“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control…and not the other way around.” – Dr. Serizawa, GODZILLA (2014).

Godzilla is more than a monster. Ever since the radioactive king of the monsters emerged from the depths of the Pacific, he has been one of cinema’s greatest allegories. In the original GODZILLA (1954), director Ishiro Honda crafted a metaphorical exploration of Japan’s destruction following the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The dangerous presence of nuclear weapons has been a subtext in many of these films. Mutually assured destruction at a moment’s notice is just as terrifying as any kaiju.

As the franchise moved further and further from the events of the Cold War, the allegories of the series began to evolve. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka has even said himself “In those days, Japanese had a real horror of radiation, and that horror is what made Godzilla so huge. From the beginning, he has symbolized nature’s revenge on mankind.”

In 2018, there is a new battle for the survival of the planet that becomes more and more immediate each day. As the devastating effects of climate change become more and more apparent year after year, the franchise has adjusted how it portrays Godzilla and his assorted enemies. The modern films are still about mankind’s potential power for destruction. But now they focus on how our careless pollution has destroyed our most valuable resources.

Godzilla and the Smog Monster

Godzilla

This shift began most evidently in 1971’s GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH. Hedorah is a personification of mankind’s pollution. The film’s silent opening shows a factory pumping pollution into the nearby ocean. From the grim, a pair of devilish eyes emerge. Director Yoshimitsu Banno is certainly not subtle in his message: pollution is humanity’s monster and it will destroy us all.

The film’s catchy theme pushed that message further as it implores the audience to save the Earth (or save the sun in the original Japanese translation).

Godzilla films at this time were steering the titular kaiju in a more heroic direction. In the films opening minutes, young Ken Yanno proclaims that his two favorite heroes are Godzilla and Superman. When Hedorah first arrives and land and disfigures Dr. Yanno, Ken dreams of his hero wiping away the pollution like a kaiju superhero.

Banno, however, is not interested in a benevolent or heroic Godzilla. His vision presents the kaiju as the avatar of nature itself. Godzilla battles Hedorah, taking beatings from his polluted attacks along the way, but he knows that Hedorah, like himself, was created by humanity.

An Inconvenient Kaiju

Perhaps the most prescient element of GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH is the complete impotence humanity shows in battling the polluted menace. A cop responds to a call about Hedorah attacking a factory by saying “Hedorah’s not real and you know it” — an eerie portent of the climate change deniers in 2018.

When a group of young people plan a rally to protect the environment, barely anyone comes, and they decide to have a dance party in the woods. Even the military’s weapon to stop Hedorah only proves useful when supercharged by his atomic breath. Banno seems to posit that our small actions, denial, protest, and invention, are not going to be enough to turn the tide against our planet’s destruction from pollution. Only real revolution and drastic curbing of industrial pollution can have any true impact.

PACIFIC RIM and GODZILLA ’98: Failure of American ‘Kaiju’

As Godzilla returns to the sea following his brutal battle with Hedorah, the film cuts in shots of pollution-filled water and smog-choked skies. Banno’s film is a celebration and a satire of the character as a hero. Children may look at Godzilla the way they do Superman, but we mustn’t forget that he is ultimately indifferent to us. He cannot save us from the environmental destruction we have already caused. That is a problem we must solve ourselves.

These environmental themes would continue to be explored in 1989’s GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. In this outing, Godzilla’s enemy isn’t a creature made from pollution, but rather one made from nature itself. In this film, grieving father Dr. Genshiro attempts to use Godzilla’s cells to create plants that can grow in any environment.

Biological Warfare

Though this film isn’t as explicitly pro-environmentalism as GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, it does continue the franchise’s shift towards environmental allegory. GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE follows a classic story of mankind meddling with scientific power beyond their control. Biollante becomes a commentary on humanity using genetic engineering to grow crops. There is a nobility to these efforts, but what is the price of manipulating the natural world?

Godzilla

The film’s writer Shinichiro Kobayashi commented on the film’s allegory in a DVD featurette:

“If there was something equivalent to the terror of nuclear power it must be the biotechnology [with] which human beings would manipulate life, because it can be very dangerous if it goes the wrong way, ethically, I guess.”

It’s that same unethical manipulation of the natural world that comes into play in 2014’s GODZILLA. Here Godzilla is presented as a force of nature, something that keeps the natural order of the world maintained. All of these films use Godzilla as a counterbalance to humanity’s mistakes. It would only make sense then that the next logical evolution of the allegory would be to again represent the sins of mankind, but this time through our reckless treatment of the planet.

A battle for the Planet

In the 2018 anime film, GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS, Godzilla becomes the Earth itself. This film takes place in a world that has been besieged with decades of kaiju attacks. The opening of the film runs through nearly all of Toho’s monster catalog, throwing monster after monster at humanity. The constant monster attacks resemble the escalating rate of natural disasters caused by global climate change. Each monster is endlessly destructive and completely unstoppable.

After decades of kaiju disasters, Godzilla emerges and proves himself to be the most powerful threat humanity has faced. This time, he is so powerful that not even two separate alien species, a humorous nod to the franchise’s love of alien involvement with Godzilla and friends, can help the Earth. Ultimately, humanity decides to leave Earth behind and head for the stars.

Mutants Rule Earth in GODZILLA: MONSTER PLANET

It’s only when humanity discovers Godzilla’s possible weaknesses that they decide to return. This version referred to in fan circles as Godzilla Filius, functions as the king of the Earth. Rather than a biological being, this Godzilla is a botanical one. He is a literal representation of the Earth itself. When the humans return, the planet is trying to wipe them out before they can sully it again.

The fractured remains of humanity do manage to exploit these weaknesses. Just when it seems victory is imminent, they discover that the Godzilla they killed isn’t the original, but an offspring. It’s at this moment that the real Godzilla, now gargantuan in size after centuries of life, emerges from beneath the Earth.

The remains of Earth’s population are decimated. Later this year, PLANET OF THE MONSTERS will have a sequel, but the message of this first film is clear: humanity no longer deserves the Earth.

Godzilla and the Planet

Our stories must always evolve with our society. Godzilla’s allegory may have changed, but he will always stand as a terrifying reminder of the cost of humanity’s mistakes. Whenever human beings fail to consider the ethical consequences of our actions, he will be there to serve as a warning.

The minute we believe we know what is best for the Earth, we should remember that we are only tenants on this planet. There are forces far older and far more powerful that will remain long after we are gone.

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