Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!!

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.

The metaphor is so succinct, so tidy, and the critical consensus so strong in favour of this interpretation, that it makes a certain kind of viewer reach for counter-readings that might unseat orthodoxy and poke received opinion in its beady little eye. That seems to be a common academic instinct – to deconstruct a film text by probing the weaknesses in its argument and the arguments surrounding it; it’s usually quite a healthy technique, as it can show up aspects of a film which adherence to the standard pathway through its formal framework might otherwise obscure. There used to be a critical consensus that the waves of alien invasion films spawned in the USA in the 1950s were a direct emanation from a widely held fear of communist infiltration. Some critics, including Peter Biskind and Mark Jancovich, suggested that these films could alternatively be read as expressing fears about domestic conformity and social control – the idea of a set of identikit extra-terrestrials aiming to assimilate humans into their mindset might be an example of this. Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be seen as most fearful of soulless conformity, of invasion from within (rather than from abroad) by emotional forces rather than technological or military ones. I echoed this interpretation in my PhD thesis, which featured a chapter on UFOs and special effects, claiming that cheap special effects make these subversive readings much more tenable. You’ll find a version of this argument in my new book from Wallflower Press. (OK, I felt quite dirty doing such a shameless plug, but I’m just happy because it finally came out…)

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.


7 thoughts on “Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!!

  1. What’s interesting to go on from the Japanese reaction to nuclear testing and American justification of it is to look at something like The Host, where Korean anti-americanism or anti-westernism produces a creature through negligent chemical testing. Unlike the Godzilla films the Host creature does come into contact with humans, and the authorities believe there to be some form of infection, causing a quarantine with the American doctors going further and further to try to prove some form of illness; obvious American intervention metaphor. The thing that differs with the Host is how the creature is dealt with at the end, not by the military who end up gassing their own people but by a flaming bow and arrow, which seems a bit archaic? I wonder if you think there’s something underlying here, in the ending of the film and also the lack of drive in the creature, unlike many monster movies it’s not out for destruction so much as food…

  2. Thanks, e. I need to rewatch The Host, as I’ve only seen it once, but it’s certainly an interesting addition to the monster movie genre. Any monster embodies certain psycho-social fears that are historically-specific, and I don’t know enough about Korea to hazard any guesses about the finer points of The Host’s symbolism, except to say that, even more than most, it finds the most destructive force coming from the authorities’ mismanagement and exploitation of the crisis. The monster is not sympathetic, but it is a neutral product of causes outside of its control. It’s an “innocent” in the sense that it acts upon instinct in relation to changes in its environment. Godzilla, on the other hand, in the later sequels, can be seen behaving heroically or empathically, as if taking on human concerns as his own.

    I’m not sure that the sympathetic monster is anything new. King Kong may have been planned as a terrifying beast, but audiences found him sympathetic, a tragic figure, so much so that the hurriedly-produced sequel adjusts its ape to become a friendly, heroic character. There’s still space for you to interpret his death as a welcome relief, the vanquishing of a deadly threat, but audiences today will usually take it differently and see the death of Kong as an injustice, not because he didn’t need to be stopped, but because he shouldn’t have been extracted from his habitat in the first place. Ray Harryhausen’s monsters always showed their agony when they died. Maybe that’s something that later spectators have come to, but the emotive skill of the animators works against the films’ intentions if they’d aimed to create evil incarnate.

    You’re right about the ending of The Host – it’s definitely significant that basic ingenuity and simple weapons win the day. Military force is certainly not vindicated. It shares that with all versions of War of the Worlds – if H.G. Wells wanted to show up the hubris of British imperialism, what better way than to show Britain invaded by another technologised brute force, one which is too arrogant to bother checking if its immune systems could cope with Earthly microbes. Humankind rescued by no action of its own.

    I’ve been writing about Cloverfield at the moment, and if the monster in that has any motivation, it’s not communicated to the audience. But it’s interesting how many commentators see it as an abused creature blundering through Manhattan and tormented by the military, rather than as a malicious, parasitical predator. We never find out whether it’s looking for food or revenge or whatever…

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