewy menace, as if he’s been putting in the reps at the neighborhood Gold’s gym.

Like the sports utility vehicle ads say, SIZE DOES MATTER. This Godzilla also reflects a lot of the metaphors of our fin de siecle culture, a world that sells us burglar alarms, cars and bottled water because it’s a scary, uncertain place out there. Godzilla is both the ultimate tough-guy and victimizer. And it may be more than marketing strategy that the backdrop for his latest assault on human habitation is not Tokyo, but New York.

Is there a pattern here? New York was assaulted by pesky Martians in the Mercury Theater rendition of H.G. Well’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, and more recently it joined the list of decimated targets in last year's blockbuster INDEPENDENCE DAY. We were graphically reminded of our specie’s precarious place in the universe when the Empire State building, a preeminent symbol of human domination and mastery over the material world, disintegrated in seconds from an alien death ray.

The big guy first made his appearance in 1954 in a release from Japan’s Toho Studios aptly titled GODZILLA, KING OF MONSTERS. Since then, 22 Godzilla flicks have been produced, of varying quality and often introducing a bizarre array of other creatures with monikers such as Angilas, Mothra, Megalon, Gigan, King Ghidorah and Biollante. Godzilla fans debate nuances such as the origin of the creature, or the jumbled timeline invented by scriptwriters at Toho Studios. But Godzilla remains a powerful metaphor for the cultural angst of the early atomic age, which accounts, in part, for the monster’s enormous popularity in Japan, the only nation subjected to nuclear attack. Depending on which is your favorite movie in the series, Godzilla is a frozen monster from the Jurassic era awakened by atomic testing, or a “godzillasaurus” dinosaur that survived into the modern era and was mutated by radiation.

The year that saw Godzilla burst onto the screen also witnessed the first hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll. The cold war was cranking into high gear. As Michael Schaller recounts in a recent New York Times piece, spotter planes patrolling the test area failed to detect a Japanese fishing boat that was soon covered with radioactive debris after the blast. Crew members showed evidence of radiation poisoning, and when one died six months later, street demonstrations in Tokyo called for an end to American nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Godzilla’s cinematic attacks on fishing boats and Japanese cities may well have been veiled references to the havoc wrought by the nuclear test program as well as the two atomic bomb delivered on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They certainly reflected a pervasive doubt about human abilities to control the atomic genie. Radiation, the unseen product of nuclear detonation was nearly as supernatural as the Kaiju or mystical beasts pervading Japanese mythology. Godzilla, in fact, inaugurated a whole genre of cinematic fare, Kaiju eiga.

American culture was in a different phase, though, blending post-war optimism with the fears of a cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union. Our science fiction emphasized a subversion mythos in a battery of films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL or RED PLANET MARS, perhaps the most conspicuous melding of anti-Russian paranoia with Christian redemption metaphors. Outside enemies or internal subversives were the bad guys, and vigilance the only antidote. Alien seed pods taking over our bodies weren’t that different from the popular perceptions of Communist agents “subverting” the culture. In INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the order to “Call the army! Call the FBI!” fit conveniently with our reliance and trust in such institutions.

A generation of American kids and their parents were ensconced in suburbia and plugged into a growing diet of television. Walt Disney’s florid visions of the future Tomorrowland included personal helicopters, self-driving cars and free electricity gratis atomic power. Remember it would be “too cheap to meter”? OUR FRIEND THE ATOM and other films made the rounds in school classrooms. Somebody even proposed using small atomic blasts to clear mountains and other obstructions to building canals or the construction of the interstate highway system.

Then came the Cuba missile crisis. “Our friend the atom” was no longer a smiling, super-charged Ready Killowatt to run a kitchen of friendly appliances, but was riding atop a Russian ICBM lurking in the jungles of Cuba, just 90-miles from our shore, and a few minutes from Main Street, USA. The era of “duck and cover” had begun, as school kids practiced drills in jumping under their desks, or heading for the nearest shelter. Catholic prelates informed jittery congregants that in the event of a nuclear attack, it was permissible to shoot your neighbors if they tried to break into your bomb shelter. Not that everyone had one, but over 150,000 were constructed as family insurance against the prospect of doomsday. The rest of us would have to settle for subways or the basements of buildings stocked generously with canned water and crackers.

