The original Godzilla plays out the struggle between two of post-war Japan's major political tendencies: a revolutionary critique of modernity against a victimized anti-historical Japanese nationalism
You always hear about how the first Godzilla movie is, in distinction from every other Godzilla movie, a real movie, a serious movie, about nuclear weapons, about World War II, etc. But the thing is, it’s true, the movie is fantastic. It really is scary. It has a great, Rite of Spring-influenced score, striking German expressionist-inflected visuals, and really cool special effects—brilliant use of slow motion, miniatures, mattes, back projection, and composite shots with densely layered compositions and multiple scales all in one image. I mean, look at this shit:
Now imagine that all the parts are moving.
The above two stills from the film are both composite shots of two different moving images, shot at different scales: there is the image of the people running around at the bottom/foreground of the frame; and then there is the image of Godzilla, here portrayed by a guy in a costume, in the top and background of the frame. This composite inverts the normal relationship of foreground to background: here it is the foreground that was actually further away from the camera. The real craftsmanship of the image lies in the seamless blending of the life-size set and the scale model in the middle/midground of the frame. The high contrast photography and all the moody, expressive shadows hides the seam between the foreground and background well but not entirely, so that it appears neither totally realistic nor totally fake, but uncanny, ontologically disturbed.
Fuck the traditional Gaia interpretation of Godzilla—“By creating nuclear weapons, we have disturbed the natural order and disrespected traditional life, and Godzilla is our just punishment.” It’s more complicated than that. Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear weapons, duh. The film is very didactic on this point. He’s radioactive, his rampage was brought on by H-bomb tests, and one character, complaining about having to endure “yet another evacuation,” even says, “What did I survive Nagasaki for?” But nuclear weapons are themselves a metonym for technological and social modernity, and that’s what Godzilla is really about.
When I say that Godzilla represents the threat of catastrophe that is always present in modern societies, it’s not just a matter of societies being dependent on technology, but of societies in which all aspects of social and technical life are organized around the intensification of industrial and/or post-industrial production. Societies with such huge energy and material needs that their production sites and infrastructures are highly dangerous—featuring mine collapses, storage site explosions, nuclear meltdowns, train-wrecks, pollution, and the constant risk of foreign wars over control of trade and resources. Populations that are distributed geographically in such a way that a relatively small interruption in the supply chain of food or fuel could have catastrophic consequences in terms of death, deprivation, and/or civil unrest. In such societies, the distinction between natural disaster and man-made disaster is at least partially dissolved, as modernity itself constitutes a kind of second nature, its cataclysms having the scale of natural disasters, devastating ecological consequences, and, perhaps most terribly, having been naturalized by ideology (see the vogue for “resilience” in urban planning) so that they seem inevitable facts of life rather than the results of historical processes of collective decision-making, guided by and serving the interests of the powerful according to the logic of capital accumulation. Mediated technocatastrophy is the new natural disaster.
Look at what Godzilla attacks. First, it’s fishing boats—Japan’s industrial food source—trading vessels—Japan’s lifeline to the global economy—and a small fishing village. Then in Godzilla’s next strike, he attacks an industrial area, destroying power lines, fuel storage facilities, train, and bridges. It is only in his final attack that he goes for highly populated sections of Tokyo, where he destroys commercial buildings, media infrastructure (a TV broadcast tower), and the symbols of political power (the National Diet Building). The arc of Godzilla’s attacks is like a traditional Marxist lesson in political economy, moving from the base of material production to the superstructure of political and ideological power.
Godzilla, in the very movements of his person from rural periphery to urban center, embodies the cascading intensification of disasters in primary production—food, energy, basic resources—as their effects move towards urban population centers. The design elements of Godzilla’s body gesture towards this modernity-as-Second-Nature not just in his being (fictionally) radioactive, but in the (actually) metallic quality of his roar, the obviously hand-made, artificial quality of his puppet dinosaur body. His dorsal fins glow like the neon signs of the urban centers he destroys.
The point is that Godzilla is not an external menace. Godzilla is built into the system. Godzilla is our way of life. He is the danger of cataclysm that is always present because we have chosen to organize our societies in a certain way, a way that chooses productivity and profitability over safety and sustainability. The only way to avoid Godzilla is to radically reorganize the mode of production. But power has got the narrative locked down so tight that to reject its version of modernity is treated as rejecting technological modernity as such.
