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Friday, May 9, 2014

Why is Godzilla So Popular?

Godzilla 2014 Pencil Sketch and More Fan Art2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the original Gojira in 1954. This year the world will see the fury of Godzilla unleashed in the new reboot from Legendary Pictures. With all the excitement, it's timely to ask the question why is Godzilla so popular and endured so long with a career spanning 60 years and 30 movies?

Let me get a little philosophical for a moment and examine a deeper question. What does Godzilla represent? Of course, we know that Godzilla was originally a metaphor for the nuclear attacks on Japan during the war, but I don't mean in the original Gojira or the 2014 reboot specifically, but overall, as a character.

Why do we need Monsters?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written story, over 4000 years old, and it's filled with monsters and gods. But stories of monsters are much older than that, dating back to the beginning of human speech. I'm sure the first human conversation was something like, "I couldn't see it very well, but something was chasing me!"

The ancient world was a dangerous place with wild animals like bears and lions and natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons, not to mention things like war, famine, and disease. Life was short and full of very real dangers, so why do we have monsters in stories? Of course, there's a fantasy, escapist quality to it, but it's more than that. Monsters are bigger than life, outside our ordinary experience. Monsters are usually half hidden, unseen, just beyond the firelight. They represent a fear of things we can't expect or imagine and we need to put a face to our fears. Monsters are our fear of the unknown. 

Another clue came when I was reading one of my favorite stories from ancient Greek literature,The Iliad, the story of Helen and the Trojan war. The introduction was written by a French woman Simone Weil before WWII:

“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad, is force. Force as man’s instrument, force as man’s master, force before which human flesh shrink back. The human soul in this poem is shown always in its relation to force: swept away, blinded by the force it thinks it can direct, bent under the pressure of the force to which it is subjected. Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, now belonged in the past, have seen the poem as a historic document; those that can see that force, today as in the past, is the center of all human history, find in the Iliad its most beautiful, its purest mirror…..force is what makes the person subjected to it into a thing.”

When I read those words, I immediately thought of Godzilla. That's what he is to me, an unstoppable, god-like force. Force is what makes the person subjected to it into a thing. At this point, "monster", and "force" are interchangeable. Monsters represent a challenge, something to be overcome and define the hero. It's overcoming great challenges in our lives that defines us. This is most obvious in challenges like war or sports.

About Monsters, I think Godzilla director Ishiro Honda said it best;

"Monsters are tragic beings; they are born too tall, too strong, too heavy, they are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy"

So, Godzilla represents an unstoppable force of the unknown. But, I think that's only half the answer. If so, Godzilla would have just been a great movie monster in Gojira and it would have stopped there, but it didn't.

The Hero Monster

Godzilla started as a dark metaphor for the atomic bomb and the horrors of war, but he didn't stay that way. Unlike most movie monsters, he became the hero, especially to children. This change wasn't gradual over time, but happened all at once in one movie. That movie was, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster(1964) and was the 5th movie in the series. In all previous films, Godzilla was clearly an evil creature bent on destruction. But Ghidorah changed things. In that film, both Godzilla and Rodan re-emerge, wreaking havoc. But then Ghidorah appears from space and is an even greater threat. Baby Mothra tries to persuade the other two to join her in battling Ghidorah to save the Earth, but both Godzilla and Rodan are stubborn and care nothing about what happens to the world. Then bravely, Mothra goes to confront Ghidorah alone. That when it happens. When Mothra is getting pummeled by a far stronger Ghidorah, Godzilla suddenly appears over the mountain to save the day, followed closely by Rodan and the three of them join forces to defeat the space dragon.

From that movie on, Godzilla would walk a fine line between destroyer and savior, sometimes more one or the other. At times, he would come to the aid of those in danger to battle another monster, but usually these battles were territorial. This was his world. He would save the planet from some marauding monster, only to turn around and destroy it himself.

In addition, Godzilla has personality. There have been were many other giant movie monsters created by nuclear radiation, but they were mostly imagined as giant animals acting on instinct. This was the main problem with 1998's Godzilla film by Ronald Emmerich. That monster, often referred to as Gino, Godzilla In Name Only, or simply Zilla, spent most of the film running and hiding from the military. But the true Godzilla has personality, and attitude and never ran from a fight. This personality would grow and change over the years. As the hero, we identified with Godzilla. We were rooting for him now. His victories became our own. Children especially, imagined being him, stomping through cities. Godzilla goes his own way, and isn't swayed by others. This independence is attractive to kids as well as adults. Godzilla was invulnerable to attack and possessed a deadly offensive weapon, his trademark, blue atomic ray. These things also set him apart from most monsters.

Godzilla was a hero with immense power and strength. In this he was like Superman, the greatest hero of comic books, who can overcome any difficulty or adversary. It's been said that Superman is as strong as he needs to be. It's no surprise then, that as our world grew, so did Godzilla to match the times. The original Godzilla was 50 meters(164 feet) tall. The new Godzilla in 2014 is over twice as big at 106 meters(350 feet). He is at once the irresistible force and the immovable object. Godzilla becomes as big and as strong as we need him to be.

I'm sure Godzilla will endure for years to come. He will continue to grow and evolve and be our unstoppable, lovable monster hero. 

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