Godzilla and Horror – A 60th Anniversary Retrospective

The king of the monsters isn't often classified as a horror icon, but his movies often intersect with the genre in a BIG way

It was on November 3rd, 1954 that the titanic, irradiated monster Godzilla (“Gojira” in his native Japan, but “Godzilla” is not just an Americanization, but the studio’s official Romanized spelling, so that’s what I’m using) first blasted ships at sea, raised his head over towering hills, and stormed into Tokyo and across Japanese movie screens (it would take a year and a half for him to make his way across the Pacific, landing in American theaters on April 27th, 1956 – 23 years to the day before my birth; make of that what you will).  While he was not at all the big screen’s first giant monster (effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya always acknowledged King Kong [1933] as a major influence on his career, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953] had just provided a basic narrative template Godzilla could tweak and improve upon), he had a social and cultural significance that profoundly affected Japanese viewers, and could not be entirely masked even by the massive re-working and watering down of the American release.

The King of the Monsters arrives on the screen

The King of the Monsters arrives on the screen

There are plenty of resources where you can read about Godzilla’s allegorical representation of Japanese civilian experiences in World War 2 (not just the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo), the immediate significance of the Lucky Dragon #5 incident (if you don’t know about this ugly little chapter of American/Japanese history, I’d advise looking it up promptly), director Ishiro Honda’s pacifist and internationalist ideals, and the details behind the genesis of this incomparable monster movie.  Likewise, the emergence and continual rebirth of the kaiju genre as a whole and the Godzilla series in particular is extremely well documented (though expect me at some point to do a piece for this site on the most noteworthy non-Godzilla kaiju flicks).  So, what am I going to talk about today?  Yeah, I really should have decided that in advance, but my relationship with Godzilla is sufficiently personal that sometimes I feel like I can be more honest and meaningful by taking a free-form, stream-of-consciousness approach to writing about the big guy.

Well, this is a horror site, isn’t it?  So how about a little rundown on the most horror-centric Godzilla flicks?  Yes, that should do nicely.

To my way of thinking, anyone who denies that the original film (Gojira in Japan; Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in the U.S.) is a horror movie is being narrow-minded in their analysis of the movie and the genre.  But there are plenty of people who take that stance, and I’ve wasted a fair amount of time on the internet arguing with some of them.  I’m just going to go back to an old thread from Toho Kingdom’s message board and pick a few quotes from my own posts (under the username eabaker) in the 2013 thread, “Would you consider ‘Gojira’ to be a horror flick?” that support my stance.  Yeah, I’m being a little one-sided in my presentation here, but this isn’t a scholarly article, it’s a post about my personal relationship with Godzilla, so I’m not holding myself to the highest of journalistic standards here.  😉

Doctor Serizawa and Emiko have seen the true nature of horror in Godzilla (1954)

Doctor Serizawa and Emiko have seen the true nature of horror in Godzilla (1954)

In response to the thread’s title, I initially wrote: “It presents the abject and the unheimlich, with the intent of disturbing and frightening its audience. That’s textbook horror for ya.” In response to the argument that the movie is not scary (which is a wildly subjective point, but I won’t deny that my friendly and intelligent opponent argued it well), and specifically that kids tend to like the monster, rather than be frightened of him, I wrote:

Then you think it’s an ineffective horror film. The intent is still there. (I didn’t find Tropic Thunder remotely funny, but that doesn’t make it not a comedy.) And, if anything, good horror should be more disturbing to adults than to children, anyway.

And, of course, terror and horror aren’t the same thing. Horror is about the presentation of that which the mainstream regards as physically or psychologically repellent; whether or not one finds those things scary is another matter altogether. Pretty much all monsters are appealing to children (often times an attraction mixed with – or even somewhat ironically founded in – their aversion), because they represent those things that adults deem objectionable.

Kids love Freddy Krueger, but A Nightmare on Elm Street is still horror. Kids love Dracula, but Dracula is still horror.

The theme and the tone of the movie are the theme and tone of a horror movie.