The response of the state to modern catastrophes is militarized securitization. In the film, Japan responds to Godzilla’s attacks by mobilizing all its military resources and embarking on a construction project to build a giant electric fence around Tokyo Bay. The film shows us copious footage of actual Japanese Self-Defense force war machines. There is one documentary sequence of ships launching depth charges into the sea—it is noted in the credits that the film was made in cooperation with the Japanese navy—and another showing war planes and a mini military parade of tanks, backhoes, and jeeps. The scenes would seem to have a kind of therapeutic purpose, reassuring the audience that Japan Can Do It! But then Godzilla attacks, and the very same war machines we just saw are literally reduced to playthings—planes, toy cars, tossed around and destroyed by the man in the Godzilla suit. Indeed, the film explicitly states, via Takashi Shimura’s character, that the military response to Godzilla only increases his rage. Godzilla dramatizes the futility of responding to modern catastrophes through ever greater securitization, ever greater militarization, ever more vicious technologies of control, and reveals all this as so much theater, a therapeutic spectacle that ultimately only increases our exposure to potential disaster.
The necessity of responding to the inherently disaster-prone nature of actually existing modernity with a radical critique of modernity is what is at stake in Shimura’s character, the scientist who wants to study Godzilla rather than kill him. When Shimura first proposes this, you think, “But that’s crazy! Godzilla eats people! How the fuck can you study something that eats people?!” When Shimura points out that we have a compelling self-interest to learn how Godzilla was able to survive the H-bomb, you grant that that’s a pretty good point, but still: he eats people! “He eats people!”—that’s what you keep thinking all the way to the end of the film, and when, after they’ve killed Godzilla and every other living thing in Tokyo Bay with a one-off super-weapon that they can never use again cuz it was the only one they had and the goddamn inventor killed himself and destroyed his notes, Shimura points out that there’s every reason to believe that there are more Godzillas out there and that continued H-bomb testing will only continue to piss them off and you think “Fuck, he was right!” Shimura’s insistence that we study, not kill Godzilla, is unreasonable, but reality is even more unreasonable. This subplot dramatizes the necessity of radical critique, no matter how unrealistic its prescriptions may seem to the status quo. As Zizek is fond of saying, the utopians are not the people looking for radical change, but those who think that things can remain as they are without inevitable catastrophe.
The release of Godzilla in 1954 coincided with the beginning of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement amid a period of heightened public discussion of the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in Japan. In 1953, Eisenhower gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech in which he aligned American foreign policy interests with global proliferation of nuclear energy. In 1954, The Japanese Diet passed funding for the creation of a nuclear energy program. The creation of a nuclear energy program in Japan , which was met with immediate public opposition. The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were there, but there was a much more immediate cause of anti-nuclear sentiment
In March, 1954, an American H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll caused the evacuation of entire islands and the irradiation of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, resulting in the death of a Japanese sailor. In addition to the outrage caused by the murder of yet another Japanese civilian by an American nuclear weapon, there was widespread fear of irradiated fish entering the food supply—a character in Godzilla, released six months after the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, actually makes reference to panic about contaminated fish.
Godzilla, though, is more than just topical. It was part of a media frenzy about the dangers of nuclear energy, but it was also about that same frenzy—about how the media spectacle of the disaster and the spectacularized military response transfixes and immobilizes us and only furthers the disaster. The Godzilla crisis unfolds as a mass media event—a “real” one for the films’ characters, and a simulated one for the film’s audience. When Godzilla attacks ships at the beginning of the film, we see a few of them get destroyed, but the rest we learn about through fictitious radio broadcasts and newspaper headlines. When Godzilla rampages on Tokyo, we get scenes of a live TV crew covering the disaster from on top of a TV broadcast tower. After the rampage, our heroes regain morale by watching a national television broadcast showing a choir of school girls singing inspirational music. Arguably, the simulated mass media event is more central to our (the audience’s) experience of narrative continuity than the story of the film’s protagonists.
