The Monster of My Dreams

Culture Curmudgeon

photo-courtesy-of-toho-co-ltd-2016-toho-co-ltd Photo courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.

The world is going to end.

If you haven’t kept up with the climate change talks that’s been going on for the last few years then you probably haven’t heard- or read- that the destruction of our world is all but assured.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

According to some researchers, the rise in temperatures around the world is now irreversible. Moreover, just a few more years of fossil fuel use and it will be unstoppable.

That scenario has many scientists and governments predicting a dire future for all of us. But climate change isn’t the first earth killer that has fed our fears of a global reckoning. As far as I’m concerned, the world has been ending for the last few hundred years.

From the black plague in the 14th century that killed more than 20 million people to the threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s, the human race has always obsessed over the apocalypse. I’m not denying that climate change doesn’t exist. In the contrary, it’s what this world will finally do in a few hundred years.

Our obsession over the end of the world has also repeatedly bled into our cultural consciousness. Among the countless examples, the 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles, which actually triggered a nationwide panic over invading aliens from Mars; to the proliferation of cults such as the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and the countless Prepper movements across the U.S.

We also have a slew of films and TV shows dealing with the apocalypse- from Independence Day to the Planet of Apes to Attack on Titan to The Walking Dead. While they are fun to watch, they are primarily made to entertain. Sometimes they stray towards some political or social themes, but those attempts are mostly half-hearted.

But one franchise that has more or less stuck to its political, social, and environmental message about the coming end of the world as well as keeping true to its mission to entertain audiences of all ages is the granddaddy of all doomsday movies: Gojira or Godzilla in English. Gojira is a portmanteau of two Japanese words. Gorira (Gorilla) and Kujira (Whale). In its early incarnation, the creature actually looked like a cross between the two creatures.

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The groundbreaking first Godzilla film was released in 1954, not even a decade after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that left nearly 300 thousand people dead. The bombings of those cities practically ended World War II in the Pacific Theater.

Having been the only country to suffer a nuclear attack, the Japanese are wary of nuclear power and its impact on the environment. They saw firsthand the terrifying destructive force of a weapon that’s the closest thing to a destroyer of worlds. That awareness has carried over into the country’s politics and society. More importantly, it also transformed the DNA of Japanese culture in several ways.

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First, it made the country averse to any sort of armed conflict. In 1947, the country’s parliament passed article 9 to outlaw war and seek peaceful resolutions to any international disputes. They even dismantled the Imperial Army, and changed the constitution to be more of a pacifist one.

Second, the aftermath of the nuclear attacks made the Japanese very conscious of the environment. It’s very rare to meet any person from there who’s not conscious of their impact on earth. If you’ve ever been to Japan, the first thing you’ll notice is that there are no garbage cans to be found anywhere in any city. There are several reasons for this. They range from fear of terrorist attacks where devices are hidden in trash receptacles to Japanese obsessions over aesthetics. Most cities want to keep their environs free of any eyesores, so removing garbage cans was the logical step. The Japanese are also very serious about recycling. They carry their waste and recycle it later.

Those factors, coupled with the country’s anti-nuclear stance after World War II, would set the stage for the rise of one of the most enduring cultural icons the Japanese have ever created. When Godzilla burst onto the scene in 1954, the monster caught the country’s imagination.

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Godzilla was the embodiment of the all the evils of nuclear power. In unleashing the terrible destructive power of Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atomic bomb also opened the door for the creation of a fictional monster of equally terrifying proportions.

To almost everyone in Japan, he was mother nature’s revenge on a human race hell bent on destroying the earth. After a rough start to the franchise with the first Godzilla film, critics and audiences alike eventually saw the monster franchise as a series of commentaries on the potential destructive force of nuclear energy. While some critics saw Godzilla as an absurdity, its later box office successes helped cement the series’ reputation as solid box-office money maker.

The movie was also groundbreaking because it was the first of its kind to feature a giant monster as the main character who drove the plot. Godzilla has made movies like King Kong, Mothra, Ultraman, and the utterly regrettable Transformers franchise possible.

As of this writing, there have been a total of 31 Godzilla movies since the 1954 original premiered. Needless to say, I’ve seen all of them- a dubious achievement not meant to impress anyone. Most of them have been produced by Japanese filmmakers but Hollywood has also been active in making features using the monster as a centerpiece. Production on a sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 hit Godzilla is already underway.

