Godzilla & the Shōwa era of Japanese film

In March 2021, as Americans flocked to get their vaccination after a year stained with pessimism by a global pandemic, still more Americans were flocking back to movie theaters, eager to watch blockbusters on the silver screen after a long period of shuttered cinemas. One of the biggest successes of those early rally-back days was “Godzilla vs. Kong,” a monster film by the director Adam Wingard that pitted two of the most famous movie monsters in history against each other in an epic battle of brawn. 

The film’s success was not simply due to hunger for content — although that was undoubtedly a factor — or even, simply, a frenzy for the monster (or kaijū) genre jump-started by the first Japanese-made Godzilla film way back in 1954 — although that frenzy produced 36 Godzilla sequels, 12 riffs on the Kong franchise and a Hollywood-led kaijū renaissance of films known as the MonsterVerse. 

The enduring success of Godzilla and other monster franchises points to something much deeper — the ability of the kaijū to embody and supersize some of our deepest cultural and geopolitical anxieties. There was something eerily appropriate about an audience, amid a global pandemic caused, in part, by rampant deforestation and biodiversity threats, watching a gorilla, who represents the last gasp of a species, fight a monster, who, in turn, represents Japan’s post-World War II trauma over the atomic bomb. 

The realities of the Shōwa era

After all, the original, so-called King of the Monsters was a very different creature than he is today. That’s because when the franchise debuted in 1954 — the beginning of what is known as the Shōwa era — Japan was a very different place. The country was still in tatters from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of a brutal global war and was wracked with psychological trauma made worse by continued H-bomb testing off the coast.

Godzilla’s origin story is filled with a level of anti-American nuclear war horror that suited the times: Godzilla is a creature born from nuclear waste, armed with atomic breath and bent on a path of total, random destruction — his scales an imitation of the keloid scars suffered by Hiroshima survivors. The original Godzilla was not a hero or even an anti-hero. He was not even a predator, properly speaking. He didn’t kill to eat. Instead, one of the movie’s producers, Shogo Tomiyama, said that Godzilla was closer to a Shinto “God of Destruction” — something that obliterates so that something new can begin. It was a sentiment that resonated with a country trying to rebuild after senseless violence. 

Monsters morphing with culture

Godzilla’s greatest strength wasn’t his atomic breath — a special effect achieved through everything from a real, gas-powered flame to hand-drawn pyrotechnics — but his super-elastic ability to change with the times. Just a decade after the original movie, Godzilla mutated again. With the arrival of “Giddorah, the Three-Headed Monster” in 1964, Godzilla had quit his old arch-antagonist ways.

As Japan entered its economic boom years and the memory of the war faded, Godzilla gave up the task of embodying nuclear threat and turned its scaly finger of judgment away from America — and humanity’s general inability to cooperate for global survival — and toward the stars. This time, the enemy is a multi-headed hydra from outer space, and Godzilla finds himself in an unlikely alliance with his former kaijū enemies, reluctantly protecting the human race from outside threats.

(The special effects also get continued glow-ups, with miniature meteorite props, pyrotechnic sequences, and mechanical eyeballs for the Monster King. The Godzilla suit; however, proved to be continuously treacherous. Recycled and rejiggered over the years, it morphed from a bamboo frame stuffed with pillows and latex to a more mechanized affair, but the actors inside it continued to complain of oxygen deprivation, claustrophobia, and even electric shock.)

The eternal lore of Godzilla

In “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” (1971), the nascent environmental movement — as well as Japan’s anxiety about pollution — finds expression in a battle between everyone’s favorite heroic amphibian and a monster who feeds on industrial waste. As the franchise marches through history, it finds Godzilla fighting giant radioactive insects, paramilitary organizations, and more ecologically minded monsters, alongside growing threats of planetary crisis. This is followed by a cautionary tale of nuclear testing gone awry in an undersea world known as Seatopia (“Godzilla vs. Megalon”), rounded out by the final installment of the Shōwa era, “Terror of Mechagodzilla,” which relies on the old alien invasion standby propped up by a tale of star-crossed romance. 

For all its political mirroring, Godzilla isn’t always, or even often, grimly allegorical — and that’s part of its appeal. Its cultural anxieties come with a big spoonful of cinematic sugar, with special effects, monster-on-monster action and absurdist plot swerves that help audiences swallow what might otherwise be bitter pills of the human condition with no box office appeal. And that is the power of the Monster: Its ability to be anything and everything we like — whether that’s a cultural mirror, a diversion, or an escapist treat.