The Paradox at the Heart of Godzilla

Since his big-screen debut in 1954, the monster has been portrayed, alternately with levity and seriousness, as both a menace and a protector.

Gojira, 1954 (Everett Collection)

On Sunday mornings in the 1970s, I was the first in my house to wake up. As soon as I got out of bed, I’d retrieve the thick Sunday edition of the newspaper, pull out the comics section, and then dig for the weekly TV guide. I’d flip to the listing for the following Saturday to see which monster movies would be part of that morning’s “Creature Features.” Any film would’ve thrilled me, but I was always hoping for ones starring the heavy-footed, radioactive behemoth known as Godzilla. Having first debuted in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Gojira, the Godzilla I knew was an unpredictable force of destruction. But he could also sometimes be a friend to humanity—a savior in moments of crisis, a mythological titan that danced when he won a battle.

Godzilla movies have typically tried to highlight both of these qualities—often in the same film—with varying degrees of emphasis. Many of the movies in the 1970s were almost comical, featuring kaiju (giant monster) battles that resembled professional wrestling. The films of the mid-’80s through ’90s took on a much darker tone, with Godzilla reemerging as a menace even as he delighted in his fights with other monsters. His power was fearsome, and he couldn’t be controlled or negotiated with. Nevertheless, when a bigger threat to humanity’s survival emerged, Godzilla would rise as our champion. No matter how playful or haunting his movies have been over the decades, this duality—Godzilla as both a terrifying metaphor for mankind’s hubris and a protector capable of almost cosmic benevolence—has always been at the heart of the character.

Hollywood’s latest Godzilla movie, subtitled King of the Monsters, is set to maintain this tension. A sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, the film sees the desperate people of Earth calling upon the creature they’re most afraid of in order to fight an even greater peril. Early trailers presented the destruction wrought as a giddy extravaganza, with actors spitting out punchy one-liners while the world collapses around them. The classic Godzilla movies I grew up with embraced the same sort of approach, taking the giant lizard seriously, but not too seriously.

My first Saturday-morning encounter with the creature was a childhood awakening. Godzilla’s Revenge (1969)—originally titled All Monsters Attack—is a fantasia seen through the eyes of a boy named Ichiro living in an urban industrial complex. Factory stacks bellow plumes of smog when he walks to school. His favorite place to roam near the train yard where his father works is also where his bullies await. Ichiro daydreams of visiting Monster Island, where he meets Minya, Godzilla’s squat-nosed offspring that blows smoke rings instead of atomic breath and that is himself bullied by one of the island’s many creatures. Godzilla later teaches them both how to be brave, only minutes after annihilating a gargantuan praying mantis. As an anxious kid, I reveled in Ichiro’s (and Minya’s) transformation from tormented to fearless, guided by a friendly demigod. At the time, I didn’t know that Godzilla had his roots in something far graver than childhood bullying: the ruin of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs.

Not long after airing Godzilla’s Revenge, the same TV station showed the U.S. version of 1954’s Gojira, which was co-directed by Honda and renamed in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Here, the actor Raymond Burr is edited, somewhat awkwardly, into the Japanese original as an American reporter named Steve Martin informing the West of the destruction of Tokyo by the atomic-bomb-awakened creature. While King of the Monsters! all but stripped away Gojira’s references, metaphorical or literal, to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American film is still presented as a true horror movie. At age 7, I could barely understand the plot and was mostly interested in the drama of a rampaging monster. And yet it is so tonally different from Godzilla’s Revenge that I found it difficult to see the movies as being about the same creature.

King of the Monsters! is a deeply melancholic experience that’s made even sadder by the character of the eyepatch-wearing scientist Daisuke Serizawa, who has the power to kill Godzilla with an oxygen-destroying device. Serizawa insists to the government that his weapon is an even greater threat to the world than the conquering beast, but he agrees to its use, knowing that he must sacrifice his own life in the process because it must be detonated by hand. Serizawa’s death, as Godzilla is suffocated and then reduced to a skeleton, is macabre and frightening. The movie ends without a hint of celebration; that Godzilla has been defeated and the terror is over is treated as confusing and bittersweet. In other words, King of the Monsters! was no child’s spectacle of monster battles. Even then I could sense the shadow of a nuclear holocaust in the images of Tokyo as an emptied-out core.

But like many viewers, I was able to look past the darkness of this origin story as I devoured the countless other Godzilla movies that were released during the ’60s and ’70s. The Japanese-made films of the 1970s had the creature fight an assortment of foes, including the kindly Mothra, the pteranodonlike Rodan, the giant spider Kumonga, the gargantuan lobster Ebirah, the robotic doppelgänger Mechagodzilla, and the living sludge of contamination and decay named Hedorah. The most fearsome—and by far the coolest—was King Ghidorah, the three-headed, electricity-spitting alien leviathan that will have a starring role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters when it opens Friday. Each new iteration of Godzilla became more charmingly ridiculous: In the 1973 Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla rides along the ground on his tail, hitting his foe square in the chest with his feet.

The truth is, I’ve never quite been able to resolve these two versions of Godzilla: one a destroyer of worlds and a reminder of the horrible truth of nuclear war; the other a gentle, stern, and sometimes silly father figure. In almost all of the Godzilla movies after the 1954 original, the nuclear-war symbolism is barely an echo. The most recent work to tackle the issue head-on is the remarkable and deeply serious 2016 Toho Studios film Shin Godzilla, in which a devastated Japan must give the United States permission to drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla. Shin Godzilla makes the bold assertion that maybe Gojira movies shouldn’t be fun at all.

Gareth Edwards’s 2014 Godzilla, the first film in the current American franchise, made an honest attempt to return Godzilla to his roots as a purely inscrutable, almost godlike entity. Like the original movie, Godzilla doesn’t have the titular monster make a full-bodied appearance until deep into the story. (As in the 1954 version, the creature is first spotted in the distance from the main character’s point of view.) It’s one of a half-dozen striking moments in an otherwise serviceable movie. The film occasionally references American nuclear testing, and the overarching plot involves radiation-eating monsters that Godzilla has to battle. But once Godzilla begins fighting, there’s little to separate this version from earlier iterations—except that the dinosaur is a beautiful CGI rendering and not a man in a lizard suit. What the film does do, however, is clarify how paradoxical the character of Godzilla is. The audience is meant to cheer him on, no matter how dangerous he might be.

The monster has evolved too far from his original metaphor to be obliged to return there. Godzilla endures as a pop-cultural force today in part because he has come to represent the idea that what can destroy humanity can, in turn, also liberate it. What made the early Godzilla films so strange was how this pure annihilating force could also express a temperament. Even in Gojira, in which Godzilla is a stand-in for human scientific hubris, there is still an odd anthropomorphic quality to him, which adds to the elegiac impression of his death. Godzilla projects the essential fear of not knowing whether humans will be the ultimate liberators or executioners of the planet. Like Godzilla, humanity is suspended in this dichotomy. So if audiences are going to cheer when they see King of the Monsters, let it be not for the thrill of the spectacle, but because, at the last minute, Godzilla teaches viewers, like Minya, how to be both fierce and benevolent, to do whatever is needed to save one another.