Why ‘Godzilla’ is the Most Potent Metaphor in Media

Preaching From The Pulpit
Godzilla Main

Reporting live from a world on fire is a difficult thing to do, but a lot of us media journalists manage to maintain it, somehow. What gets me through are memories of things as they were, which brought me back into a piece of nostalgia I didn’t expect to make a comeback: Godzilla. Fitting, that we’re reaching a fever pitch of Godzilla content, given that the IP is the most layered metaphor for the many sociopolitical ills we’re facing.

Let’s Take it Back

It’s 2015, in the waning months of the second Obama term. After a long bout of vacation-less Summers, my wife and I take some time and head to somewhere nice. It rained the whole time. So, we order some good food and turn on the TV just in time to catch the title screen. An ominous deep tone and a black screen with big, blood-red letters, Godzilla.

Godzilla 2014
The illest tag-up ever. Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures (2014)

What folks might not know about me is that I’m a sucker for the Kaiju genre and its many intersections. Or that the man who raised me was the GOAT at copying whatever was on TV onto VHS tapes. So by the time I was learning to read I was already watching throwback Godzilla movies, memorizing arcs, and pantomiming tokusatsu before Power Rangers even hit the scene in the U.S. I am what some might call a lover of the franchise, from its highest highs (King of Monsters, in my opinion) to its lowest lows (Scooby-Doo collab), I was there.

So imagine my great surprise to run into a modernized take on the IP, with all the necessary things to elevate the grounding of this seemingly immortal monster that we love to hate, love, hate, revere, and remain terrified of. Looking at the scale and scope of Godzilla as an adult prompted me to make some inferences I couldn’t think of as a child. This led to some research and the discovery that Godzilla was used very often as a metaphor or allegory for unprecedented tragedy and human error. This deepened my appreciation for the ways this “monster” spoke (or roared, or whatever that sound it makes) for those who could not speak for themselves.

The OG Godzilla aka Duke Nukem aka Other Side of Oppenheimer

If you didn’t know, Godzilla goes way back to post World War II Japan. 1954 to be exact. In the same way the Transatlantic Slave Trade has been made a cornerstone to Black media across genre, the decision and act of the United States to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear armaments is a cornerstone of Japanese media. There are some things that mark the history of a people, a place. Things that bear repeating due to their severity, barbarity. Anime fans can note that every major explosion looks exactly the same: the flash of light, the shockwave, the stretching of shadows into thin black lines, the tower of flame that tapers into a terrifying cloud. Hallmarks of witnessing a nuclear explosion.

Out of this inhumane act of utter destruction, culture responds. In the same manner that the intentional economic and political strife of living in the ‘hood created this thing called Hip-Hop; Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and Eiji Tsuburaya responded by giving the world an irradiated lizard that would grow to become famous the world over as a response to the devastation of WWII.

Godzilla 1954
Godzilla, in a scene from the film. © Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

For real though, if you watch Oppenheimer and then any entry in the Godzilla franchise, it makes way too much sense. But consider this, Toho put an actor in a one-hundred-pound suit fabricated with no ventilation to talk to you about the impact of being attacked in a manner without precedent. Yes, it can get campy as all hell, but that’s how art works, innit? Sometimes we make light of the dark things so that we might face them for ourselves and change them for the future.

In the OG Godzilla flicks, the formula was simple. Japan is doing what it does in the sunshine. Vibes are high, the cities are bustling while the outer prefectures are engaging in their day-to-day activities. Somewhere out to sea, some intrepid fisherman is doing the most to make ends meet and comes across some suspicious activity that tips the viewer off that Godzilla is on his way to wreck shit. Godzilla shows up on the scene, cue the running and the score Pharoahe Monch sampled for “Get The F* Up”. Screaming citizenry, enflamed model buildings, etcetera, etcetera. First, the military responds and makes everything worse by heightening tension and elevating the intensity of the warfare. Then some scientist devises a way to take Godzilla out by first learning to understand the monster as a living thing, repelling it rather than destroying it. The intrepid fisherman watches in awe as Godzilla returns to the sea. Rinse and repeat.

What hits differently is when you put together that Godzilla is in actuality a metaphor for both the destructive capability of the United States military and the mutually assured destruction of nuclear armament. The idea that Godzilla can show up, destroy anything at a whim, get annoyed, and then leave with no real consequence echoes in no small way the atomic bombing of Japan. Moreover, the existence of such destructive power only encourages more powerful and destructive methods to be designed. Godzilla was alone until he wasn’t, then there’d be two giant monsters rocking the city and Japanese countryside. The lesson? Wouldn’t be none of these things killing nobody if SOMEBODY didn’t drop nukes by land and sea. Not pointing no fingers, *cough * the U.S.

A fictional Godzilla at the real-life Bikini Atoll atomic bomb testing in 1954. Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures (2023)

Shin Godzilla: When Your Country is a Corporation and Can’t Make a Decision

Fast forward to 2014. Many non-white voters are now seeing the Obama Presidency for what it is after the killings of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Once an upstart movement, the Tea Party set the groundwork for a more polarized political landscape and by this point, Trump is becoming more politically active. All in all, trust in American institutions is bottoming out. Globally, many are sick and tired of politics moving away from caring about the people. Amid all this turmoil, a Godzilla movie drops.

