I’ve never seen Godzilla before, but this weekend I went to Godzillafest, a 50th anniversary celebration for big lizards and the people who love them. I went with my friend Ingrid, an anthropologist. And as we waded through the merchandise booths in the lobby, we decided that maybe culture is, after all, just the creation and circulation of “merch.” The next day, at SFMOMA, I saw a Polish movie poster for Godzilla – merch again. All is merch.
Many of the original actors were there, all old men now. I think they were surprised and flattered by the size of the audience and frequency of the applause. Or at least they were doing a good job of acting. There was a panel discussion before the show, hampered a bit by awkward translation and the fact that at least one of the actors had recently had a stroke.
But one of them (who had actually played Godzilla — ooh!) said something unexpected: Godzilla, he said (through the translator), continues to be popular because he’s a “dream monster.” That surprised me, as I had imagined Godzilla more as a kitsch monster.
But when the monster (at least in this new version) appeared, the movie was surprisingly nightmarish. It doesn’t matter that the special effects are dated and the city is obviously made of balsa wood. The emotional intensity makes the destruction affecting.
Explicitly described as a consequence of unrestrained H-bomb testing, Gozilla rains fire on a Tokyo inhabited by survivors of Nagasaki. One woman, on a train, actually says: “First the black rain, now this!” And then she says, “I was at Nagasaki. I’m glad to be alive.” Later on, we see her dancing on a pleasure boat in the harbor. Then Godzilla sinks it.
Godzilla the movie — kooky love triangle and all — remains a potent allegory of mass trauma (there’s some interesting writing by Robert Jay Lifton on this). The mistakes of the past always return (in spectacularly changed form) to haunt the present. The story is simple, and there’s one like it in many places: a monster comes out of sea, outraged because of a sacrifice unmade or an accidental offense, and ravages the countryside. Then a hero emerges and kills the monster. Good, Golden-Bough-style stuff. In this case, the mistakes are technological/military and the heroes are (mostly) scientists.
Early in the movie, the Japanese parliament debates the correct response to the threat. One side wants to keep the threat secret, because the seriousness will just panic the populace. The other side wants to expose the existence of the monster, because the people deserve and require the truth. After the “tell the truth” partisans emerged victorious, the audience in the movie theater spontaneously broke into applause. We had just found a story that resonated for this moment, now, in San Francisco and in America.
In the end, Godzilla is destroyed by the same people who created him: military-led scientists. He dissolves in a dreamy swirl of bubbles, dying alongside the scientist who kills him. Of course, he’ll be back for the next movie. He always is. How could we let him go?