Met with people claiming it as science fiction, my take was, “It definitely includes science fiction elements, but it’s far from hard sci-fi, and its being sci-fi in no way keeps it from also belonging to other genres.”  Another argument was that the movie focused more on human drama which happened to be centered around a monster, which I met with, “Sure, but that’s true of almost any well conceived monster-centric horror film. The Fly is human drama with a monster at its center. Frankenstein is human drama with a monster at its center.”

At one point, an argument was made that the allegorical nature of the movie – the fact that it represented real events from then-recent history – somehow excused it from being classified as horror.  My answer to that was, “Being allegorical doesn’t keep a thing from being horror; much of the best of horror cinema is loaded with allegorical or otherwise symbolic elements – that’s actually what makes it so effective as horror.”  To the further claim that the movie is more like a documentary than a horror movie, I wrote, “Yes, the movie absolutely utilizes documentary and social realist techniques at times to enhance the viewer’s sense of this really happening, thus enhancing – among other things – their potentially horrified responses.”

The thread went on a bit longer, but I’ll wrap up this line of self-congratulatory self-quoting with this bit:

Horror is not clear, cut and dry. It is a genre that often relies on various forms of narrative and tonal ambiguity, and many of the best horror films ever produced absolutely belong to other genres as well. Many films that are not first and foremost regarded as horror contain enough elements of the genre that they cross over into it, whether intentionally or not.

So there, in broad terms, is my take on/defense of the first Godzilla as a horror movie.  Subsequent Godzilla movies (there are now 28 Japanese Godzilla films and two American ones) have approached the character from a wide variety of perspectives (a far wider variety than most non-fans seem to realize), and many of them downplay the horror elements in favor of more light-hearted fantasy adventure or action-driven spectacle.  But a handful of entries very much reflect those horror movie roots.

The King of the Monsters takes on his first enemy monster

The King of the Monsters takes on his first enemy monster

The first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), is not nearly so raw and uncompromising in its presentation of the destruction wrought by its monsters (Godzilla here squares off against a giant ankylosaurid traditionally called Angilas by English-language fans, although Toho now pushes “Anguirus” as their preferred transliteration), but it uses dark, moody lighting in certain key sequences to evoke a real sense of dread, and, at its best moments (which are, I’m afraid, a little too few and far between), demonstrates a real sense of tension.

The much-praised Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) is the last of the classic series (the so-called Showa Era movies, produced from 1954-1975) to treat Godzilla as unequivocally the villain of the piece, with the lepidopteran deity Mothra called on to save Japan from the threat.  For the last time in this era, Godzilla’s destructive march is shown to lead to human death (though the only character whom we know dies as a direct result of Godzilla is the film’s antagonist), and, in the movie’s conclusion, a group of school children are in peril from the monster and must be rescued by the human protagonists (although this sequence is mostly an afterthought to keep these lead characters in the action after their narrative purpose has largely run out).  While it’s a relatively tame picture overall, it definitely preserves that idea of Godzilla as an uncanny force to be feared.

The next Godzilla movie to really capture a sense of horror is one that took a very, very different approach from its predecessors.  The wildly underrated Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971, also known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is probably the most extreme example ever of a movie treating Godzilla himself as a super-hero.  The threat here comes entirely from his opponent, Hedorah, an alien life-form which feeds on Earth’s pollution and then spews toxic, acidic chemicals into the atmosphere.  The on-screen body count in this entry is the highest since the original, the effects of Hedorah’s pollution on victims – many are skeletonized, and survivors suffer scarring and disfigurement – are presented graphically, and the threat is not limited to extras or minor characters.  The style of the picture, with weird psychedelic lapses and an almost unstable reality, is also unsettling in a way unique within the series.  It’s as if Hedorah’s presence – and/or the pollution that brought Hedorah to Earth – constitutes an attack on the very nature of our world, shifting forces out of alignment, altering our very perception.