Godzilla exploits the power of cinema to imitate other forms of media—as in scenes where the film cuts seamlessly from showing us characters watching TV into the images of the TV broadcast itself—to ambivalent effect. On the one hand, the film manipulates us in the same way mass media does—the TV broadcast of the girls choir lifts the spirits not just of the protagonists but also of the audience. On the other hand, the film cuttingly parodies media, as in the scene where Godzilla attacks the TV broadcast tower where the live TV news crew is filming him. The TV crew is so transfixed, they do not even attempt to flee when the monster attacks. Instead the anchor provides feverish live narration of his own impending doom—“It has the tower in it’s hands! What power! This is really the end. Farewell, ladies and gentlemen!” It’s a remarkably Benjaminian moment in which the film seems to be calling out its own participation in aestheticizing destruction and the cultivation of complacency that comes with it. We are moths to the flame of the screen. If the “natural” causes of natural disasters are amplified and mediated by technocapitalist organization, then so too are our experiences of these disasters—even when they threaten imminent death—mediated and contextualized by spectacle.
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Okay, so I’ll admit the above is a pretty strong reading of Godzilla. And while the radical critique of modernity is in there, there is a much less radical and less critical side of the film. It’s not an either/or thing—the film itself is inconsistent. Therefore out of fairness and historical interest, I turn my attention to those parts of the film that limit or contradict my reading of Godzilla as a radical film.
I previously cited the sections of the film showing off real-life Japanese Self-Defense Force technology as part of my critical reading of the film, but if I’m being honest, the therapeutic, confidence-restoring, nationalism-stoking effect of these documentary images of real war machines may not be fully cancelled out by the imaginary destruction of “these” war machines. Godzilla is riding high on the wave of Japan’s remilitarization, which began in 1950, with the creation, on Washington’s orders, of a 75,000-man national police reserve. Ostensibly created to maintain order in Japan as America began reallocating men and resources to its new war in Korea, the police reserve, which was composed mostly of Imperial Army veterans rearmed with American weapons, found its métier in acting as the muscle behind the anti-Red purges of the early 1950’s, breaking strikes, battling students, and persecuting communists and “communists.”
The police reserve was rechristened the National Self-Defense Force in 1952. Japan played an active role in logistical support for American operations in the Korean War, securing ports, participating in mine sweeping operation, and even sending over 1,000 personnel into combat zones. The remilitarization of Japan was opposed by large segments of the Japanese population as a violation of the pacifist constitution—even Prime Minister Yoshida and General MacArthur did not like it. Godzilla, like most commercial art, hedges its bets, giving as many sides of a controversy as it can something to take away. Radicals can read it as a critique of militarized security, but more liberal/conservative minds can see Godzilla a “reasonable” message that militarized self-defense is necessary but not wholly sufficient for security in the modern world.
At the same time that the film offers reassuring images of a new, ‘good’ militarism of the Self-Defense Forces, it purges the ‘bad’ militarism of Imperial Japan. The first organized response to Godzilla undertaken in the film is an exorcism ceremony performed in a small fishing village. The exorcism scene may be interpreted as a metaphor for the film itself, which, as its own sort of ritualistic, collective spectacle, is an exorcism of the trauma of World War II.
Even before World War II had ended, American propaganda began telling the Japanese civilian population that they were essentially victims of “militarists” in their government, at first to demoralize them into surrender and later to ensure their cooperation with the occupation. A June 1945 internal memo from the US military intelligence Morale Analysis Division declares America’s intention that the militarists “be used as scapegoats." Seeded by American propaganda, the victimization narrative took root through a (probably unexpected by the Americans) felicity between Japanese imperial ideology and the dramaturgy of the American Occupation.
The institutions and ideology of Japanese imperial fascism were structured such that one’s personal devotion to the Emperor could leap frog over every link in the chain of command in between. Under the Meiji Constitution, the armed forces served the Emperor, not the State. An entire generation had been raised before World War II on government propaganda that declared the imperial throne, rather than any actually existing government, to be the sole foundation of the kokutai, or national polity. During the war, imperial dictates told soldiers to “consider an order from your superior to be an order from Myself.” Therefore, it was viable, as a coherent and even patriotic position, to identify with the emperor while disidentifying with the state. This is precisely what people did when the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal essentially declared the Emperor innocent of any blame for the war while finding the rest of his inner circle guilty. Thus, the emperor and his loyal citizens become innocent “victims” of both the fascists in the Imperial army and the violence of the Allies.
