Godzilla, King of the Monsters: Against interpretation

Having grown up in the early 1990s, I can recall seeing ads for Godzilla movie marathons as part of TNT’s “Monster-Vision” series.  While the Godzilla films seemed always to be playing in the background of my childhood summer vacations, I have no memory of actually watching any of them—which is one of the reasons why I decided to sit down with the original Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1954; later re-edited for American audiences and released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, co-dir. Terry Morse, 1956).  It also helps to have a definitive edition of both versions of the film newly available on DVD and Blu-Ray, courtesy of Criterion.

Criterion has supplemented the film with an array of special features, most of which invite us to consider it within its historical contexts: WWII, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the testing of the H-bomb.  The specter of what J. Hoberman, in a characteristically insightful essay on the film that accompanies the DVD, calls “atomophobia”—a sense of anxiety or dread related to the threat of atomic catastrophe—indeed seems to hang over the film.  The monstrous Godzilla himself, it should be remembered, is an unexpected by-product of atomic pollution.

But while these contexts are no doubt crucial to understanding Godzilla, and while I myself have argued that such “trashy” cultural artifacts need to be taken seriously rather than dismissed, to make a case for the film as “a remarkably humane and melancholy drama” (I’m quoting the back of the DVD here) seems to do a disservice to its gloriously tacky charms.  Must taking Godzilla seriously mean that we have to regard it with a kind of respectful sobriety?  Might we not, as an alternative, consider it alongside such contemporaries as Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) as a cheerfully vulgar marriage of the propaganda picture and the monster movie?  (A better comparison might be to such recent, 9/11-inspired sci-fi films as Cloverfield, which I shudder to think of future generations describing as “a powerful and elegiac response to the trauma of…”, etc.)  My point is not that low-brow genres such as horror and science-fiction should not be considered as reflections of their historical moments; on the contrary, it seems to me that such genres afford better ways into the political unconscious than highbrow genres and prestige pictures do.  My point is rather that we should not lose touch with the low-brow pleasures of these films—their delirious silliness, their cheapness, their slapdash, cobbled-together feel, and their mass-cultural appeal (to an international audience, no less).  Godzilla may be as important a cinematic artifact of post-war Japan as any other, but, with all due respect to Criterion’s copy writers, it should not be remembered as a “humane and melancholy drama.”  It should be remembered as an example of the monster movie at its most wonderfully cartoonish.

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