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But it would be a mistake though to say all Godzilla movies are all alike. The early films were serious affairs. The anti-nuclear and pro-environment messages featured prominently. I recall the first Godzilla movie actually having an extended scene where government officials pontificate about the dangers of nuclear energy and the tortured decision-making process on who to save in the face of a Godzilla freak out.

The franchise eventually branched out to films devoted to pure entertainment in the late 1960s. The anti-nuclear message was still there but it became less prominent in the later iterations of the Godzilla movies. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, most of the films in the series got sillier and more schlocky.

The later films also saw Godzilla take a more benign role. While he began as a malevolent being out to destroy the human race, he became a force for good. That entailed the introduction of a slew of ‘bad-guy’ monsters in the 70s. This era coincided with the introduction of a bevy of evil monsters who could rival Godzilla’s destructive power. As a child, I was endlessly fascinated with the creatures who wanted to fight my favorite monster of all time. There were a lot of them. Some of the most memorable ones were: King Ghidora, MechaGodzilla, Evil Mothra and Ebirah. The last one is hilarious because it looks like a gigantic shrimp/lobster hybrid. Ebi is also the Japanese word for shrimp.

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As a kid, I appreciated the simple storylines of the middle period of the Godzilla movies. It usually opened with happy everyday scenes in Japan where the citizens would be going about their lives. All of a sudden a monster would show up and start destroying buildings and killing millions of people indiscriminately. Most times, the filmmakers were more interested in having a guy in a ridiculous rubber suit walk onto a replica of downtown Tokyo and begin obliterating everything in his path than coming up with a plot. And I was fine with that. I could tell the city was made up of cardboard and plaster but there’s an explicable joy in my heart when a monster shows up for no particular reason and starts leveling everything in sight.

The aftershocks triggered by the monster attacks will lead to the reawakening of Godzilla. He usually emerges from the ocean’s depths, all menace and power as he begins to search for the monsters who are wreaking destruction upon his beloved earth. Usually, there’s no contest as Godzilla dispatches villainous monsters using his brute strength or a series of weapons he has been born with. My favorite is the laser/fire/electricity that he fires from his mouth, which he usually uses as his finishing move.

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After a while, some filmmakers realized having a completely indestructible Godzilla wasn’t much fun. So, just to change it up, the directors would have Godzilla’s rivals beat him up in the first part of the film. Most times, you’d see Godzilla go down or die early in the movie. But eventually he’d be revived later, and emerge even more powerful. And usually it’s lights out for the poor monster who made the mistake of making an enemy out of the so-called King of Monsters.

As I grew older though, the repetitive nature and the increasingly cheesy plot lines and production values of the Godzilla movies got a little tiring. Toho Studios had transformed the franchise into a campy version of the original films.

They didn’t really improve in the 1990s. The franchise hit a nadir- thanks to another attempt by Hollywood to remake and reshape Godzilla. First they made the mistake of casting Ferris Bueller in the title role. Second they completely redesigned Godzilla’s look by transforming him into a gigantic gecko. Third, they completely ignored the environmental and anti-nuclear message that’s so central to all Godzilla movies. Thankfully, the movie was considered a critical and box-office flop.

The early aughts weren’t much better for Godzilla as plot lines got more bizarre. Toho actually meant to end the franchise in 2004 with Godzilla: Final Wars. Its plot was all over the place- involving martial arts, mind control battles, and a series of monsters getting beat up by Godzilla. It was a mess and a disappointing end to my favorite monster franchise of all time. Toho also decided to discontinue the series after Final Wars because it barely broke even.

After Final Wars, my Godzilla fetish went into hibernation. Even though I still had a few toys and memorabilia lying around, I pretty much forgot about him. There’d be times when I’d come across some Godzilla related merchandise in Japan, but other than that he was invisible for the most part of eight years. During that window, there were several projects in the works that were meant to revive the franchise, but nothing really materialized.

But ironically it would take a Hollywood Studio to revive the franchise. Legendary pictures acquired the Godzilla rights from Toho in 2010. I never expected the studio to actually do anything with the license because of all the projects that fell through before that deal. But the signing of Gareth Edwards (one of my favorite directors) and the help of Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) in rewriting the script, I began to hope.

