May 24, 1998

Godzilla Lit: When Cineastes Meet Dragon, the Breathing Gets Hot

Well, so what if the new "Godzilla" movie stinks? It is protected by an immutable dictum of Godzilla cinema: To be good, it is preferable for a Godzilla movie to be bad.

A good movie with Godzilla in it (have you ever seen one?) may be by definition a bad Godzilla movie. Conversely, a bad movie in which Godzilla appears is bound to be a good Godzilla movie.

In summation, the ideal Godzilla movie is, paradoxically and counterintuitively, the classic "good bad" movie, the elements of which can include but are not limited to lousy dubbing and stentorian proclamations from Raymond Burr.

Confused? Maybe a survey of commentary on the more than 20 movies of the Godzilla genre will help.

Then again, maybe not. Whatever. Excerpts follow.


You may know that the radioactive monster in the original 1954 "Godzilla" (with Raymond Burr spliced into the American adaptation) was an allusion to the nuclear horror visited on Japan, but did you know that Godzilla wasn't having much fun trampling Tokyo? As "The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction" (William Morrow, 1984) by Phil Hardy notes:

There is virtually no amorous intrigue in these films: the monster is the star and people are victims. The violence is impersonal and massive, but not represented as personal, detailed cruelty. The monsters do not eat people. In fact, they rarely eat at all.

The symbolism gets much more complex in "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1963), the third of the Godzilla series from Japan's Toho studio. Or so "The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction" says:

King Kong is represented as a nisei deity: a god living on the Solomon Islands occupied by the Japanese but captured by the U.S., making this Kong into a representative of both countries' military culture. . . . The conflict between the internalized form of U.S. culture, Kong, and the representation of American aggression in the form of a mythical beast, Godzilla, is fought out over Mount Fuji. The wholesale destruction of Tokyo is almost taken for granted in such a context, and the film dwells more on the comic side of the contest, which includes scenes where the two monsters play ball with an enormous rock.

But is it a fair fight? You bet, says a review appearing on the "Barry's Temple of Godzilla" Web site (the Internet address is

Now, you may be thinking, "Godzilla is a radioactive, fire-breathing, regenerating mutant dinosaur, whereas King Kong is just a big ape -- Where's the sport in that?" Ah, but what you didn't realize is that King Kong gets stronger when exposed to electricity! (And you didn't think Godzilla was the only monster whose contract requires him to walk into high-tension power lines each movie, did you?) This is a movie I wish I had seen when I was 8 years old, . . . and not concerned with little things such as plot, acting and production values. . . . My favorite scene -- Kong shoves a tree down Godzilla's throat, who then "sneezes"!

Before long, Godzilla, symbol of nuclear militarism, evolves into not a bad sort after all, at least not when his enemy is a giant lobster with authoritarian leanings. Commenting on "Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster" (1966), "The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction" notes:

The positive valuation of Godzilla, the monster representing the force unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki against Japan, is enhanced by associating the bad monster in this movie with a totalitarian organization seeking world domination: Red Bamboo.

Soon, the encyclopedia notes, Godzilla is an environmental hero, starting with 1971's "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster," which features annoying theme music with the insipid lyrics, "Save the Earth! Find a solution to stop pollution! Save the Earth!":

The story is edifying: industrial waste and pollution dumped into the sea produces a living sludge, activated by particles of a monstrous substance that arrived on Earth attached to a comet. Hedora (the smog monster) feeds on pollution. It also emits a crimson death ray from its eyes and can turn itself into a flying saucer as well. Godzilla turns up to save the day, aided by the military's giant electricity generators. . . . The picture is interrupted by psychedelically staged pop songs and explanatory animation sequences, considerably slowing down the action and betraying a total lack of any sense of continuity, although that defect may be due to the U.S. version's adaptation of the original movie. . . . Nevertheless it signaled a fundamental shift in the monster movie genre, introducing the theme of global pollution, which became the thematic mainstay of the series for the next 10 years, replacing the traditional atomic radiation motif as the main cause for the disasters befalling Japan.

This is not to say that Godzilla movies suddenly got a whole lot better. In the video guide "Terror on Tape" (Billboard, 1994), James O'Neill had this to say about "Godzilla vs. Megalon" (1973):

The absolute bottom of the Godzilla barrel, this pits our rubbery lizard hero and an Ultra-Man-like robot called Jet Jaguar against Megalon, the beetle-like minion of underground bad guys called Seatopians. . . . (The film is) marred by sub-par special effects (apart from a disappearing lake and collapsing dam) and awful dubbing (the kid character sounds like he's on helium).

Still, in "Variety's Complete Science Fiction Reviews" (Daily Variety, 1985), a critic finds redeeming value in "Godzilla vs. Megalon":

Parents concerned about violence will be reasonably pleased with its low level here. Nobody really gets killed, not even Megalon, and the idea of having stand-ins slug it out 1/8instead of people) is Utopian. For academics, Godzilla is the golem come to the rescue in a morally untenable situation. . . . The robot plays Bogart's old role, remaining morally neutral until he declares sides for the people who made him.

Randall E. Osborne, Ph.D., a social psychologist, puts Godzilla flicks practically on a par with "Sesame Street" in the newly published "Official Godzilla Compendium" (Random House). In an essay called "Godzilla as a Parenting Tool," he writes:

There are many examples in Godzilla movies of characters helping each other. Anguirus comes to Godzilla's aid in battling Gigan and Ghidrah. Minilla helps the little boy learn to overcome his fear of the bully Gabara in "All Monsters Attack."

I explain to my son that it is important to know that people have different ideas and preferences than we do, but that we must also be able to put those differences aside and work together for more important goals. He can then watch examples of this when Rodan and Godzilla work together to defeat Ghidrah in "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster."

But how good can Godzilla movies be for kids when they mimic spaghetti westerns? The "Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction" sees an homage to one of the genre's directors in "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" (1974):

It emerges that the good Godzilla can only defeat his rival with the help of King Seeser, a legendary monster god embodying the spirit of Okinawa. The film then veers between space opera, monster movie and sorcery, culminating in a Sergio Leone-inspired face-off between the two Godzillas and Seeser. . . . The final fight is suitably impressive, although the tongue-in-cheek reference to Leone slows the action down too much.

What the big lizard needs is greater understanding, writes J. D. Lees in his introduction to "The Official Godzilla Compendium":

What's green, 400 feet tall, and eats trains for breakfast? If your answer is "Godzilla," . . . you're wrong -- and so are lot of other so-called "facts" about that most misunderstood of monsters, Godzilla.

For one thing, Godzilla is actually gray. And he's 50, 80, or even 100 meters tall, depending on which of the Godzilla movies you're watching.

Oh, and he's never eaten a train in his life. Sure, he picked one up in his mouth during his first appearance in 1954, but he spit it out right away!

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