Godzilla takes a stand against pollution

Godzilla takes a stand against pollution

The revived Godzilla is a figure of terror again in the 1984 rebootquel

The revived Godzilla is a figure of terror again in the 1984 rebootquel

The first entry in the second wave of Godzilla movies (popularly called the Heisei Era, 1984-1995), known in Japan simply as Gojira (1984, released stateside as Godzilla 1985, also known internationally as The Return of Godzilla) was very much a return to the more somber tone of the first two movies.  In places, it is perhaps the most chilling movie in the series.  It opens with a particularly atmospheric sequence, akin to something from a haunted house movie, in which a lone character finds and explores an apparently derelict ship, which is revealed to contain grey, dried-up corpses, giant blood-sucking sea lice (mutated as a result of feeding on Godzilla), and one bloodied, panic-stricken survivor.  The presentation of Godzilla himself in this movie emphasizes both the awesome horror he represents, as well as the monster’s tragic nature.  The final act, in which a handful of our lead characters are trapped at night in a damaged skyscraper during Godzilla’s Tokyo rampage, helps to make Godzilla more of a personal, intimate threat.

Biollante is truly unheimlich

Biollante is truly unheimlich

The follow-up movie, Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), treats Godzilla himself more as a pragmatic danger than a creature of nightmarish horror, but that is balanced out by the handling of his opponent.  Biollante is the result of a classic mad-scientist scenario, in which the sympathetic but psychologically damaged Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) combines the cells of his dead daughter, Erica (Yasuko Sawaguchi), those of a rose, and those of Godzilla to create a magnificent, beautiful, tragic, and deeply unheimlich monster.  There are some particularly haunting images of the unnatural hybrid Biollante sitting in the midst of a fog-shrouded lake.

Godzilla approaches meltdown while struggling against a truly diabolical foe

Godzilla approaches meltdown while struggling against a truly diabolical foe

There are a number of moments of straight-out horror in the last Godzilla film of the Heisei era, Godzilla vs. Destoryoah (1995).  In this entry, Godzilla’s radioactive nature is causing him to overheat, approaching either an explosion or a meltdown.  Throughout, he has a hellish red glow to his skin and eyes; his appearances are met with more panic and dread from the cast than in any movie made since 1984; and we are treated to multiple fantasy sequences showing the apocalyptic worst-case scenarios of the impending nuclear disaster.  But, despite all this, Godzilla is the (relative) hero of the movie, faced with the towering, demonic living nightmare that is Destoroyah, a vicious ancient life form revived and mutated by the Oxygen Destroyer, the device which was used to kill the original Godzilla.  Destoroyah initially appears as a number of small, crab-like creatures, which aggregate to form larger and larger versions of themselves.  When they reach something a little larger than human size, these creatures present a direct, visceral threat to the cast, most notably in an attack sequence which is highly indebted to scenes from Alien (1979) and Aliens (1976).  But it is in its final, devilish form that the sadistic, almost unstoppable Destoroyah becomes truly terrifying.

GMKGoji

The ghostly Godzilla of GMK

One more movie merits a spot on this list, part of the Millennium Series (1999-2004): Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah – Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001, commonly abbreviated to GMK).  This is the most unabashedly supernatural of all Godzilla movies, with the monster having been possessed by the spirits of the soldiers killed in World War 2, seeking to avenge itself on a Japan in which the younger generation have forgotten the horrors endured by their forebears.  This new version of Godzilla has ghostly white eyes, and is outright cruel in his attacks on the population, as well as in his tactics fighting the heroic monsters who awaken to stop him.  The nuclear metaphor of the monster is also emphasized more powerfully that it had been since the original film, with one scene in particular evoking the imagery of the mushroom cloud so closely associated with atomic weapons.  Ghostly visits, terrified innocents, and a monster risen from the depths with vengeance in his soul, this is certainly the stuff of horror.

And I guess that wraps it for this Godzillanniversary, folks!

 

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2 Comments on this post.

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  • Jennifer
    3 November 2014 at 10:40 pm - Reply

    The first Godzilla and the most recent Godzilla definitely have a strong tone that is reminiscent of horror, and it confuses me how there can be people who don’t see that, but hey: it takes all kinds, right? I must say, though, that most of the other Godzilla films (and Toho monster flicks in general) do not give me the same sense of dread, and are in fact, more campy sci-fi than anything else. I love them for that, but the thing I love most is the tone of the original; and now (happily) Godzilla 2014–which is clearly that of horror.

    • Evan Baker
      3 November 2014 at 11:38 pm - Reply

      I seriously considered talking about the 2014 movie in this post, but ultimately I just don’t feel like I have enough personal history with it yet. It definitely deserves a spot on any future versions of this list.

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