The what is not so important as the why. In 2011, Japan faced an unprecedented layering of three distinct disasters: a big earthquake, the resulting tsunami, and a nuclear station meltdown. Mind you, each of these things have happened before, but never all at once. Japan was rocked to its core trying to handle the magnitude of the different disasters and their many intersections. When it was all said and done, reports came back saying Japan’s government dropped the ball in a big way. That same shift in the country’s institutional trust hit over there and Shin Godzilla uses Japan’s bureaucratic mismanagement as its inspiration to dramatic effect.

Shin ‘gon give it to ya! © Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

I can boil Shin Godzilla down to two main points. First, to borrow from Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def), “Why I gotta have ID to get ID? If I had ID, I wouldn’t need ID.” This movie speaks directly to how systems of government are not at all efficient or good at taking care of people. If fifty-leven people need to sign off on an action, there won’t be any action. Shin GOES there, from the rooter to the tooter, blaming every aspect of government inaction. Easily, the filmmakers could retitle this movie as ‘What Not To Do In A Disaster’, make it a documentary, and win at every film festival on Earth. A strong and salient second point is that the only consistent cost is civilian life. Classism, elitism, and any intentionally divisive social stratification create a ruling class that is so far out of touch with citizens it can only handle things the wrong way. So, when I tell you Shin Godzilla houses the most destructive version I have ever seen in my entire life and in the history of the franchise – I mean it (see the video above). The fact that this interpretation of the monster is entirely the product of human hubris is not lost on me. And y’all, that ending had me all fucked up (you gotta focus and pause on that last ten seconds of the movie).

Minus One: So Your Country Turned Its Back on You

We are living in a really wild era in media, movies in particular. One where creators have realized the powerful humanity in a fantasy story. What Favreau did with Robert Downey Jr. in 2008’s Iron Man. What Nolan did with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight that same year. Through to the cast and crew of George Miller’s Fury Road in 2015, and Ryan Coogler’s direction of Angela Bassett in Wakanda Forever two years ago. A space for these overtly symbolic stories to be considered top-tier cinema. Here, we enter for the world’s consideration, the 37th film in the franchise, the Oscar-nominated Godzilla: Minus One.

Captain America
Minus One be like:

Designed as a prequel to the 1954 debut, Minus One explores so much: Government unreliability, anti-war sentiment, the nature of trauma, a staggering amount of the human experience. It posits a more daring and sinister indictment: that Japan’s use of Kamikaze pilots was a prime catalyst for the United States use of atomic weapons against them. Just so we’re clear, the Godzilla IP was used to scrutinize its own country of origin. At that, to inquire as to whether Japan committed a war crime against its own people!

Minus One goes so hard in the paint it don’t even make sense. Writer/Director Takashi Yamazaki originally thought to use his entry into the Godzilla pantheon to talk about the recent governmental response to COVID-19 but thought it would be too similar to Shin Godzilla. Shifting it away from modern times and into immediate post-war Japan gave the movie so much room to showcase the similarities between how the world powers handled atomic fallout and a global pandemic. The ending of this one is another piece of brilliance that leaves you scratching your head and then scouring the Internet for answers. A hallmark of a lot of Godzilla projects is that the ending feels like it isn’t an ending at all. Never in the hopes to eke out a sequel, but to allow the characters, consequences, and context to sit in the minds and hearts of audiences.

New Kids on the Block: Monarch, Godzilla KoM, Vs. Kong

Last but not least, Apple TV+ brings us the epic episodic Godzilla spinoff Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. It’s not as practiced in the subversion game, but it does what it can as a show to carry on the symbolism of the franchise to talk about something deeper. At first glance, the blockbuster movie-grade visual effects are enough to keep audiences engaged. The corporate espionage and globetrotting adventuring in the ‘Monsterverse’ are more than enough to present a sleek piece of television, but underneath all of that is another subversive metaphor.

Godzilla on award tour in San Francisco in Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures (2023)

In the lengthy history of Godzilla from about the 70s and on, Monarch was there. Typically, the fight against Godzilla features a third party either providing the military with weapons or providing scientists with tech. Shadowy, but in public. That legacy continues in the show, but after thirty-plus years we see the once altruistic and clandestine organization turn into a morally gray public mega-conglomerate. A simple parable, borrowed from The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or see yourself become the villain.” Monarch plays into that duality to great effect and lays the groundwork to explore the tip of the iceberg of globalization and colonization.

Godzilla: King of Monsters on the surface is a smash-mouth Kaiju fight vehicle that has the ‘will they, won’t they destroy the world’ tension running the whole way through. In reality, the whole plot of KoM hinges on how the Titans are an integral part of Earth’s ecosystem, and their presence reverses the damage humans have done to the environment. So out of this CGI bonanza comes a modern tale addressing environmentalism. Think The Lorax, but more violent. It pits a rogue Monarch scientist against the organization and the world powers-that-be in defense of the titans, who represent nature itself. There’s a lot of action and a lot of monsters, but also a hard lesson about giving up individual comforts to make things right for the collective.

Godzilla Vs. Kong feels the most like a money grab of any of the recent Monsterverse flicks, so I won’t even pretend to make it out to be more than it was. I still liked it though, my Kaiju bias is locked in.

skledimon image
Image created by @skledimon that makes my point without too much reading.

All in all, Godzilla remains one of the most potent and symbolic metaphors in the history of media. Of course, it’s because people have made such terrible and resounding choices that have created so much strife that the only way to express it is with a gigantic personification of destructive force and energy.

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  • Poet, MC, Nerd, All-Around Problem. Lover of words, verse, and geek media from The Bronx, NYC.

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