Darabont’s decision to return to the original source material and tone of the early films, which focused on Godzilla as a creature born of nuclear war and a statement against the destruction of the earth’s environment, was the best thing that could have ever happened. They also approached the plot as a reboot of the franchise, which meant they would go heavily into the monster’s origin story. After a decade of waiting, they finally came up with a movie that surpassed everyone’s expectations. This was the first time that Godzilla would be completely CGI animated, a definite departure from live action sequences with a bunch of guys in rubber suits beating the stuffing out of each other.

The end result was everything I had hoped for and more. Thanks to Gareth Edwards decision to slowly reveal Godzilla through a series of visual hints (destroyed buildings, cities, his tail whipping through the air), it really made his grand entrance in the middle of the movie much more powerful. When Edwards finally revealed Godzilla’s face in the movie, it was like seeing godhead. When he finally let out his trademark roar, it made my arm hair stand on end. I was a child again. I think I hooted and hollered along with the other nerds in the theater. Hollywood finally redeemed itself for its 1998 travesty and did so by keeping true to the spirit of the franchise. The 2014 Godzilla was a global box office smash to say the least.

The successful relaunch of the biggest movie monster franchise of all time didn’t go unnoticed across the Pacific. Godzilla’s robust global box office receipts would convince Toho Studios to give my favorite monster another shot at the Japanese market. This time around, they decided to do away with the campy versions of the Godzilla movies of the 70s, 80s and 90s and stick closer to the original spirit of the 1954 movie.

The result was this year’s Shin Godzilla (or Godzilla Resurgence), probably the best Godzilla movie ever produced by Toho Studios. Just like Gareth Edwards, the Japanese directors, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, decided to make the movie as realistic as they could. That meant injecting the proper amount of gravitas without sacrificing the entertainment factor.

Shin Godzilla went way, way above my already high expectations, even surpassing Gareth Edwards’ version. Its creators wanted to go beyond your standard monster movie fare and play up the human drama.

Anno and Higuchi’s final product had everyone applauding. Not only did they satisfy the hardcore Godzilla fans, they also made the movie as commentary about nuclear power, Japanese bureaucracy, U.S. imperial ambitions and the importance of keeping true to the ideals of Japanese society.

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The movie’s first 15 minutes are devoted to mercilessly highlighting the absurd levels of government bureaucracy the country has to deal with. In one scene, the officials are gathered around a television screen watching video of a sea creature emerging in Tokyo bay. Some of them are trying to determine whether a monster attack is imminent. Instead of declaring an emergency, the most senior member of the group says he can’t make a decision on whether there’s actually a creature trying to come unto the shore until he brings in several specialists to confirm whether the creature is real and whether it can be classified as a monster.

While some may say the scene is an exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth. I used to work for a Japanese government agency. The process my superiors had to go through to get approval for a plan or a policy is tortuous. I have no doubt in my mind that’s why the ‘karoshi’ phenomenon exists in Japan. It literally means working oneself to death. Office workers who are under deadline (and they’re always under deadlines) succumb to this due to a combination of stress and lack of food. They’re so busy that they literally can’t eat or sleep. They eventually suffer a heart attack from the stresses they put on their bodies.

As I mentioned earlier, the directors wanted Shin Godzilla to be rooted in reality to create a more believable movie. That’s why they decided to recreate scenes that have been burned unto the Japanese conscious. When Godzilla finally emerges from the sea and surges into the rivers and waterways of Tokyo, you see the river swells engulf large parts of the city, throwing around cars and boats like they were mere toys. It immediately reminded me of footage and television broadcasts during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tokyo and led to the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.

By creating parallels to the five-year-old disaster, the filmmakers were also able to draw a straight line between the dangers of nuclear power to the birth of Godzilla. It’s no surprise why the directors decided to make Godzilla’s emergence in Tokyo as visually similar to the video of the tsunami.

The movie’s highlight, obviously, is Godzilla himself. This version of Godzilla is definitely closer to the original designs, but made even more intimidating. Just like Edwards’ film, a lot of this Godzilla is also CGI. However, he has a lot more weapons in his arsenal. I won’t ruin it for the nerds, so I’ll just say I’ve never seen a Godzilla this deadly and devastating.

But unlike previous Godzillas, Toho’s latest version has a message of hope for earth. While Godzilla’s emergence is largely seen as mother nature’s revenge on the human race, it’s also seen as an opportunity for nations around the globe to work together to fight a common threat, whether it be a nuclear-powered monstrosity or a possibly catastrophic phenomenon like climate change.

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