American wartime propaganda and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal were the foundational texts of the literature of “victimization consciousness” that proliferated in all media during the Postwar period. In the first two decades following the war, a lot of Japanese movies emphasized the suffering of the Japanese people during the war, their sacrifices and their ultimate disillusion with their leadership and the historical project of Imperial Japan. As Isolde Standish argues in her excellent book, Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, these films partook in the construction of a collective memory of the war that centered on Japanese victimization and, implicitly, innocence. At its worst, victimization consciousness cinema contributed to the larger suppression of genuine historical consciousness in Japan, to the willed forgetting of the War and what led up to it, and to the re-instatement of formerly fascist ruling cliques in the softer “democratic” guise of Liberal Democrat Party rule, subordinated to American empire.
The victimization theme in Godzilla is pretty obvious. The film’s images evoke World War II only in terms of Japanese suffering: shots of people running to underground shelters recalls war time air raids; those famous hospital scenes, again recalling the aftermath of wartime attacks; that inexcusably saccharine, exploitative scene with the little girls singing mournful choral music on national television after Godzilla has laid waste to Tokyo. These images tell the audience that what World War II was was Japanese people suffering.
The film makes the audience relive (or imagine reliving) that experience of the war, makes them feel the suspense and terror of the air raids, the despair of defeat, gives them characters to pity and identify with and thereby pity themselves. Victimization consciousness qua ideology is not just a dry matter of instructing the audience in what historical facts are important and which are not and how the important ones are and aren’t to be interpreted. It is a matter of constructing the lived, emotional, existential orientation of the subject in relation to history—an orientation that, despite its constructedness, feels natural and spontaneous, not intellectualized and rote. It is a matter of regulating pleasure and enjoyment—of conditioning the audience to enjoy the masochistic pleasures of victimization fantasies rather than the real, radical pleasures of rebellion. Filmgoers know that movies do not give them historical truth, but this does not stop them from learning history through the movies anyway.
Godzilla also provided a catharsis by making the relief of defeating Godzilla coincide with the symbolic purging of the war in the resolution of the film’s love triangle subplot. The subplot goes like this: At the start of the film, Takashi Shimura’s daughter, played by Momoko Kochi, is betrothed to Akihito Hirata’s mad scientist World War II veteran but is in love with a humble ship salvager played by Akira Takarada. Hirata wears an eye patch because, we are told, of a war injury. He is scarred by the war, and he is a scar of the war. There is something intense, even crazed about him, a painful excess of affect. He is a social scar. His very existence prevents the happiness of the young couple and unnerves the world. So the war veteran removes himself from it and goes out kamikaze-style, staying behind to detonate the super-weapon that destroys Godzilla so that no one can learn the weapon's secret.
The film has its cake and eats it too: it is critical of the war while honoring dead soldiers while also consigning them to the past: We can honor them as long as honoring them means that they have no place in the New Japan. Reifying the war dead while relegating them to a closed historical period is a particularly helpful maneuver if you want to incorporate their surviving comrades into the newly formed police and armed forces.
So Godzilla-as-exorcism has a function of building complacency through a cathartic experience of reliving/ideologically reimagining the horrors of WWII, leaving the audience feeling that they and “Japan” were victims of the war. But Godzilla-as-exorcism also requires that WWII function as an exorcism. Japan, in this way of thinking, learned the way few nations have the price of fascism, and are in a unique position to warn the world about it. This is the general message of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, for one example, and it’s the implied message in Godzilla when Takashi Shimura’s character talks about “we Japanese” having the unique opportunity to benefit mankind by studying Godzilla.
Peter Y. Paik in his brilliant little book From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe sees speculative narratives as a kind of training, or a dramatization of ethical thought experiments. Godzilla depicts and to a certain extent even enacts a failure to learn, but it’s ambiguous enough, and its speculative topic matter gives it a sufficient distance from the real, that it’s not merely pessimistic or symptomatic. The failure to learn depicted in it may itself be instructive.
Almost seventy years removed from the end of World War II, however, we’ve witnessed the Japanese government’s farcical reenactment of victimization consciousness in its response to the Fukushima disaster. Replete with government handwringing over its helplessness in the situation, cover-ups of the extent and danger of the radiation, the fomenting of right-wing anti-East Asian nationalism, and suicidal ideological projects like “Eat and Support Fukushima” in which the government buys irradiated food for its stockpiles and volunteers among older and thus “less radiation susceptible” Japanese eat Fukushima products for the good of the agricultural district, it seems rather clear which Godzilla has taken Tokyo.