“Godzilla is as much a symbol of millenarian angst as David Koresh’s followers meeting their fiery end at Waco, or the blast in Oklahoma City...”
Throughout it all, Godzilla stomped, smashed, burned and fought his way into cinematic kitsch history. Countless toy tanks and models of buildings, bridges and power lines were destroyed in the process. Kids may not have been able to verbalize it, but there was always the implicit message in Godzilla flicks that humanity had mucked things up big time, upset the delicate balance of nature, and that it was time for payback. The evils of nuclear testing was the dominant theme in the early Godzilla movies, but as the space race intensified, alien invasion motifs emerged. In 1965, Godzilla teams up with two other Kaiju, Rodan and Mothra, to do battle against a space invader in GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER. The menace of atomic power is revisited the following year in GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER, as sailors uncover a secret nuclear weapons plant being run by Ebirah. In 1968, the plot of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS flashes ahead to the end of the century, 1999, when all Kaiju have been confined to Monster Island. Godzilla and comrades manage to escape, sallying forth to devastate the major cities of the world. The following year, King Ghidorah, Godzilla and Rodan fall under the control of aliens from Planet X (THE ASTRO MONSTER).

Through the 1970s, environmental devastation and the threat of mechanization and technology emerge as protean themes in the Godzilla genre. In GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER, a 1972 offering, our favorite Kaiju defends the island nation from another monster created by chemical pollution. In 1977, aliens threaten earth with a mechanical Godzilla aptly christened “Mechagodzilla.” This film enjoyed release under three different titles (GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, and GODZILLA VS. THE BIONIC MONSTER), and spawned a 1979 sequel. In TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (also known as THE TERROR OF GODZILLA), invaders from the Third Planet of the Black hole managed to reconstruct the mechanical monster who then does battle with Godzilla.

Everything from time travel to DNA to a high tech United Nations Godzilla Counter Measures Center (the Man From UNGCC?) find their way into subsequent Toho Studio productions, though not all of these movies made their way to theaters in the United States. But the giant Kaiju was still cast against a backdrop of political and social concerns, from nuclear annihilation to pollution, invasive mythos and the notion that nature herself was out spinning out of balance.

And this might be said of the latest movie, titled simply GODZILLA. As Schaller noted (“Godzilla, Past And Present”), when the idea for a Sony Studio production was being conceived in the early 1990’s, “the idea of a rampaging Japan as No. 1 and a victimized America in decline had some logic.” Ironically, with the Asian meltdown now underway, Godzilla should appropriately be ravaging stagnant Japanese corporate offices, then heading further into eastern Asia for a foray on bankrupt and corrupt capitals.

But Godzilla comes to American shores as we enter the threshold marking the end of an old century, and the beginning of a new millennium. He is as much a symbol of millenarian angst as David Koresh’s followers meeting their fiery end at Waco, or the blast in Oklahoma City which some saw as the icon for a coming, apocalyptic civil war. Even in the comfort of air-conditioned movieplexes, though, Godzilla -- buffed as he is -- faces still competition for our millennium attentions. Comets, fiery bodies from the depths of space, have traditionally been omens of disaster, something we have discovered anew with our hyper-awareness of asteroid impact and the demise of earlier Kaiju in our real geologic history. Is it our turn next? The big screen beckons us with visions of this sort of apocalypse, including DEEP IMPACT and the forthcoming ARMAGEDDON. Warnings that the “end times” would be a period of extraordinary, calamitous events including floods, earthquakes, famines and other chaos have moved off the tabloids and religious lecture circuit, and into the cultural mainstream. Dan Rather can hardly resist a daily temptation to blame something on El Nińo. Meanwhile, the symbols of chaos and extinction -- dinosaurs, volcanoes, tsunamis, violent weather (TWISTER) --have captured the imagination of youngsters and intrigued and frightened, adults.

The illusions of Hollywood often have a way of mirroring, even anticipating events in the real world. Who remembers the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, when a “loss of coolant” accident occurred? It was free publicity for THE CHINA SYNDROME which had just hit the box office; the more suspicious even wondered if it was more than a coincidence.

Now, Godzilla is back, the ultimate symbol of nuclear carelessness and mayhem. It is a fortuitous arrival. With a building sense of panic in many doctrinal communities that the onset of the year 2000 is laden with eschatological significance, where not even Pat Robertson can make up his mind whether The End is to be by famine, asteroid bombardment or a cascade of ICBMs on the land, a Kaiju on steroids is here to really shake up the cultural landscape. His popularity is proof that we haven’t lost our case of existential jitters about what the future may hold.

And Godzilla may be here just in time. If he survives New York, I’d suggest a similar romp in some new territory, perhaps along the India-Pakistan border. The Islamic and Hindu blocks are ready to square-off in their own version of the American-Soviet cold war. Next door are hot spots like China and Afghanistan, further to the north a shaky Russia. That area could be the site for a real Armageddon, the multiple-fault line intersection of Muslim, Confucian, Hindu and Orthodox civilizations, all just in time for the year 2000. Prelates, Holy Men, Mullahs and Priests -- a real “Monster Island.” Sorting that mess out is a monster task, even if you’re the size of Godzilla.

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