Gojira (Ishiro Honda, 1954) is an easy one. A big old dinosaur is awoken from its deep-sea sleep by nuclear tests in the South Pacific, exercising severe grouchiness against passing ships and Japanese cities. Made less than a decade after the end of World War II, whose finale saw Japan becoming the first and only country to suffer (twice) the full force of an atomic bombs, Gojira serves up a lizard-shaped allegory for the devastated nation and its fear of further nuclear devastation. Nice. Simple.
But maybe, just maybe, the received interpretation of the Godzilla story is frequently cited because it works. It describes, rather than superimposes, a truth about the film that, once ackwnowledged, assists in the digestion of the movie’s grander themes, and allows the viewer to focus on the finer points of street-stomping kaiju action. This is certainly not to say that Gojira is a simple, cut-and-dried piece of nuclear dread. By making the big G a lightning rod for the nuclear debate, the film permits a polyvocal discussion of the merits and demerits of blowing stuff up with weapons of mass destruction. The arrival of an angry, giant radioactive Jurassic relic prompts a debate between scientists who want to study and scientists who want to destroy the creature; there are those who want to suppress all knowledge of the attacks to avoid panic and social unrest, while others insist that the public has a right to be forewarned. And the biggest dilemma of all comes with the decision over whether or not to use a devastating new weapon against the monster, laying waste to vast numbers of other sea life.
So, it’s not simply the case that Godzilla is monster who embodies the destructive force of a nuclear bomb in order to replay and exorcise the spectre of devastation in the safe playground of genre conventions. Godzilla is the site for debates around the reasons for the appearance and deployment of such weapons. Yomota Inuhiko has explained this with a comparison to one Hollywood version of the genre:
“Godzilla is as much a threat menacing Japan as another victim of nuclear attack itself. That is, he is defined as a metaphor of post-war Japanese society that has survived the catastrophe caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla has a precedent in the Hollywood film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Eugene Lourie, US, 1953). This Warner Brothers B-film also features a nuclear bomb experiment and a monster; in this case, a nuclear blast at the North Pole awakens a dinosaur. Although the dinosaur attempts to raid Manhattan, a nuclear warhead attached to a US army missile finally destroys it. The film’s characters do not hesitate to use nuclear arms. Instead, what the film communicates is the vehement message that nuclear weapons are indispensable when it comes to the repelling of the enemies of civilisation. By contrast, what is distinctive about Godzilla is that its characters actively engage in earnest discussions about the best way to deal with the monster.” (‘The Menace from the South Seas: Honda Ishirô’s Godzilla‘ in Phillips & Stringer, Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, p.106)
An encultured belief about special effects is that they must move with the times, deploying the latest technology to assist with the increasingly photorealistic depiction of similar narrative events. Hence the tenacity of the monster film, which has been subjected to a near fetishistic recycling of a simple trope (primitive monster rampages in modern environments, embodying a clash of ideologies), with each revision marked by the use of ever more sophisticated effects, as if striving towards a perceived endpoint of absolute simulation. I have argued elsewhere that this endpoint is a mythical one, a measuring pole of progress that ignores the constructedness of all images. The wish of absolute simulation might suggest that there will come a point where the illusion is indistinguishable from the real, and thus that they will become semically co-extensive – in other words, an artificially rendered monster will appear so wholly to be a part of the filmic space that it will no longer be endowed with special symbolic capabilities. It will become an unobtrusive part of the diegesis, contributing to the making of meaning but not bearing its own “special meanings” through the nature of its construction.
Outside Japan, the reception of the Godzilla movies is not what it is at home. Other than the devoted band of cult followers, the monster is best known for its rampant merchandising and its “special” special effects. I hesitate to call them “cheap”, but that may well be how they are perceived since, despite refinements in the technique, the films are still made using an actor in a big suit traipsing across the skylines of miniature sets. To many viewers, it still looks comical that the illusion is so readily revealed, but those meticulously designed little worlds are things of beauty. Why haven’t they been redone using state-of-the-art CGI to avoid those obvious discrepancies of scale and detail? Wouldn’t it look much cooler with a digital monster crashing through a digital Manhattan? That’s the very question that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich spent $130,000,000 trying to answer with their 1998 remake. The answer was “no, it would look like crap.” It might be that the man-in-a-monster-suit approach keeps the character of Godzilla tied materially to the merchandise, toys and replicas upon which his brand is stamped – the toys look more like the “real” thing than they might if Godzilla were a set of algorithms. Philip Brophy has provided a more intriguing explanation.
Rather than focusing on the allegorical manouevres of the Gozilla films, Brophy stresses the input of “phenomenological aspects of direct physicality” borne by the use of a man in a rubber suit to trash miniature sets at Toho studios. Comparing the practices of special effects in American and Japanese monster films, he proffers the following argument:
“The predigital mechanics of fantasy in American cinema lean toward the human-as-engineer, with Willis O’Brien (King Kong, 1933) and Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) exemplifying and perfecting the stop-motion animation technique of articulated figurines. The engineer in this process is the unseen God, operating beyond the frame and between the edit;
invisible in the act of animation yet perceivable through the product of motion. By contrast, concurrent Japanese fantasy privileges the human-as-agent, building upon the parallel crafts of Bunraku and Kabuki. These theatrical traditions invoke the phantasmagorical, but always through the presence of the human within the proscenium arch (as black-clothed puppeteer in the former and ornately costumed actor in the latter). It logically follows that Japanese sci-fi/fantasy cinema embraces the human figure within the cinematic frame rather than denies its status just because of the photographic medium’s propensity to be seemingly more ‘realistic’ (which itself is less relevant to Japanese visuality and its calligraphic base).”
This is an argument around cultural specificity as much as it is one of technical specificity, but the upshot is that the use of a rubber suit to depict gigantic creatures (as opposed to human scale ones that can ravish, for instance, their female co-stars) is to represent the unleashing of monstrous energy as opposed to the sexualisation of that energy through the threat of physical contact between monster and humans – i.e. Godzilla rarely shares the frame with human performers, but is instead isolated in compositions that position him at the centre of a site of destruction. It also promotes identification with the monster, acknowledging the temptations of destructive spectacle, the cathartic desire to indiscriminately unleash mayhem from a safe, vicarious distance. This may be a contradictory impulse in a film that expresses such extreme apprehension about the benefits of nuclear weaponry, but Gojira is a film that puts forward a powerful debate about whether or not nukes might be a necessary evil or an inevitable extension of humankind’s destructive instincts. In that context, Brophy’s argument makes perfect sense, and reminds us, though he may not have had such lofty goals, that teleological approaches to the history of special effects will not fly.